What makes for good fantasy? Is it the astonishing assortment of creatures and monsters, or perhaps the display of swords clashing and magic erupting from practiced fingertips? What about the various landmarks and massive cities that dwarf anything we're likely to ever see with our own eyes? If, despite the fact that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have proved otherwise in the last decade or so, this is where your definition of 'fantasy' begins and ends, don't tell it to HBO. More importantly, don't tell it to George R.R. Martin, author of the highly proclaimed fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, Martin has utilized such things to create the fictionalized Earth that plays host to his sprawling epic, but none of it had been introduced at the expense of telling a story, which had never been about catering to a crowd that pined for Hollywood's flashy theatrical gimmickry. No, A Song of Ice and Fire had been about the characters and the drama between them, and Martin needed to find a studio that would allow a live action reinterpretation of his novels to remain true to the source. HBO was obviously the best fit as they're no stranger to developing adult oriented drama, but fans were skeptical if the studio could pull it off, myself included. After all, any serious contender in fantasy was going to cost the studio a lot of money, and considering it wasn't long ago that HBO had canceled Deadwood and Rome because of the enormous expense of producing a time-period program, it was reasonable to think that Game of Thrones was destined to fail before it even had a chance.
In the first season of Game of Thrones we're introduced to Westeros, a vast continent where seasons literally last for years at a time, and is comprised as a whole by Seven Kingdoms, each ruled by a Lord that only answers to the King that sits atop the Iron Throne in the city of King's Landing. For the story told in this first chapter of Ice and Fire, the focus rests in the uppermost region of land simply referred to as the North, ruled by Eddard Stark and his family in the House of Stark at Winterfell castle. Life has been fairly peaceful up in the chilly northern country, but that all changes when King Robert Baratheon shows up to appoint Eddard as the King's Hand, a title that basically allows him to rule Westeros as the acting King while Baratheon lives the rest of his life indulging in gluttony and adultery. At first, Stark is reluctant to accept as he has a complicated family dynamic he's trying to keep strong on a day to day basis - He has a wife with whom he's had five legitimate children with, but he's also raising a bastard son that serves as a constant reminder of his infidelity - But when news that Jon Arryn, a man who Stark looked up to as a father figure, arrives by raven and suggests that his mentor's death was no accident, Stark accepts the position of King's Hand so he can utilize his power to investigate the murder. Before he can do so however, other troubling events begin to unravel faster than the Stark's can deal with them - There's a murder attempt on Eddard's youngest son, an incestuous affair between King Robert's wife and her brother is trouble for anyone who dares to get close enough to the truth, and other powers are joining forces so that they might overthrow the King and take back what they believe to be rightfully theirs. As the show ominously warns us early on, war is coming, but men need to be careful - Their focus on power and war might be the very distraction that leads to the end of the human race. There's been rumor that White Walkers, an ancient evil with glowing blue eyes, have been spotted in the Haunted Forest just outside the Wall, a massive structure that was erected thousands of years ago with magic to keep the evil at bay. Of course, men at the time of this story regard them as little more than a myth, meaning the White Walkers would have the element of surprise if and when they decide to re-emerge in full force.
I made a similar argument in my recent review for Boardwalk Empire, but the same applies to Game of Thrones as well - If this show hoped to succeed, it really needed to provide its audience with a world that was fully realized. If HBO skimped on the budget in any department - special effects, writing, directing, set pieces or costume design - It would have showed up on-screen and the audience would have noticed, and when the audience notices a lack of detail and depth in any of the above-mentioned areas, it takes them out of the 'reality' the program is trying to provide. Since Game of Thrones is not a series that relies on dancing dragons around every five minutes, or throwing up a display of fantastical magic tricks around every bend to tell its story, it was crucial for this show to be done right, as to not destroy that perceived reality of Westeros. As I mentioned previously though, last time HBO blew its wad on a single series, things started getting canceled so they could recoup some of their losses, and Boardwalk Empire is already costing HBO a pretty penny. Fortunately for us, HBO has been willing to invest in pricey projects they may not have been in a position to produce even five years ago, so Game of Thrones was able to be given the treatment it deserved, no penny pinching in sight. Not only is there no evidence of cost cutting measures, but this series has gone above and beyond with its production value - I was frightened of the White Walker the first time I saw one. I was stunned at the sheer size of the Wall separating most of Westeros from the Haunted Forest, not pondering for a single second if it had been a CGI creation or not. The scenery is gorgeous and the cinematography captures every bit of it majestically. Simply put, this is the most believable iteration of a fictional Earth I've seen since Lord of the Rings.
