Prepare for a bloodbath. In the second season of "Game of Thrones," which starts Sunday on HBO, soldiers go on a baby-killing rampage, a woman pulls a severed head out of a saddlebag, a boy gets stabbed in the throat and a rat burrows into a prisoner's chest. And that's just in the first four episodes.

Thank heaven for Tyrion Lannister.

Most of the characters in this gritty fantasy series, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, grunt and grimace as they walk. Lannister whistles. He's more likely to wield a glass of wine than a sword, and his deadliest weapon is his wit. "The Imp" may be just 4 feet 5, but he towers above the rest.

Peter Dinklage won a supporting-actor Emmy for the role last year, and he'll be a strong contender as a leading man this time around. With the death of Sean Bean's Eddard Stark, Dinklage is now the heart and soul of "Thrones," and he pulls it off with just the right mix of charisma and chutzpah.

Those new to the "Game" are in for a mighty headache trying to figure out what's going on. Relax. All you need to know is that just about every key player is battling for the crown, pitting brother against brother, husband against wife, children against adults.

The most fascinating battle is between Lannister and his nephew, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the Boy King with a sadistic streak. If you thought he was menacing when he ordered the execution of Stark last season, wait until you see how he takes S&M to a whole new level when his uncle tries to calm him down with two prostitutes.

It's a powerful scene, one that guarantees Joffrey's place as one of TV's all-time greatest villains, but if there's anything wrong with "Game," it's that it sometimes tries too hard to give you the willies. I don't need a severed limb every five minutes to know that war is hell. What I do crave is more of Lannister's wit and wisdom, reminding us that in the end, brains triumph over brawn.