Judge Clark Douglas has a rightful claim to the throne! Okay, maybe not, but he wants it real bad.
Our review of Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray), published March 5th, 2012, is also available.
Five kings. One throne.
"The night is dark and full of terrors."
Facts of the Case
Note: In order to discuss the events of Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season, it will be necessary to spoil some of season one's major plot developments. Those who haven't seen the first season should proceed at their own risk.
It is a time of great upheaval in Westeros. Wicked young Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson, Batman Begins) has seized the throne, and is quickly proving himself to be a foolish and unmerciful ruler. Though Joffrey's mother Cercei Lannister (Lena Headey, Dredd) has long wanted her son to rule, she is quietly troubled by his behavior and begins to question her efforts to put Joffrey in power. Meanwhile, Cercei's brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent) does what he can to keep Joffrey in check in his new role as the king's hand and attempts to come to terms with his feelings for the kind-hearted prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli, When We Leave).
Cercei's other sibling (and secret lover—and secret father of Joffrey!) Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) is in particularly dire straits, being held prisoner by the noble Robb Stark (Richard Madden, Sirens). Robb is justifiably enraged over Joffrey's decision to execute his father Ned, and is holding onto Jamie as leverage in the hopes of freeing his younger sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) from Joffrey's clutches. The rest of the tattered Stark clan is scattered across Westeros: fiery Anya (Maisie Williams) is in hiding and has disguised herself as a boy, crippled young Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright, The Awakening) tentatively watches over Winterfell, matriarch Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley, The Others) engages in a series of secretive meetings with her remaining allies and Ned's bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington, Silent Hill: Revelation) continues to spend his days working alongside the men of The Night's Watch.
It's no surprise that the Starks and Lannisters are at each other's throats, but there are a number of other forces to be reckoned with. Danerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, Spike Island) and her people are in tatters after the death of Khal Drogo, but she has a unique asset: three young dragons that will eventually grow up to be creatures of near-limitless power. Joffrey's taciturn uncle Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane, John Adams) feels that he is the rightful heir to the throne and is planning an attack with the aid of the mysterious Melisandre (Carice Van Houten, Black Book). The disgruntled Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen, Atonement) has returned to his family home and is planning an assault of his own. And somewhere, far beyond The Wall, there are rumors of an ancient evil returning to the world. Who will advance and who will crumble in the ever-evolving Game of Thrones?
Though Game of Thrones is a fantasy series filled with magic, dragons and a variety of supernatural elements, the television series it most resembles is The Wire. Like that show, it contains a staggering number of characters participating in a seemingly endless variety of interconnected plot strands. No character (no matter how beloved) is ever truly safe, the episodes are more like chapters of a novel than satisfyingly self-contained installments, the show demands the viewer's full attention and though there are moments of action, the central focus is on the political complexities of the show's world. And you know what? It just might be HBO's best show since the holy trinity of The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood left the airwaves.
Though I watched and enjoyed this season of Game of Thrones as it aired, I have to admit that the show proved a good deal more satisfying when viewed in one large chunk (I plowed through all ten episodes in less than 24 hours). Because there are so many subplots to deal with (there are plenty of major characters who weren't even mentioned in the plot description above), certain storylines seem to inch forward at times—not because the show is ever slow-paced, but because an episode may only have a few minutes to devote to that particular section. There's a thrilling propulsiveness to absorbing everything at once, as the season really feels as if it's been designed as a nine-hour movie. It's a spellbinding tale of betrayal, greed, bravery and deception brought to life by one of the strongest casts on television.
If the events of season one taught us anything, it's that strength doesn't matter nearly as much as cunning in Westeros. Ned Stark and Khal Drogo were the noble alpha males of the first season; the men who seemed the most likely to stick around for a long time. Both were taken out by the time the season concluded. A man like Tyrion may not have a fraction of the physical strength Ned or Drogo had, but his quick tongue and ability to think ahead improve his odds of survival considerably. It's a painful truth, but time and time again, honor proves to be a liability for these characters. Season two finds the bulk of the characters hungry for power and in search of that elusive extra "something" that will give them an edge over the rest of the competition.
