"Game of Thrones" returns for Season 3 on Sunday, March 31 (9 p.m. ET on HBO), and the war-torn land of Westeros will only become more brutal as we delve deeper into George R. R. Martin's meaty tale, confidently adapted by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on an increasingly epic scale.
Ahead of the show's hotly anticipated premiere on Sunday, The Huffington Post spoke with a number of stars from the series to find out what they could reveal about where we find their characters this season both at roundtable interviews and at red carpet events. Read on for a spoiler-lite preview from Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), John Bradley (Samwell Tarley), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark), Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister). Sadly, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) missed the press junket due to other work commitments, but her storyline is better shown than told anyway.
North of The Wall
The end of Season 2 saw Jon Snow in the custody of the Wildlings, about to be taken before the legendary Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), known as the King Beyond the Wall. Kit Harington previewed that Season 3 was "interesting" to film because Jon is "essentially a spy and the whole season for him is about where his heart really belongs; whether he’s made a stupid young man’s decision by taking these vows and becoming part of the Night’s Watch and whether he actually would prefer to be a free person and fighting for Mance Rayder. So throughout the season, we discover whether he’s going to be loyal to Night’s Watch or whether he’s going to betray the Night’s Watch and as it goes along, having to convince the Wildlings that he’s one of them, he also convinces himself that he’s one of them."
That internal struggle is further complicated by the tempestuous Ygritte, who shares an undeniable chemistry with the inexperienced young warrior. "I think Jon Snow is such an integral part to her arc this season as well," Rose Leslie said. "I think he breaks down her barriers and you see a softer side to her -- she’s not so brutal and harsh towards him as always."
Jon's closest friend in the Watch, Samwell Tarley, undergoes his own evolution in his travels beyond the Wall. As part of the raiding party that was set upon by the terrifying Wights at the end of the last season, Sam encounters plenty of action while trying to make his way back to the Wall. "I think that for Sam especially, it’s a hugely transformative season in terms of how he’s maturing very rapidly, very dramatically in a very short space of time," John Bradley said. "Certain things happen and certain things have already happened which are planting seeds, which are going to affect his whole outlook on life and his priorities and just give him a reason to be alive for the first time. Certain people need him now; I don’t think he’s ever felt needed before."
The North/The Riverlands
Oblivious to the dangers that lurk beyond the Wall, the war for the Iron Throne is still raging across Westeros and Robb Stark (Richard Madden) is trying to marshal his forces and maintain his dominance in battle after his mother Catelyn Stark freed the Northmen's most valuable captive, Jaime Lannister, in the hope of exchanging him for Catelyn's two daughters, Sansa and Arya, whom she believed were both being held at King's Landing.
"[When we pick up] Catelyn is still estranged from her son, Robb," Michelle Fairley admitted. "She’s still at the camp so she’s become quite introspective, spends a lot of time on her own and reflecting on her life and her actions ... She certainly becomes darker in Season 3."
Between Catelyn's perceived betrayal and Robb's impromptu wedding to Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin) -- which broke an arranged marriage pact between the Starks and the Frey family -- Fairley warned that the rift between mother and son "doesn’t get resolved easily ... I think when you put people in solitary confinement, when you starve them of contact with the ones that they love ... they become desperate ... An olive branch is proffered eventually, but that relationship has changed substantially. The rot has started."
Catelyn can take some small comfort in the fact that their travels take the Stark forces to the Tully family seat at Riverrun, where we meet her brother, Edmure (Tobias Menzies), and uncle, Brynden "The Blackfish" Tully (Clive Russell).
"We meet Catelyn’s uncle, who was her father’s brother, and they have a very nice relationship," Fairley said. "They have a very trusting, honest relationship. He’s very direct and she can speak to him the way she would have spoken to Ned [Sean Bean] I think. The relationship with her brother is different ... He’s not a man like Ned was in that respect. He’s a very different type of male and it’s an issue with Catelyn of working on her respect for him."
Sadly, the other Stark children have equally dangerous paths to tread. Arya -- along with her fellow escapees from Harrenhal, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey) -- will find the path to Riverrun is longer and more fraught with peril than they anticipated. "Arya just got the coin [from Jaqen H'ghar] ... and now I think maybe she’s got a bit of quiet confidence about getting home," Maisie Williams said. "She doesn’t really want to let herself believe it too much, but she’s slowly starting to feel closer and that maybe she’s worked hard enough maybe something good is going to come of it."
Meanwhile, her brothers Bran and Rickon have escaped Winterfell and Theon Greyjoy's (Alfie Allen) murderous intent, heading towards the Wall to try and reunite with Jon along with Hodor (Kristian Nairn) and Osha (Natalia Tena) for protection. "Bran is now on the road, and his group gets two new characters which are a very interesting new element and really just change the dynamics of the group," Isaac Hempstead-Wright explained. "I think Bran’s story definitely picks up this season because in previous seasons, he hasn’t really had a goal and he hasn’t really been striving towards anything. Now in Season, 3 he knows what he wants and he’s heading towards something."
