A few years ago, who would have guessed that one of HBO’s biggest hits would be a series based on a dense, complicated, and relentlessly dark series of fantasy novels? Sure, the Lord of the Rings movies made a mint, but Lord of the Rings was a known quantity and a series with a fan base spanning decades. When Game of Thrones first debuted, the books it was based on (the A Song and Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin) were a big hit among fantasy buffs but virtually unknown to the general public. Now that the show is coming up on its fourth season, though, there is no doubt that HBO made the right decision in green-lighting it. It is quite simply one of the best things on TV.
For many shows, there can be substantial fluctuations in quality between seasons, but that is not the case for Game of Thrones. It started off strong from the very first episode and has been remarkably consistent since then. The third season is no exception, although the inclusion of one infamous scene in particular may make it the favorite or least favorite season for different viewers depending on how much they enjoy feeling like a ton of bricks has been dropped on them.
For those who have made it through the first two seasons, the amount of brutality in the third season won’t be a big surprise… for the most part. Even the most jaded and calloused TV viewer could be in for a shock or two, though, because this is a show that truly pulls no punches. No character is safe, as evidenced by the conclusion of the first season, but that foreknowledge still does not soften the blow for some of the more difficult plot points of season three. Obviously, those who have read the books will be better braced for what’s coming, but the writers of the TV series made just enough subtle tweaks that even those readers will get to witness new horrors they were not previously subjected to.
There has occasionally been criticism of the show that it engages in shock value for shock value’s sake, but that does not do George R.R. Martin’s writing justice. As he explains in the Blu-Ray’s special features and has stated elsewhere, his goal was to create a world that is as emotionally true to the real world as possible. Even as dragons soar through the skies and hordes of the undead march from the snowy north toward the land of the living, there is a realism to Game of Thrones. In the real world, the good guys don’t always win. In fact, sometimes awful things happen to them. There is grief and loss and injustice, and all of those things are present in spades in the world Martin has created.
While those themes were certainly pervasive in the first two seasons, they really come to the forefront in season three. It’s much easier to let go of a character you’ve spent a single season with than it is to let go of a character you’ve spent over two seasons with. The same goes for storylines, as well, which can take unexpected turns at the drop of a hat. Because of George R.R. Martin’s fearlessness in killing off characters or, short of that, putting them through utter hell, it is next to impossible to guess where the show is going next. Every character has his or her own struggle, and for each one of them the world is equally bleak. At times it can be exhausting to watch episode after episode of relentless misery, but in the end the show is so compelling that it somehow makes all that misery endurable.
If there is one flaw the show has, it’s just how difficult it can be to keep track of all the characters and plot points sometimes. There is a lot to digest, and especially for those who have not read the books, it can get a bit confusing. For those who find themselves frequently getting lost as to what’s happening in the show: first of all, read the books. It is extraordinarily helpful, even if the show does occasionally deviate from the source material. For those who don’t have the time or inclination to read the books, though- because let’s face it, that’s a pretty big investment of time- the Blu-Rays offer a wealth of resources to fill in the gaps.
That is really the primary benefit of watching the series on Blu-Ray. HBO went all out in creating an experience that goes above and beyond simply re-packaging the TV series with a few deleted scenes and promos for other shows. There is literally hours upon hours of bonus material packaged in with the episodes themselves, from commentary tracks on all the episodes (sometimes even two commentary tracks for an episode) to an extensive look at “The Rains of Castamere,” which is the season’s penultimate episode and the one that left many a Game of Thrones fan sitting slack-jawed in horror in its aftermath.
The complete list of special features is listed below:
DVD + Blu-Ray:
- “A Gathering Storm” Featurette – Look back at the stormy events of Season 2 in this 14-minute recap with cast and crew.
- “The Politics of Marriage” Featurette – The concept of matrimony in Westeros is all about making power plays and political aliances. Cast and crew examine this ancient institution and its place in Game of Thrones.
- “Inside the Wildlings” Featurette – Go beyond the Wall with this introduction to the wildlings to gain a better understanding of their backstory.
- New Characters of Season 3 – Meet the new faces in Season 3: Olenna Tyrell, Missandei, Mance Rayder, Tormund Giantsbane, Orell, Jojen & Meera Reed, Blackfish & Edmure Tully, Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion.
- Deleted/Extended Scenes – Five deleted and extended scenes.
- Audio Commentaries – 12 commentaries with cast and crew including David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, George R.R. Martin, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Kit Harington, Richard Madden and more.
- In-Episode Guide – In-feature resource that provides background information about on-screen characters, locations and relevant histories.
- “The Rains of Castamere” Unveiled – Get an in-depth look at the creation of the most pivotal episode of Season 3 in this comprehensive exposé featuring cast and crew.
- The Roots of Westeros – Explore the interconnected web of relationships, rivalries and conflicts between the noble houses of Westeros with this interactive guide.
- Histories & Lore – Learn about the mythology of Westeros as told from the varying perspectives of the characters themselves.
Yeah, that’s a pretty long list, but almost everything here is worth digging into and for fans of the show, there is so much here that will make for essential viewing. “The Rains of Castamere” Unveiled is a particular stand-out, with scene-by-scene video commentary and link-out videos that are essentially special features inside a special feature. It’s basically the Inception of special features, and if one explores all the video within it then it ends up being significantly longer than the episode itself. That might sound excessive, but it is particularly well done, and with an episode as important to the show’s overall story arc as “The Rains of Castamere,” the extra attention is definitely not unwarranted.
The video and audio quality on the Blu-rays also impress and are both top notch. Game of Thrones is a beautiful and epic TV show, and seeing it in full 1080p video with Dolby DTS 5.1 surround sound is definitely the way to go if you have the home theater to support it. From the opening moments of the season when pitch blackness and the booming roar of a dragon give way to a vast, wintery wasteland, the visuals and audio go hand in hand to give the show a truly epic quality.
If it seems like I’m gushing over Game of Thrones and the treatment HBO has given its third season on Blu-Ray, it’s because I am. The show is a tremendous accomplishment. It has a fully-realized world that draws upon an excellent book series and somehow manages to make it even better. It is visually stunning on a level that would have been previously unthinkable on the small screen. But most of all, it is simply one of the most compelling shows on TV right now. On top of all that, HBO really pulled out all the stops for the Blu-Ray edition and presented a package that truly enhances the experience.
HBO has delivered the definitive way to experience season three of Game of Thrones, with stunning audio and video and enough special features to satisfy even the most obsessive-compulsive fan of the show.