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Despite everyone and their mother insisting I read George R.R. Martin’s ‘amazing’ and ‘addictive’ A Song of Fire and Ice epic fantasy novel saga, I managed to avoid any and all spoilers. By the time the HBO adaptation arrived, under the title Game of Thrones (the title of the first book in the series), I was practically blind concerning the story. I didn’t even realize it was a fantasy series. Watching the first episode was an enjoyable exercise in ‘oh, I get it’. I was suspicious that perhaps this wasn’t a historically based series when glowing-eyed zombies first appeared, but still thought perhaps this was a case of hallucination on the part of the soldiers these creatures are attacking. Then I was introduced to the concept of dire wolves, which I was about 97% sure weren’t hanging around Europe during the Dark Ages (they are a real thing, smartass, they just died out in the prehistoric era). I was finally fully convinced Game of Thrones was fantasy, not historically based by the final episode, though the thing that happens there shouldn’t be discussed in a review for fear of spoilers for those that maintained an unspoiled state such as myself. Game of Thrones actually lives up to the astronomical hype, and is exactly the kind of ‘game changer’ HBO has needed since Deadwood was cancelled, Sopranos died a respectable death, and basic cable networks like AMC and FX effectively stolen the one time Emmy machine’s thunder.

 Game of Thrones
For those of you not concerned with utter anti-spoilism: Set in the Seven Kingdoms of a fictional world called Westeros, the principle storyline chronicles the violent dynastic struggles among the kingdom's noble families for control of the Iron Throne. Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), patriarch of the Stark family rules the northern city of Winterfell with a heavy sense of loyalty and honor. His family includes his wife, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), and children Robb (Richard Madden), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson), along with his bastard child Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The story begins when the Starks are visited by Ned’s friend, and the widower of his sister, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), the king and leader of the realm. Robert has his family in tow, including his wife Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), and her brothers; her twin, Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and the clever dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), nicknamed, much to his chagrin, the Imp. The Lannisters, the wealthiest and in many ways most powerful family in Westeros, and the Starks have a long standing animosity, making the scheduled marriage of Sansa, and Cersei’s and Robert’s ‘son’ Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) a bit awkward. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, exiled prince Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) plots to overthrow King Robert and reclaim his father's throne. Viserys’ plan sees him marrying his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) off to the powerful horselord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), leader of a nomadic Dothraki tribe, who will in turn supply him with the army he needs to battle Robert.

Game of Thrones thrives on its duality and tonally inclusive nature. The combination of the grotesque and the beautiful, the truly trashy and genuinely prestige, creates a delectably addictive stew – like the best, most substantial Biblical epic and the remorsefully guilty pleasure soap opera wrapped up in one savory package. For every subtle interaction and classical performance there is a dash of sex and gore for the sake of pure exploitation. Almost every genre worth mentioning is covered here, and almost every genre covered is covered with similar, sometimes even greater success than most standalone, single genre series worth mentioning. Outside its obvious dramatic achievements, potent witticisms, and political intrigue, Game of Thrones features cogent, raw fight sequences, genuinely frightening horror sequences, and is uncannily and unabashedly romantic when it wants to be. Occasionally normally subtle foreshadowing is overstated, and the mythology-heavy exposition can be staggering as well, but even these difficult elements are in keeping with the Tolkienesque, pseudo-historical, pseudo-fable storytelling style. Game of Thrones is also the single most theatrical television series ever produced. It covers a vast thematic scope, and takes place over a series of gigantic, massively detailed sets, and spectacular outdoor locations. Even Rome, Lost and Deadwood sometimes appear modest in comparison. Hell, even Gladiator and Lord of the Rings barely overshadow the graceful, baroque scale of this series (which puts 2011’s Conan the Barbarian to total shame). Fans of the books will likely notice the larger scale battle scenes (which I’m told are described in some detail) are, well, missing, but the writers find clever, or at least what I’d consider natural ways to move around the fact they can’t afford Braveheart or Lord of the Rings sized shining armour action. I hadn’t even thought to ask myself if there’d been a shortcut taken the first time I viewed the season.

 Game of Thrones
Perhaps the grandest praise I can levy towards the series’ in terms of its writing is that it’s quite easy to keep track of all the story threads, and that the major characters are mostly well defined within a single episode. The characters continue the theme of stylistic duality, and work as both believable human beings and arch stereotypes. These characters flourish on ambiguity, and their addictively sly behavior is, with a few exceptions, enough to make even their most hateful actions unnaturally loveable. I have no idea how the people at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decide who the ‘lead’ actor is for this series. Almost every one of the speaking roles in the series is worthy of a standalone story. But I suppose the heart of the season belongs to Ned Stark, who, without spoiling anything, represents the old world’s inability to function in the corrupt modern universe. Sean Bean brings all the weight and grace of his previous ‘historical’ roles to Ned, meaning he’s cleverly cast, but just because we come to this tale with Richard Sharpe and Boromir-laced expectations doesn’t mean Bean could get away with sleepwalking through such an essential part of this series. The more easily enjoyable role belongs to Peter Dinklage, who earned widespread praise for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, the witty and sarcastic butt of abuse throughout the series. But among this exceptionally enjoyable cast of characters, I think my favourite dynamic is the four-sided triangle featuring Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, Khal Drogo, and exiled knight Ser Jorah Mormont. The fact that the series manages to develop a believable and even touching romance between Daenerys and Drogo over a comparatively brief period of screen time, and amongst some of the most compelling political power struggles in television history is especially momentous as well.