Of course, you can make the world look as real as you want, but without an intriguing enough story to follow or talented enough actors to pull it off, such immense production values would end up amounting to squat. Well, as far as the story and the acting is concerned, there's no weaknesses in those departments either.
Sean Bean, remembered by most for his role as Boromir in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, gives the performance of his career as Eddard Stark, portraying him with a wide array of emotions without even having to say a word. Just by the expressions on his face alone we can tell that Eddard is a strong, proud man, yet he struggles with (and does his best to hide) his sorrow and must deal with constant inner-turmoil. Furthermore, Lena Headey's performance is just as noteworthy as Bean's. Up until now, we've seen her play characters that have been flat, or one-sided. In 300 she was a woman who drew strength from her emotions, in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, her character was a paranoid wreck that relied on physical strength and endurance. InGame of Thrones however, Lena gets to play Cersei, a woman who must wear many 'faces' in order to survive. Thanks to Lena, Cersei appropriately comes off as a woman that's both headstrong and manipulative, all while she puts on the 'nice gal' show in front the very people she plans to backstab, remaining as cool as a cucumber under pressure. My favorite actor to watch other than the above mentioned? It unquestionably has to be Peter Dinklage in his role as dwarf brother of the Lannister clan, Tyrion. As a dwarf, Tyrion knows that in a world of proud warrior men, relying on his physical attributes aren't going to serve him best in a troubling situation. Instead, Tyrion spends much of his time reading and educating himself so that he might outwit his rivals instead. Tyrion's brilliance often shines through when he's speaking with someone in private, as he practically comes off as a wise philosopher... but Tyrion only does so under select circumstances. As to not let his intellect put him in a position to be perceived as a threat, Tyrion often underplays his hand and allows those closest to him to underestimate his intelligence. It's a brilliantly written character and Peter was the perfect choice to fill such a multifaceted role. It's really no wonder why Peter won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for his work on Game of Thrones.
My only complaint in regards to the cast is that I'm waiting for Kit Harington (as Jon Snow, Eddard's bastard son) and Emilia Clarke (as Daenerys Targaryen) to show me their true potential. Their characters throughout a fair chunk of the first season are rather meek compared to what they're both obviously capable of, but I can't really harp on this too much, as this limitation is placed on them because of the script. Whereas some characters are already fully realized from the get go (Eddard Stark, his wife, King Robert, etc), their characters haven't really been exposed to the world at large enough to test their mettle and figure out who they truly are. In the first season of Game of Thrones, their characters are only beginning to find out who they are and what they're capable of, and it will be interesting to see how that pans out in later seasons. Hopefully Harington and Clarke will both be able to appropriately convey the growth of their characters over time.
As far as the story is concerned, I know it probably sounds like there's probably too many moving parts to follow coherently over the course of 10 episodes. After the first episode alone, I probably would have agreed with you. A lot of stuff is dumped on us from the very beginning, but by the time the second episode is over, I guarantee you'll feel right at home in Westeros. At that point you'll have a terrific grasp on the characters, and you'll feel comfortable with the overall pace of how things unfurl. Speaking of pacing, that's really one of the better strengths this show has - There's never a lull in the drama. Things are always progressing and the end of every episode leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat with a nail biting cliffhanger. Despite the fact this show never lets up on the throttle, all the characters and events still feel as if they are developing organically. Game of Thrones has successfully tapped into the best of both worlds - It has enough to make serious drama fans happy with the depth of the relationships between characters, and there's enough action interspersed throughout to thrill even the most casual viewer.
