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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 10, 2011.JENNIFER ROBERTS

It may seem odd that the fantasy series Game of Thrones has become such a hit, unless you consider that it's just a mafia story in a medieval world. The series, which returns Sunday night for its second season, adheres to the winning HBO triangulation of nudity, violence and dynastic infighting: It's The Sopranos with swords, Deadwood with dragons.

And, crucially, it refuses to take itself too seriously. At a hotel in London, one of the show's stars is explaining why it isn't very fantastical at all. Game of Thrones is a success, says Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays the charmingly odious Jaime Lannister, because it's about people: "A lot of fantasy is about creatures, it's about dwaaa –" the word becomes a drawn-out sound of horror as he realizes he's about to say "dwarves."

The Danish actor claps a hand over his mouth. One of the best things about Game of Thrones is, in fact, a dwarf – a drunken, Machiavellian, wenching dwarf played by Peter Dinklage, who won an Emmy for the role. On the show Coster-Waldau (tall, blond, handsome) and Dinklage (also handsome, if not quite so tall) play brothers; one of them is nicknamed the Kingslayer, the other the Imp.

Coster-Waldau lets out a giggle, although this is not a sound you expect to hear from the murderous Jaime Lannister. "Erase that, or I will have Peter Dinklage on my ass." He takes a deep breath, mock-serious: "I meant to say 'elves.' "

He doesn't have to worry: Dinklage isn't present as a half-dozen cast members and the show's producers gathered in London to talk about the 10-part new season of Game of Thrones. They will be asked more than once how the show, and the George R.R. Martin novels that inspired it, won the kind of far-ranging audience not normally seduced by dragons, evil forest spirits and multiple poisonings.

Not many quasi-medieval fantasy shows are the subject of in-depth analysis in Foreign Policy magazine, but there is something about the political machinations of the warring clans in the fictional land of Westeros that brings out both the wonk and the nerd in the least likely viewers.

"We do know that there are some extremely powerful political figures who watch the show," says David Benioff, who co-created and co-writes the show. Would he care to elaborate? He exchanges a smile with his producing and writing partner, D.B. Weiss: "We're sworn to secrecy."

Well, this year those powerful people had better be watching from behind the sofa, because things get even bloodier in Westeros, if that's possible. (A word of warning borrowed from medieval maps, for those who haven't read Martin's five novels: Beyond here be spoilers.) Game of Thrones centres around several aristocratic families in a brutal, feudal world, where the northern border is a giant ice wall that barely keeps unspeakable things out. They're all vying to occupy the Iron Throne, left vacant by the (artificially hastened) death of King Robert Baratheon. The show features dozens of characters, and they all have ambiguous motives; families turn on each other, when they're not having sex with each other; children are imprisoned; heads on spikes are a favourite decoration. In the first episode of the second season, in a shatteringly brutal twist, not even babies are safe from political violence.

There are power struggles and shifting allegiances shot through with sex, profanity and gore. Liam Cunningham, the Irish actor who joins the cast this year, describes his character, Davos Seaworth, as "a consigliere" to Stannis Baratheon, one of the rivals for the throne. "It's like The Godfather," he says, "but set in this bizarre world."

Iain Glen, who plays the exiled knight Jorah Mormont, and who played the newspaper tycoon Richard Carlisle in Downton Abbey, sees certain similarities between the psychological violence of Edwardian England and the more squelching variety found in Westeros: " Downton is all very refined, it's all about what's unsaid. In Game of Thrones, it's all very mucky and bloody, but the central things that humans do to each other remain the same. Maggie Smith might do it with a particularly well-chosen phrase, whereas they'll stab you with a sword in Game of Thrones."

One thing all the actors agree on is that the show's success depends on the nuanced, conflicted characters first created by Martin in his 1996 novel, A Game of Thrones. (The entire series, which will encompass seven books when it's finished, is called A Song of Ice and Fire.) Take Jaime Lannister, for instance: An incestuous, regicidal, child-battering scoundrel would seem a prime candidate for viewers' loathing, but he's actually quite hard to despise. "What I like about him is that he's very honest," says Coster-Waldau, who wanted to play the character from the moment he found out that Jaime threw a rival's son from a tower. "He's witty in his own way. Even if people don't like him, they enjoy watching him."

That boy, Bran, survived the fall. Not everyone is so lucky. Even the most beloved characters in Game of Thrones sometimes have the lifespan of amoebas. Viewers unfamiliar with the source novel were shocked, toward the end of the first season, when Ned Stark, the moral centre of an amoral world, lost his stubborn head. At the beginning of the second season, one of the main characters is menaced by a giant wolf, and you're really not sure if that person's throat will survive intact.

For Benioff, the deaths are almost a badge of honour, a way to measure how the show has wormed its way into viewers' hearts: "It's not because we're sadists, but if a story is working and the audience is falling in love with the character, then they should be upset when they die.''

Martin's legions of fans don't seem to mind being put through the wringer: All of the books have been bestsellers. A few weeks ago, Game of Thrones frenzy hit Toronto, when the mere props from the show inspired a devotional procession to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with fans flocking to the Iron Throne of Westeros like medieval pilgrims to a piece of the true Cross. (Martin also gave a sold-out reading and talk.)

The weight of fans' expectations clearly weigh on the producers of the TV series. They sweat over the tiniest details, from the clan insignias to the texture of armour. The official budget for the first season of 10 episodes was $60-million (U.S.), though The Wall Street Journal estimated it was closer to $100-million. Even then, with location shoots in Iceland and Ireland and Dubrovnik, with dragons and vast battles to conjure out of thin air, not every aspect of the epic books can be recreated. On top of that, there's the pressure to please the creator himself: Before Benioff and Weiss showed Martin any footage, the novelist's wife turned to them and said: I hope you don't mess it up. Except she didn't use the word "mess."

With the show a hit and the third season set to begin filming in the summer, Weiss and Benioff can relax – but only a bit. "Now that we know people are watching," Benioff says, "we really don't want to let them down."

The success of the show has fundamentally changed the lives of the actors – most of them previously unknown – who play the young family members buffeted by dynastic storms. Emilia Clarke was still in drama school in London when she got the role of the child bride Daenerys Targaryen. (In the book, Dany is 13 when she becomes queen, or khaleesi, of a wild tribe of horsemen called the Dothraki. She's a more palatable, if unspecified, age in the series.)

Last season, the khaleesi spent a good portion of time naked and receiving not entirely welcome sexual attention from her horse-lord husband; this year, she's on the run with three infant dragons. "I became weirdly maternal toward them," Clarke says of the dragon models – she learned very quickly not to call them "toys" around the special-effects team.

With almost no experience when she was cast, Clarke received a crash course in riding horses, wielding swords and acting for the camera – but nothing could prepare her for the sudden attention of Thrones obsessives. "I was in a department store in Los Angeles, in the lift," says Clarke. "The doors opened and there was this woman standing there. She looked at me and said, 'Khaleesi!' and the doors closed." Clarke laughs. "It felt kind of glorious."

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