At this point in the story it is a bit hard to keep the Dothraki/Targaryen plotline in context, since it never officially overlaps with the Stark/Lannister/Baratheon plots, but even as someone who hasn’t read the novels I can recognize that the writers are laying groundwork for future developments. I actually respect this ‘problem’ in the long run, as simply cutting this part of the books would actually save the production a whole lot of money, and there’s no guarantee at this point that the production will get more than two seasons anyway. My only other problem structurally is that the brewing war between the Starks and the Lannisters doesn’t weigh as heavily in practice as it does in theory. The threat of war is being saved for later stories, and the threat is still potent, but every minute we take the time to physically show the process of amassing an army is a minute away from the more interesting parts of the story. Not to mention that Robb Stark is one of the least interesting characters, through the necessity of his character type (meaning we need him, but he’s not a blast to watch).  However, like the best stories of its kind Game of Thrones also welcomes viewers to revisit, and even witness things from a new point of view, and I enjoyed the war stuff quite a bit more this time around.

 Game of Thrones

Video


Every time I get a new TV series on Blu-ray to review I try to categorize it. Most shows, especially comedies, are pretty stylized, and choose vibrant, clean colours over details, or in the case of Spartacus or Heroes, graphic, unnatural compositions. The most natural and highly detailed series I’ve ever watched via Blu-ray disc is likely Lost, so I tend to use it as a measuring stick for all other series releases. Though it’s rarely as rich and vibrant as Lost, Game of Thrones is likely the best non-theatrical released 1080p transfer I’ve ever seen. In regards to detail levels and general, natural clarity this collection is comparable to the finest big budget film releases. The stylistic comparisons are things like Lord of the Rings, which this collection matches, and Gladiator, which it regularly bests. According to the specs Game of Thrones is shot using the ARRI Alexa digital HD cameras. The Alexa models are meant to exact the look of 35mm film with all the advantages of the digital format. This means strong colour separation, natural hues, crisp highlights, and deep blacks, without resolution issues, or inconsistent grain levels. On Blu-ray the colour coding of the various families and kingdoms is more obvious, and the hue quality is extremely consistent, especially that rich Lannister blood red. The various locations feature slightly more subtle colour-coding (assuming there aren’t a bunch of Lannisters walking around), and outside the first episode there’s no need for title cards thanks to even the contrasting warm and cool digital grading. The production utilizes a lot of dramatic close-ups, but depth of field is usually effectively set far back in the frame, revealing just as many delicate textures and compositions in backgrounds as foregrounds. The only problem here is that the mind-boggling clarity reveals some of the budgetary constraints. The special effects are incredible for television, but some of the green screens are made more obvious on Blu-ray, and effects-assisted backgrounds occasionally appear a bit plasticy.

 Game of Thrones

Audio


Sometimes I feel like an old person, because I can’t get over the fact that modern television is mixed to work with 5.1 surround systems. We live in an age where a TV show can match aural wits with a big budget motion picture. Game of Thrones is a particularly cinematic series, so it’s no surprise that this Blu-ray release’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is impressive and immersive. I can’t quite say this track is more sumptuous than some of the more stylized and aggressive Lost series mixes, and it can’t quite compare to special effects heavy theatrical mixes (this is one area stuff like Lord of the Rings still shines), but given the show’s sound goals there’s noting wrong with taking a slightly more subtle route over the bulk of the course of the story. This mix thrives most in terms of dynamic range, where emphasis is often stylistically placed on silence over noise. Each environment and location has its own unique sound, creating a more immersive experience, and subtly tuning the audience into the tone of the characters. There are some standout sequences as far as the stereo and surround channels are concerned, including any sequence taking place in Eyrie, where the high altitudes give way to terrifying sweeps of wind, massive crowd scenes (you know the one I’m thinking of), sequences of battle, where clanging swords and shouting hoards engulf the viewer, and sequences featuring wights attacking soldiers on and around the Wall, where directional cues signify the creatures’ locations despite the lack of on screen signification. Ramin Djawadi’s majestic and massive musical score, including that impossibly infectious opening title, follows suit, bellowing with deep bass, rich strings, and all manner of general warmth.

