'Game of Thrones' returns Sunday with fan favorite Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) recovering from the aftermath of battle, and in a much lower position of power than he was before. HBO

The final two episodes of the second season of “Game of Thrones” swept the pieces off the board, and returned many characters to square one. Stannis Baratheon's invasion was beaten back, much-hated Joffrey Baratheon remains on the throne, sword-swinging Stark daughter Arya is back on the run, and while Daenerys Targaryen got her dragons back, she's still without an army.

“Valar Dohaeris,” the season three opener, makes no major moves but concentrates on setting the pieces back on the board.

Season two ended with an army of corpses, led by the White Walkers (who we finally glimpsed, in all their otherworldly, frost-encrusted grandeur), advancing toward the Night's Watch encampment. The season opener picks up right where we left off, with Sam Tarly running through a blinding blizzard. A zombie wildling nearly splits him in two with an axe, but he's saved at the last second by Jon Snow's wolf Ghost -- and the few Night's Watch brothers who've managed to survive the attack. No one south of the Wall knows what happened, though, because Sam wasn't there to send off any ravens (you had one job, Sam!)

Not too far away from the carnage, the captured Jon Snow is introduced to the wildling leader Mance Rayder. The wildlings are suspicious of his intentions, despite the fact that he killed another Night's Watch brother, Qhorin Halfhand (who seemed to have given himself up to allow Jon to gain the wildlings' trust). Jon eventually gives Mance a very believable reason for wanting to discard his black cloak -- the fact that the Night's Watch has been turning a blind eye to the wildling Craster's practice of offering human sacrifices to the White Walkers.

“I want to fight for the side that fights for the living,” Jon says. Neither the viewer nor Mance is totally convinced that his loyalties have shifted, but it's good enough for now.

Then we're whisked away to King's Landing, where newly knighted sellsword Bronn is doing what one usually does in a brothel. (Much has been made of “Game of Thrones” penchant for “sexposition” scenes, but the show has an equal amount of sexy segues. "Sexgue" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, though.)

The Lannisters' dysfunctional family dynamic is still in place, with Cersei and Tyrion sniping at each other (Cersei: “You're not half as clever as you think you are.” Tyrion: “That still makes me more clever than you.”)

However, there's new menace behind the family banter -- Tyrion suspects Cersei sent a knight to kill him, while Cersei suspects Tyrion might tell their father that her children are the products of incest. And father Tywin Lannister tells Tyrion that he would rather be “consumed by maggots” than see his youngest son inherit the ancestral seat of Casterly Rock.

Davos Seaworth, who we last saw getting blasted off his ship by a green fiery explosion, turns up very much alive, coming to on an isolated rock. He's rescued by the pirate Salladhor Saan, and finds out Stannis has retreated to his castle on Dragonstone. Stannis also apparently refuses to see anyone but the red priestess Melisandre. The priestess of R'hllor burned the wooden gods of Dragonstone last season, but now, apparently, she's developed a taste for burning people. Seaworth heads to Dragonstone, resolving to kill Melisandre, but his attempt is foiled and he's imprisoned.

We meet Sansa Stark and her handmaiden/Tyrion's paramour Shae sitting on a dock and inventing stories about the ships that go sailing (it's a neat little scene that's not in the books). Although Sansa's no longer dreading a marriage to Joffrey, she's still an unrealized political asset, with a claim to Winterfell and the North that could pass to anyone who marries her. Untrustworthy schemer Littlefinger, who we know still carries a torch for Sansa's mother, dangles the prospect of stealing her away from King's Landing.

But Ros, formerly one of Littlefinger's whores and now his business manager (who is also likely working for the eunuch spymaster Varys on the side) warns Shae to watch out. Littlefinger's intentions with respect to Sansa, it seems, might not be entirely pure.

Sansa's replacement and Joffrey's would-be queen, Margaery Tyrell, showed signs of being quite a schemer herself in season two, when she was wed to would-be king Renly Baratheon. Now that she's arrived in King's Landing, Margaery is adopting the strategy of achieving popularity through force of charity work, visiting orphanages and bringing wagonloads of food to the starving city. Westeros could probably use a Princess Diana right about now. Joffrey is intrigued, and now we may have to deal with shades of gray in a character who used to be deliciously, one-dimensionally evil. Cersei, though, isn't pleased to see another woman horning in on her son. Paging Maester Freud.

Robb Stark and his army arrive at Harrenhal (whence, ironically, missing Stark daughter Arya just escaped), expecting a siege or a fight with Lannister forces, but instead just find hundreds of slaughtered Northmen prisoners. Robb's still furious with his mother, Catelyn, for loosing Jaime Lannister from captivity, and orders her imprisoned in the castle. His new bride Talisa discovers one survivor amid the corpses -- a man who gives his name as Qyburn.

Lannisters aren't the only ones who carp at each other. Hundreds of miles away, Daenarys and her right-hand man Jorah Mormont bicker about their next move while her dragons have their own fish fry. They're headed toward a city called Astapor, where Jorah wants to appraise the slave soldiers known as the Unsullied. Daenerys, who was bartered by her brother in exchange for the promise of an army, is understandably unhappy at the idea of acquiring slaves.

Her concerns are far from alleviated when they arrive in Astapor, where one of the slavemasters demonstrates the fearlessness of his wares by cutting a nipple off an uncomplaining Unsullied soldier. After the wares have been displayed, Daenerys and Jorah retreat to the ship, followed by an ominous hooded figure. But the hooded figure turns out to be a savior in disguise -- former Kingsguard Barristan Selmy, who was deposed back in season one by King Joffrey. Selmy saves Daenarys from another assassination attempt, stabbing a glowy scorpion that hatches from a wooden ball, a gift from a precious youngster that turns out to be an avatar (or projection, or whatever) of one of the blue-lipped warlocks of Qarth.

Selmy takes a knee, apologizes to Daenarys for not saving her brother Rhaegar in Robert's Rebellion and promises her he won't fail her again.

And that's all for the premiere! We'll have to wait until next week to check in on Arya Stark's life on the run, Jaime's forced march with lady knight Brienne, the younger Stark boys' journey toward the wall, and to find out whatever happened to Theon Greyjoy.