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The North Remembers


‘You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality. That and your cheek bones.’

About two-thirds of everything you need to know about Game of Thrones season two is firmly established within this first episode. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave us with much time to re-establish the plots of the first season – there’s simply too many new plots and characters to establish, something that will ail the season through and through. Consistently throughout the season there is too much stuff going on for a ‘measly’ ten episodes and, perhaps more damaging, no more Ned Stark character to anchor the narrative for the audience. However, the impact of this one complaint (and really the only major issue I can successfully levy against the season) is definitely lessened upon this, my second viewing. The problem isn’t so much about confusion – it turns out I actually followed story threads well enough to anticipate them – it’s that almost the entire season feels like a really interesting set up for another, more expressly propelled season. I haven’t read the books yet, so I don’t have a proper frame of reference as to how things move in novel form, where they can be afforded a more time to simmer.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two
Some things are easy to recall and the first half of the episode ties up the basics of where the season is heading. Everything is neatly tied together via the image of a pink (they say it’s red, but it’s pink) comet. Just in case we forgot, the season begins by reminding us that newly crowned child king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is an absolute shit. Then, just in case that reminder was too bleak, the writers also remind us Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), is in a position to stir up his special brand of charming trouble. After catching up with the rest of our first season’s cast, we’re given our first glimpse of the four new major character groupings – the people of Dragonstone. Here we meet Lord Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), his trusted advisor/sorceress/lover Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and his most trusted bannerman, Davos (Liam Cunningham). Again, there’s no shortage of drama and the new characters are immediately compelling, but the ‘tossing the audience into the deep end’ approach backfires a bit because the new group’s internal dramas don’t quite hold weight yet. The episode’s best scene belongs to Cersei (Lena Headey), who shows Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen) what for when he attempts to shock her with his knowledge of her son’s parentage. She replies with a display of power that is both vulgar and sarcastic, silencing his now empty threat.

The Night Lands


‘I hope you enjoy The Wall. I found it surprisingly beautiful... in a brutal, horribly uncomfortable sort of way’

Almost everything not established in the first episode is covered here. Aside from a mere glimpse at the very end of episode one, Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) story is not resumed until now. Her role as an undercover boy on ‘his’ way to The Wall begins to take shape. This plot also gives weight to Gendry (Joe Dempsie), the surviving bastard heir that Ned Stark discovered in season one. Until now, he’s just been ‘that guy’ that could monkey up the Lannister’s plans – now he’s not only turned into a fully-fleshed character, but he’s slowly built up into a charming person the audience can root for. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who was more or less indiscernible from the rest of the supporting cast, is sent home to Iron Islands after being raised by the Starks and quickly makes an ass out of himself. This subplot serves a strong purpose by season’s end, but grows wearisome via sniveling on Theon’s part and constant, petty cruelty via his father. This introduction to new characters works much more smoothly than the Dragonstone introduction due largely to Theon’s presence (despite what I just said about him being unmemorable).

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

What is Dead May Never Die


‘Cut off his manhood, and feed it to the goats.’
‘There are no goats, halfman…’
‘Well, make do!’

The chief purpose of episode three is to introduce us to the ins and outs of the third new character grouping – the Stormlands. Technically, this is a new environment, but feels familiar, because first season regulars Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) and his lover Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) are sort of in charge here. Renly’s new beard, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), and a giant, Joan of Arc-like Amazon named Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) are introduced and both add quite a bit to the season’s complex character quilt without overtaking too much of the storyline. This generally well-structured episode also breaks down the continuing trials of Arya’s caravan to The Wall into a still, sweet scene where her season one savior, Yoren (Francis Magee), tells her his life story and a follow-up scene where the group is taken captive…but not before she frees this season’s break-out character, Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha), from his bondage. The best scene in the episode is among the series’ finest. In montage, Tyrion tells three slightly different stories of his plans to marry off his niece, Princess Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), to three of his King’s Landings rivals – Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), and Littlefinger – in an effort to uncover which one of them is a traitor (the guilty parties will tell these false plans to his sister Cersei).

