More than four million viewers tuned in for the Season 3 premiere of Game Of Thrones in the United States last Sunday. The ratings were 13 per cent up on the Season 2 premiere, establishing Game Of Thrones as HBO's third most popular series of all time, after The Sopranos in the top spot and True Blood.
With a growing global audience and syndication deals all across the world, the sprawling, fantasy-enthused mediaeval-themed series looks set to continue its march to world domination.
"When you look at the reasons behind the show's success," says Michelle Fairley, who has played Catelyn Stark since the show was first broadcast back in 2010, "there are those who are fans of the books for a start and then those who've always like a bit of fantasy.
"But then there are other people who have come across the show and then remained with it simply because of the strength of the characters. And that strength is apparent not because they are in a fantasy world, but because they are characters that transcend time and place."
The 48-year-old actress adds: "The issues they deal with are real ones, issues that we all might deal with in our everyday lives - loss, love, grieving, war, the destruction of a family."
The show is developed by David Benioff and Dan Weiss based on the best-selling A Song Of Ice And Fire, a series of novels by George R.R. Martin.
It unfolds in a continent called Westeros, the creators distilling the background and setting from a blend of North European myth, dipping into Icelandic saga, and giving the series a tight script filled with political machinations that recall all the murders and high intrigue of the late Middle Ages.
Actor Iain Glen - a series veteran who plays the loyal and brave Jorah Mormont, protector of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), exiled princess of the Targaryen dynasty - says that he was "gob- smacked" at the scale of the production as Game Of Thrones entered Season 3.
"It was so impressive, the sheer number of people and the degree of CGI," he expains.
"The dragons that were babies in the last season are now quite formidable and they're much more integrated into the scenes.
"Some of the sets and the numbers of extras are unlike anything I've ever seen on television before. I thought the first two seasons had great production values and I don't think that the budgets were held back, but as the books unfold, they get bigger and the series can match that.
"Now it's such a successful show for HBO, they have the confidence to really support it. When you arrive on set, it is breathtaking and I still get a buzz from it as an actor."
With location shooting on three different continents (Africa, Europe and North America), Game Of Thrones dwarfs every other current television show in terms of scale and cost, spending longer in production each year (about four months) than most Hollywood blockbusters. Production budget for the show has not been officially released, but it has been reported in some American media as being US$5 million (S$6.2 million) an episode.
There are 160,000 sq ft of sets constructed for the show and 27 recurring characters.
"It is a very creative space," says actor Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of a warrior. "I think even the film companies have woken up to the power of shows like this."
Lavish production values are intrinsic to the success of the show as a whole, not just the new season, which is drawn primarily from the third of Martin's novels, A Storm Of Swords.
Fantasy is popular in the cinemas, courtesy of the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings franchises derived from authors J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien, but only now is it flourishing on television. HBO had the confidence to invest in it and is reaping the rewards.
As Glen, 51, explains: "I feel that part of its appeal is that while it is portraying a mythical past with these elements of fantasy in there, it has a real plausibility about it.
"You look at the way people are and how all these factions vie with one another and how women were treated, it all feels plausible. That gives it a gravitas that often these shows don't have. And that is all to do with George's writing and how they've translated that. His attention to human detail is amazing.''
In fact, the show's creators had originally pitched the series as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth" and it certainly has a similar pan-generational appeal.
The world of fantasy had traditionally been regarded as a realm popular with teenage boys and what Fairley describes as "computer geeks", but the truth is very different today.
"There are assumptions that people who like fantasy are computer geeks but I meet the most unlikely people who are fans," she recounts.
"It's a great drama and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also surprises you. No one stays alive for too long in this world."
The show is popular with women too.
"There are lots of issues for women to engage with," Fairley continues, "like how do you find your place in this world? What do you have to do and what choices do you make in order to survive?"
The success of Game Of Thrones means the series plays in more than 30 countries worldwide, from Bolivia to Bangladesh.
"People can relate to so many characters in this show," offers Harington.
"Everyone has their own favourite. Because it is a fantasy, you can really delve into this world and who you think will emerge as a winner."
The show features about 30 recurring characters and is not afraid of killing off popular figures, as the execution of Sean Bean's Ned Stark in Season 1 proved.
"Each season gets bigger and better and while there are deaths here and there, you keep meeting new characters all the time," says Sophie Turner, who stars as Ned Stark's daughter Sansa, once betrothed to the cruel King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).
