While I've kept plot details for the second season to a minimum, please be aware that there are some major spoilers for the show's first season.
I'm a big fan of TV. A very big fan. In fact, my television watching schedule is absolutely packed with a strong array of fantastic programming. From 'Breaking Bad,' 'Mad Men,' and 'Justified,' to 'Homeland,' 'The Walking Dead,' and 'Boardwalk Empire,' there really is no shortage of high quality storytelling to invest in. While I'm quite taken with all those amazing series, there's one show that currently rises above them all to earn a particularly special place in my geek heart. To put it simply, HBO's 'Game of Thrones' has "bewitched me, body and soul." Not since 'Lost' came to its flawed but emotionally stirring conclusion, have I looked forward to new episodes of a show so fervently. Everything about the production has completely captured my imagination, and episode after episode the show's creative team manages to maintain an almost unprecedented level of quality while frequently one upping themselves. Furthering the great work started in season one, the series' second season continues to dazzle and amaze, leaving audiences with only one question: why can't it be winter all year long?
Based on "A Clash of Kings," the second novel in George R. R. Martin's epic "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, season two continues to follow the conflicts of various noblemen and warriors in the medieval land of Westeros. Now that King Robert is dead, a whole slew of competing claimants to the throne have emerged, inciting a war for the crown. Though the Queen's incestuous son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), currently reins over the Seven Kingdoms, Robert's older brother, Stannis (Stephen Dillane), has the most legitimate claim. Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped his younger brother, Renly (Gethin Anthony), from attempting to seize the position. Complicating matters even further, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has declared himself the independent King of the North, and wishes to rule his lands free from Joffrey's control. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the exiled Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) struggles to find a way home. Hoping to reclaim her birthright, she has one key advantage that her rivals lack -- a trio of newborn dragons. With the Iron Throne up for grabs, the self-proclaimed kings all battle it out, but there might be far more pressing dangers lurking just beyond the Wall…
If the show's first season hinged on the concept of honor, than season two is all about the idea of power -- and more specifically, who wants it, how they obtain it, and perhaps most importantly, what they're willing to do to keep it. Vain desires pervert otherwise noble intentions, and split loyalties clash against violent realities. The title of king is brandished and thrown around so often that it essentially loses all significance, and one is left wondering if any of these would be rulers have any idea what the word really means. They covet the superficial aspects of the crown, seeking the prestige, control, or admiration, but most of these motivations seem to stem from misguided principle, pettiness, greed, or in some cases, even the most primal of impulses -- it is mine, and if it is not given to me, I will take it.
Throughout all this political scheming and upheaval, the series continues to expand upon a richly layered canvas of subplots, weaving an intricately dense and thematically deep narrative. Even more characters are introduced to the show's already sprawling cast, and while this complexity can be daunting, the writers once again find just the right balance between exposition and storytelling. The ever-evolving tapestry of people, locations, mythology, and lore, only serves to enhance the experience, further developing Westeros into a living, breathing world that feels remarkably authentic. This lends great weight to all of the characters' emotional conflicts and devastating losses. Some of which still hang heavy over the realm.
With the death of Eddard Stark, 'Game of Thrones' lost the closest thing it had to a central protagonist. For any other show, this might have been an irrevocably damning move. Thankfully, this isn't any other show. While I'll certainly miss Sean Bean's character, the series goes on undeterred, and Ned's tragic demise is not just flippantly forgotten. Instead, the honorable lord's sacrifice goes on to quietly inform many of the events and choices throughout the year, keeping Ned's spirit alive. With that said, the character's absence does bring upon a slight shift in the series' storytelling style. While season one had a clear through-line involving the investigation of John Arryn's death, without Ned's unifying presence, season two is much more scattered in structure. With all the characters sprinkled across the farthest reaches of the map, the narrative takes on an inherently fractured quality, and though the War of the Five Kings does bring some level of cohesion to all these moving parts, the overarching storyline isn't as clearly defined. This makes the year's endgame feel a little less satisfying, and as a whole the season doesn't quite stand alone as well as the previous one. Of course, this is meant to be only the second part of a much larger story, and in that sense it perfectly wets our appetites for more to come.
While this remains an ensemble show, if anyone comes close to succeeding Ned as the series' unifying figure, it's Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Replacing the beheaded Stark as the new Hand of the King, Tyrion goes on to present a fascinating contrast to his predecessor. Able to embrace all the aspects of the job that Ned couldn't, the character fully commits himself to the game -- and he plays it well. Very well. Watching the man out manipulate the show's vast assortment of professional manipulators is an absolute joy, and while his actions aren't always noble, Tyrion retains a strong conscience and a commendable set of morals that clearly separates him from the series' more nefarious players. Confronted with challenges and responsibilities he likely thought he'd never face, Tyrion truly comes into his own this year, revealing layers of bravery and compassion I'm not even sure he knew he had. Peter Dinklage continues to do phenomenal work in the role, and his blend of playful charisma and deeper vulnerabilities cements the character as one of the most likeable and entertaining members of the extensive cast.
As the dynamics of the story move and evolve, characters that once had more prominent roles take a backseat, while secondary players gain greater focus. Fortunately, the talented cast more than rises to the occasion. Alfie Allen is especially impressive as Theon Greyjoy. Though only a minor character in season one, here Theon becomes the center of a major subplot, and Allen turns in a powerful performance. Torn between allegiances, the character is forced to make some truly heartbreaking and despicable decisions, and watching the man slowly lose his way is devastating. Likewise, the new storylines lead to a few unlikely pairings, resulting in some unexpectedly interesting relationships. Maisie Williams' Arya finds herself in close proximity to Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), and their scenes together are full of palpable subtext and uneasy tension. Another plotline sees Sansa (Sophie Tuner) find a surprising protector in the form of the intimidating Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann). Both performers provide a stark contrast in size and demeanor, and yet the two share interesting chemistry, illuminating a more gentle side to the infamous Hound.
