Forget winter. War is coming!
The second season of Game of Thrones is upon us. And there’s no better way to prepare than to enjoy the many features and all ten episodes on HBO’s exceptional Season One Blu-ray set.
In case you hadn’t noticed, cable TV’s original programming is where it’s at. While the big broadcast networks keep putting on the same kinds of shows that they’ve done for decades, cable networks are experimenting, pushing boundaries, and trying crazy things that have never been done before. Big hits are busting out all over, and your weekly schedule might be full of outside-the-box hits like AMC’s The Walking Dead, FX’s American Horror Story, Syfy’s Being Human, Starz’ Spartacus, Showtime’s Homeland, or HBO’s True Blood. Hollywood’s biggest showrunners are escaping the confines of broadcastland in droves, making for the greener creative pastures of cable because there, they’re not constrained by the mindset of broadcast networks.
You know the one. The mindset that says that TV audiences can’t handle the complex plots of serialized storylines. There are so few breakouts like Lost on broadcast TV because network execs are terrified of anything that requires the audience to, you know… pay attention. But on cable, producers aren’t required to hit the reset button week after week. They can tell far more complicated stories.
They’re also not bound to the strictures of broadcast TV’s typical 20+ episode seasons — a format that’s long outlived its usefulness, and we all know it. Long seasons bleed dry the creative juices to the point that shows suffer for it. The thirteen-episode season is more manageable, allows for better creative output, and gives writers, directors, actors, and other crew the chance to commit to more than one project a year.
But I digress.
Game of Thrones entered this landscape last year not so much with an explosion as a slow burn. The lavish, big-budget fantasy production was unprecedented on the small screen, and audiences were understandably slow to embrace it. But as HBO repeated it (another advantage of cable — shows aren’t limited to a single airing of their episodes), viewers became hooked, allowing the show to end its first season with huge ratings, making it a bona fide hit.
I don’t have HBO, so I’m a latecomer to the party. Of course I’d heard of the books, and when the show came along, the hype over it was out of control. Our own Noemi Twigg frequently extolled her adoration for the show before it was cool to do so. So naturally, when the opportunity came to review the Blu-ray, I was excited to give it a look.
By the end of viewing the first episode, I knew I was hopelessly, head-over-heels hooked. Never before has television produced “high fantasy” of this caliber. And as great as George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros is, as engrossing its mythology, and fantastic its awe-inspiring locations, I believe the secret of Game of Thrones‘ success is its fascinating cast of characters.
All of the characters have plenty of both light and darkness within them, though some lean further one way over the other. Even Sean Bean’s headliner, Eddard Stark, as unfailingly good-and-kind as he is, has his failings. (Casting Bean was a masterstroke. No one does “weary nobility” better, and viewers unfamiliar with the novels will never see coming the way his character ends the season.) Chief among those failings: a long ago wartime liaison that resulted in an illegitimate son, the now-entering-manhood Jon Snow.
Stark’s wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), is an appealing Lady of the North, strong and supportive and genuinely in love with her husband, despite their marriage being arranged. But likewise, she never hides her hatred for her husband’s illegitimate son, even though it’s completely unfair to blame the Jon for his existence. Or Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), who, as ruthless and power-hungry as she is, scores sympathy points for being stuck in an arranged marriage to King Robert, because it’s a marriage where her genuine love for him was never once returned. She’s a cunning, formidable player of the “game” that the show is named for, and she plays to win, but at least she understands the rules of the game and abides by them. The same can’t be said of her wicked, twisted son, Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).
Then there’s the enigmatic Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who transforms before our eyes from a mousy, spoiled girl to a fiery ruler over the savage Dothraki. She’s the last living descendant of an advanced, Atlantis-like civilization that conquered Westeros long ago with the help of their incredibly powerful dragons. Her family was eventually overthrown, and Danaerys and her brother sent into hiding on foreign shores. You can’t help but root for her, as she struggles and overcomes so many odds stacked against her, yet she’s also a figure that imparts great anxiety upon the viewer, because she’s unwaveringly committed to retaking the Iron Throne of Westeros no matter the cost. And by the end of the season, it’s easier to believe that she might just succeed.
That’s not to say there are no pure hearts in the land of Westeros; Jon Snow and Arya Stark come instantly to mind. Jon, having no claim to title or inheritance, commits himself to the Night’s Watch at the great Wall in the north — a massive edifice of ice built long ago to keep out a mysterious race of rarely-spoken-of northern invaders. It’s a hard life, but an honorable one, though he can never turn his back on it without being sentenced to death. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), the middle child of the five Stark children, is a tomboyish tween girl who rejects traditional female roles and craves adventure and excitement. She gets quite the twist at the end of Season 1, promising an exciting new direction for the character in Season 2. Both Jon and Arya are impulsive, independent, and quick to anger — traits that bind these two closer than their other siblings — but their virtue is unrivaled among those around them.
