Charles Dance in character as Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” (Credit: Helen Sloan)

“Game of Thrones” returns with a clang on Sunday, continuing its searching exploration of the legacy of war crimes, the long-term impact of sexual assault, and what happens when an insurgent movement happens to have hatched fast-growing dragons (I will be recapping the show here, in tandem with pop culture editor David Malitz, who will hold down the Dreadfort in Style). The show always gives us a lot to keep track of, not just in terms of plot, but in the delicate strategic balance between the scrapping claimants for the Iron Throne–and the powers that stand behind them. At the end of last season, these were the most important players. We will see how long the order holds.

1. Tywin Lannister: The head of the rich and fractious Lannister family may not be king himself, but he has the best and biggest job in Westeros. While his grandson Joffrey bops around being awful to everyone and murdering prostitutes, Tywin actually gets to make decisions about the prosecution of the war against the other claimants to Joffrey’s throne, get credit for major military victories, and boss around his children even more than he already did. Being the power behind the throne without any of the formal responsibilities that require you to pretend to be charming is awfully nice. And it is much better to be doing that work from King’s Landing than, say, Dragonstone or Mereen. But being the most powerful man in Westeros has a way of making you a target. And given that Tywin Lannister made some extremely significant enemies during the war that put his family in a position of power in the first place, he should start season four with a careful eye out for challengers.

2. Daenerys Targaryen: If she actually ruled a consolidated kingdom, Dany would have a clearer claim to the top of the list. But as it is, she has a couple of adolescent dragons, a recently-freed slave army, and a lot of civilian followers she needs to find a home for. Her assets are significant. Even at a fraction of their ultimate size, her dragons proved their use last season, and she has what may be the most talented (and situationally useful) corps of advisers in Westeros or Essos: two former knights, a sexy mercenary, a gifted translator who has lived inside the slave societies she wants to conquer. If Dany wins a throne, it might not matter if it is located in Westeros or Essos.

3. Olenna Tyrell: Olenna Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell’s grandmother, may not have the kind of formal authority that is presently vested in Tywin Lannister. But she has a some important forms of soft power going for her. The Tyrells control one of the major food production regions in Westeros, and they are keeping King’s Landing fed, preventing the kind of riots that almost destabilized the regime before. She is the confidant to a young woman who is about to become Queen of Westeros. And as an older, unmarried woman, Olenna constantly gets overlooked, which gives her a wider sphere in which to operate than almost any other character on “Game of Thrones.”

4. Mance Rayder: It is a tall order to breach a 700-foot high wall of ice and overthrow an ancient kingdom. But it is a taller one to unite a huge coalition of people who are defined by their independence, and to do so with the promise of totally disrupting their historic ways of life. Mance Rayder pulled the latter off, bringing together the Wildlings in fear of the Others. If he can get them across the Wall, can anyone in a divided Westeros stand before them?

5. Melisandre of Asshai: Okay, there was that thing where the king she served managed to get basically his entire fleet burned up by magic fire. Backing Stannis Baratheon has not yet paid off big for the priestess of the Lord of Light. But Melisandre is the one person in this series who actually seems to be able to wield magical power in a significant way. And Stannis’ defeat on the Blackwater has put him even more firmly under her influence.

6. Roose Bolton: It is always a strategic advantage to have your enemies completely terrified of you, and after turning his cloak and teaming with the Lannisters and the Freys to pull off the Red Wedding, Roose Bolton has to be one of the scariest men in Westeros. Okay, his psychopathic son might give us more nightmares, but Ramsay at least spends most of his time torturing his pets, rather than trying to assert power over a major country. Roose’s new alliance and his destruction of the Starks make him a major regional power in the war for  Westeros. Does he want more? It’s hard to know what desires hide behind those pale eyes.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.