“Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there’s no other way.”
Given the quantity and quality of death and destruction we’ve witnessed over the previous four years, the most shocking thing Game of Thrones could do in its fifth season was offer a tiny glimmer of hope. After all, optimism in Westeros and Essos is an even rarer commodity than dragons. Yet this batch of episodes probably gives us the clearest glimpse at the endgame of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga. (Even as the author’s deliberate pace continues to drive book readers mad.) That being said, don’t think for a second the show has gone soft in its old middle age: Thrones still has the unmatched ability to dazzle and devastate in equal measure.
“Winter is coming. We know what’s coming with it. We can’t face it alone.”
Season 4 ended with several key characters setting sail in bold new directions. Although they don’t reach their destinations right away, the show absolutely delivers on the promise of these new character pairings/groupings. The greatest result comes from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) escaping imprisonment and a death sentence in King’s Landing to meet up with one of the show’s other iconic characters. Dinklage won his second Emmy for his work this past season, and it’s thrilling seeing Tyrion face off with someone of equal stature. (No pun intended.) The character runs the gamut from drunken, despondent dwarf to accepting monumental responsibility, and Dinklage proves to be an adaptable scene partner whether he’s trading witticisms with well-informed eunuch Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) or poking at disgraced knight Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). We also follow young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) as she treks to the frustratingly mysterious House of Black and White and navigates the tricky business of seeking revenge.
While some characters have gone great distances to re-invent themselves, others dig in just as ferociously to protect what is theirs. The season actually opens with a flashback that reveals why Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, turning in career-best work) is so ferociously protective of her children. Her last surviving son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) meekly sits on the Iron Throne (he’s more of a peacetime president), while her daughter Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) lives half a world away with an enemy family. The Queen Mother empowers a radically religious faction — led by the High Sparrow (a deceptively placid Jonathan Pryce) — to help her undermine charismatic Queen Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and her powerful family. Cersei also convinces twin brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to travel to Dorne to rescue Myrcella, his (ahem) niece. Meanwhile, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) takes on a greater leadership role within the Night’s Watch under the curious gaze of would-be king Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who remains fanatically set on recapturing the north from the ruthless Boltons.
I mean, I seriously could go on and on with this synopsis — I haven’t even mentioned Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her never-ending lesson about how much easier it is to conquer than to rule (“Perhaps you should try wanting something else.”) — but I’d rather not give too much away. Game of Thrones has now existed long enough as a TV series to subvert our expectations the same way Martin has cruelly toyed with his readers storytelling conventions. So while we’ve grown accustomed to expecting a jaw-dropping moment during the ninth episode — and “The Dance of Dragons” certainly ends with a stunning spectacle — the season’s high point actually comes a little earlier.
Season 5 of Thrones is mostly based on “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons”, the fourth and fifth books (respectively) in Martin’s series. There are also elements of book 3, “A Storm of Swords”, and even the upcoming(?) sixth novel, “The Winds of Winter.” Obviously, this means there are a lot of storytelling threads to keep track of…and that’s just for us viewers! Fortunately, Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have always been adept at remixing Martin’s unwieldy saga for TV audiences. They’ve also become bolder in recent years, taking larger, more polarizing departures from the source material.
The duo and their writing staff took some especially intense heat for the way they inserted and presented the violation of a beloved character at the end of Ep. 6/“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” It’s an ugly scene, but this show portrays an ugly world. The notion that this season was particularly unkind to women sort of overlooks the horror that is routinely done to *all* characters on this show. That being said, Benioff and Weiss deserve a ton of credit for staying true to Martin’s methodically savage outlook while delivering rousing, relentlessly entertaining drama.
Besides Dinklage and Headey, the season’s standout performances belonged to Harington (quietly and effectively becoming the show’s heroic leading man), Dillane (the gruff Stannis has one of my favorite scenes of the season), and Jerome Flynn’s quippy sellsword Bronn. My favorite hour of the season — Ep. 8/ “Hardhome” — kicks off a killer trifecta that concludes with the exceedingly cliffhanger-y finale/“Mother’s Mercy.”
That includes the possible death of a beloved character. Fans have been hotly debating this person’s fate since the finale aired; the fact that so many people actually want this character to live and return to the harsh world of Thrones tells me things might not be quite as hopeless as they seem.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Fifth 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 25 mbps. Simply put, Game of Thrones continues to be the best looking thing HBO has ever done (which is no small feat), and it’s also the most spectacularly versatile image that can be found on the small screen. Although King’s Landing has reliably provided exquisitely warm tones and rich texture since the show’s start, season 5’s foray into Dorne (Spain was the real-life stand-in) took that to another level. Those sequences may have been underwhelming from a dramatic standpoint, but they were still stunners thanks to lush greens and eye-popping colors.
In other parts of Westeros and Essos, the image continues to be unfailingly clear and blemish-free while offering extraordinary detail (check out the creepy Sons of the Harpy masks) in the grimmest conditions. The scenes inside the House of Black and White, for example, feature inky black levels, wonderful separation, and exemplary shadow detail. At the other end of the spectrum, the most nightmarish sequence of the season —which is also an excellent showcase for Thrones’ technical wizardry and unprecedented scope — takes place in a blindingly white snowscape.