Taking all things into account, Game of Thrones is quite possibly the best show HBO has ever aired. It may not have the same deep psychological character study that made shows like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, or even the recent Boardwalk Empire so intriguing, but that's really because Game of Thrones is attempting to tell a story that's larger than anything those other series ever could have dreamed of. Considering the amount of characters we have to follow through a larger picture of impending civil war, as well as the resurgence of an ancient evil that can seemingly reanimate fallen enemies at will, the level of depth in characterization here isn't only impressive, it's masterful. With the culmination of high production values, superb writing and the best acting television has likely ever seen, HBO and author George R.R. Martin have accomplished two things that many have thought to be impossible feats - They've turned Westeros and its surrounding areas into a fully realized world with believable monsters and characters. Also, despite the fact that HBO has presented us with numerous timeless series over the years, they've actually outdone themselves this time. As a big, big fan of the above mentioned series, you're just going to have to trust me on that. To understand how big these accomplishments are in perspective, one only needs to take into consideration how little time is actually spent focusing on monsters or magic. No, this is a fantasy that prides itself on substance over style... not that there's anything to complain about when it comes to the show's style, mind you.
If you haven't seen the first season of Game of Thrones yet, then you're missing out on a fantasy saga that has the potential to rival, or even best Lord of the Rings. Unfamiliar to the series, you might consider such a statement to be blasphemous... but you're just going to have to watch this for yourself to find out.
As I've mentioned before, HBO cut no corners in Game of Thrones' presentation. This series looks and feels like a major motion picture in every perceivable way, and this 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) preserves those production values flawlessly. Well, nearly flawlessly.
The only minor quibble that I have with the video is some very, very minor banding that almost isn't even worth bringing up, it's so minimal and short-lived. Outside of that, you can expect a transfer that's entirely free of any edge enhancement, digital artifacts, and considering this show was shot with Arri Alexa digital cameras, there's been no need for the studio to implement any digital noise reduction (not that HBO, with its fine home video record, would do such a thing). No, outside of that insignificant banding (which, I'm sorry, I still have to slightly reduce the score for), Game of Thrones is one of the finest HD presentations I've seen on home video to date, especially for a television show. Detail is impeccable no matter what challenges the source might present - A Haunted Forest blanketed in snow? No worries, the encode handles the detailing fine and the snow looks textured, not like a lifeless white blanket. The detailing overall is probably the most lifelike I've seen (on the format) in a while. I don't think there was a single moment where I felt as if the image didn't exhibit a high level of depth and dimensionality. Furthermore, there's zero sign of any crush going on, and black levels never come off looking murky. The contrast during the day, as well as the 'better than life' color saturation, are impressive enough to make us wish we lived wherever this show had been filmed.
I might be praising the video presentation to no end here, so I know some of you might want to debate if the image really looks that good. Well, yes, it does. Despite HBO's flawless record with their Blu-ray releases of True Blood and Boardwalk Empire, they don't stand a chance at knocking this Blu-ray release off its throne.
I feel entirely comfortable using the word 'flawless' here. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks that have been provided, once again show off the high production values that HBO bestowed upon their latest series. Every sound... and I mean every sound... is delivered with a pinpoint precision that takes depth and audible range into consideration. The best word to use for the use of directionality would be 'natural', because the sound design had enough attention paid to it so that we would actually feel like we're in the show. Sounds range from subtle environmental effects to roaring with armies or even the oceans. Also, LFE is more impressive than I imagined it would have been - It shakes the ground and rumbles on command, but never sounds as if it's being pushed too hard... it always matches the events on screen and never seems like it's being loud just for the sake of being so. Dialogue is always easy to understand, and... what else is there to say? This, again, is HBO's finest presentation to date. Want to feel like you're in the show and amidst the murder and betrayal? HBO has made it so.
