Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Blu-ray comes close to perfection with top scores all around making it one of the best Blu-ray's ever
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.”
It's safe to say there's never been a television series like Game of Thrones. TV fantasy tends to fall into one of two camps: cheap, campy and surprisingly enduring or frugal, serious and short-lived. Either way, fantasy shows also tend to fall, be it by way of dwindling creative returns, waning interest or network ax. Game of Thrones, though, is one of those rare genre series to aim high, strike with deadly precision and leave viewers begging for more, even at a scant ten episodes per season. The mythology is dense and the characters numerous, the storylines complex and the conflict more so. It's high fantasy done right, from its spellbinding source (author George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series) to its casting, production design, scripting, storytelling, ever-shifting game board of power players and opportunists, gripping politics, blistering drama, vile villains, flawed everymen and shocking developments. Hardly an episode passes without something of consequence altering the rules of the game, and life and death are far from certain. Martin and executive producers/head writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are willing to sacrifice any character if the story demands it, and have done so despite the occasional outcry of devastated fans. Season Two is no stranger to such sacrifice, and advances with authority, meticulous strategy and a merciless end to every means. It isn't a perfect run -- Season One was more consistent and consistently momentous, and Season Two makes several relatively small but rather unnecessary departures from Martin's "A Clash of Kings" -- but as sophomore seasons go, Game of Thrones charges ahead with confidence and conviction, and it's the series' growing fanbase that reaps the reward.
A house divided...
Rather than cut a straight swath through the entire season, an episode by episode breakdown (with subsequent impressions) struck me as the way to go. So, without further ado, The Complete Second Season:
The North Remembers: Tyrion arrives to save Joffrey's crown from threats old and new, Robb and the Northern Army continue to fight the Lannisters, Stannis Baratheon sets his sights on the crown, Daenerys searches for allies and water in the Red Waste, Bran rules Winterfell in his brothers' absence, and Jon Snow and the Night's Watch face the wilderness beyond the Wall.
So much to establish, so little time. No other series (save perhaps Breaking Bad) makes an hour feel as grossly inadequate as Game of Thrones. Season Two gets off to a promising, densely packed opening volley, introducing intriguing new characters, catching up with the Lannisters and Starks in quick succession (sniveling Joffrey remains one of television's most hated villains), and landing nearly every punch. Dire consequences lurk round the bend, and only one complaint lingers: The battlefield particulars of Robb's bloody campaign of retribution are left largely to the imagination. Score: 4.5/5
The Night Lands: Arya shares a secret with a Night's Watch recruit, a scout returns to Dany with disturbing news, Theon returns home to the Iron Islands and his father Balon, Tyrion clashes with Cersei and administers justice, Davos hires a pirate to help Stannis and Melisandre invade King's Landing, and Jon witnesses a terrible crime.
Sailing to Pyke, the scope of the series expands even further, rolling out so many new faces and places it's almost difficult to keep track of it all. And yet the showrunners manage the impossible, weaving a taught thread through the unfolding multi-narrative with precision. The Red Waste is a bit of a waste, sure, as is Daenerys and the Dothraki's dusty trek across the desert. But with so much to soak in, almost all of it engrossing, Clarke's yawn-worthy performance and thus far woefully uneventful plight only take a small toll. Score: 4/5
What Is Dead May Never Die: Tyrion uses three different alliances to root out a spy, Catelyn arrives in the Stormlands and meets a new king and queen, a female warrior named Brienne of Tarth makes an impression, Luwin attempts to discern the meaning of Bran's strange dreams, and Theon finds himself in over his head, questioning loyalties and family ties.
Can I just take a moment to say Peter Dinklage is hands down one of the best things on television right now? Dinklage not only earns top billing this season, his Tyrion emerges as the smartest, funniest, most likable character Game of Thrones has to offer. Followed closely, that is, by Davos. All hail the Onion Knight! And what a tense and twisted surprise Theon's journey home turns out to be. Another power player, another contender for the crown, another dose of backstabbing, betrayal and vengeance worth every drop of blood and shed tear... because there weren't already enough would-be kings vying for the throne. Score: 4.5/5
Garden of Bones: Joffrey takes out his frustrations with the Starks on Sansa, Catelyn tries to save two kings from declaring war on each other, Tyrion practices coercion, Robb meets a foreigner who catches his eye, Dany finds an ally outside the gates of salvation, Arya and Gendry are taken to Harrenhal, Davos witnesses something unspeakable, and Melisandre casts a large shadow on the Stormlands.
