(USA TODAY) -- Game of Thrones is becoming a contest of attrition.
After the deaths of important characters in the past two weeks, the second in an epic battle of big-screen grandeur, viewers of the HBO drama can only wonder what's left for the fourth-season finale (Sunday, 9 ET/PT).
On a series that has traditionally delivered its biggest jaw-droppers in each season's penultimate episode, such as last year's Red Wedding slaughter, director Alex Graves promises a finale that will more than match what came before.
"It's the largest, I think, most exciting episode that's been done," says Graves, who has directed six Thrones episodes, including a much-talked-about outing this season that featured the murder of evil King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). The finale is "a brilliant script that coincided with so many amazing events from the books" written by George R.R. Martin, he says.
Fans have been caught up in the sweeping saga of Thrones, which has already been renewed for fifth and sixth seasons. Sunday premieres averaged 6.8 million viewers (up 36% from 2013), and with all viewing counted, 18.6 million are tuning in, making it HBO's top-rated series.
Last week's episode departed from the series' panoramic storytelling style, focusing on a titanic battle at the ice wall in the north that claimed the life of wildling warrior Ygritte (Rose Leslie) as she contemplated killing her Night's Watch foe and erstwhile lover, Jon Snow (Kit Harington).
"It was a very beautiful ending, but it definitely needed to happen," Leslie says, marveling at the 10-day battle shoot that featured a huge Castle Black set, along with giants, mammoths and a death-wielding scythe. "The nature of the beast is the fact that no one is safe."
The star-crossed romance will influence Snow, she says. "I feel that with her presence, he is not so narrow-minded. He can appreciate and see different points of view. As a leader, I think that will help him move forward."
The finale, titled The Children, jumps all over the Thrones map, following Snow as he approaches the wildling leader; his half-brother, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), also in the dangerous land north of the Wall; Bran's sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), and her unlikely road companion, The Hound (Rory McCann); the nascent sovereign Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in Meereen; and the ruling Lannisters in Kings Landing, where Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) faces a death sentence in connection with Joffrey's murder.
None can rest easily in a world of supernatural White Walkers, dragons and giants, let alone the threats posed by bitter intra- and interfamily rivalries in the ongoing battle for the seat of power, the Iron Throne.
USA TODAY'S Robert Bianco previews the television lineup for Friday, June 13, 2014. Included in this weekends lineup is 'A Star-Spangled Story,' 'Believe,' and 'Game of Thrones'.
"There are many large-scale, global problems that the people of Westeros and Essos have to face. Whether any of these problems represent a bigger threat to them than they do to each other remains to be seen," say executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in an e-mail. "And no, there is no comfort in power. The Iron Throne is the most uncomfortable chair in the world."
Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister, mother of kings Joffrey and Tommen, sees the death toll winnowing the literal and figurative battlefields.
"I think when we started out, we had a bigger picture. Now, as the seasons go on, the land of Westeros gets smaller. More people are dying. We have people attacking the Wall. Kings Landing is the stronghold of the Lannisters, although as we're gathering, it's falling apart very quickly. We're setting up for what's to come, which really and truly will be a very close fight for the throne."