Unfortunately, not all of this shifted emphasis completely gels. Daenerys' arc proves to be the most problematic, and her quest to find her stolen dragons often feels like filler. Though I haven't read Martin's original novels, it's my understanding that the character's storyline in "A Clash of Kings" was quite internal in nature, presenting a lofty challenge for the adaptation process. With that in mind, it seems like the writers have done an admirable job, but there are times when her journey does seem underdeveloped and redundant. Thankfully, Emilia Clarke once again shines as the revered Khaleesi, and despite her tiny size, she somehow manages to elicit a commanding presence. Also, her eyes continue to be a special kind of beautiful. Speaking of dreamy gazes, Jon Snow's (Kit Harrington) adventures beyond the wall present some minor pacing concerns as well, and while his coupling with Yigritte (Rose Leslie) is quite entertaining, their subplot doesn't have much momentum. Still, there's no denying that watching the wildling try to seduce the celibate Night's watchmen is rather priceless.
As one might expect, sexual content is once again very prominent, but while I defended the show's use of nudity last year, I must admit, there are times this season where the racy content does get a bit gratuitous. This is especially true of episode two, which features a few sex scenes in such close proximity to one another that it starts to feel like overkill. Still, the writers do manage to work in a few "sexposition" sequences that do a good job of blending titillation with substance, and even when there is no real greater meaning behind the characters' carnal activities, the crass sexuality helps to add another layer of unpolished reality to the proceedings.
Thankfully, none of these very small shortcomings really take away from the experience, and once episode nine comes around, they'll quickly fade from your mind. While budgetary restraints cheated us out of a big battle scene last year, the producers more than make up for it here. One of the most impressive action scenes to ever grace the small screen, The Battle of Blackwater Bay is a genuine cinematic marvel. Violent and visceral, the entire sequence is a true testament to the production's peerless ingenuity and talent. The practical effects, CG, and stunt work all hold their own to big budget movies, and the episode's director, Neil Marshall ('The Descent'), really amps up the unforgiving brutality of it all.
Famous for its slogan, "It's not TV, it's HBO," there is perhaps no better proof of the network's lofty claim than 'Game of Thrones.' Continually pushing the boundaries of what can be done on the small screen, the show is essentially in a class all its own. Filled with rich characters, stirring action, affecting drama, and infinitely deep themes, this is TV at its most addicting and rewarding. While there are individual episodes and sequences that trump anything from the previous year, season two doesn't quite reach the same, nearly flawless consistency of its predecessor. Still, this is easily one of the best series on television, and it's recently usurped the great 'Breaking Bad' to become my favorite show currently in production. New episodes return to HBO on March 31st, and if you need me, I'll be patiently counting down the days while quietly humming the show's theme song for the next six weeks.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season' in a new limited edition Steelbook package. Five BD-50 discs are stacked (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 Lannister lion sigil. For a closer look at the collectible packaging check out Josh Zyber's detailed write-up 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. Perhaps the most impressive looking show on TV, 'Game of Thrones' continues to absolutely astonish on Blu-ray. This is pure reference quality material.
With the exception of some very minor banding and noise, the digital source is nearly immaculate, with a clean picture free from any problematic artifacts. Every aspect of the show's peerless production design works to totally immerse the audience in the world of Westeros, and this impeccable attention to detail is highlighted in full force, creating a totally believable world. Little touches in the costumes and sets really enhance the experience, and clarity throughout the image is sharp and expansive (though some shots can look a tad soft). Once again, each landscape has its own distinct look and color palette, offering a sumptuous gamut of varied hues throughout the season, covering everything from the icy blues beyond the wall to the smoldering yellows of the Red Waste. All the sweeping vistas, frozen tundras, and barren deserts carry an epic sense of dimension. Contrast levels are nicely balanced throughout, and while blacks aren't always inky, they are steady and provide good shadow delineation.
Treating viewers to a varied assortment of visually arresting locations and breathtaking sets, these transfers render every inch of the series' ornate throne rooms, grimy dungeons, immense halls, and beautiful landscapes with technical precision and artistic panache. As far as TV on Blu-ray goes, it doesn't get any better than this.
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. Note: Portions of this write-up that aren't season two specific also appear in my review for the season one Atmos audio.
'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. Of course, as one might expect, episode 9 proves to be the real highlight here, and the Battle of Blackwater Bay will likely become many user's go-to Atmos demo scene. From the moment the episode begins, distant thunder and creaking wooden floorboards all make their way to the heights with organic imaging and dispersion. And when the battle really begins... well, all hell breaks loose from every direction. But as chaotic as the action is, the object-based sound design remains incredibly precise and deliberate, allowing users to hear small nuances in effects and directionality. The wildfire scene is a standout moment as well, providing an absolutely engulfing explosion that grows outward and upward, dispersing falling debris, cascading fireballs, desperate screams, and splashing water from above. Piercing arrows also make good use of the Atmos height speakers, allowing the sounds to transition from overhead to ear-level and vice versa. Likewise, even the series' quieter dialogue heavy moments benefit from the added immersion, gently expanding background sounds like crackling fire and crashing waves to the height channels. 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.) 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: The Complete Second Season' continues to follow the high standards set in season one. A sprawling fantasy epic focused on seedy politics, hair-raising action, richly detailed characters, and powerful themes, the series is among the best the television medium has to offer. 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 series 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.