The series, like all good potboilers, subverts viewers' expectations.
The fate of Sansa Stark is a case in point. Turner, 17, adds: "The idea of being a princess is such an illusion especially in mediaeval times."
In the character of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), twin brother of Queen Cersei of Westeros who carries on an incestuous affair with her, the Thrones creators have crafted someone who is not quite what he seems.
"You see this guy and he has nothing redeeming about him," says 42-year- old Coster-Waldau of his character's path in the first two seasons.
"One of the first things he does is push a kid out of a window.
"But slowly, you see and learn more about him and he has more layers than you think, and morals. He lives in a brutal world but he derives no pleasure from the brutal things he does.
"And that ultimately is one of the reasons the show is successful. It deals with basic human nature."
As with many epic journeys, Kit Harington's passage on Game Of Thrones is finally coming full circle.
The 26-year-old Englishman - who plays the quiet, smouldering Jon Snow in the hit fantasy series - auditioned for his role several years ago with a scene from Season 3, even though nothing from the earlier seasons had yet been filmed.
Season 3 has started, and Harington recalls his audition as if it were yesterday. The moment he played out during his screen test opposite then fellow hopeful Rose Leslie, now also a cast member, has emerged as the central moment in his character's journey, according to the actor.
"When I auditioned for Thrones, two of the scenes that I did came from this season, which was very strange," begins Harington, who rose to prominence starring as Albert in the London production of Warhorse.
"I was doing a scene with Rose and I thought I'd be as lucky as hell if I ever got this far in the show.
"It was an amazing scene and I can see why the creators were so excited about Season 3. Some amazing things happen and if there is going to be a season of Game Of Thrones that is iconic, I think it is this one."
Launched in the United States in 2010, the show uses much of the content in the third season from George R.R. Martin's third novel in the series, A Storm Of Swords. Family and loyalty emerge as main themes.
"It's a belter," Harington says of the latest 10-episode season. "It's a very high-impact season and a lot of narratives come to a head and a lot of climaxes happen and a lot of things get resolved."
The story driving Games Of Thrones and the world in which it unfolds draws its inspiration from North European myth and Icelandic saga, blending that raw ferocity with the complex political machinations that dogged mediaeval England.
The men and women at the heart of the show correspond to familiar heroes, anti-heroes, gods and goddesses of the ancient West, and in the character of Jon Snow, the series creators have cleverly carved out an epic everyman.
Though raised a rough aristocrat by the noble house of Stark, Jon Snow "never had a mother, so he has got something of a mother complex", notes Harington, whose character is the bastard son of Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, Warden of the North before he was slain.
"Also he's never been fully integrated into his family. He's an illegitimate child and doesn't really belong anywhere and yet he has a huge amount of ambition.
"But this is not a world where you can go to a psychiatrist about that sort of thing," the actor adds with a laugh. "So he's had to deal with that."
This season, Jon Snow - a man who is not easy in the company of anyone, let alone women - fosters his relationship with Ygritte, one of the "Wildlings" who live beyond the wall that separates the civilised kingdom of Westeros from the ice-shrouded danger that lurks in the far north.
Ygritte first appeared in Season 2 and is brought to life on screen by Leslie, a 26-year-old Scottish actress, who also starred in the first season of Downton Abbey as Gwen Dawson.
"Ygritte's relationship does develop with Jon Snow," says the actress, "though I can't say much more than that."
Harington adds: "We see a different side to Jon Snow in this season, but I'm not saying he waxes lyrical this year about his emotions."
Snow's journey into the land of the Wildlings also leads him into contact with several new characters including Wilding leader Mance Rayder, played by Belfast-born actor Ciaran Hinds, whom Harington holds in awe.
"I have worked with so many great people on this show," says Harington, "but it has been amazing this season. I will always look up to Ciaran Hinds, one of the greatest British actors we have living."
Physically, it was a tough season for Harington to shoot.
While much of the series is filmed in Morocco and Croatia, with some location and a great deal of studio work done in Ireland, Jon Snow's journey takes him north of the wall into a land of ice and winter snow. This section of Game Of Thrones is filmed in the mountainous and volcanic realm of Iceland. "We were in Iceland for over a month and it's always very intensive," Harington remembers.
"It gets light at 10 in the morning and dark at 4pm, so everything has to move at a real pace to get everything done in time.
