HBO’s Game of Thrones comes at an interesting time in geekdom, and its success speaks to the barriers that have been broken. Though fantasy and science fiction have often been popular cinematically, on television it’s been stuck in a Stargate-esque ghetto. But now we’ve got one of the most thoughtful shows currently on air on one of the most prestigious networks that also happens to be about dragons and swordplay. Perhaps the better arbiter of what crosses over to the mainstream and what doesn’t is quality, and Game of Thrones is definitely an engrossing show even for those who’ve never picked up a twenty sided die. Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Mark Addy and Peter Dinklage lead a mostly British cast in a tale about warring families in a fantastical middle age. Our review of Game of Thrones on DVD follows after the jump.
The quick review: The first season – if it has a fault – is that it mostly feels like set up. There’s a lot of great work in there, but if there is a downside, it’s all about getting excited for things that haven’t happened yet. Where the show works is in how it relays the machinations of power, which at times reminds of The Wire. That’s a good thing.
The show starts with House Stark – on of the four major houses of the series. It is headed up by Eddard (Bean), who is asked to be the hand of the king by King Robert Baratheon (Addy). Eddard is married to Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and they have three sons and two daughters, along with Eddard’s bastard child, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). Their daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) is to marry Robert’s son Joffery (Jack Gleason) for the sake of the bloodline and keeping the families united. She’s okay with the idea (though they’re both tweeners), but he’s a bit of a spoiled brat. It’s because of his family: King Robert married into the Lannister family, and they’re all a bit off. His wife is Cersei (Headey), and she keeps close (perhaps too close) company with her brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is an excellent swordsman but is otherwise exceptionally lazy. They have a brother in Tyrion (Dinklage), who loves spending time in brothels, but is also intelligent as he’s had to use his wits to survive as a midget in a world ruled by brute force.
Across the world the Targaryens are making a deal to fortify their family. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) has arranged for his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to marry Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) – the leader of the Dothraki people – with the promise of being able to command an army. They talk as if they are descended from dragons. Perhaps this is true.
The Starks live near “the wall,” where men go to ward off the evil spirits on the other side. As the show starts, there’s a hint that there are foreign, evil beasts on the other side – but this is mostly kept in the background this season. More pressing is when Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) accidentally sees something he shouldn’t and is pushed off a high ledge. He doesn’t die right off, which leads to an assassination attempt, which sends the Stark looking for answers that could prove fatal.
All this happens while Eddard is asked to become a part of the kingdom, and he sees the machinations of the political machine. There he meets Lord Petyr Belish (Aidan Gillen) – who runs the whorehouses and is a power broker – and Varys (Conleth Hill). The last hand of the King was poisoned, and it looks like the former hand found a very powerful secret about the family. The other problem is that the king’s a drunk, and when he hears about the Targaryen family amassing an army, he’s ready to fight. For Eddard, from the very start of the show, it’s like he’s in quicksand, slowly sinking into a world that is working against his family.
There is so much more to the show than just this set up, but the machinations of the season are part of its pleasures. Watching alliances change, or watching Jon Snow train at the wall, or seeing the trouble that Tyrion Lannister gets into is one of the show’s central pleasures. But show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have created a fully fleshed-out universe through the George R.R. Martin books, and they’ve involved the creator as a writer on the series as well.
What interests me most about how the show progresses is how it incorporates the fantastical elements into the narrative. One of the greatest things about the show is that it hasn’t really bothered with that too much, which keeps all the relationships human. By the end of the first season, we’re promised an all-out war, and supernatural creatures having a go at the human. Perhaps it was worth setting all this up, and showing HBO there was an audience for that, but future endeavors in this world are going to require a scale that the show most elides.
Game of Thrones is a marvel, and satisfying for anyone longing to see the old world done right. In that way it’s a remarkable piece of television. As a season, if it doesn’t deliver when it starts airing April 1, then there’s going to be problems.
HBO has a standard for how they put shows on DVD, and they follow it here. The DVD set is five discs, with two episodes per disc. Each is presented in a handsome anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer and in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Though done for television, the surround channels are active, and the picture quality is excellent. On all the discs is a complete guide to Westeros, which walks through all the houses and characters that are a part of these worlds – the set also comes with a paper insert that offers a handy cheat sheet for that info.
On disc one there are fifteen “Character Profiles” (31 min.) that have the main actors talks about their characters – it’s promo fluff, but it’s fun to hear the cast talk with their real accents. Disc one also offers a commentary on episode one by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, with the second episode offering commentary by Lena Headey, Mark Addy and Nikojlaj Coster-Waldau. The first speaks mostly to plot stuff, but also how the pilot was reshot with some actors recast, while the second has the actors talking about their scenes, and then speaking about great the rest of the cast is. Disc two offers commentary on episode three from Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright – the younger Stark children – and it’s what you’d expect from kids. Episode four comes with commentary by writer Bryan Cogman and star Kit Harington
Disc three offers commentary on Episode six with stars Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Harry Lloyd and director Daniel Minahan. It should be said that actors are fun to hear, but they usually only have something interesting to say about the scenes they’re in. Disc four has a commentary by George R.R. Martin. It’s the best track of the bunch and Martin has some interesting insights into what was changed for the show from his book, but he often lapses – as is often the case here – in describing the on-screen action. Disc five has a commentary for episode ten with show-runners David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and director Alan Taylor, and the meat of the supplements. There’s a making of (30 min.), which is a bit glossy, but covers the casting, locations and score quite well. It’s followed by “From the Book to the Screen” (5 min.), which gets Martin and the show runners to talk about the adaptation. “Creating the Show Open” (5 min.) gives the opening credit sequence its due for being “the coolest map anyone’s ever seen.” “Creating the Dothraki Language” (5 min.) is pretty self-explanatory while “The Night’s Watch” (8 min.) speaks to the wall, its set, and the characters who interact there. If you’re a fan it’s a must have.