Game of Thrones, HBO's juggernaut adaptation of George R.R. Martin's work-in-progress literary series "A Song of Ice and Fire", has developed an unavoidable reputation for its ability to rile up the audience, unleashing death and destruction and disappointment upon those who haven't read the novels. Previously, this shock value came as a double-edge sword, no matter how sharp, where the fates of Westeros' fallen and tortured characters either carried either enough dramatic weight or calculated purpose in the political climate to justify some rather painful developments. The show also had that support of Martin's books -- and the fans who've read them -- to prop up some of the grim material found in the show, tempering bombshells with the knowledge that it's part of the author's grand design. In the fifth season, however, Game of Thrones ventures into uncharted territory, incorporating bold major developments that even book readers haven't experienced yet since, well, Martin's writing hasn't arrived there. This is also the season where, despite its consistently bravura craftsmanship, the shock value moves further away from the "value" aspect and closer to out-and-out shock.
To say that Westeros has reached a state of upheaval might not mean very much to those with knowledge of Game of Thrones, given that things have been in some version of that state since the show began, but certain developments leading up to the end of the fourth season (which should be viewed before continuing this review) have really thrown off the balance in the Seven Kingdoms. King's Landing clambers to maintain control over itself following the deaths -- murders -- of both King Joffrey and his puppet-master of a grandfather, Tywin Lannister, leaving once-queen Cersei Lannister to transition the rule over to her son, Tomin (Dean-Charles Chapman), and orchestrate his marriage to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer): the ex-betrothed of Joffrey. The "imp", Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the murderer of his father Tywin, has fled the country and hit the open seas with information broker Varys (Conleth Hill), with their political ambitions in flux. And Winterfell, the kingdom of the North, remains in the hands of the Boltons, those responsible for the murder of noble members of the Stark clan.
Throughout the fourth season of Game of Thrones, there had been changes in perception regarding who might be best suited to occupy the Iron Throne, leading one to reconsider the willpower, dominance, and leadership of the remaining "candidates" ... and whether they're right for that control. With the death of so many noble potential rulers, this has transformed into a pragmatic conversation that's less about who folks want to be the king (or queen) of Westeros and more about who needs to be in that position of authority. Across this fifth season, this conversation changes once again, shifting toward who deserves to deal with the chaos of the country and, in a way, who deserves to be put in the line of fire for this dangerous and demanding position. A thought slowly creeps into one's head across this season: that Westeros might be beyond salvaging in its current state, and it's unclear whether any of the surviving would-be rulers might be able to replace it with something that works, a shift in thought that makes the constant win-or-die struggle for the kingship more emotionally detached than before. The options are growing thin.
As can be expected, the devastation that led to this point in Game of Thrones has left a lasting impact on the characters, many of whom are now far-removed from who they once were. The manipulative nature of Cersei Lannister -- played with sharpness and smirk by Lena Headey -- has turned more despondent amid all the death and deception surrounding her family, and her dire circumstances force her into compromised situations throughout this season, hinged on a zealous religious group, the Sparrows, who are dedicated to eradicating the city of its malignancies. The politics of King's Landing, which are mostly in shambles, step out of the way to make room for this persecution of sinners and how that impacts King Tomin's (re)arranged marriage to Margaery Tyrell. While the events there tap into some commentary on religious condemnation, the narrative about the Sparrows doesn't generate the same kind of intrigue as the machinations of Hands of the King or tyrannical brats occupying the throne.