"It is immensely cold and very brutal and hard to work in but at the same time it is an amazing country and I have really fallen in love with it. It is so beautiful.
"Those cold icy conditions really inform what you do," he says. "It is great that we get to do so much on location. It adds a lot to the show."
With the show picking up increasingly more viewers with each new season, his anonymity is disappearing quickly.
The actor says: "I find that I get stopped on the street more and more nowadays. My friends think it's hilarious and take the mickey out of me for it.
"People come up to me often and they say, 'I think you're going to win. I think you're going to be on the throne,' and that's kind of funny to hear.
"The global scale is immense and I can go to any country on holiday and I get recognised now."
Does he enjoy the attention? "I always feel like I am letting people down," he says with a laugh.
"It's a weird thing meeting someone and then considering you are ruining the character for them. Sometimes actors can be aloof when you meet them but it's not that they're being rude, it's more, 'You don't want to know who I really am.'"
With family ties and loyalty the overriding themes in Game of Thrones Season 3, the girls take centre stage. We chart the journeys of a few of them.
Played by: Maisie Williams, 15
Introduced: Season 1
Who: The youngest daughter of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, Arya witnessed her father's execution in Season 1 and is bidding to make her way back to her family, though she knows little of their fate as she navigates the Riverlands.
"Arya is still up to mischief in Season 3, meeting more people who get in her way," says Williams, with a smile. "I met some really great actors and had a really good time this season.
"I was 12 when I first got the part and so much has changed since then. It's funny, Arya spent a lot of Season 2 dressed as a boy and she starts Season 3 that way as well. I wear a loose-fitting outfit and they make me a lot less feminine. Sometimes I get a bit sick of getting my hair all greased up!"
Played by: Michelle Fairley, 48
Introduced: Season 1
Who: The widow of Ned Stark of Winterfell (Sean Bean), Lady Catelyn has been separated from her scattered family, whom she has sought to reunite while still respecting the wishes of her eldest son, Robb Stark (Richard Madden), King of the North.
"After the first day's filming we had all those years ago, I thought I was going to get sacked," laughs Fairley.
"Then after three days, I started to relax a bit. It's amazing to be in the third season, I never thought I'd come this far. It's a fascinating show because no one is who they seem they are in this world. Catelyn is watching her son become king although that's not what she wants. She's lost her husband and worries she'll lose her son as well."
BRIENNE OF TARTH
Played by: Gwendoline Christie, 36
Introduced: Season 2
Who: The Maid of Tarth is a giant of a woman blessed with great physical prowess and an unerring sense of fealty. She spends much of Season 3 in the company of her noble charge, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
"Brienne of Tarth is loosely based on the goddess Atlanta who undergoes a similar trial - she doesn't want to get married and wants to exhibit physical prowess," says Christie of her warrior woman character.
"She is a woman with a really strong, moral sensibility.
"She is totally outside the traditional conventions of femininity and is an outsider. I think she is a wonderful character to play."
Played by: Rose Leslie, 26
Introduced: Season 2
Who: Ygritte is a flame-haired woman of the Free Folk, or Wildlings, and is a loyal servant to Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), the King Beyond The Wall. Her fate appears tied to that of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the illegitimate son of Ned Stark.
"Going back to the books, I remember reading the chapter where Ygritte is first introduced," says Leslie, "and George Martin describes her as 'A Wildling to the bone', and that has really stuck with me. She is fiercely independent and is really tough but while she's ruthless, she is also playful.
"She gets so much pleasure from aggravating Jon Snow. She loves teasing him and it is fun to play that side of her. She is a happy person and very loyal. She is also happy that Jon Snow is in her life."
Played by: Sophie Turner, 17
Introduced: Season 1
Who: The eldest of the late Ned Stark's daughters, Sansa is betrothed to the cruel King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). In Season 2, she learnt that a princess' life isn't always a fairy tale and her misery continues in the new season.
"There's always hope that things get a little bit lighter for Sansa," says Turner of her character's fraught voyage through Season 3.
"This season is going to be a roller coaster. There's so much deception and nothing is what it seems. The emotional torture that Sansa endures doesn't ease up too much. It's not an easy season for her. Despite all that, I must say that in real life I love Jack Gleeson. He's mean on screen when he is playing Joffrey, but he is a sweetheart in real life."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 6, 2013
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