Stunned as the credits rolled, I muttered aloud, "well... that just happened." To dropped jaws and wide eyes, Melisandre ushers a new evil into the Game of Thrones mythos and it's honestly hard to remember anything that transpires before it; the climactic scene is that weird and unsettling. (All to riveting ends, mind you.) Fortunately, Dinklage remains a one-man Emmy-slinging army, Davos nearly walks away with the episode again (strong competition from his castmates is the only resistance he encounters) and Fairley, Headey, Williams, Turner and van Houten, among other brilliantly cast actresses, demonstrate why the series isn't a boys' club. While the men squabble and tussle, it's the ladies who seem most fit, or perhaps most capable, of sitting in the Iron Throne. Score: 4.5/5
The Ghost of Harrenhal: The Baratheon rivalry comes to an end, Catelyn flees in the wake of an assassination, Littlefinger reacts, Tyrion learns of Cersei's secret weapon, Theon sails to the Stony Shore seeking to prove his iron, Dany suffers a loss, Arya collects a debt she didn't know was owed, and Jon and the Night's Watch man an ancient fortress and meet a legend.
The Melisandre payoff is more a deus ex machina than anything else and isn't nearly as powerful as its "Garden of Bones" setup, tasking the rest of the episode with making up for the anticlimactic letdown (dramatic ramifications or no). Elsewhere, the Daenerys storyline, officially a cancer in the otherwise terrific season, suffers and stumbles a bit more, and "The Ghost of Harrenhal" is more concerned with planting seeds than harvesting a good crop. Still, between Jaqen's debt to Arya, Tyrion's acquisition of wildfire, Brienne's allegiance to Catelyn, and other slowburn developments, it all works out to decent results. The long and short of it: the low point of Season Two is still gripping television. Score: 3.5/5
The Old Gods and the New: Arya has a surprise visitor, Dany vows to take back what is rightfully hers, Joffrey meets his subjects, a princess departs King's Landing, Theon does the unthinkable and breaks old alliances, Robb and his mother receive crucial news, and Qhorin gives Jon an opportunity to prove himself.
Proving Game of Thrones has little interest in playing it safe, "The Old Gods and the New" manages to make another mainstay as loathsome as Joffrey. There are some great character moments in other storylines too, chief among them Arya's access to Tywin, Littlefinger's arrival, and the chaos that ensues in King's Landing as a mob attacks Joffrey and his entourage. Suddenly the stakes feel very, very high, and the Daenerys subplot, once a distraction, surges to the forefront when the princess is deprived of her dragons. A storm is gathering, suggesting a final stretch of episodes full of everything Game of Thrones fans live for. Score: 4/5
A Man Without Honor: Tywin attempts to uncover the identity of an assassin, Jamie meets a relative in the most unexpected of places, Catelyn must deal with mounting unrest while Robb is away, Sansa tries to conceal a secret, Yigrette works to seduce Jon, Theon goes on the hunt, Dany receives an unexpected invitation, and the tides change in Qarth.
Nothing is sacred and nothing should be taken for granted. Nearly every piece on the game board shifts in "A Man Without Honor," and everything seems to be coming to a head all at once. It's here that the many storylines of Season Two begin to converge, and it's here that the sophomore outing sets its sights on loftier ground. Though still primarily steeped in shrewd manueverings, few subplots are expendable and even fewer characters are unwelcome on screen. It's finally getting hard to decide which storyline is the most satisfying, even if the best of Season Two is yet to come. Score: 4/5
The Prince of Winterfell: Theon holds down the fort, Brienne escorts a prisoner cross country, Arya calls in her debt with Jaqen, Robb is betrayed by someone close to him, Jon is forced to make a difficult decision, Tryion and the Lannisters prepare for battle, Jorah Mormont agrees to accompany Dany into the belly of the beast, and Stannis and Davos approach their destination.
So much happens in such a relatively short window that I started to wonder if "The Prince" would have been better served spread across two episodes. That said, everyone involved -- from the showrunners to the writers to the production designers to the cast -- invests their all into delivering a prelude to war befitting a series of Game of Thrones' stature. At no point do any of the characters, beloved or loathed, feel as if they couldn't be killed off at a moment's notice. At no point does anyone make a decision that seems out of sorts. At no point does the episode relent or retreat. With so much riding on the looming Battle of Blackwater, can Season Two possibly get any better? Score: 4.5/5
Blackwater: The Lannisters fight for their lives and kingdom as Stannis's fleet assaults King's Landing, Joffrey begins to realize the many dangers the front lines pose, a trump card is played in Blackwater Bay, a deep dread pushes Cersei to the edge, Sansa makes an astonishing choice, Tyrion makes a valiant stand, and an alliance forms that determines the outcome of the battle.