Garden of Bones


‘Careful now, we don't want to get blood all over your pretty white cloak.’

Episode four is a plot-heavy gore-fest that opens with one of the series’ less graceful battle cover-ups (things just fade to black), but the battle isn’t exactly the point of the story just yet – it is the cost of the war and its effect on Robb Stark (Richard Madden). Robb briefly meets Talisa (Oona Chaplin), a field nurse and character that will come (somewhat ineffectively) into play later. Arya’s newly captured ‘platoon’ settles in another place we’ve never been before – Harrenhal, where they sit, waiting to be tortured for information no one has. This eventually leads Arya to a position as the cupbearer for Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and the most unexpectedly gratifying pairing of the season. After an entire episode away from the desert, we return and find Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her people finally arriving at the walls of Qarth, the final of our four new major character groupings. The Qarths introduce a nice bit of mystery to the plot and a nice bit of diversity to the production design with their more Middle Eastern-inspired motifs. The more incidental plot points this episode take place at King’s Landing, where Tyrion tries his best to take control of Joffrey’s evil by sending him some ladies of the evening to release his tension. This all takes a turn for the worse, however, when Joffrey doesn’t only figure out what Tyrion is doing, but reveals himself as the pure and simple sadist he is. The worst of it is left to our imaginations as the writers risk over-stating exactly how much Joffrey sucks.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

The Ghost of Harrenhal


‘Schemes and plots are the same things…’

The previous episode’s horrorshow demon birth leads us directly into the season’s first surprise death – Renly Baratheon. He is killed. Bam. Just like that. Then his killer disappears in a literal puff of smoke and poor bereaved Brienne is blamed. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) helps her escape, leading to another of the season’s beloved pairings. Baratheon’s death and the strong presence of Liam Cunningham as the season’s Ned Stark surrogate Davos almost makes the Stannis’ subplot as interesting to follow as the other side of the upcoming battle, but not quite. As Tyrion’s vague plans for the war begin to take shape (wildfire!) he realizes that, despite his better efforts, he’s being blamed for the ineptitudes surrounding Joffrey’s failure. Theon Greyjoy’s story is still frustrating, but, as he takes to the sea, his first mate Dagmer Cleftjaw (Ralph Ineson) proposes a plan that will finally lead the character to somewhere interesting. More immediately interesting is the continuingly narratively detached tales of Daenerys and the Dothraki, who now settle within the adorned walls of Qarth. Qarth’s beauty (which does look a bit… Star Trek: The Next Generation) reveals a palpably seedy underbelly of deceit and betrayal that the audience and Daenerys’ advisor Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) can smell a mile away. This episode’s real meat is in Harrenhal, where Arya interacts with Tywin and that breakout character, Jaqen H'ghar, who offers to kill three men for her, no questions asked.

The Old Gods and the New


‘We've had vicious kings and we've had idiot kings, but I don't know if we've ever been cursed a vicious idiot king!’

And so the shit begins to hit the fan as Theon takes an under-protected Winterfell from little Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). He’s still a pathetic character, but his utter betrayal finally makes him a productive contributor and paints Winterfell a relevant part of the equation for the first time the entire season. Osha’s (Natalia Tena) escape plan for Bran is quite satisfying as well. And, in a strange, only possible in the Game of Thrones universe kind of way, the betrayal finally makes Theon a sympathetic character. The world of Game of Thrones continues to grow via Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch journeys beyond The Wall. Separated from his friends and hunting Wildings, Snow is our connection to an entire Westeros culture. Huge suspense enters the picture when Littlefinger visits Tywin. His presence threatens to reveal Arya’s secret and, because his character plays everything so close to the vest, we’re not sure if he’s seen her or not. Arya’s scenes with Tywin are all brimming with such suspense, but they’re more than that – they’re a stage for two of the show’s best actors to interact. Who would’ve thought when the show began that little Maisie Williams would be able to hold her own alongside Charles Dance. This episode’s most intense sequence is one that dares us to pity the royal family back in King’s Landing. A riot breaks out as the Lannister party crosses the town square and the citizens start tearing people limb from limb. Literally. In the chaos, Sansa is almost raped and killed, but is rescued by ‘The Hound’ (Rory McCann), beginning a strange relationship between the two characters. Meanwhile, safe inside the castle, Tyrion does what everyone watching the series has wanted to do since it started and slaps Joffrey across the face.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

A Man Without Honor


‘It's hard to put a leash on a dog once you've put a crown on its head.’