I can’t talk about the show’s characters without mentioning fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister, played by the great Peter Dinklage. Born into the powerful House Lannister, but despised by his father due to his short stature, Tyrion enjoys the refined lifestyle that he’s accustomed to — not to mention an endless parade of sexual partners — but he has no real position or purpose, unlike his sister the queen or his brother the soldier. His unique place in society has granted him a keen, highly educated mind and a surprisingly strong set of morals. More than any other character, he’s the one we the viewer identify with, because he often makes the wisest observations about the events happening around him.
It’s common among high fantasy to utilize dozens of characters, but Game of Thrones is the first time I’ve seen such an enormous cast realized on television. Among the paperwork inside the Blu-ray collection, you’ll find a full-color fold-out that shows thumbnail portraits of every major character, arranged by family tree. I would have been lost without this reference during the first two or three episodes, because as I said before, the cast of characters is just staggeringly big. Even though a number of them die along the way, there are newcomers introduced in almost every episode (and tons more still to come).
Aside from the characters, another thing that captivated me personally was the sprawling mythology of Westeros. A tremendous extra on the Blu-ray set lets you explore George R.R. Martin’s deep-rooted history through guided tours of his fictional world. Cast members give voice overs several times along the way, while hand-drawn images are animated before your eyes, letting you see glimpses of events from Westeros from long ago. There are endless historical figures, locations, belief systems, conflicts, and more that fill out every detail of this world. For example, every House has its own animal emblem, or sigil; its own “words,” or motto-like phrase that’s repeated often by family members; and unique architectural and geographic features to its homeland. Learning these details won’t be required for all viewers, but I love that HBO included this reference material for those of us who want to dig deeper.
Other special features in the collection take you deeper into the production, revealing just how difficult it is to bring a show of this scale to life. There’s a look at the Night’s Watch, a feature on how Martin’s world was translated from the page to live action, an explanation of how a linguist created the Dothraki language, in-episode guides and commentaries, character profiles, hidden easter eggs, and more. Hardcore fans (like me) will eat this stuff up and still be hungry for more.
It’s astounding that Game of Thrones is being achieved on a television budget — even a big one — because it doesn’t skimp on things like cavernous sets, intricate and detailed costumes, uniquely designed weapons each kingdom. These are requirements of any fantasy production that has actual quality to it; leaving them out would be a death sentence. But still… I mean, just the cost of hiring this many actors must be astronomical. But the production never shies away from doing what the story requires, whether that’s blood-soaked fights or CGI visual effects that help fill out the scope of Westeros. This is Lord of the Rings-scale production, but somehow it’s being made for the small screen. That fact alone is worth getting excited about.
And speaking of Tolkien’s creation, it’s impossible to get sucked into Martin’s fantasy world without frequently thinking of Middle-Earth, because Martin was so obviously inspired by it (as countless others have been). But Martin’s smart enough to put his own spin on high fantasy, and never do anything derivative. That Martin was able to build a world this compelling, of this intricacy and magnitude, without ripping off Tolkien’s masterful creation, is pretty brilliant in and of itself.
Even with its unprecedented budget, there are bits of the book that have to be left out — or heard about instead of seen on camera — such as some big battlefield sequences. (My understanding is that the producers convinced HBO to let them film a mammoth, pivotal battle for the second season.) But I contend that the show never suffers for it, because it wisely keeps the focus on its fascinating cast of characters.
The only downside of the show for me was the language and the nudity. Call me a prude all day long, but I’m a family man, so I could have lived without all the bare skin and F-bombs (there’s a lot more of the former — both women and men — than the latter). I haven’t read Martin’s novels (though I certainly want to now), so I don’t know if those bits come from the book. One gets the impression that his dark, unflinching fantasy pulls no punches, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find those elements in the books. But the nudity in particular always felt forced to me, with the camera lingering extra long on the naughty bits as if to shout at the viewer, “Hey look! We’re on HBO and we can get away with this!”
That said, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I adore this show. I’m willing to ignore the parts I don’t like because the parts I do are Just. So. Good.
One more thing I have to mention is the show’s genius opening credits. I’d heard talk about how cool the show’s title sequence was before I saw it for myself, but I had no idea just how staggeringly awesome it was. If you haven’t seen it, seriously, you have to go look it up on YouTube or something. Right now. Not only is it a stunningly well done bit of model-and-CG animation, but it serves a real purpose on the show. It depicts a map of Westeros, and it zooms around, showing you the kingdoms and landmarks where the action takes place on the show.
But it gets better: as you can learn from a Blu-ray special feature, the credits are actually modular, allowing the producers to change the locations shown on the map for each episode to match the locations seen in that episode. It accomplishes so much in such a short period of time, and it’s just a phenomenal thing to watch. Sitting through all ten episodes of the first season, never once did I even contemplate skipping over the credits, because they’re one of the best parts of the show. Ramin Djadawi’s orchestral score is fantastic as well, striking just the right tone, and it’s never better than what you hear during the title sequence.
Game of Thrones is history in the making, folks. It gets the amount of buzz and hype that it does for a reason: it really is something on television that’s worth getting exciting about. It’s an incredible achievement, and this pristine Blu-ray set of the first season’s episodes has a place of honor in my collection. I’ll definitely be watching it again. And again.