‘Game of Thrones’ Sets the Gold Standard for TV Dramas

It’s no wonder that Game of Thrones is one of HBO’s biggest successes and a worldwide phenomenon. Plus, you know, it's got dragons.

Game of Thrones continues to set the gold standard for television dramas, based upon four factors: 1. the dizzying depth and detail of its fantasy world, ranging from its richly imagined visual sense to its reams of made-up history; 2. the lavish budget, which allows for that detail to be visually explicit onscreen; 3. the multilayered storytelling, which follows a multitude of plots concerning dozens of characters, each of whom is caught up in situations outside of their control but which carry life-or-death consequences for each; and finally, 4. the top-drawer acting of nearly every member of the cast, who bring an almost Shakespearean gravitas to what could easily have been a bit of Tolkien-lite puffery.

Throw in a host of other details – the costumes and special effects, sound editing and score, the unexpected humor and genuine human emotion – and you’ve got an unbeatable formula. It’s no wonder that the show is one of HBO’s biggest successes and a worldwide phenomenon. Plus, you know, it’s got dragons.

As it happens, Season 3 is the dullest season so far, lacking both the forward momentum of Season 1 and the epic, world-expanding scope of Season 2. Yes, Season 3 is large-scale, but warging aside, it does little to push those boundaries any further back, remaining content for the most part to explore within already-existing limits. Sam and Jon rattle around in the north, Dany gets herself an army in the east, the Lannisters scowl alarmingly in King’s Landing, Arya and Bran wander, Sansa mopes. Jamie… well, Jamie has some trials he must get through, including a bear. No shit – a bear!

Yet despite the sense of going over much familiar ground, the season ends powerfully, its penultimate episode being the strongest single hour in its run so far. No spoilers here, but that episode “The Rains of Castamere”, and the infamous “Red Wedding” it encompasses, incorporate all the elements beloved by fans of the show, most of all the disorienting sense that the fictional kingdom of Westeros is a world that plays by its own rules, and those rules are often rigged.

There are other highlights, of course. Robb and Catlyn’s journey to Riverrun introduces a couple of delicious characters, the foppish Edmure and Cat’s cousin Blackfish, a thoroughly badass figure in a world with no shortage of thoroughly badass characters. Arya encounters The Brotherhood Without Banners, a guerilla army dedicated to fighting just about everybody else, led by the charismatic Thoros of Myr. Up north, Jon Snow discovers girls (yay!) and Bran discovers he’s a warg, which is something most viewers cottoned on to midway through Season 1, even if they didn’t know the name for it yet. As one of the few resolutely magical storylines in this muddy-and-mucky fantasy series (along with the white walkers and Dany’s dragons), Bran’s ability to enter the consciousness of animals holds great promise for upcoming seasons.

Note: that’s not a spoiler. I haven’t read the books, and have no idea what’s going to happen. But a lot of it will probably be bad.

Oh, and Dany’s dragons are getting bigger.

Dany’s adventures to the east, in which she negotiates to buy a slave army, provides one of the most satisfying narrative arcs of the season, which is a nice change from Season 2, in which her going-nowhere storyline was a drag from the get-go. However, her final moments of here, in which the blond-haired, Aryan-looking Dany appears as a liberator and savior to great masses of unwashed colored slaves, is more than a little creepy. Are those celebratory, devotional hand-salutes supposed to look like Nazi “Hiel Hitler” gestures? Cuz they sure look that way to me.

Will Dany grow drunk with power, perhaps turn as wacko as her father, the deposed mad king? It’s certainly possible within the context of the story, but it would take daring to transform Emilia Clarke, the face of the franchise for many, from powerful woman to unstable villainess. Here’s hoping they do it.

Again: no spoilers here, just speculation.

Not every storyline is awesome. Theon Greyjoy spends much of the season strung up for torture, which is painful to watch, and not in a good way. The viewer would get a perfectly clear sense of what’s happening to him with the scenes shaved in half. The relationship between Jon Snow and wilding redhead hottie Ygritte spins in endless circles even as Jon struggles with his shifting allegiances. Finally, somebody needs to please hit Joffrey in the face, really hard, with a plate or something.

With such an ensemble drama, it’s difficult to declare the need for a central character, but the fact is that the first two seasons did have such Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister, respectively. This season diminishes Tyrion’s importance, with the result that that the season feels slightly formless. Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell are fantastic elders for their respective clans, and they are played fantastically well by Charles Dance and Diana Rigg, but neither one commands enough screen time to be considered the main engine to the narrative. Again, this isn’t a criticism per se, but it’s something different from previous seasons that lends this outing a somewhat different feel.

The blu-ray/DVD/download combo pack is the last word on this season, containing as it does all of the formats mentioned, with the kind of dazzling picture and sound that has become standard for high-end TV productions. It is laden with extra features, ranging from the usual commentaries featuring cast and crew, to puff-piece featurettes (do we really need a 14-minute recap of Season 2?) to some genuinely engaging stuff.

There are a couple of guides to the history of Westeros, narrated by various cast members in character and illustrated through comics-like drawings, which add much lore and background to the already-packed world of the TV show. (I assume this lore comes from the books and just couldn’t be packed into the series.) There are about 15 minutes of deleted scenes and expanded scenes, which for fans will provide extra moments with their favorite characters.

Most of all, there is a long (one hour 15 minute) feature on the ninth episode, “The Rains of Castamere”, which offer insight from director David Nutter, cast members, series producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and many others. It is essentially a visual commentary track that accompanies the entire episode, with drop-in commentary from George RR Martin to boot. It’s a worthy accompaniment to the season’s strongest episode.

Taken together, these extras provide hours more extra content than the episodes themselves (if all the commentary tracks are taken into account). For fans, this is a terrific pile of stuff to sift through. The in-episode guide, which provides information on characters, location and history even as the episode is running, is a distraction, but might be useful for less-rabid fans who have trouble keeping all the details straight.

For viewers wishing to own this series, this is definitely the set to get. The cost difference is minimal as compared to the DVDs alone, and the improvement in picture quality is significant (I have the first two seasons on DVD, and the better picture on my 26” HDTV is plain even to my not-especially-discerning eye). With Season 4 gearing up in early April, now is the time to refresh yourself on events from last year. If you’ve been keeping your distance from the series so far, well… this is a fine time to jump in.

RATING 8 / 10