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 Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo pack. While the version being reviewed here is the standard variant, different retailers are offering their own exclusive sets with various packaging flourishes, extras, and bonus discs. For a rundown of the different options, click here. Five BD-50 discs are housed together in an attractive foldout case that comes packaged in a sturdy outer case with a cardboard slipcover. A separate foldout sleeve with two DVDs containing the episodes in standard definition is also included. Instructions for an UltraViolet enabled digital copy, and a cool foldout map of Westeros with information on the characters and episodes rounds out the set. After some warnings, logos, and skippable trailers, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible.
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.
The series is presented with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes, along with a few additional foreign language tracks and subtitle options. Easily equaling the level of immersion found on some of the best big budget feature length movies, these tracks feature rich auditory texture, creating a fully living and breathing atmosphere.
From the moment the show's rousing theme song starts to blare from the speakers, you know you’re in for something special. Speech is clear, full, and easy to understand throughout, giving ample voice to all of the series' lyrical insights and biting verbal spars. Perfectly complementing the magnificent visuals, the spacious soundscape works to further realize the convincing environments of Westeros. Every aspect of the mix is top-notch, carrying smooth imaging, precise directionality, and a fantastic mixture of discrete and dispersed ambiance that surround the listener in a sea of both delicate and aggressive effects. The entire soundstage is alive with activity bringing subtle nuance and epic grandeur to every location, lending a distinct sense of auditory color to each individual setting. Crashing waves, crackling fires, fluttering wings, and galloping horses all come through with crisp fidelity, and the track is expertly coated with different levels of aural texture, creating layers of sounds that extend beyond the frame into the unseen background of scenes. Dynamic range is wide and stirring, and bass activity is deep and powerful, bringing a palpable kick to the gut with every clank of metal and clash of swords. And then of course there is The Battle of Blackwater Bay in episode nine. One word: wildfire.
To be honest, I really can't praise the show's sound design enough. The enveloping sense of space and character that these tracks add to the experience are invaluable. This is about as good as an audio presentation gets.
Like the previous season, HBO has put together a fantastic collection of supplements, including twelve commentaries and a comprehensive look at the series' history and lore. All of the extras are presented in 1080i with DTS 5.1 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. The video transfers and audio mixes are reference quality, once again seamlessly transporting the audience to Westeros. Supplements are fantastic, offering twelve commentaries and several interesting featurettes. This is currently my favorite show on TV, and like season one, this release is an absolute must own.