It turns out the answer is yes, Season Two can get better. "Blackwater" ditches every storyline and character that isn't directly involved in Stannis' attack on King's Landing, and the refreshing, laser-like focus on a single setting and event is enthralling. Not only is the three-tiered battle electrifying and absolutely unforgettable, the decisions being made off the battlefield, in the wings, and in the quiet, more sinister moments in Cersei's chambers make everything that follows as meaningful as it is effective. "Blackwater" might just be the best Game of Thrones episode to date. Showrunners take note: focusing on one storyline -- or even a small handful of storylines -- at a time is a powerful weapon in the series' arsenal that should be utilized more often. Score: 5/5
Valar Morghulis: A king chooses a new queen, a usurper is given renewed hope, a banished princess must venture into a strange and deadly place, a mother and son are divided, a warrior must prove himself, a traitor's fate is sealed forever, a master assassin makes a tempting offer to a Stark, the surviving Lannisters and Baratheons must deal with the aftermath of the Battle of Blackwater, and the game changes yet again as a terrifying force surrounds the Night's Watch.
Falling action has never been so compelling. The Lannisters and Baratheons deal with the aftermath of Blackwater, families turn on one another, and the stage is set for the series' third season, which is already looking to top its predecessors. More importantly, "Valar Morghulis" presses ever on, refusing to take a breath even though "Blackwater" all but exhausted the season's shock and awe. "Morghulis" proves there's still plenty of shock and awe to be unleashed, though -- the last shot is the stuff of finale legend -- and there isn't a single second that doesn't make the wait for Season Three that much more unbearable. An excellent close to an excellent season. Score: 4.5/5
Like the Blu-ray edition of The Complete First Season, a first-rate set I declared one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2012, The Complete Second Season boasts a stunning, near-flawless -- if not source-perfect -- 1080p/AVC-encoded video presentation that renders nitpicking an exercise in meaningless vigilance. While other studios seem content to cram twenty-plus episodes on four discs, HBO has again spread ten episodes across five BD-50s, giving each second-season entry plenty of room to breathe. Or bleed. Or erupt in wildfire. Colors are bleak within the walls of Winterfell and sumptuous at King's Landing, just as they should be. Primaries are potent and striking as well, skintones are gorgeously saturated, and contrast is dialed in beautifully, even if black levels, although more than satisfying, are a touch muted on occasion. Detail doesn't disappoint either. Edges are crisp, clean and free of ringing and aliasing, fine textures are refined and revealing (oh the closeups!), delineation is as secretive or seductive as intended, and every scene, shot and skirmish, even those with inherent softness at play, delivers and impresses. Moreover, macroblocking, banding and other compression issues are nowhere to be found, and noise is a rare nuisance (even at its worst), making the series' second season encode a masterfully produced, fully realized sight to behold.
The Iron Throne sings its siren song. Heroes fall. Evil rises. Heads roll. Swords cross. Direwolves howl. Mobs demand blood. Baratheon ships explode. Armies clash. Warlocks and shadow creatures press in. Dragons screech. Flames roar. An undead horde advances. No matter the battle, no matter the chaos or unrest, Game of Thrones handles it all with a powerful and precise DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that stands as the highlight of the second season's Blu-ray release. Dialogue is clear, intelligible and perfectly prioritized at all times, and effects hit hard and ring true. The LFE channel mounts an aggressive assault as well, restraining itself with kingly patience but attacking with full command of the low-end force at its disposal. The rear speakers follow suit, with pinpoint directionality, eerily convincing channel pans and a soundfield as immersive as it is wholly engrossing. Arrows whiz past, fire spreads across the soundstage, waves lap in the distance, trees rustle, crowds crescendo and armies encircle the listener, all to great effect. All the while, Ramin Djawadi's rousing score remains magnificently balanced throughout and keenly bolsters the experience at every opportunity, and decidedly proficient dynamics capture every nuance of the soundscape, regardless of how quiet or overwhelming a scene becomes. Ultimately, The Complete Second Season rounds out an already outstanding AV package with a faultless lossless mix that never fails or falters.
