I can't even begin to count how many shows have started off strong, only to have their dignity collapse as they suffer a slow death with each passing year... but Game of Thrones isn't one of them. The second season may not have been as strong as its predecessor - you can read last year's review here for the details - but it still managed to dwarf the other offerings on TV in 2012. That said, The Complete Third Season had to face insurmountable odds. Since the series is often touted as the best on television, everyone anticipated this batch of episodes to be chiseled to perfection. Not only that, but as the fan base grew - and it has substantially - so did their expectations. So now Game of Thrones faces a problem most shows only wish they had - It's going to have to compete with itself year after year. That's no small feat, especially since this season was charged with (partially) adapting A Storm of Swords, the novel which Song of Ice and Fire fans widely consider the best in the series. As Cersei once said, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." Many undoubtedly felt this could have been the season in which the show fell on its sword, but in facing its own potential for a slow death, Game of Thrones lifts its chin, stands tall and says, "Not today."
So much is happening across the continent of Westeros and beyond, that discussing even the most minute details could spoil some of the surprises in store. This series has mastered the art of stunning its viewers with plenty of ‘holy crap, I can't believe that just happened' moments, so I'll keep my ramblings as spoiler free as possible, even if it means I have to remain uncomfortably vague. That said, beware of spoilers from seasons past (although I'll try to keep those at a minimum as well).
This actually works well for the purpose of my review, because the best parts of season three aren't so much the complicated details, but the fact we finally get to see the series founding ideologies put to the test. Just think of where all the major players came from - The Lannister's had a powerful reputation and the money to back it. The Stark children - even the bastard Jon Snow - were taught to value honor above all else. Stannis Baratheon puts a great deal of stock into honor as well, but there's one major difference between him and the Starks - he's a seasoned warrior. Theon Greyjoy was split between two houses, but because his blood relatives rule over the Iron Islands, he had a tendency to act entitled despite never having earned any respect. Daenerys Targaryen spent much of her life surrounded by those who ruled through fear and brute force. Samwell Tarly - Jon's friend in the Night's Watch - has a sharp mind but lacks any physical strength or endurance, and thus brands himself a coward.
Not that I'm trying to pigeonhole any given character, but they all have something in common - They fight for family, albeit in very different ways. Tywin Lannister, undoubtedly one of the coldest villains thus far (outside of the White Walkers, har har), has done whatever necessary to establish a dynasty. He's fighting for family alright, but only to ensure the longevity of his name and memory. Outside of this, he doesn't care two spits for his children. Starving for an ounce of affection from her father, Cersei hoped her plot to 'inherit' the crown from the Baratheon's would help earn a place in his heart, but failing to keep her insufferable son in check only served to add an additional layer of ice between them. Ironic, considering how much of an Ice-Queen she's been up until now.
And on the topic of villainy, Stannis has also proven to be a 'do whatever it takes no matter what' kind of guy. As younger brother of the late King Robert, the Iron Throne was his to claim by right. Of course, his little brother Renly knew how to schmooze the people and inevitably pegged himself as a better King. Stannis is a hardened warrior however, and he wasn't about to allow a betrayal of this magnitude to go unanswered. Stannis gathered his forces and enlisted the help of Melisandre - a priestess of dark magic - to help him reclaim the throne. With her help, Renly was slain and a seafront attack was made on King's Landing... and he was sent packing. Stannis' part in the third season begins after his retreat to Dragonstone. After sacrificing so much to gain so little, he spends a great deal of time contemplating the future. His choice isn't going to be easy - The priestess attempts to convince Stannis that his victory is inevitable, while an old friend risks death to tell him if he truly wanted to serve the realm, he would set his sights north...
Which of course brings us to Jon Snow, who had been charged by the Nights Watch to infiltrate the Wildlings and gather intelligence. Snow finds himself taken in by a hardened tribe - with a little convincing, of course - who live a life that's equal parts savage, yet oddly respectable. Unexpectedly, Snow's greatest adversary behind The Wall doesn't prove to be a brash warrior carrying sharpened steel, but his own troubled thoughts and desires. He begins to fall for Ygritte - the girl that he couldn't bring himself to kill in season two - and he's further enticed when she makes him realize he can forget his oath and live as a free man. Snow was looking at serving life as a servant to the wall, and a celibate life at that. To live a free man is tempting, but is this what he spent his life training for?
