Summers span decades. Winters can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. It will stretch from the south, where heat breeds plots, lusts and intrigues; to the vast and savage eastern lands; and all the way to the frozen north, where an 800-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from the dark forces that lie beyond. Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords, and honest men...all will play the Game of Thrones.
When the initial trailers for HBO's 'Game of Thrones' first hit the airwaves, I must admit, I was fairly underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, given the cable network's prestigious track record, I fully expected the show to be good, but to me, the series looked like generic, dark fantasy material, with very little to distinguish it from other seemingly more original and successful efforts in the genre. As it turns out, however, I was wrong. I was very wrong. In fact, I could not have been more wrong. From the moment the first episode ended, I was hooked, fully and completely. I was immediately transported into another world with a past and history as storied and multifaceted as our own. I was totally sucked into an expansive, rich tapestry of feuding houses and exotic lands, of complex relationships and morally ambiguous motivations, of timeless themes, and yes, even tiny hints of magic. Episode after episode, the series simply takes hold, fully gripping its viewers as it gradually reveals an epic scope while maintaining an intimate core of character driven storytelling. Each new development, each new surprise adds to an increasingly intricate, deeply layered narrative, forged of blood and steel, of fire and ice. I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier.
Based on George R.R. Martin's novel of the same name (the first of an ongoing series of books, collectively known as "A Song of Ice and Fire"), the show focuses on the fictional, medieval land of Westeros, and the various noblemen and warriors who vie for its control. After the King's advisor dies under mysterious circumstances, the despot calls upon his old friend, the honorable Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) to serve as his new "Hand." Though reluctant to leave his family, Eddard, or Ned, as his friends call him, eventually relents, fueled by grave suspicions that the King may be in danger. As Ned embraces his newfound duties, he gradually uncovers a complicated conspiracy that could send shockwaves across the Seven Kingdoms and incite an all-out war. With various houses, families, and foreign invaders all plotting for control of the Iron Throne, Ned attempts to keep the peace while the very safety of the realm hangs in the balance.
The plot is endlessly complex, with layers upon layers of scheming and intrigue, and the mythology of Westeros itself is rife with intricate back-stories and fully developed histories. Those who have read the books will surely be at home with the material, but those new to the Seven Kingdoms (like me) might be a little overwhelmed at first. Thankfully, the writers do a magnificent job of gradually introducing the show's sprawling cast of characters while revealing tiny morsels of lore throughout the season. Yes, the plot can be a little confusing and daunting at times for the uninitiated, but given the grand scope of Martin's tale, the level of cohesion and accessibility is really remarkable. Before long, it will all make sense and you'll be on the edge of your seat, fully immersed in the series' dense conflicts, patiently waiting for each new twist and turn to play out to their invariably bloody conclusions.
Beyond its epic, winding narrative of politics, betrayal, and loyalty, what really makes 'Game of Thrones' so special, is its multifaceted web of characters and the emotional relationships that develop between them. Every role, from major player to seemingly inconsequential extra, is brought to life with nuance and believability through expert writing and impeccable casting. All of the actors perfectly inhabit their characters, making it nearly impossible to imagine any other individual in their shoes. Sean Bean is inspiring as Eddard Stark, a lone, truly honorable man thrust into a sea of sharks. He is everything all heroes aspire to be, but that doesn't make him perfect, and it's his human flaws that end up fueling his greatest strengths and weaknesses. His journey and battle against corruption is the heart of the first season and Bean carries Ned's arc to an emotionally stirring conclusion that will leave viewers breathless.
As Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled, "rightful" heir to the Iron Throne, Emilia Clarke is spectacular. Her character starts out as nothing more than a submissive victim, but throughout the course of the season she slowly finds inner strength, and the actress does an amazing job of imbuing her transformation with equal parts grace and power. Emmy winner, Peter Dinklage, is also a scene stealer as the Queen's dwarf brother, Tyrion Lannister. Despite his family's despicable actions, his character always remains likeable, and Dinklage plays the role with wit, charm and insightful wisdom. The show is also home to an exceptional troupe of child actors, with Maisie Williams serving as a real standout. The young actress plays fan favorite, Arya Stark, Ned's youngest daughter, and her tomboy character is among the show's most entertaining and fun to watch. Honestly, I could go on and on extolling the great merits of every single cast member, which is a true testament to the level of skill on display here. There really is no weak link in the entire bunch.