The absence of Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion Lannister from the affairs of King's Landing naturally plays a role in this, let alone that they've once emore embarked on journeys far, far away from any members of their bloodline. The downcast potency of Peter Dinklage's performance from last season carries over to this one: the hopelessness of Tyrion's death sentence for the murder of Joffrey becomes more amplified as he struggles with now being responsible for patricide, seen in his booze-fueled, distraught gazes and weatherworn body language authentically represented by Dinklage. He's not a cornerstone of this season's intentions, though, really, where his presence across the sea -- into the land of the Queen of Dragons -- is hallmarked by his quick, scrappy thinking in dangerous situations and how, despite his reluctant attitude, he worms into a role where his political advice is once again valued. Jamie's excursion to the land of Dorne, into the pit of the lethal and seductive Sand Snakes, comes across as little more than a contrived diversion to keep him from interfering with the affairs of King's Landing, as well as an excuse for the show to sneak in more bare skin.
Reluctance and spite -- far more so than ambition -- play a heavy part in many of the characters' stories throughout this season, whether it's out of duty, out of dependence on others, or out of sheer desperation. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), at the behest of her new caretaker, Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), travels to another chilly and austere location to avoid those who pursue her, inching her closer to yet another abusive arranged marriage. With few places to turn and a thirst for vengeance, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) sails east across the Narrow Sea to refine her lethal capabilities, cashing in on her mystical coin to learn from Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). Following his time and bloody battle with the Wildlings, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) struggles with the new leadership standing that he's earned, caught between those who view him as an enemy sympathizer and the persuasive offers of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his Red Woman, Melisandra (Carice van Houten), to bolster the movement against the impending Winter. And Stannis himself is forced to choose how far he's willing to go, what he's willing to sacrifice, to harness the power of the Lord of Light in his pursuits. They're all challenged, and none of 'em come out unscathed.
Game of Thrones has become well-known for its bleakness of tone, but the general hopelessness that carries across this fifth season can really be felt, and not in the same worthwhile and organic manner as the previous runs. The writing, which both deviates from and fills gaps unaddressed thus far in George R. R. Martin's books (with his consultation), resorts to some unreasonable developments for the sake of provoking the audience, from covert attacks on encampments to ritualistic sacrifices, executions, and sequences of rape. Some tread rather close to undermining the integrity of the characters and their decisions; others are perfectly aligned with their mannerisms, yet carry little purpose beyond seeing how far the show can get away with pushing the envelope. Granted, Game of Thrones has a reputation to live up to following situations like the Red Wedding and the battle between The Viper and the Mountain, yet the manner it goes about doing so directly focuses on one-upping its previous seasons without consideration of the story's integrity or any kind of tonal equilibrium. Shirtless Ramsay, in particular, strikes again and again.
Perhaps the most thematically compelling element of this season comes in the continuation of Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) pursuit to free all slaves in Slaver's Bay, hallmarked by how the Mother of Dragons tries to sustain control of the city of Mereen and unearth the roots of its own zealous resistance group, the Sons of the Harpy. Her rule positions her in a constant state of conflict over maintaining the archaic traditions of the city's slave trade and moving them into a new era of freedom, which creates several situations where she must make choices about the value of individual lives -- both for punishment and for recreation -- in response to maintaining the peace. This also draws out even more of Daenerys' fiery side, the byproduct of her bloodline, capably navigated by Emilia Clarke's hard gazes and stern voice amid her soft features. The dangers surrounding her reign, of her usage of the Unsullied and the pressure from slavers to preserve some of their past, reach a magnificent crescendo that asserts the growth of the Khaleesi's potentially dangerous power.
Interestingly, this season doesn't have one dedicated, blow-out episode of action bombast like previous seasons, instead spreading its resources out to different set pieces and broad developments across many of the later episodes, once again boasting Game of Thrones' exceptional practical and digital production design. This sensible usage of the budget couldn't have come at a more crucial juncture in the series, either, as this season relishes its first big tastes of mythical creatures engaged in warfare with humans, from dragons to the dangers that lie beyond The Wall. As expected, these battles are rather spectacular, tightly-edited and well-choreographed to accentuate the intensity of what's going on, whether it's in the sun-soaked desert or the biting frost of the north. Spectacle can only go so far, though, as the events that make some of these grand battles happen can leave one scratching their heads over foolhardy military strategy and protective measures, detracting from the bountiful bloodshed.
