Based on George R. R. Martin's wildly popular fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, HBO's Game of Thrones has duplicated the book's success by refusing to cut corners. With production, costume, and sound design on par with most Hollywood blockbusters---and, of course, a layered mythology mostly adapted from the source material---it offers more proof that the small screen is where it's at, running circles around Peter Jackson's exhausting The Hobbit trilogy with energy to spare. Not that there needs to be a Thrones vs. Rings rivalry akin to Wars vs. Trek (after all, it's easy to love both), but HBO's small-screen wonder shows no sign of slowing down: the recently-ended fifth season enjoyed the series' strongest ratings to date, which obviously means that a sixth is right around the corner.
Not surprisingly, this sophomore season picks up shortly after the first one burned out: House Stark has crumbled since patriarch Ned was Sean Bean'd out of existence, the throne of equally deceased King Baratheon was given to his teenage "son" Joffrey, young Arya Stark went full Mulan, Jon Snow considered abandoning his post in the Night's Watch, Daenerys Targaryen became a widow and proud mother of three dragons, and about a million other dramatic points of interest from one of television's most complicated shows. The plot thickens further during these next ten episodes: "The Red Woman" Melisandre (Carice van Houten) emerges as an adviser to rightful Iron Throne candidate Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane); both debut in season opener "The North Remembers". Jon Snow (Kit Harington) discovers that the incestuous Craster (Robert Pugh) has been sacrificing his sons, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) convinces pirate Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati) to join his war, and Baron Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) has the most awkward family reunion of all time with sister Yara (Gemma Whelan).
But enough about a few bits and pieces of the first three episodes: Game of Thrones' second season is all about world expansion, and this larger scope seems to suit it just fine. If there's one fault with the show's formula at this point, it occasionally suffers from the absolute opposite issue that plagued Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit: there's so much density crammed into each of these 50-odd minute episodes that this second season could've breathed better with a few more hours of total running time. This might also explain why my brain occasionally dreads Game of Thrones even while my eyes and ears rejoice: it's so dense that it almost requires judicious note-taking to keep track of all the characters, relationships, and locales. And I hate judicious note-taking even more than I hate Joffrey.
Even so, there's so much to like here that it's almost pointless to whine about a few pacing issues. The series' stunning production and sound design are once again the stars of the show...and even more so this season, as a handful of new locations break up some of the familiar first-season patterns. Whereas the first season was shot in around around Malta (and has not been revisited), these episodes were largely shot on location in Croatia and Iceland...and, in the case of the latter, at national park glaciers during a handful of Night's Watch expeditions. This gives Game of Thrones a slightly larger sense of depth beyond its formidable cast of characters: the backgrounds are just as essential to the show's illusion, and the international shooting locations would evolve in later seasons as well. For now, it's easy enough to just soak in the show's tremendous atmosphere and sort out some of the subplots in later viewings.
HBO's re-release line of Game of Thrones Steelbooks obviously targets die-hard collectors over new fans; more than likely you can find the original sets for much less money. But, minor packaging quibbles aside, these new editions have an edge with exclusive Dolby Atmos mixes for each episode (the first of their kind for a TV release), and those looking to save shelf space might find them more attractive as well. Either way, the content's the real selling point and Game of Thrones continues to offer more than enough action, drama, and intrigue to justify the price of admission.
Video & Audio Quality
This re-release is identical to HBO's 2013 Blu-ray set, but that's definitely not a complaint. Game of Thrones again looks spectacular in high definition on these crisp 1.78:1, 1080p transfers, featuring a high level of detail, strong textures, and carefully graded colors that highlight the show's terrific production design. There's a lot of depth to the image, too: shot on Arri Alexa digital cameras, this is leaps and bounds ahead of non-film productions from years past, and only those with trained eyes will be able to tell that Game of Thrones wasn't shot on the same format as a big-budget epic in the era of celluloid. Not surprisingly, the digital source translates perfectly to Blu-ray, thanks to careful encoding that shows no conceivable defects (aside from mild banding on a few occasions). Overall, these episodes look and sound like a million bucks...and if you haven't seen the series on Blu-ray before, prepare to be amazed.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills featured in this review do not represent the Blu-ray's 1080p source image.
Honestly, though...as good as Game of Thrones looks, the visual presentation has nothing on this new Dolby Atmos remix, which is the first of its kind for a television series. As always, the mix defaults to a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation for those with *ahem* more modest setups, but this is still a room-shaking experience either way. Featuring a strong amount of channel separation, thundering doses of LFE, crisp dialogue, well-balanced music cues, and just about every other positive that you can think of, Game of Thrones is easily the best-sounding TV production ever released on home video and obviously rivals its fair share of feature-length epics as well. Optional dubs are included in Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0), French (Dolby 5.1), German (Dolby 5.1), and Italian (Dolby 5.1). Subtitle options include English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
All five discs, aside from including new Atmos audio mixes for each episode, look to be the same as before with easy content navigation. The other
difference here, of course, is the packaging: it's a standard-width Steelbook case with attractive artwork and even a functional magnet stuck on the front cover. How does one fit five discs in such a case, you ask? Well, that's my only gripe: the discs are stacked on two hubs, which probably won't damage the plastic in any conceivable manner thanks to Blu-ray's durable coating. It does
however, make for rather unwieldy fumbling when it comes time to switch discs....but that's the price you'll have to pay for saving shelf space.
Everything from the 2013 Blu-ray set
, so no complaints here. These recycled extras include twelve Audio Commentaries
during select episodes, Previews
and pop-up In-Episode Guides
, a Season 1 Recap
, a group interview with key cast and crew members entitled "Game of Thrones Inner Circle"
, seven detailed Character Profiles
, an Interactive Guide
entitled "War of the Five Kings", a handful of behind-the-scenes Featurettes
(including "Making Histories and Lore
", "The Religions of Westeros", and "Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay"), and even a few Easter Eggs
. Overall, this is another fantastic group of supplements...and while nothing's actually new
to the collection, at least those who will be buying Game of Thrones
on Blu-ray for the first time (or even "trading up") won't be missing anything.
Game of Thrones avoided the sophomore slump with another terrific ten-episode run; though it occasionally has trouble keeping every ball in the air, this is a respectable translation of difficult source material and easy to get lost in. The creative team's commitment to strong production values and big-screen theatrics is evident from start to finish, resulting in one satisfying little mini-movie after another. HBO's Blu-ray treatment continues to bolster Game of Thrones' obvious strengths: none are more evident than its jaw-dropping sound design, again upgraded to a full-fledged Dolby Atmos mix for these (hopefully) continuing Steelbook releases. Still, aside from slimmed-down packaging, this is exactly the same as the 2013 Blu-ray set...so if you're happy with that release, don't bother. New fans and die-hard collectors, on the other hand, may want to snap this up while it's still easily available. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night (and day, if he's bored enough). He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.