-Audio Commentaries - I'm used to HBO only providing us a select handful of commentaries for their series, but I was impressed to find that seven of the ten episodes in this first season have been given the treatment. Also to my surprise, each and every single one of these commentary tracks are informative and not boring. The information is presented cohesively and professionally, and as a further unexpected treat for fans of the series, be it of the books or of the show itself, George R.R. Martin is featured as well. A fair chunk of the leading cast and crew make appearances throughout the seven featured episodes, but unfortunately, Sean Bean is not amongst them. He's a well known and very successful actor, and I'm sure after seeing his acting chops perfected for Game of Thrones he's in high demand, but it would have been nice to see him make enough time available for a commentary.
-In-Episode Guides - This is a nifty little feature if you've already seen the first season of Game of Thrones and want to add a little somethin' somethin' to your viewing experience, but this isn't anything too special. This feature mainly poses as a pop-up fact-guide while you're watching.
-The Complete Guide to Westeros - This feature, which can also be accessed by pausing the show while the In-Episode Guides are active, is where the goods are really at - Maps and family histories are at the forefront, but are only the tip of the iceberg. Also included are 24 featurettes that cover pretty much anything you want to know about the show and what sources of inspiration author George R.R. Martin utilized to create the world of Westeros (and beyond).
-Character Profiles - You would think that each of the 15 character profiles included would merely be some combination of text and pictures, but these character profiles are actually told to us by the actors that brought them to life. It's a simple change-up from the normal formula studios have used for such a feature, but it has certainly made a world of difference.
-Anatomy of an Episode - A Golden Crown - If you're familiar with the coveted Maximum Movie Mode feature that's been utilized by Warner Bros in the past, then that's essentially what you get for this particular episode. This is absolutely brilliant for HBO to include with a television series... but the caveat here is that it's only available for a single episode.
-Making Game of Thrones - This is a 30 minute documentary with cast and crew that details the making of the series. This is standard fare as far as a 'making of' doc goes, but it's still loaded to the brim with behind-the-scenes info and other factoids that any fan of the series will be glad to take the time to listen to.
-From the Book to the Screen - This is a short featurette at only five minutes, and this information is already covered in the previous documentary. Pass.
-The Night's Watch - I am highly intrigued by the Wall and the Night Watch soldiers, as well as whatever lurks beyond in the Wild. So, this was really the best part of the supplemental package for me, as it allows us to tour that Wall and get more background info on the Wild itself.
-Creating the Title Sequence - Another short featurette, but this opening title sequence did win an Emmy, so I guess it's no surprise to see a little blurb dedicated to detailing how it was made.
-Creating the Dothaki Language - This is pretty self explanatory. The language needed to be developed to enhance the realism of the show, and this featurette details that in about 5 minutes.
Also included are a bunch of little Easter Eggs... well, they're officially called 'Dragon Eggs' for the sake of the context of the series, but be sure to keep an eye out for them so you can access even more bonus goodies.
All in all, this is a really amazing supplemental package... probably the most comprehensive that HBO has put together to date. That being said, the only real downfall of its greatness is that it leaves me wanting more - After getting the 'maximum movie mode' treatment for a single episode, it really made me wish that one had been done for each and every episode.
HBO has, without question, outdone themselves with Game of Thrones. This series has everything it needs to be a continued success for the network - Immaculate writing, superb acting, direction that keeps the pace moving, and the money backing the production to bring the world of Westeros to life. When such an ambitious project had been announced, people were under the impression that being spoiled by the likes of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, an audience wouldn't accept a show that would try to match the experience... yet here we are. Not only have HBO matched the experience, but depending on how the show plays out over subsequent seasons, Game of Thrones could very well best the other fantasy phenomenon's we've been exposed to over the years. And why? Because of the attention that's been paid to details and more importantly, the development of character and plot. To top it off, this release boasts HBO's finest A/V presentation to date, and the supplemental package is also top notch. Without question, this release has earned its place amongst the best - DVDTalk Collector's Series.