Two words are all it takes to send chills through a "Games of Thrones" devotee.

Red Wedding.

Instantly, they conjure visions of a shockingly brutal burst of butchery, in which three members of the honorable Stark family were cut down: matriarch Catelyn; her son, Robb; and his pregnant wife.

Even for fans conditioned to expect leap-off-the-couch moments from HBO's twisted epic fantasy, this plot twist from last season was a shocker to top all shockers.

And the reverberations are still being felt.

As "Game of Thrones" opens its fourth season, the horrific events of the Red Wedding -- orchestrated by a devious Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) -- figure to have a major effect on what comes next in this incredibly complex, often unwieldy saga of rival families vying for power across the sprawling, mythical realm of Westeros.

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in ’Game of Thrones.’ (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in 'Game of Thrones.' (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Now that the evil Lannisters have vanquished most of their Stark foes, their grip on the Iron Throne appears to be stronger than ever. But can they survive their own bloated egos and inbred dysfunction, as well as new and ongoing threats on various fronts?

And will what's left of the tattered Stark clan rise up to make life miserable for them?

We've taken a peek at the first three episodes of what looks to be another masterful season and have been strongly warned not to reveal any major spoilers -- or else be broiled by one of Daenerys' dragons (or something like that). Still, there's no harm in a little scene-setting.

Here then are seven tidbits -- one for every kingdom of Westeros -- to help you get your head in the game:


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1. Buckle up: Past seasons of "Thrones" have tended to feature a slow build to a single major event. But this season, which largely taps into the latter half of the third novel in George R.R. Martin's series ("A Storm of Swords"), puts the pedal to the metal early on.

Along the way, the show gets darker and more intense and delivers several OMG moments. As co-executive producer David Benioff says, expect "some of the most shocking and mind-blowing scenes of the entire series."

2. Unholy matrimony: OK, so the Red Wedding was a major buzz kill, but get ready for more nuptials.

You're cordially invited to a big, ostentatious royal shindig as sadistic teen king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) prepares to tie the knot with sweetly conniving Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). In attendance: All of the key Lannister players, including devious Tywin, his embattled sons Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Walau), and his loathsome daughter Cersei (Lena Headey).

Does it all go off without a hitch? Let's just say that, from here on out, lovebirds in Westeros may want to elope.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in ’Game of Thrones.’ (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in 'Game of Thrones.' (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

3. Man of mystery: The season's opening episode introduces us to a new character with possibly shady intentions. He's Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), but you can call him the "Red Viper of Dorne."

Oberyn, a slick, sexy dude with loads of swagger, blames the Lannisters for the rape and murder of his sister many years ago. The Lannisters invited him to the big wedding in King's Landing, and he has graciously accepted. But now that he's here, does he have something up his sleeve?

4. Let it Snow: Fans of the beloved Jon Snow (Kit Harington) will be pleased to hear that the strong, mostly silent soldier steps to the forefront this season. Snow, one of the remaining Stark sons, takes on more of a leadership role as he prepares members of the depleted Night Watch for a clash with Mance Rayder's army of wildlings.

"I think Jon Snow is one of the last bastions of a young hero who might do a good thing," Harrington said in an interview with GQ. "There's a huge amount riding on him to be a leader, and I want him to become that leader. I guess, for me, Jon Snow is a figure of hope."

5. Shortchanged: Unfortunately, there's plenty of trouble ahead for Tyrion, the likable dwarf. Not only is he being spurned by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), his wife via arranged marriage, he continues to be looked upon with venomous scorn by Tywin and Cersei.

Even worse: He will find himself in a dire predicament that could result in a prison sentence, or -- gulp -- death. Tyrion, the ultimate survivor, has always been able to talk his way out of any tough situation, but this time he really has his back to the wall.

6. The odd couple: One of the show's most intriguing pairs continues to be little Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor "The Hound" Clegane (Rory McCann), a hulking, snarly ex-knight.

He was about to deliver her to her mom right before the Red Wedding massacre. Now, he's taking the orphan girl across the countryside to see her aunt Lysa. In the process, she's being influenced by his cutthroat ways and becoming more hardened. Now, more than ever, she's determined to make the Lannisters pay for ripping apart her family.

7. Dragon power: Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her slow but steady march toward the Iron Throne, bolstering her army and honing her strategic skills as she goes. But she's also confronted with new challenges, not the least of which is her trio of fire-breathing dragons. They've gone from being cute, obedient babies to big, hard-to-tame beasts with the wingspan of a 747.

How do you say, "Roll over and play dead" in Dothraki?

Follow Chuck Barney at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

'Game of Thrones'

When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Where: HBO