Delving into the fantasy genre inherently means you have to do something special to earn your audience, because anything that involves magic or mythical creatures will be instantly perceived as a key to dorkdom. The very word - fantasy - is likely to conjure images of pimple-faced teens sitting at a table, stuffing their faces with pizza while slingin' polyhedral dice. So, really, you have to admire HBO not only for the risk they took in transforming A Song of Ice and Fire into a sprawling live action epic, but for shattering expectations and making it one of the most talked about shows on television. There's no doubt that their significant financial backing was integral, as it allowed the world of Westeros to come alive with production values of cinematic caliber. Of course, Game of Thrones wouldn't have survived if that was the only leg it had to stand on. George R.R. Martin and HBO both understand that plot and character development make for the most compelling drama, so the author's writings were faithfully translated with every shock and twist in tow. As a result, the series was praised by fans and critics alike, and was even touted as being a mix between The Sopranos and Lord of the Rings. Question was, could they do just as well with the second season?
For those unfamiliar with the series as of yet, I wouldn't advise strolling through the second season blindly. There are several major plot threads, and thanks to an almost intimidating amount of characters, there are countless minor ones that also add a considerable amount of baggage. If you absolutely insist on skipping the first season for whatever reason, here's the basics - Game of Thrones begins with a frightening look at an imploding human race. The vast continent of Westeros is divided into what's known as the Seven Kingdoms, each ruled by a Lord which only need answer to the King atop the Iron Throne in King's Landing. As treachery unfolds and word spreads across the land, challengers from the noble houses rise to claim what they believe to be rightfully theirs, inevitably stirring the beginnings of civil war. While the world of men bicker and reduce their numbers over disputes regarding 'power', an ancient evil sees this as the perfect opportunity to begin their resurgence. By the time the first season comes to a close, it's painfully clear that humanity doesn't stand a chance against such powerful adversaries. Will they ever settle their differences long enough to fight their common enemy, or will their blind hatred for each other lead to their downfall?
As far as humanity coming together for the greater good... well let's just say the second season shows no signs of that happening. Whereas the first season merely presented the events that instigate a civil war, the second season finally begins to move those chess pieces around the board. Robb Stark is dubbed King of the North and begins to move his forces south, and he doesn't plan on stopping until he has the boy king's head on a pike. If the Starks aren't careful however, they may not have a home to come back to, as Theon returns to Winterfell, hoping to impress his father by trying his hand at tyrannical rule. Stannis, estranged brother of the late king Robert Baratheon, gathers his own command of loyalists to claim the throne, but promises to come with an element of surprise, as he's also enlisted the aid of a priestess who specializes in dark magic. He'll need all the help he can get, too, as the Starks are looking to combine forces with his little brother, Renly, who also has ambitions to rule on high. Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen hopes to acquire a small fleet of ships to sail back to Westeros and claim her place as the rightful queen... but her strategy is delayed when her three baby dragons go missing.
Although King's Landing is nearly impenetrable with the forces the Lannisters have at their disposal, things are quickly spiraling out of control from within. The boy king Joffrey, who was intended to lead under the advisement of his mother, loves the taste of fear and instead opts to rule with an iron fist. Knowing it can't be long before the city's inhabitants turn against them, Tyrion is made Hand for the sole purpose of performing damage control, but even his sharp intellect may prove to be too little, too late. Furthermore, what happens when each warring faction reaches the city? If they're dead-set on turning against one another after the Lannisters are 'removed' from power, the Seven Kingdoms are seemingly destined to crumble by means of nearsighted greed. As Jon Snow can attest from his time spent at The Wall and the snowy regions beyond, this will leave Westeros vulnerable to not one, but possibly two powerful armies looking to settle a score - A well-organized band of barbarians known as Wildings, not to mention the near-mythical White Walkers who haven't made a peep for nearly 8,000 years.
Keep in mind, this brief synopsis only reveals the broad strokes, and there are still plenty of other plot threads to take into consideration as well. Jaime Lannister is still a risky bargaining chip for the Starks. Robb is shaping up to be a fine leader, but is tempted to risk everything for the sake of love. The youngest Stark, Arya, is finally captured, but finds herself in a rare position to smuggle intel away from the enemy... and there's more, and more, and more.
Fans of the series shouldn't be afraid of the intimidating amount of substance, but they may find the pacing this time around to be wildly uneven. Certain events and character developments are fired off in rapid-fire succession, while others are drawn out over the season with a slow burn. I have no problem with either of these storytelling techniques, but they do cause a noticeable imbalance when they're mish-mashed together. Two of the most obvious examples this season come from a couple of fan favorite characters. The first season showed much promise for Daenerys' arc, but she spends most of this season trekking through a sandy wasteland. She's eventually given her time to shine, but getting there can be a bit of a chore. Jon Snow suffers from the same sort of thing. Although we learn some important things about him - mainly that he's bound to get himself killed if he doesn't start thinking with his head - we're more likely to remember him for trudging through the snow with a bound captive than anything else. As a result, other characters - especially considering there's so many new ones - feel as if they're glossed over from time to time.
