“There’s a king in every corner now.”
Game of Thrones is definitely one of the best shows on TV right now, and it might be the most ambitious television series ever produced. Ambition and quality don’t always go hand in hand. (See, Cloud Atlas. No, seriously…watch it. I’m one of the people who really enjoyed that convoluted mess.) The second season of Game of Thrones — a massive undertaking that took its cast to Iceland and Croatia, in addition to its Belfast base — performed a minor miracle. It deepened, expanded and improved upon an already excellent show.
Following the events of season 1 — which I’ll try to discuss as little as possible in case you’re frantically trying to get caught up before season 3 premieres on March 31 — Game of Thrones really lived up to its title. Seems like everyone and their brother wanted a piece of the Iron Throne occupied by “vicious idiot” King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) during the second season. (I’m sure Gleeson is a perfectly pleasant person in real life, but if I ever saw him walking down the street, there’s a decent chance I’d punch him in the face; that’s how good he is as King Joffrey.)
Among those calling themselves “King” throughout the mythical Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and Essos are the feuding Baratheon siblings: humorless Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and his younger, more charismatic brother Renly (Gethin Anthony). Meanwhile, Robb Stark (Richard Madden, growing wonderfully into his role just like Robb) is the youthful lord of one of the Seven Kingdoms’ most prominent families who has been tabbed King of the North. (Robb would also very much like to have King Joffrey’s head). All this and I haven’t even mentioned the previous ruler’s numerous bastard sons. Then again, the biggest threat might not actually be a future “King” after all. Daenerys Targaryen (the quietly fierce Emilia Clarke) may be taking the long way to the Iron Throne with her three very special children, but you get the sense we haven’t been watching her and her people slog through the desert for nothing.
Of course, this is just the tip of the Frostfangs. If I were to discuss everything going on in season 2 of Game of Thrones, I don’t think I’d be done in time for the start of season 3. More than anything, the show’s stellar second season plays out like a richly detailed war film that illustrates the effect fighting has on the battlefield as well as the home front. Families are torn apart when men are compelled to carry out their bloody duty; meanwhile, the women — even characters like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) who seem like polar opposites — go to extraordinary lengths to keep those same families safe and together.
Although season 2 threw more of its body into fantasy territory — I’d say season 1 only dipped a toe — the reason any of this works is because the show is terrifically grounded in emotional and surprisingly relatable human drama. Take the infinitely quotable Tyrion Lannister, one of the greatest characters on television played with great relish by Emmy winner Peter Dinklage. (“I’m not questioning your honor. I’m denying its existence.”) At the end of the day, the diminutive Tyrion is basically like any other black sheep family member who trades insults with his older sister and is a disappointment in the eyes of his father (the great, imperious Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister). Robb strives to make his father proud while learning how to be his own man. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is a young guy trying to figure out where he belongs. Littlefinger and Lord Varys (I can’t get enough of Aiden Gillen and Conleth Hill trading articulate insults) are just a pair of mid-level coworkers constantly trying to outfox one another.
Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss deserve a medal — or at the very least an Emmy — for keeping the drama accessible, as well as for their bold, confident storytelling. (The duo famously established the tone that no character is safe during the show’s debut season.) The Game of Thrones roster is so deep and talented that even great characters like Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) won’t appear for episodes at a time unless it makes dramatic sense. (A lesser show would try to give everyone something to do all the time.) With Game of Thrones, you get the sense at least a dozen of these characters could star in their own spinoff. (Everybody Hates Joffrey…this fall on CBS!)
As you can see, I’m having a hard time finding faults with this show. Even the alarming decrease in nudity from the stunning Clarke is mostly offset by new cast members like Carice van Houten (as exotic priestess Melisandre) and Natalie Dormer (as Renly’s ambitious new wife Margaery). The show even throws in some incest — both accidental and intentional — to keep audiences disgusted titillated.
Most importantly, the biggest criticism I’ve heard about Game of Thrones — that it’s too hard to keep track of all these characters, places and relationships — is completely erased by this excellent Blu-ray. This release is loaded with a treasure trove of accessible information about George R.R. Martin’s beloved creation. (We’ll get to that in a paragraph or two in the Special Features section.)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 30 mbps. HBO definitely knows how to do lavish historical dramas. The look of Boardwalk Empire was famously guided by none other than Martin Scorsese, and the great Rome actually cost more on a per-episode basis than Game of Thrones. (Part of the reason it only lasted two seasons.) So when I say this Blu-ray is the best looking thing HBO has ever done, I want you to understand I don’t say it lightly.