The Dolby Atmos track defaults to a middling Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Luckily, there’s also a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation here, which is what I’ll be reviewing. (I highly recommend you switch over to that whenever you watch the show.) If there’s any TV show worthy of the Atmos/two bonus channel treatment, it’s definitely Thrones. The surround sound field continues to be consistently lively while remaining detailed in a way that never detracts from the story on screen. In fact, it’s quite the opposite…we are totally sucked into this fantastical realm without totally realizing it. There are obvious showcases like the sensory overload in “Hardhomme”, but there are also subtler touches like the crashing waves in the distance when characters arrive in Braavos and Dorne. At the other end of the spectrum, the silence at the start of the Walk of Shame Atonement in the finale is deafening before the crowd noise gradually swells.
Dialogue remains crystal clear, and composer Ramin Djawid’s score is as sweepingly majestic as ever. The presentation is top-notch, but I’m deducting half a point for the (slight) hassle of having to switch over to the 7.1 track every time we non-Atmos users insert a new disc.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. The audio commentaries and the In-Episode Guides can be found on each of the four discs. The rest of the special features can be found on Disc 4.
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 the menu button and take a quick peek. Definitely recommended for people who haven’t read the books and would like some more backstory.
Histories and Lore: A series of animated/motion comic-style videos narrated by characters like the High Sparrow, Alliser Thorne, and Missandei, who offer helpful information about Thrones locations like Braavos and factions like the Faith Militant, the Faceless Men, and many more. The longest segment tops out at about five minutes. Does not feature a Play All option.
The Dance of Dragons: (20:27) This animated featuette dramatizes the Targaryen Civil War between Aegon II and Princess Rhaenyra for the Iron Throne, which led to the near-extinction of the powerful family’s dragons. (That might be the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever typed!) Seriously though, the motion comic format allows for the sort of dragon action that would probably be too expensive even for Thrones. It also takes a slice of Martin’s oeuvre and offers fans a cool mini-prequel to the HBO series.
(Features available on the Blu-ray and DVD)
Audio Commentaries: There are a total of 12 tracks, including three for “Hardhome”, two for “The Dance of Dragons”, and none for Ep. 7/“The Gift.” The tracks feature a good variety of directors, writers (including creators Benioff and Weiss), cinematographers, visual effects artists, and (of course) cast members like Dinklage, Headey, Harington, Coster-Waldau, and many more.
The highlights include Bryan Cogman addressing the Sansa Stark controversy at the end of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” head on. (Cogman insists some of the storytelling choices were made to protect actress Sophie Turner.)
A Day in the Life: (26:01) This neat featurette covers a 24-hour period on the Thrones set. Of course, that means we check in on three countries (Croatia, Northern Ireland, and Spain) and hundreds of crew members. Obviously, this is the biggest television production in the world, but “A Day in the Life” shines a spotlight on more unsung heroes like producer Bernie Caulfied, who helps keep the show’s dizzying logistics in order.
New Characters/New Locations: (7:41) A brief, slick featurette introducing us to new characters like the Sandsnakes and the High Sparrow, and new locales like Dorne and the House of Black and White.
Anatomy of an Episode — Mother’s Mercy: (29:33) Offers an extended look at the cliffhanger-y season finale, from the thinking inside the writers’ room to implementing many of the episode’s visual effects. Not quite as comprehensive as the peek inside “The Rains of Castemere” in the season 3 Blu-ray set, but still an effective bonus feature
The Real History Behind Game of Thrones: This thoroughly entertaining, informative featurette is presented in two parts and breaks down how Thrones creator George R.R. Martin took his cues from the War of the Roses and other historical figures/time periods. Part 1 (18:13) includes Martin admitting that he took the War of the Roses “filed off the serial numbers and pumped it up to 11.” He’s joined by several historians, who also pop up into Part 2 (22:00) to compare King Robert Baratheon and Robb Stark to Edward IV and Daenerys Targaryen to Cleopatra.
Deleted Scenes: (7:59) There are only four scenes, and Grey Worm fanatics will be delighted to learn two of them feature everyone’s favorite Unsullied. The best of the bunch, however, is an extended version of Jamie and Bronn conversing on their way to Dorne.
Season 5 of Game of Thrones won 12 Emmys, which is the most for any TV series in a single year. That included its first Best Drama win, which was overdue. Although you can certainly argue whether this is the “Best” batch of Thrones episodes, the series indisputably retains its title of Most Drama.
That being said, this continues to be one of the very best shows on televisions. Characters who seemed irredeemable at the outset have become sympathetic figures. Every aspect — writing, acting, directing, production design, cinematography — is top-notch, and this HBO Blu-ray release once again follows suit. Season 6 is set to premiere April 24, and it’ll be the first time “A Song of Ice and Fire” devotees and non-book readers will be on equal footing. I’m excited to see where the TV iteration goes next…I have a feeling it’ll be someplace, well, good.