 Game of Thrones

Extras


I can say without any doubt in my mind that this collection represents the most extras features I’ve ever seen in a television release. My only complaint here is that the menu system is identical on every disc, which implies the extras are on every disc, which is disappointing when you select something from the extras menu on disc one, only to be told to put in disc three or six into the player. Minor inconvenience, but annoying. Anyway, things begin with an in-episode guide for each and every episode in the set. This pop-up factoid option features accessible information on the characters, locations and histories of any current scene. I have trouble keeping track of characters in two character plays, so I found this option enormously helpful in navigating such a massive and inclusive story. Along with these in-scene options is the option to pause the action and proceed to the Complete Guide to Westeros screen (which can also be accessed from the main menu). Here you can access text-based information, along with some classy illustrations, on various aspects of the Game of Thrones universe, including Histories and Lore, Houses and Lands. Among these are short video options (19 under ‘Histories and Lore’, and six more under ‘Houses’), which are presented as somewhat animated illustrations (basically motion comics), and set to narration and some sound effects. These are brilliant gap-fillers for those of us that haven’t read the books (yet).

There are also a series of commentary tracks. Episode one features executive producers/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, episode two features cast members Lena Headey, Mark Addy and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, episode three features cast members Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright, episode four features writer Bryan Cogman and actor Kit Harington, episode six features director Daniel Minahan and cast members Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Harry Lloyd, episode eight features co-executive producer/author George R.R. Martin, and episode Ten features Benioff and Weiss again, along with director Alan Taylor.

 Game of Thrones
Disc exclusive extras start on disc one with a series of character profiles, 15 total (30:40, HD), each of which features the actors giving their impressions of each character. The tone is a bit EPK-ish (the lack of spoilers and presence of title cards leads me to believe that these originally appeared on HBO or the website), and there isn’t much to learn apart from the other extras, but it’s interesting to get the actors’ opinions.

Disc three features an interactive, in-episode experience called Anatomy of an Episode. This applies to episode six A Golden Crown, which explains why the episode stands alone on the disc. This includes behind the scenes footage, production illustrations and other artwork, storyboards, special effects comparisons, and interviews with director Daniel Minihan, producer/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, actors Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Jerome Flynn, Esme Bianco, Richard Madden, Alfie Allen, Maise Williams, Harry Lloyd, Emilia Clarke, Jason Momoa, special effects supervisor Stuart Bridson, production designer Gemma Jackson, storyboard artist William Simpson, horse master Felecity Pierce, property master Gordon Fitzgerald, sword master Tommy, stunt coordinator Dunne Byster Reeves, effects supervisor Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor, 2nd assistant director Angela Barson, art designers Ashelee Jeffers and Tom Martin, and graphic artist Jim Stanes. With all the extra stuff there are some pauses, so the episode runs a bit longer at about 1:00:30.

 Game of Thrones
Disc five finishes things off, starting with The Making of Game of Thrones (30:00, HD), a reasonably fluffy, but somewhat informative EPK featuring interviews with various members of the cast and crew, all of whom are featured elsewhere on the extras. The subject matter overlaps with the commentaries and the anatomy of an episode extra, but fills out the basics of the show’s inception, source material, casting, locations, art direction, production design, costume design, music, effects, animal wrangling, armour, and the Dothraki language design. From the Book to the Screen (5:10, HD) features producers Benioff and Weiss, as well as author Martin talking about adapting the series to the small screen, featuring a lot of interview footage from the other featurettes. Creating the Show Open (5:10, HD) covers the concepts and production behind the show’s opening title with the show’s producers, the opening’s producers Angus Wall, Rob Feng and Hameed Shaukat, and some of the animators. I never noticed until now that the credits change with the series. Creating the Dothraki Language (5:30, HD) sort of speaks for itself, and features a whole lot of repeating interview footage from the making-of featurette. The additional information on linguist David Peterson is worth the watch, however. The extras come to a close with The Night’s Watch (8:10, HD) gives the men of the Wall a bit of an extra look, and surprisingly does not feature a whole lot of overlapping information.

There are also a series of hidden features spread over the collection, so completing these extras isn’t even the end of the experience.

 Game of Thrones

Overall


Game of Thrones really is everything you’ve heard it is and more. You could call it the best show of its kind, but there really isn’t anything to compare it too in terms of a ‘kind’. We haven’t seen anything of this quality and scale on television ever as far as I’m concerned. I rarely suggest anything on a blind-buy status, but if you have the money laying around I highly recommend this gorgeous Blu-ray collection, even if you haven’t seen the show. Just an inkling of interest in a high stakes, pseudo-Medieval fantasy show is enough incentive. Fans should know that the video quality is just about perfect, the audio is more than impressive for type, and the are extras unique and informative, especially the Anatomy of an Episode experience.

 Game of Thrones
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases 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. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blu-ray screen-caps.


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