Those two new characters will certainly be familiar to fans of the books, but for those who are only caught up with the show, he was purposefully vague: "They’re quite crucial in helping Bran to understand the visions he’s been having. And they bring quite an interesting new social dynamic and some of the interactions between each of the characters in the group get ... interesting."
The South/King's Landing
Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is still being his obnoxious, bloodthirsty self when we rejoin the show, but after the Tyrells saved King's Landing from Stannis Baratheon's (Stephen Dillane) attack in the Battle of Blackwater last season, he's cast Sansa Stark aside in favor of Margaery Tyrell, who, along with her handsome brother Loras (Finn Jones), is more than just a pretty face.
"For Sansa personally, she has a lot of big events this season and I feel like she kind of becomes a woman, not only in her life but also, in the game," Sophie Turner observed. "She’s definitely grown up and she’s an adult, in the sense that she knows how to play the game but also in other events."
Natalie Dormer agreed, "What’s so interesting about a show with a lot of men with swords on horses, fighting battles, the fun thing about King’s Landing -- it’s all about the power-play between the women. So, you put Diana Rigg [Margaery's grandmother, Olenna Tyrell] and Lena Headey and myself and Sophie in the capital and we’ve got our own kind of battlefield happening."
She added, "The Tyrells have come in and they kind of want to adopt Sansa. They want to bring her onto their side, for obvious reasons. So Sansa comes from a close family. The Tyrells are a close family. So, it’s kind of like, 'We’re nice people. Come and be with us ... ' Then it’s up to Sansa. Does she trust us? Does she not trust us? She wants to. She knows she shouldn’t. She’s battling all those things that Sophie says that she’s battling: becoming a woman and becoming an independent spirit. I think Margaery really, genuinely empathizes with her. Margaery genuinely thanks God that she’s not in her position. We were just saying that we think, in other circumstances, these two girls would genuinely be friends. They like each other. It’s just that their friendship is not isolated by that. There are other people involved and bigger themes to deal with, but they’re two young girls that are just trying to be practical."
Standing in the way of their practicality is Cersei Lannister, who has many problems to deal with in Season 3. "Her relationship with Margaery steps up because she becomes very present, which obviously Cersei's very happy about, so that's a real challenge for her," Lena Headey said with a laugh. "And of course, her father (Charles Dance) returns, which is not her favorite thing in the world. So she's kind of faced with these two foes, one of which she deeply wants to impress in everything she does, and she'll never succeed. And Jaime's not around ... "
Naturally, her rivalry with younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) only intensifies now that their father Tywin is back in King's Landing and positioned as the new King's Hand. "There's a great scene where they both get their comeuppance. And early on in the scene, Cersei's very smug, and then she gets served and it's kinda great," she laughed.
Still, Cersei's main struggle is with Joffrey, who has grown increasingly arrogant the longer he sits on the Iron Throne. "That kills her," Headey admitted. "Her children are her strength and her weakness. That love is terrifying and extraordinary. It's unquestionable. Hers is just a little more ... extreme."
Caught in the midst of the turmoil between families and warring factions, Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister are attempting to return to King's Landing, where Brienne hopes to trade the Kingslayer for Catelyn's daughters. The journey will take its toll on both warriors, but it might also bring some unexpected growth.
"Brienne starts to explore her original ideas about what it is to be a woman, about what strength is -- that strength can be more than just physical strength," Gwendoline Christie said of her character's evolution. "I think that we start to get an insight into Brienne's emotional world that we haven't had before. That galvanizes a big change in her."
"Being forced to spend so much time with one person forces you to get to know this other character, whether you want to or not," Nikolaj Coster-Waldau previewed. "And without giving anything away, they do spend a lot of time together."
As for whether they grow to respect each other on their odyssey, that's a more complicated question. "It's a long season, things change," Coster-Waldau said with a laugh. "At the end of Season 2, there's a scene where she kind of surprises him when she takes out these Stark guards in a very efficient way, but also in a way that surprises him because they are Stark men and he doesn't get it -- why would she put herself in that kind of danger because of a promise? It doesn't make sense to him, but I think he recognizes something that they maybe have in common. She seems unafraid of the consequences. She's not political and tactical. She has a code. But at the same time, if he could, he would just get rid of her as soon as possible. To earn respect takes a little longer."
Christie agreed, "He doesn't show her any respect whatsoever, and there's nothing for her to respect apart from the legend of his brilliant sword skills. So there's nothing tangible for Brienne to admire about him."
"She believes the rumors, she believes all the gossip, she has this preconceived opinion about this guy," Coster-Waldau aded. "He's the Kingslayer; he can't be trusted; he's dishonorable; she's just taken that for the truth. And then ... well, we'll see what happens."
"Game of Thrones" premieres Sunday, March 31 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.