As was the case in season one, the level of craftsmanship throughout this season is astonishing. Game of Thrones is unquestionably one of the best-looking shows on TV, benefiting from breathtaking landscapes, lavish sets and remarkable costume design. Most episodes are helmed by TV veterans like Alan Taylor, but the level of consistency from episode to episode is remarkable. If I had to choose a standout installment, I'd go with the Neil Marshall-directed "Blackwater." Some fans complained about the lack of large-scale battle sequences in season one, but Marshall's explosive episode should silence those complaints. It's simultaneously the season's biggest episode and its most intimate, as it offers many scenes of characters quietly conversing inside the castle walls while the violent battle rages outside. It's also the only episode of the series to date to drop all peripheral subplots and narrow its focus to a single story (admittedly the climax of several different subplots), which gives it a certain measure of higher-than-usual intensity.
Remarkably, all of the individual storylines are pretty strong (save for the first half of the Danerys tale, which is a bit tedious), though obviously each viewer will have their favorites. I found Stannis to be a particularly engaging new addition to the show; his brotherly relationship with his loyal aide Davos (a great Liam Cunningham, Dog Soldiers) provides the season with some of its most quietly appealing scenes. Jon Snow's story initially seems rather divorced from everything else in the show, but it wanders in some interesting directions and eventually turns into something very promising, indeed. However, there's no doubt in my mind that Tyrion is the real star of the show at this point. Peter Dinklage is turning in one of the finest performances on television, playing the character with wit, soulfulness and traces of buried fear. He owns every scene he appears in, and he absolutely deserves the top billing he receives this season.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) is one of the best-looking TV releases I've ever seen. It's the finest hi-def TV transfer since…well, the first season of this show. The image is essentially flawless. Detail is astonishing throughout, there's no trace of banding or ringing to be found, depth is spectacular, blacks are rich and deep—it's a showcase collection, without a doubt (the whole season would surely be running on an endless loop in Best Buy if it weren't for the copious nudity the series offers—yes, the show can be gratuitously enthusiastic in that department). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is obscenely strong. I may have bothered my neighbors a bit by cranking up the volume on this show, but when the track is this strong, it's hard to resist. A lot of work has been put into the sound design of this show, from the room-rattling explosions to soft footsteps in the snow. The dialogue is always clear and balanced in the midst of all this, and Ramin Djawadi's fine score (hands-down the best work he's done; how can this be the same guy who wrote the drab scores for Iron Man and Clash of the Titans?) always sounds robust. I couldn't possibly ask for more in the technical department.
I realize I'm starting to sound a bit like a slobbering fanboy at this point, but honestly, the supplemental package is basically perfect, too. Where to begin? A total of twelve audio commentaries are spread across nine episodes ("What is Dead May Never Die," "Blackwater" and "Valar Morghulis" get two each). Participants include showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, author George R.R. Martin, writers Bryan Cogman and Vanessa Taylor, directors Alik Sakharov, Alan Taylor and Neil Marshall, visual effects artists Rainer Gombos and Steve Kullback and actors Alfie Allen, Gemma Whelan, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Carice Van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Kit Harington, Rose Leslie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey. Phew! As if that weren't enough, each episode also comes with an optional "In-Episode Guide," which aides viewers in keeping up with the various characters, houses, religions and lands of Game of Thrones.
While disc one offers a handful of character profiles (running just a couple of minutes each), most of the additional extras on are disc five. There, you'll find a host of brief "Histories and Lore" videos, an interactive "War of the Five Kings" guide that allows viewers to dig deeper into the sprawling conflict and three featurettes: "Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay" (31 minutes), "Game of Thrones Inner Circle" (24 minutes) and "The Religions of Westeros" (8 minutes). Oh, and on top of all of that, you get a DVD copy and digital copy of the whole series, plus a booklet featuring notes on all of the characters and a map of Westeros. What a remarkable collection of extras.
Game of Thrones is one of the finest shows on television, and this dense yet immensely rewarding second season is just as assured and masterful as the first. There's never been a fantasy television series to match the scale or ambitious of this one. Bravo to HBO for giving this great season of television such a terrific Blu-ray release. Highly recommended.
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