That emphasis on shock over substance persists all the way throughout the final two episodes, where writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss mirror the initial exposition that occurred in the premiere, showcasing how they cleverly foreshadowed where each of the characters' arcs might arrive by the end. Unlike last season, which maintained some semblance of crowd-pleasing optimism in the annihilation of longstanding evildoers, very little of that can be felt in these twists, deaths, and mounting ominous tones ... and, unlike the dark period after the Red Wedding where viewers began to swear off the show, book readers really can't alleviate any negative sensations with promises of better times ahead. By and large, they're just as blind to what's to come in Westeros as everyone else, and since the final impressions this time around revolve around despair and curiosity over seeing just how bad things might get with the Seven Kingdoms and its citizens, it leads one to consider whether all the unrelenting emotional stabs in the gut really do exist simply to rile folks up.
Season One | Season Two | Season Three | Season Four
Game of Thrones: The Complete Fifth Season descends onto Blu-ray in a classy, sturdy package that largely mirrors last year's home-video presentation, with a few alterations. Similarly to the third season Blu-ray set, the thick cardboard box comes with plastic slipcase on the outside, adorned with the show's title and a textured archway graphical element. The actual box has an earthy texture and a sophistical golden sheen, while the inner foldout set again sports close-up promo photos of the cast members, including a stable Episode and Special Features Guide tucked into the inner flap alongside the Digital Copy Slip. Again, WB/HBO have opted against DVD copies for this season, condensing the overall size of the package, and they've made the spine a darkened shade again to better line up with the rest of the seasons' non-exclusive packages.
Video and Audio:
Last season, the inclusion of 6k RED digital cameras took the already impressive visual tempo of Game of Thrones up a few notches, carrying over into a flawless and stunning Blu-ray capturing of the weathered European landscape and lavish royal interiors. Interestingly enough, more of this fifth season takes place in warmer, brighter climates, which more evenly balances out the lighting temperature between the icy blues, grays, and muted browns of Winterfell and The Wall with the golden tans, foliage shades, and general vibrancy of Dorne, Braavos, and Slaver's Bay. This description merely serves as an indicator of the beauty that's to come about in yet another phenomenal arrangement of high-definition episodes from HBO and Warner Bros., appropriately framed and 1.78:1. Skin shades are warm sepia-toned or a chilly pink depending on the location, both of which effortlessly work with the lighting demands. Fine detail in the garment and masks, the grit of the Northern landscape, the sharp lines of architecture and the ornate details of digital effects are razor-sharp. Contrast preserves the image's depth to impeccable levels, rendering rich but even-handed black levels. Stunning all-around.
Equipped with Dolby Atmos presentations for all episodes, Game of Thrones: The Complete Fifth Season defaults to a slate of 7.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks for those who haven't yet upgraded their receivers. The downscaling doesn't suffer in the quality department whatsoever, though, boasting a fully immersive surround stage that amply engages all the surround channels, ranging from vicious chatter and uproar of city populations to the frosty and desolate wisps of the northern regions. Battles are vigorous and intense, and they're elevated by the searing clarity and deep impact of clanking blades, zipping arrows and spears, and roaring fire. The thump of attacked bodies and weapons tap into robust mid-level and lower-level impact, kicking further into gear with even larger effects like the toppling of statue, displaying aggressive yet tightly-delivered bass. Oddly enough, the most impressive aspect of the track arrives in the clarity of the dialogue, which impeccably preserves the mid-range response amid both higher-pitched and lower-rumbled vocal deliveries. The object-based Atmos dimensionality makes for a brilliant TrueHD presentation here. Standard Dolby Digital Audio is ready to go in English and several different languages, while English SDH and 13 other subtitle options are available as well.
