“Winter is coming.”
This phrase echoes throughout Game of Thrones, HBO’s latest hit series. Watching the ten episodes that comprise the first season, now out on Blu-ray and DVD, it is apparent that dark days do indeed linger on the horizon.
Sometimes everyone is right. Unless you’ve been living in some sort of darkened cave, especially if it’s a cave without cable, you have at least a passing familiarity with Game of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the show is epic in every sense of the word, and more than a little like a grim, fantasy soap opera. Which is to say it’s totally wonderful, and full of swordplay, chivalry, and everything that keeps you coming back to this sort of story. As a fan you’ll appreciate that Game of Thrones never plays out as expected, and that the show has no compunction about killing off absolutely any one of the characters you have grown to love.
Game of Thrones is the story of Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a medieval world full of dynasties, warriors, and unscrupulous characters all striving for money, power, and glory. The ultimate goal is to sit atop the Iron Throne, a seat crafted out of the melted down swords of vanquished enemies of the realm. In the middle of this turmoil falls Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), Lord of Winterfell, the Northern region of Westeros, and his extensive family. Ned is a man of honor and loyalty, who always does the right thing no matter the cost. As you can imagine, it is not easy for a man like this in a world of backstabbing, sprawling conspiracies to grab power and favor, and all manner of widespread treachery.
The casting for Game of Thrones is spot on. Bean is a perfect choice for the grizzled warrior who has been through countless campaigns and battles, but isn’t prepared for the political world he’s thrown into. Peter Dinklage, who won a Golden Globe for his role, makes you love and hate his character, Tyrion Lannister. Also know by the pejorative nickname the Imp, he is a self-deprecating, funny, witty, conniving bastard. You want to hang out and drink wine with him, but hope to god that you never get on his bad side. Even the child actors are great. Maisie Williams steals every scene as Ned’s wild, impulsive daughter Arya; and you want to slap that smug, lipless grin off of Jack Gleeson’s face as Prince Joffrey.
There are countless reasons to watch Game of Thrones, and myriad factors that make it one of the best shows currently on television. But at the top of the list is the how they handle the world building; how they create Westeros. Setting the stage is important in any story, but especially vital in science fiction and fantasy. I’m not just talking about costumes and sets and surface details—all of that is important, and Game of Thrones does an impeccable job in this arena as well—but about how the show lays out the history, mythology, and culture of the world. These are the things that make a world feel real and expansive, and this is what Game of Thrones does better than anyone else working in this genre at the moment.
This is what the best speculative fiction does, and while much of the groundwork is laid out in Martin’s books, the series makes full use of that information. Westeros has an intricate history, as full of wars, monarchs, lineages, and eras as our own world. This is true on a grand scale, but also on a smaller level. Each character has their own individual history. For example Ned has a hidden past with Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) that is hinted at and referenced, but never explicitly stated. The same is true of every character. You get the feeling that everyone you meet, and you meet a lot of people, has their own unique story to tell, full of love, loss, triumph, and defeat, and that Martin could have written a novel about any one of them.
Within the intricate web that is Westeros, they do a commendable job balancing the storylines. There are so many threads going on that it would be easy for one or another to take precedence, become the focus, or simply be more interesting than the rest. Game of Thrones creates an equality between the narratives and manages to make all of them equally compelling so that you remain engaged no matter which strand you’re watching.
The Blu-ray/DVD of Game of Thrones worth picking up for the show alone, but the home release comes stacked with bonus features. Seven of the ten episodes have accompanying commentary tracks. Narrators include show creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, George R.R. Martin himself, Dinklage, Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), and more. They are an indepth mix of background info, technical details, and behind the scenes anecdotes from production that are entertaining and informative at the same time.
Disc one has a feature that breaks down the kingdoms, regions, families, and what have you. This may seem unnecessary, but it is helpful at first to orient you, because there are a ton of characters, storylines, subplots, realms, and hidden histories. There are behind-the-scenes features, one that explores translating the story from the page to the screen, character profiles, a look into the men of the Night’s Watch, and a glimpse into the process used to create an entire new language for Game of Thrones.
The show alone is worth the purchase price, but bonus materials make the Blu-ray/DVD release that much better.