Of course, given the story's vast scope and extensive cast, some characters are marginalized from time to time (I actually forgot the youngest Stark child even existed until he showed up again in the last few episodes) but to the writers' credit, almost everyone gets their moment to shine. Dialogue is poetic and lyrical while still remaining believable (and wonderfully crass when it wants to be). While the show is full of grand, dramatic beats, the series' quieter moments are equally memorable. Simple exchanges, like a heart to heart between the King and Queen, or a drinking game with Tyrion and his companions, prove to be just as revealing and emotionally resonant as any of the show's louder scenes. Then of course, there is the end of episode nine, "Baelor." I dare not spoil the scene for any who might be unaware of its content, but suffice to say, it ranks among the most artfully staged, beautifully realized, emotionally devastating sequences in any show, period. The writers and performers take classic archetypes and breathe new life into them, allowing the characters to become so much more than mere "Imps" or "Bastards." While many fantasy stories rely heavily on the concept of good versus evil, in Westeros there are no true heroes or villains, keeping the various conflicts cast in a morally ambiguous cloud of grey.
Like many HBO series, 'Game of Thrones' is home to lots of sex and violence. Action is wonderfully choreographed, exciting, and absolutely brutal, with a few really great (though mostly brief) sword fights peppered throughout. Despite the show's awe-inspiring production design and sets, there are a few instances where the simple budgetary realities of TV do come into play, minimizing the range of some of the later episodes' action oriented events. Still, this is easily forgivable, and while a pretty major battle is forced off-screen, fans of medieval combat should be quite pleased with what the series has to offer. On a similar note, fans of sex and nudity should also rejoice, as the show offers plenty of skin. The world of internet bloggers has even come up with a new word to describe the series' trademark blend of exposition and sexual content, dubbing these instances "sexposition" scenes. Some have criticized the show for these sequences, but I never found the racy content to be gratuitous. Hell, mixing the sex scenes with important information actually makes them less superfluous than on most shows where sex is purely meant to titillate. In 'Game of Thrones' when women start taking of their clothes you might actually learn something in the process. That's a win-win situation as far as I'm concerned.
Though technically a fantasy series, supernatural elements take a backseat to political maneuvering and character development. While I expect future seasons will feature more fantastical aspects, in this batch of episodes instances of magic are few and far between. Dragons are mentioned as having existed in the realm, but are now extinct, and while a potentially otherworldly threat is introduced in the show's very first scene, this subplot is mostly sidelined for the remainder of the season. This all lends the series a stark sense of realism while still keeping the door open for later mystical content. With that said, the season's closing moments are sure to please genre fans, as its final image is the stuff fantasy geeks' dreams are made of.
Before watching 'Game of Thrones' I couldn't tell a Stark from a Targaryen, a Lannister from a Baratheon, but now I could probably recite a pretty decent version of the "Mad King's" fall during the "Sack of King's Landing." This is the type of deep storytelling that incites rabid followings and diehard fans. This is TV at its best. Beneath all of the violence, sex, politics, scheming, and tiny bursts of magic, rests a character driven story about love and honor. Head writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff take George R.R. Martin's novel and turn it into a masterful piece of serialized television, weaving an epic tale full of excitement, brutality, humor, gravitas, wonder, and poignant insights into the human condition. The show is so strong it almost makes me forgive Benioff for his part in writing 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine.' Almost. The series now joins the likes of 'Breaking Bad,' 'Treme,' and 'Mad Men' as one of the best shows on TV. Season two is just around the corner, so those new to the series should not hesitate to pick this up. Everyone else better grab a coat and prepare to get nice and cozy by their television sets, because on April 1st "winter is coming" yet again. I don't think I need to tell you I'll be watching.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season' in a new limited edition Steelbook package. Five BD-50 discs are stacked together (three on the left side, two on the right side) in a sturdy Steelbook case that comes housed inside a plastic shell. A plastic tray is also included that features a magnet of the Stark direwolf sigil. For a closer look at the collectible packaging, check out Josh Zyber's detailed writeup on the Bonus View. Instructions for an UltraViolet/iTunes digital copy are included as well. After some warnings, logos and skippable trailers, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates the release is region A compatible.
For all intents and purposes, this appears to be the exact same video presentation as the previous release. Here's what I had to say about the video in my original review:
The show is provided with a series of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. In a word, these discs look stunning, gorgeous, breathtaking -- wait, that's three words. Oh well, I guess one word just isn’t enough, because this video presentation is spectacular, incredible, amazing... I think you get the point.
The show is shot digitally in high definition (with the exception of a few 35mm scenes in the pilot) and the source is clean and pristine throughout. Clarity is exquisite, revealing every tiny inch of the show's painstaking production design, creating a totally believable, living, breathing medieval fantasy world. Fine textures are wonderful, especially in close-ups. From the elaborate costumes and weapons, to Sean Bean's world-weary, bearded face, or Emilia Clarke's mesmerizing eyes, every facet of the image pops and dazzles. Each location throughout the fictional land of Westeros has a distinct visual palette, giving every individual setting a unique on screen look. Whether we're in the grey/blue halls of Winterfell, or the red/orange courts of King's Landing, or the golden deserts across the Narrow Sea, each land features rich colors or appropriately subdued hues that enhance the mood and atmosphere. Contrast is high without overpowering the picture, and black levels remain deep and inky. The sharp detail, bold colors, and intense contrast all lead to a remarkable sense of depth and dimension. The only small flaws I noticed were a fleeting instance of banding during a fade in transition, and some extremely negligible noise, but these miniscule, virtually nonexistent blemishes are not enough to chink the transfer's otherwise immaculate armor. This is a five star video presentation, through and through.