As shocking plots chug along in Winterfell, Arya and Tywin continue having stunningly charming discussions about the history of Westeros and steal the thunder from everyone else in this perverse, romance-laden episode. The last episode ended badly for Daenerys, who had her friends murdered and her baby dragons stolen. This sudden loss of leverage leaves her at the mercy of Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), her supposed suitor. Meanwhile, her more apparent suitor, Ser Jorah, returns and sets forth to prove his loyalty. Jon Snow’s pairing with Wilding Ygritte (Rose Leslie) isn’t quite as advantageous as hoped this season, but it does lead to some very amusing interactions and, hopefully, something more satisfying, come season three (I haven’t read the books, don’t spoil it for me!). At least this burgeoning ‘romance’ is more interesting than Robb’s attempts at beguiling Talisa. Back at King’s Landing, Sansa has her first period. She tries to cover it up with assistance from Shae (Sibel Kekilli). After failing (The Hound discovers it), she’s approached by Cersei for a rather depressing discussion concerning her sad future as Joffrey’s future child-bearer. The real tragedy is that Cersei is honestly opening up to her daughter-in-law. The return of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who hadn’t appeared since the season opener, is also reason to celebrate.

The Prince of Winterfell


‘You're a great warrior. I saw the bodies above your gates. Which one gave you the tougher fight – the six year old or the cripple?’

Theon’s betrayal done, he’s now given a chance to realize his wrongheaded efforts were for naught. Again, his butchery (which we soon realize isn’t as brutal as initially presented) makes him pitiable, rather than contemptible, and saves the character. His sister, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), is also given a breakout acting sequence when she informs him of his failure. The rest of the episode is flecked mostly with amusing banter between favoured pairings. After Robb takes his latest, snooze-worthy romantic nature walk with Talisa, he is informed that his mother has gone against him and sent Jaime Lannister out with Brienne in hopes of trading him for her own brood. The following scene of Jaime attempting to bait her into a fight is amusing enough to feed an entire episode. Back at King’s Landing, Tyrion bickers with his guardian/friend/servant Bronn (Jerome Flynn) while preparing for the season’s big battle, then bickers less productively with his sister about the need to put Joffrey on the front lines. It’s good to see Tyrion at a disadvantage for a change – we don’t want him to be invincible, after all (and we need to be prepared for some horrible outcomes for him by season’s end). But it’s also quite a relief when Cersei’s supposed upper hand is revealed to be mostly empty. In Harrenhal, Arya is furious when Lord Tywin leaves to defend King’s Landing before she can name him to Jaqen for slaughter. But Arya is shrewd in her anger and sets Jaqen in a situation where he must help her and her friends escape when she names him as third on the kill list. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that Stannis Baratheon is still bearing down on King’s Landing (these characters simply aren’t given enough screen-time for us to care about them, but there aren’t an additional two or three episodes here to make up the time) and Jon Snow finds himself on a chain-gang while his comrades find themselves on the road to the season’s final shock.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

Blackwater


‘There are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!’

There’s a lot of great stuff crammed into the season’s final episode, but, in many ways, Blackwater is the season’s climax. It’s also the only episode in the series’ history to remain at one location and the only time the producers have extended the budget to actually show one of the massive battles they so cleverly have to hide in every other case. In other words, this is a gimmick episode. The gimmick extends gloriously to the choice of writer – none other than George R. R. Martin himself – who does not disappoint with his sharp dialogue, smart thematic choices, and tight structural integrity. The gimmick also extends to the choice of director – Neil Marshall, who had already created massive, dynamic action on a limited budget for films, like Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, and, probably most pertinent, Centurion. The obvious praise should be levied at the quality of the action spectacle (wildfire!), which rouses genuine goose bumps, but the character beats are what works after the initial sting of the battle fades. The scenes inside the castle between Cersei and Sansa are a perfectly chilling counterpoint to the slaughter outside.

