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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blu-ray Review: Game of Thrones, Season One

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 3:59 PM

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Game of Thrones is a show about how betrayal is inevitable and honor is futile. It's a show about how life is hard, and brief, and devoid of meaning. It's a show about the foolishness of having ideals, the failures of optimism, and the entropy of society. It's about greed, murder, power, sex, family, and loss. To anyone paying attention, it's pretty obvious that Game of Thrones' sprawling, gripping story will not have a happy ending; like the George R.R. Martin books on which it's based, Game of Thrones is classified as fantasy, but when it comes to the people it follows and their desperate, hollow ways of trying to survive, it's brutally realistic.

It is, in other words, an incredible amount of fun to watch. And the best way to do so is on Blu-ray, which works out great, since the complete first season of Game of Thrones finally came out earlier this week.

The challenge of adapting Martin's sometimes hard-edged, sometimes soap-operatic books for HBO is... significant. Dense and long and featuring 4,239 characters, the five (so far) books in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series either snare readers or send them running for a paperback that doesn't weigh as much as a phone book. At only 10 episodes, the first season of Game of Thrones, which adapts the first book in Martin's series, clips by at comparatively breakneck pace. But what's impressive—especially on multiple viewings—is how showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss manage to stay true to the sordid, expansive, and continually surprising spirit of Martin's book while shaving away the author's excesses. Hardcore fans of the books can find all sorts of little things to whine about (if you'd like to subscribe to my newsletter, "Things That Would Have Been Better About Game of Thrones If They'd Kept It More Like the Book or At Least Let Me Write This Episode," which weighs in at around 24 single-spaced pages per week, let me know in the comments), but as a whole, Game of Thrones works just as well onscreen as it does in print. As propulsive and addictive as Martin's chapters are, so is just about every episode; the show starts out good, and by the time all of its pistons really start firing, around episode five, it's hard not to burn through the remaining episodes in a single sitting.

Which is one of the reasons Blu-ray's the way to do this series. I'm no television scientist, but I've never understood HBO's seemingly outdated model, which boils down to "If you don't subscribe to our premium cable channel, you're fucked." No Hulu, no iTunes, no legitimate ways to buy individual episodes, at least while the season in question is airing; while I have to imagine HBO is well aware that a huge number of people therefore torrent their shows, they don't seem particularly inclined to make it any easier for viewers to legally watch them. On the upside, now that they're finally out, HBO's Blu-rays are nothing short of excellent. There's the whole "watch Game of Thrones in a big chunk" thing, obviously, which is particularly beneficial to a complex show like this, but there's also the opportunity for special features, which HBO has nailed.

There are commentaries here (featuring Benioff, Weiss, Martin, the cast, and more), and on a decent HDTV, the already gorgeous show is fantastic to look at. There's also a look at the show's opening credits (obligatory, semi-related Simpsons link), a blurby little piece about how pleased Martin is with the show (as punch!), a featurette on Klingon the Dothraki language, and some character profiles. All of that's fine, and worth checking out, but it's two of the Blu-ray features that make this thing extraordinary.

The first one is the "Blu-ray Complete Guide to Westeros," which collects a stunning amount of info about the history and cultures of the lands in which Game of Thrones is set. Allusions and references to Westeros' past are scattered throughout the books and TV show, but this is a big, straightforward dose of it: a crash course in how the Seven Kingdoms and the Night's Watch and the Valyrian Empire and whatever else you can think of came to be. It's great info to have, and significantly enhances the show, but what really sells it is how it's presented: Slick, animated illustrations play onscreen, accompanied by voiceovers from the show's cast. Even better, the narratives are delivered in character, and there are frequently multiple characters talking about the same events—meaning this guide functions less as a dry primer and more as a dynamic oral history, with different characters' perspectives informing and clashing with each other. As in the show, what's considered true depends on who's talking.

The second is "Anatomy of an Episode," an hour-long feature that breaks down the season's sixth episode, "A Golden Crown," with members of the creative team and the cast weighing in on plot developments and behind-the-scenes info—from big-picture stuff like major character events to trivia like how the horse heart Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) eats onscreen was made out of the same stuff Gummi Bears are. (Apparently, this didn't make it any easier to eat; we're assured multiple times that Clarke's "I'm about to vomit on you" facial expressions are completely real.) This is essentially a video commentary pulling together a whole lot of people behind the episode, showing how much those involved care about getting it right. My only complaint about it is that there aren't more of these episode-specific guides on this set, particularly the first and the last two episodes of the season.

So yeah. This show is worth watching. These Blu-rays are the best way to do it. And I wish Game of Thrones' second season would hurry up and start already.

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