When the series first aired on HBOHD I remember being very impressed, as it was easily one of the best looking shows on TV. This Blu-ray release takes the video one step further, improving upon its compressed broadcast quality in every conceivable way. Simply put, 'Game of Thrones' absolutely sparkles in a reference quality, jaw dropping transfer.
OK, so here's where things get exciting! Outside of the Steelbook packaging, the real draw here is of course the brand new Dolby Atmos audio presentation... and in short, it doesn't disappoint. Though I don't currently own an Atmos setup of my own, Dolby was kind enough to let me screen a few episodes in their New York demo room (I'd move in if I could). The setup uses a 7.1.4 configuration with up-firing Triad speakers and an Onkyo TX-NR3030 A/V receiver. In a general sense, all of my previous comments about the audio from my original review still stand, so I'll use this space to give my impressions of the Atmos specific benefits.
'Game of Thrones' features one of the most detailed and layered audio tracks that I've come across for a television show (or even for a major film), and this level of aural texture benefits nicely from the added immersion of Dolby Atmos. Thanks to the object-based mixing and up-firing speakers, the track now gains an extra plane of sound, naturally expanding music and effects to areas above the listener when appropriate. In practice, this leads to a notable upgrade in general ambiance and an overall extension of the audio's scope. Take the opening sequence of the first season, for instance. Set in the frozen lands beyond the wall, the sound design features an eerie flow of gentle wind and falling snow dispersed around the room -- and now, thanks to Atmos, also from above, adding a more realistic and encompassing sense of space. More deliberately placed effects, like chirping birds, hooting owls, ringing bells, crackling fire, and water dripping down from the ceiling of the Stark family crypt also make their way to the heights, creating a dome of seamlessly blending sounds. To be clear, users won't be able to pinpoint specific noises from above in every scene of every episode, and the up-firing speakers offer a comparatively disperse sense of taller sound (rather than always directly overhead), but the height modules remain quite active throughout the series, subtly and sometimes aggressively spreading atmospherics and key effects. (Being the OCD viewer that I am, I even walked around to the up-firing modules from time to time so that I could hear just how active they were.) The infamous ending of episode 9 also offers some delicately impressive design work, spreading the angry crowd's boos and cries horizontally and vertically around the soundstage. Likewise, the birds' fluttering wings in the final shot smoothly transition upward from the right to the left before fading off into the distance above the listener. It's not always a night and day difference, but the Atmos mixing manages to add an extra layer to an already demo worthy audio presentation.
Of course, whether or not that extra layer is worth double dipping for will depend on just how much of an audiophile you consider yourself. While I have heard Atmos tracks that feature height cues that feel a bit more direct (though this might have more to do with the use of actual overhead speakers rather than up-firing), when it comes to an overall level of atmospheric immersion, this is among the most impressive mixes I've heard so far. Likewise, it should also be noted that the Atmos tracks will play as Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for users who don't have Atmos systems. This means that 7.1 users will still get an upgrade over the 5.1 tracks found on the previous release, even if they don't have Atmos yet. And one last note, the discs appear to default to standard Dolby Digital 5.1, so make sure to switch to Atmos in the menu.
HBO has included all of the same great supplements from the last release. All of the extras are presented in 1080i with DTS 2.0 sound and the same subtitle options as the show, unless noted otherwise.
'Game of Thrones' is storytelling at its best. The characters are multifaceted, the world is full of rich, endless mythology, and the themes are timeless and universal. You don't have to be a fan of the books, or the fantasy genre at all, to easily fall in love with this addictive series. The show is a shining testament to what the medium of television has to offer, proving that the so called "small screen" can not only equal, but in some cases, even surpass the efforts of its big screen brother. This new Steelbook package offers the same great video and supplements from the last release, and adds a great new Dolby Atmos audio presentation -- improving upon an already exceptional mix. With that said, since there really isn't any new content here, it makes the bottom line recommendation a little tricky. For Atmos users (or those who plan to upgrade) who don't already have the show, this is an absolute must own set. Likewise, depending on how big of an audiophile you fancy yourself, even Atmos users who already own the previous Blu-ray might want to consider upgrading to this release. If, however, you already own the show and don't have (or plan to ever have) Atmos, then this set will really only appeal to diehard Steelbook collectors. But any way you look at it, this is now the best Blu-ray version of one of the best shows on TV.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.