Valar Morghulis


‘We’re all liars here. But every one of us is better than you.’

The season finale begins with a series of bummers. Tyrion gets basically no credit for his place in the Battle of Blackwater and finds himself in a worse place than he was at the beginning of the series. The screws are drilled a bit tighter as unworthy types have glory bestowed upon them and Joffrey takes on Lady Margaery as his new betrothed, leaving Sansa in the horrible spot of being a prisoner without a political purpose. The sorrow is thankfully dulled by the return of plots outside of King’s Landing. Jaime and Brienne continue their journey across Westeros. When Brienne defends her prisoner and slays three men in the blink of an eye, Jaime’s face light up with what can only be described as surprising respect. The story crawls a bit as the Baratheon/Melisandre plot is resituated for a third season, but Theon gets a proper, pathetic send-off, Arya continues on her hero’s journey with a special token in her pocket, the other two young Starks get a great final scene with a loved one, and goings-on beyond The Wall leave the season off with its most enduring, bone-chilling image – an image so cool I want to buy a Chevy van just to have something proper to airbrush it upon. Oh, and Robb gets married, or something. However, with little more than a brief mention in two episodes, the finale really belongs to Daenerys, who ends the season on an eerie, surrealistic trip through the House of the Undying. Following the previous episode’s bombast, the cinematic sleight of hand is refreshing and the emotional resonance of Daenerys’ metaphysical pilgrimage is exactly the kind of stuff Game of Thrones does better than anything else on television.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

Video


Last season’s Blu-ray release looked more or less perfect, thanks to the very ‘filmic’ use of Arri Alexa digital HD and the fact that the episodes were spread over enough discs to counteract any compression problems. The overall look was mostly natural with varying locations marked by specific palettes. This season looks generally similar to season one, but features more locations and these locations require further colour-coding. For example, Winterfell is gritty and de-saturated, the area beyond The Wall is cold and blue, King’s Landing is warm and red, and Qarth is even warmer and yellow. The directors and cinematographers also make less of an attempt to make the show appear to have been shot 35mm, opting to embrace the clarity of the digital format (occasionally to the detriment of the computer generated effects), but the crisp image is rarely otherwise worth complaining about. The outdoor locations shots (I assume they are outdoor; if these are sets, I am impressed) still appear quite lush and natural. These are probably my favourite sequences, at least for the sake of this transfer. The image is more lifelike and the layers of texture and colour really pop. The bright, hyper-clean, and super-busy images from Qarth display similar qualities, but the lack of contrast makes them a little less impressive overall. The really dark episodes, particularly Blackwater, are still plenty dark, but are much more discernable than the muddy HD versions I originally watched on HBOGo, where black and brown blended into soup and highlights were lost in the fine pixelization. The blueness of certain sequences prove to be the biggest problem, as it bleeds out into the blacks, dulling them and damaging the compositions’ delicate contrasts. These bits also display the transfer’s only blocking noise and keep it from a perfect score.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

Audio


We’re officially at a point where there’s really no discerning a big budget theatrical sound mix from a comparatively nominally-budgeted television series mix. This vast, complex, and expansive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix exceeds even the high expectations set by the previous season’s release. The clear and natural dialogue is consistently supported by a wide range of ambient noises that make the world of Westeros spring to life. Much of the sound design is so delightfully pitched that it’s easy to miss altogether, but those taking the time will notice a bevy of stereo and surround enhancements fluttering amid all but the absolute driest dialogue scenes. The biggest, most theatrical and aggressive aural moments come out of episode nine, Blackwater, and its dynamically pulsing walls of war action. The dynamic part is key. There’s plenty of terrifying background ambience that rattles through the rear channels as the battle rages outside the castle wall. Without this richer, deeper set sound and the steady increase of noise as the battle grows more furious, the sharper and more expressly loud sound is given all the more punch. The synthesized, sci-fi sound of the exploding wildfire is another particularly brilliant touch. The House of the Undying sequences also stand apart with a diverse collection of spooky, multi-channel goings-on, completed with a lot of cool, screechy dragon sounds. Ramin Djawadi’s music is well-mixed among the softer and noisier bits and given a proper chance to shine during the warm, rich opening/closing credits.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