That being said, I really can't fault the writers or directors for the lack of balance. Their goal first and foremost is to faithfully translate George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series (A Clash of Kings in this case), and they've done a fine job at doing just that. Some could argue that translating material from book to film requires substantial tweaks in order to keep things interesting, but I'm glad the creative staff decided against going down that slippery slope. Yes, certain things have been shuffled around or provided with a less subtle approach, but the series has yet to stray off the beaten path too much... and that's the way it should be. Once you start going bananas with creative liberties, more and more plot threads would need to be adjusted down the line in order to compensate. Considering the next installment - which will be translated over the next two seasons, hopefully resolving the pacing issue - features some of the most memorable moments in the series to date, I'm glad I won't have to worry about a rug being pulled out from under me.
Don't get me wrong though - I'm not saying this a bad season of Game of Thrones. When you get right down to it, this is still one of the best dramas that television has to offer - The acting is better than ever, and unsurprisingly, Peter Dinklage retains his reputation as a potential award winning powerhouse. The characters that needed to step up and show an evolution of strength in their characters have done so (with the exception of Jon Snow, who's learning he's not quite the heartless badass he thought he was), and those new to the cast are more than capable of holding their own against those already well-established.
My last bit of praise is in regards to the continuing tradition of high production values, because that was something I worried about before the season aired on television. HBO has had significant trouble with period pieces before, let alone something this elaborate, so I wasn't sure how 'safe' the second season would be in this regard. I mean, a certain standout network has recently become known for cutting costs while demanding more from their most successful properties (a concept which I'll never understand), but HBO has thankfully gone in the opposite direction. The 15% increase they granted for production shows, and allows the beginning of this war to kick off with a pretty substantial bang.
It's a little weaker than the first season, but make no mistake about it - It's only weak when standing shoulder to shoulder with the season that preceded it. This translation of A Clash of Kings is still television at its monumental finest, a feat made even more impressive considering it mainly acts as a bridge to George R.R Martin's A Storm of Swords. I'll stand by what I said at the end of my review for the first season - The series as a whole still has the potential to rival Lord of the Rings in terms of overall story and presentation. If you don't believe it, then you're just going to have to see it.
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 still 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 - So, we get to spend a lot of time in the snow, with Jon Snow? No problem. The snow looks to be realistically textured, as opposed to a lifeless 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 only look murky if the source made it so. 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 what's arguably their best series in recent memory. 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 was stunned, as noted in my review for the first season, when HBO saw fit to provide us with seven commentaries, but they've upped the ante for the second season, bringing us 12. There's plenty of participants, including George R.R. Martin himself, and nearly everyone is engaging and offers a plethora of information in regards to the show's production. It's fantastic to see such a cinematic show being treated... well, so cinematically on home video. The episodes and commentaries are:
-The Night Lands - Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) and Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy)
-What Is Dead May Never Die - Writer Bryan Cogman and Director Alik Akharov / Commentary 2 with Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), and Isaac Hampstead Wright (Braan Stark)
-Garden of Bones - Carice Van Houten (Melisandre) and Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth)
-The Ghost of Harrenhal - (None)
-The Old Gods and the New - Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), and Co-Executive Producer/Writer Vanessa Taylor
-A Man Without Honor - Executive Proudcers/Writers David Denioff and D.B. Weiss
-The Prince of Winterfell - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) and Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark)
-Blackwater - Co-Executive Producer/Author of Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin / Commentary 2 with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), and Director Neil Marshall
-Valar Morghulis - Rainer Gombos and Steve Kullback of the Visual Effects Team / Commentary 2 with Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Co-Executive Producer/Director Alan Taylor
-Character Profiles - I actually thought this might be a text based supplement at first, but it's actually 16 minutes worth of 7 character bios, pieced together via cast and crew interviews.
-Histories and Lore - Numerous short, animated pieces have been crafted to provide us with detailed information on each of the noble houses, 'the free folk (wildlings), The Night's Watch, and even some background regarding Dragonstone, Harrenhal, The Free Cities, Qarth, The Drowned God, The Alchemist Guild and The Warlocks.
-War of the Five Kings - This is your interactive tour and guide through everything regarding the separate factions vying for the throne. Make sure you have a bit of time set aside before tackling this one...
-Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bey - A pretty in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the battle the second season sets us up for.
-Game of Thrones Inner Circle - This acts as a roundtable discussion between Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as actors Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham, Emilia Clarke, and Michelle Fairley. There's actually plenty of new material discussed here that isn't mentioned throughout the exhaustive amount of commentaries, which makes this a must see.
-The Religions of Westeros - The Executive Producers explain one of the major motivations that drive a good number of characters in the series.
-Hidden Dragon Eggs - Easter eggs that you'll have to find... but more dragon-y.
Also included are DVD and digital copies, as well as a foldout pamphlet that details the major house members who are attempting to claim the throne, which doubles as an episode breakdown.
The second season of Game of Thrones isn't quite as strong as its predecessor, but it's still one of the best offerings from television in 2012. The performances are stellar, the production values are of cinematic caliber, and the story is consistently shocking and ruthless (in a good way). Whatever you do however, don't go into this season without seeing the events that precede it, as there's an intimidating amount of plot threads swirling about, and an even larger number of primary characters to pay attention to. As far as this Blu-ray set is concerned, HBO have gone all out in providing us not only with an immaculate A/V presentation, but an exhaustive amount of supplemental material that will suck you into Westeros like nothing before. DVDTalk Collector Series.