Along with In-Episode Guides, Recaps, and Previews, the fifth season of Game of Thrones lines up with what's expected of their home-video presentations with a smattering of Audio Commentaries: twelve (12) this time, with participants spread all across the cast and crew. And once again, nearly every episode arrives with its own discussion track, the only exception being Episode 7, "The Gift". It's not too surprising that incredibly active Episode 9, "The Dance of Dragons", would receive more than one discussion track, one featuring director David Nutter and cast members Peter Dinklage and Iain Glen and the other focused on production and photography. However, it is surprising to see Episode 8, "Hardhome", arrive with three (!) separate tracks: one featuring the director Miguel Sapochnik, his actors and stunt coordinator; one focused on the visual effects; and another centered on the photography and camera operation. No playback issues were experienced while selecting to play the commentaries from the home-menu or during different episodes.
Unlike last year's set, this fifth season doesn't arrive with the customary half-hour recap; in fact, none of the produced extras appear anywhere else other than Disc Four. This doesn't detract from the density of the quality, however, starting off with A Day in the Life (26:01, 16x9 HD) of the series, which hops around to three different shooing locations -- Croatia, Northern Ireland, and Spain -- and covers the events that happen over a twenty-four hour period. Accompanied by attractive photography of the individual locations, producers discuss logistical complications, from relocating equipment to preserving continuity between shooting areas, paired with glimpses at the actors on-set at each location. The piece is as unpretentious as they come, simply offering a glimpse at the interworking parts of the sets and the people behind-the-scenes who scramble to make each shoot as seamless as possible, including some cool shots of set miniatures and concepts. New Characters, New Locations (7:41, 16x9 HD) offers a concise primer into this season's fresh introductions, mostly about Dorne and its citizens but also about the Sparrows in King's Landing and the House of Black and White in Braavos.
Anatomy of a Scene: Mother's Mercy (29:33, 16x9 HD) delves into the high drama and depressiveness of the finale, where the creators and actors offer their insights through interviews. Their spoken material mostly just describes the events and mild thematic intentions of the finale, but they're accompanied by nifty behind-the-scenes footage and green-screen / digital composites to show the progression of the scenes' creation. A two-part feature on The Real History Behind Game of Thrones (18:13, 22; 16x9 HD) plops George R. R. Martin and collective of historians in the discussion chair as they elaborate on the historical influences impacting the breadth of the series, notably about the War of the Roses and its sprawling English/European essence of it all. The content hits a nice middle-ground between accessible conversation and deeper insight into the historical foundation, populated with early clips from the series and a few reference photos of the historical figures being discussed, with Martin backing up the historians with his own confirmation of the influence.
Once again, HBO have included a series of fourteen Histories and Lore micro-features, featuring graphical animations with narration from an in-character cast describing the insights. In the same vein, they've also included A Dance of Dragons (20:27, 16x9) that covers the Targaryen civil war between the Greens and the Blacks, also accompanied with graphic-novelesque animation and cool shots of illustrations from a historical tome. Rounding things out is a small batch of Deleted Scenes (7:59, 16x9 HD).
The fifth season of Game of Thrones equips itself with a feature that cannot be found in the previous seasons: an element of complete surprise, unavoidable even by folks who have read the books. While some of this season's crazy events still pull from several of George R. R. Martin's novels, others are complete blindsides that should shock those who have been watching and/or reading since the beginning. The reason for this shock is two-fold, though: HBO's splendidly high-caliber craftsmanship remains intact throughout this season, potently performed and meticulously built, but some of these new developments stretch the limits of credibility and character integrity. Even lackluster Game of Thrones is still pretty darn good, and this season's collection of episodes certainly doesn't lack for bleak, thrilling entertainment. WB and HBO's Blu-ray continues the legacy of quality for the series on Blu-ray, commanding superb audiovisual presentations and a dense array of extras, including commentaries, an exploration of its historical influences, and lengthy looks at what it's really like to assemble such a versatile collection of locations and actors. The season receives a moderate recommendation, but the whole shebang comes Highly Recommended.