Extras


The extras begin as they did on the season one collection – with a series of commentaries. The line-up is as follows (there is no commentary on episode five).
Episode One, The North Remembers:
  • Executive Producers/Writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Episode Two, The Night Lands:
  • Actors Alfie Allen & Gemma Whelan

Episode Three, What is Dead May Never Die:
  • Writer Bryan Cogman & Director Alik Sakharov
  • Actors Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, and Isaac Hempstead Wright

Episode Four, Garden of Bones:
  • Actors Carice Van Houten & Liam Cunningham

Episode Six, The Old Gods and The New:
  • Actors Kit Harrington & Rose Leslie and Co-Executive Producer/Writer Vanessa Taylor

Episode Seven, A Man without Honor:
  • Executive Producers/Writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Episode Eight, The Prince of Winterfell:
  • Actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau & Michelle Fairley

Episode Nine, Blackwater:
  • Co-Executive Producer/Author George R.R. Martin
  • Director Neil Marshall and Actors Peter Dinklage & Lena Headey

Episode Ten, Valar Morchulis:
  • VFX Supervisors Rainer Gombos & Steve Kullbak
  • Co-Executive Producer/Director Alan Taylor and Actress Emilia Clarke


The commentaries are augmented with in-depth, in-episode pop-up guides to help provide character, location, and relevant historical backgrounds for the lost viewer.
Disc one also features a series of character profiles (15:40, HD) for Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, and Theon Greyjoy. These include interviews with the cast & crew, along with brief sequences from throughout the season.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two
All other extras are delegated to disc five, beginning with War of the Five Kings, an interactive guide to the season. Here, viewers are free to click their way through text concerning characters, kingdoms and mythology, and maps tracking journeys and battle plans. Histories & Lore is another interactive guide, this time featuring a collection of slightly animated ‘motion-comic’ illustrations covering the back-stories behind the important characters/families, specifically for those of us that haven’t read the books yet. The first two stories are especially interesting, because they re-tell the tales of the same two rebellions, only from different characters’ points of view.

Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay (31:20, HD) features Benioff, Weiss, Martin, producer Frank Doelger, director Neil Marshall, art director Frank Marsh, production designer Gemma Jackson, construction manager Tom Martin, cinematographer Sam McCurdy, VFX supervisor Rainer Gombos, Stuart Brisdon and Steve Kullback, stunt designer Paul Herbert, weapons master Tommy Dunne, prosthetics supervisor Conner O’Sullivan, make-up supervisor Paul Engelen, horsemaster Camilla Narprous, and cast members discussing the production of the season’s most ambitious episode. Subject matter includes scripting, financing, hiring Marshall, set construction, production design, previz, visual effects, physical effects, make-up effects, stunts, training extras, and horse wrangling. Game of Thrones: Inner Circle (24:00, HD) is a roundtable discussion on the second season experience with actors Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley, and Liam Cunningham, moderated by Benioff and Weiss. The Religions of Westeros (7:30, HD) finishes things off with Martin, Benioff, Weiss further discussing the religions throughout the series.

 Game of Thrones: Season Two

Overall


Game of Thrones risks over-extended itself with too many plotlines and not enough screen time to cover everything, but this second view-through verifies that, for the most part, the show’s writers and producers know exactly what they’re doing. I enjoyed myself even more re-watching everything. The gorgeous 1080p video, DTS-HD MA audio, and pile of extras certainly helped. The only thing really keeping the first season Blu-ray collection a head above this one is the extensive, in-episode Anatomy of an Episode experience, which is sadly missing here. Otherwise, I’ve got no complaints. Well, except one or two about there not being third season episodes available for me to watch this very minute.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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