The fact that the HD image here is flawless — no aliasing, banding, digital noise — almost goes without saying. Contrast is as on-point as it can possibly be, presenting the unforgiving snowy terrain of the North with equal brilliance to the epic, appropriately-named Battle of Blackwater Bay. There is also great use of shadow and natural light sources (electricity is still 1,000 years away from the Seven Kingdoms). The reason Game of Thrones ultimately gets the nod as HBO’s crowning visual achievement is degree of difficulty. Most other shows have a consistent, defining visual palette; Game of Thrones looks equally good wallowing in the muck of Winterfell or Iron Islands as it does in the warm, breathtaking vistas of King’s Landing or Qarth. The Blu-ray is a marked improvement over the show’s impressive HD broadcasts.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a wonderfully immersive experience that is every bit as good as the video presentation. If anything, the track is even more instrumental in transporting viewers to the Seven Kingdoms by enveloping their living room in the sounds of that world. The subs react any time a weapon crashes down on a shield, and the rears seem to know exactly when to pour it on with the majestic score by Ramin Djawadi or when to hold back and simply give us atmospheric noises. Sound also routinely travels from one speaker to another whenever it’s appropriate. Most importantly, none of these bells and whistles (or horns, to Theon Greyjoy’s dismay) ever distract us from the dialogue. Simply put, this excellent track is as dynamic as it is perfectly balanced.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. The special features, except for the Character Profiles and various commentaries/in-episode guides, are located on Disc 5.
In-Episode Guide: Certainly the most useful special feature, this pop-up guide allows you to access information about each character and setting while the episode is playing. So if you’re not sure how two characters in a given scene are related to one another or which part of the Seven Kingdoms we’re currently visiting, press pause and take a quick peek. Definitely recommended for people who haven’t read the books.
Histories & Lore: Actors provide in-character voice-over narration over a graphic novel-esque presentation of Westeros and Essos history. This is especially valuable if you want to learn about events that occurred before the show’s timeline — like the Greyjoy Rebellion, Harrenhal — and covers 14 topics. Each segment ranges from about 2 to 4 minutes. A Play All option would’ve been nice.
War of the Five Kings: This interactive tour of the Seven Kingdoms, with an emphasis on the various (would-be) kings, is basically a blown-out version of the in-episode guide. I personally don’t love interactive guides on my discs, so I thought this was one too many. However, this is likely aimed at people who don’t like multi-tasking during episodes and want to dive deep into George R.R. Martin’s imagination (but also don’t have the strength to lift Martin’s massive tomes).
Hidden Dragon Eggs: I was too busy being bowled over by the show to seriously hunt for these hidden features, which promise to reveal more exclusive content. If you find any on your Blu-ray copy, feel free to share with the rest of the class in the comments section below.
(Features available on the Blu-ray and the DVD)
Character Profiles: (15:42) Seven new profiles of notable characters — Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon and Theon Greyjoy — including insightful comments from the actors who play them, as well as their co-stars. This feature can be found on Disc 1 and features a Play All option.
Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay: (31:16) Remember how I said Game of Thrones is one of the most ambitious TV series ever produced? Well, Ep. 9/”Blackwater” is easily the biggest thing the show has ever done. (The episode was also written by Martin.) Benioff and Weiss reveal they had to eschew the big battle they had planned for season 1 because of budget restraints. They also admit that wasn’t really an option for season 2’s climactic confrontation. (The duo planned way ahead this time, saved up money, and filmed at night to help cover up any potential shortcomings.) Director Neil Marshall (The Descent), production designer Gemma Jackson and their team get the lion’s share of the credit in this detailed featurette for the season’s standout episode. (Hmm, the best episode of season 1 was also its ninth installment/“Baelor.” Can’t wait to see what Ep. 9 has in store for us this year.)
Game of Thrones: Inner Circle: (24:03) Though I admired the technical brilliance it took to stage “Blackwater”, this is my favorite special feature on the disc. Cast members Harrington, Clarke, Headey, Fairley and Liam Cunningham talk about filming season 2 in a roundtable discussion moderated by Benioff and Weiss. I enjoyed watching each actor stick up for their fictional alter ego. Also, when Benioff compliments them on never complaining during grueling shoots, Cunningham (Davos Seaworth) says it’s because none of them want to be killed off. The lively discussion also covers the show’s attitude toward class and gender roles.
The Religions of Westeros: (7:34) Martin — also an executive producer — and the show’s creators discuss the competing religions in Westeros and Essos. The author talks about modeling his characters’ spiritual attitudes on the importance of religion in the Middle Ages. Mostly, I got a kick out of watching Martin discuss this fantastical material in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests all this stuff actually happened.
Audio Commentaries: Twelve total commentary tracks on every episode except Ep. 5/“The Ghost of Harrenhal.” The tracks tend to feature either an episode’s writer and director or a couple of cast members. Not surprisingly, the writers/directors focus more on aspects of the production — it’s especially interesting listening to Benioff and Weiss talk about re-working and adapting Martin’s novels — while the actors are sillier and more freewheeling with their commentary. Each are worth a listen for different reasons.
Game of Thrones is great on HBO, but — for all the reasons stated above — it’s considerably better on Blu-ray. It’s not just because the show’s look and sound is superior; these discs give newbies all the information they need to get caught up if they’ve never seen a minute of this great drama.
As for the show itself, I personally think season 2 was an improvement over the monumental first season. This batch of episodes managed to close the door on an epic conflict in the South while forcefully reminding us winter is coming…along with other dangers from the North.
HBO has spared no expense with this landmark series. And when it comes to this outstanding Blu-ray, neither should you.