Unsurprisingly, one of the most fascinating threads this season belongs to none other than the Mother of Dragons herself - Daenerys Targaryen. Her dragons are still too small to do damage on a large enough scale, so she has to find herself an army. However, that's the easy part - Acquiring an army that could take Westeros is as easy as buying one, but are bodies on the battlefield enough to ensure victory? What happens the moment someone else offers them a bit more coin? Daenerys is no fool, and she's beginning to understand where her family went wrong (something Theon Greyjoy would have done well to learn himself) - Fear and power only get you so far. If you want respect and love from your people, you have to earn it. Being that she's across the sea from her homeland however, how can it be done?
There's plenty of other side plots I could discuss, but these are the most notable that can be revealed without giving too much away. If you're not much into the personal trials and tribulations the characters have to face on a personal level - and honestly, I'm not sure why you're watching if that's the case - don't worry. This season is loaded with the unapologetic shocks and twists we've come to expect from the series. As a matter of fact, you're probably going to need a shovel to scrape your jaw off the floor after all is said and done.
My only nitpick is that the pacing - although better than the previous season - still feels a bit 'bouncy'. There are so many characters in so many parts of the world, that the source material practically demands this method of storytelling, but those who fell in love with Game of Thrones for the organic flow of the first season may walk away disappointed... but only a little.
As far as everything else we've come to expect from the series, the production values are still remarkably cinematic, and the level of acting from everyone involved has only improved. HBO and the Game of Thrones show runners have not only managed to meet expectations with the third season, but actually accomplished the improbable by exceeding them. If you're a fan of Thrones, you owe it to yourself to see this season as soon as possible.
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, much like the second season, they've upped the ante here with 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:
-Episode Two - Commentary by Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon), Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell), Writer Vanessa Taylor and Director Daniel Minhan
-Episode Three - Commentary by Executive Producers/Writers/Directors David Benioff & D.B. Weiss / Commentary by Production Designer Gemma Jackson and Costume Designer Michele Clapton
-Episode Four - Commentary by Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Diana Rigg (Lady Olenna Tyrell) and Director Alex Graves
-Episode Five - Commentary by Nikolaj Costar Waldau (Jaime Lannister), Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) and Writer Bryan Cogman
-Episode Six - Commentary by Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Rose Leslie (Ygritte), and Director Alik Sakharov / Commentary by Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark)
-Episode Seven - Commentary by Co-Executive Producer/Author of A Game of Thrones George R.R. Martin and Director Michelle Maclaren
-Episode Eight - Commentary by John Bradley (Samwell Tarly), Hannah Murray (Gilly) and Director Michelle Maclaren
-Episode Nine - Commentary by Richard Madden (Robb Stark), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), and Director David Nutter / Commentary by Weapons Master Tommy Dunne, Stunt Coordinator Paul Herbert, Assistant Stunt Coordinator David Forman and Swordmaster C.C. Smiff
-Episode Ten - Commentary by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Iaian Glen (Jorah Mormont) and Iwan Rheon (Boy)
-In Episode Guide - What a fantastic supplement. While watching any of the episodes contained within, you can learn a great deal about the history of Westeros and the characters that reside within it. You'll have the option to see animations to educate, and there will also be pop-up facts that will pop-up from time to time. Consider this already engrossing series able to pull you in that much more!
-A Gathering Storm - 14 minutes in length, this supplement serves as your refresher course before digging into the madness that is season three.
-New Characters - As always, the ever expansive cast has been difficult to keep up with, but this 10 minute briefing should set you straight.
-The Rains of Castamere Unveiled - This is actually an expansive picture-in-picture features which goes into every tiny detail about crafting what's undoubtedly the most memorable, if not emotionally draining episode to date. There's plenty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to take in as the episode plays.
-Deleted and Extended Scenes - I tend to repeat myself over and over when it comes to supplements like these - They're boring and they wouldn't have served the final product well. These, however, are well worth watching. The runtime this season was bumped up from 52 minutes to about 56-57 minutes per episode, so time simply wouldn't allow for everything to fit. Fans should watch these shortly after finishing the season.
-Histories and Lore - Numerous short, animated pieces have been crafted to provide us with detailed information on each of the noble houses, the power of the Wargs, and various locations such as The Stormlands and The Red Keep.
- Roots of Westeros - Not only is it tough to keep track of all the characters, but the complicated relationships which pull and tear at them across the continent of Westeros. This guide will keep you up to speed in case you're feeling overwhelmed.
-Inside the Wildlings - This is the first season we've been given a good look at life beyond The Wall, so cast and crew are finally able to spill the beans and tell us a bit more about these hardened adversaries.
-The Politics of Marriage - When it comes to building power and creating dynasties, nothing does it quite like marriage does. This piece details how love and politics interweave throughout Westeros.
Game of Thrones - The Complete Third Season is the best yet. The performances are stellar, the production values of cinematic caliber, and the story is consistently ruthless and shocking (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's Series.