Audio Commentaries (Discs 1-5): The Blu-ray release of Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season offered seven audio commentaries. Not too shabby. Upping the supplemental ante considerably, though, The Complete Second Season offers twelve, and what a twelve they are. There's a bit of hitting and missing to be had, sure, most notably in regards to some of the actors (who occasionally drift off on small tangents), but you'd be hard pressed to find an inch of the sophomore season and its production that isn't covered. Of particular note: the overviews from the executive producing powers that be, among them George R.R. Martin, who's engaging, frank and thorough. Best of all, the commentaries are just the beginning.
Tracks include "The North Remembers" with executive producers/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, "The Night Lands" with actors Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) and Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy), "What Is Dead May Never Die" with writer Bryan Cogman and director Alik Sakharov, a second stab at "What Is Dead May Never Die" with actors Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), "Garden of Bones" with actors Carice Van Houten (Melisandre) and Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth), "The Old Gods and the New" with co-executive producer/writer Vanessa Taylor and actors Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Rose Leslie (Ygritte), "A Man Without Honor" with Benioff and Weiss, "The Prince of Winterfell" with actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) and Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), "Blackwater" with author/co-executive producer George R.R. Martin, a second take on "Blackwater" with director Neil Marshall and actors Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), "Valar Morghulis" with visual effects team members Rainer Gombos and Steve Kullback, and a second "Valar Morghulis" chat with co-executive producer/director Alan Taylor and actor Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen).
In-Episode Guide (Discs 1-5, HD): Each episode features an on-screen guide interface that allows fans to learn more about the characters, lands and histories of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. "Characters" and "Location" buttons deliver simple pop-up text and factoids, making each rather bland. The "Histories" button, though, is more worthwhile, as it leads to simple but strikingly animated videos that detail the legends of Westeros and Essos as told by the characters themselves. Hear varying perspectives on key houses, religions and important events relevant to the second season.
Character Profiles (Disc 1, HD, 16 minutes): Seven character bios, complete with cast and crew interviews. Profiles are available for Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon and Theron Greyjoy.
Histories & Lore (Disc 5, HD): Season Two's animated "Histories & Lore" videos (each individual character perspective/segment being approximately 2-4 minutes in length) detail everything from the "Greyjoy Rebellion" (from the separate perspectives of Robb Stark, Theon Greyjoy and Stannis Baratheon) to "Robert's Rebellion" (Stannis, Davos Seaworth, Margaery Tyrell and Catelyn Stark), "House Tyrell" (Margaery), "House Greyjoy" (Theon and Yara Greyjoy), "House Clegane" (Sandor Clegane), "The Free Folk" (Yigrette), "The Night's Watch" (Yigrette), "Dragonstone" (Stannis), "Harrenhal" (Catelyn), "The Free Cities" (Jonah Mormont), "Qarth" (Xaro Xhoan Daxos), "The Drowned God" (Yara Greyjoy), "The Alchemist Guild" (Wisdom Hallyne) and "The Warlocks" (Xaro Xhoan Daxos).
War of the Five Kings (Disc 5, HD): Track the claims, strategies and key players involved in the battle for the Iron Throne with this sprawling (almost to the point of being cumbersome) interactive guide. Exhaustive is one way of putting it. Daunting is another. For diehard fans itching to dissect every bit of lore, mythology, history, battle and military advance Game of Thrones entails.
Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay (Disc 5, HD, 31 minutes): Go behind the scenes with key members of the cast and crew in this extensive and engrossing look at developing, designing and executing the ninth episode's budget-busting Battle of Blackwater Bay.
Game of Thrones Inner Circle (Disc 5, HD, 24 minutes): Actors Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley and Liam Cunningham sit down with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for an excellent roundtable discussion that manages to avoid doubling back over material already covered at length in the set's commentaries and other features to deliver plenty of fresh insights into the second season and its production.
The Religions of Westeros (Disc 5, HD, 8 minutes): Martin, Benioff and Weiss discuss the competing faiths of Game of Thrones, and the manner in which religion drives and motivates the characters fighting to obtain or hold onto the Iron Throne.
Hidden Dragon Eggs (Discs 1-5, HD): Find hidden dragon eggs to uncover even more content.
It may only be February, but Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season has already solidified its place among my top ten Blu-ray releases of the year, just as The Complete First Season did in 2012. The second season isn't quite as strong as the first, I'll grant you. (Key word: quite.) But HBO's 5-disc set couldn't be much better, thanks to a faithful, utterly fantastic video presentation, a powerful and mighty DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and enough extras to keep fans busy for days including twelve audio commentaries, in-episode guides, a production documentary, a roundtable discussion and much, much more. This one comes highly recommended.
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