War and Peace and Lords and Dragons

Game of Thrones is one of the most epic stories ever to grace the small screen, and these new steelbook collections offer a wealth of bonus features.

Game of Thrones: The Complete First and Second Seasons

Distributor: HBO
TV show: Game of Thrones
Network: HBO
Release date: 2015-11-04

Fans of George R.R. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire grimdark fantasy series knew what was in store for them when HBO premiered its adaptation in April 2011, but many viewers were experiencing that world for the first time, and they were in for a ride unlike many others on TV.

That first season introduced those viewers to the world of Westeros, one loosely based on medieval history, which Martin is well-versed in. As during the European Middle Ages, Westeros is a place where wealthy families consolidate their power through various schemes that sometimes create allies but often pit their armies against each other. Marriages are arranged for political reasons, and betrayals are common.

If there are good guys in Game of Thrones, they would be House Stark, whose Lord, Eddard, finds himself summoned to King's Landing to serve as the Hand of the King after the previous holder of that title mysteriously dies. He reluctantly takes his family with him and carries out his duties, driven by loyalty to King Robert Baratheon, who is an old friend of his.

Lord Stark and his family soon discover that life in King's Landing is much different from their home in wintry Winterfell, which is the most northern seat of power before one reaches the Wall that keeps the wildlings and others from invading Westeros. Machievellian plots reveal themselves during the course of the first season's ten episodes, the ninth of which culminates in a shocking death that lets viewers know that any character can die at any time.

The second season is more of the same, as characters scheme against each other. King Baratheon passed away during the first season (his was not the shocking death), leaving his sadistic son to rule in his place. The Stark family finds themselves in disarray, with some of them victims of King Joffrey's vicious whims.

Joffrey's mother Cersei, whose marriage to Robert Baratheon was a loveless one more concerned with political convenience than anything else, continues her scheming. Her secret lover is her twin brother Jaime and she despises her dwarf brother Tyrion, who relies on his wits and his family's position of power to survive a cruel world.

Elsewhere, Daenerys Targaryen continues to build the small power base begun in the first season, when she was forced to marry the leader of the nomadic Dothraki and took his position after he died. Her long term goal is to cross the Narrow Sea and attack King's Landing so she can take what she believes is her rightful place on the Iron Throne currently occupied by Joffrey.

Those are the major players in Game of Thrones' power struggles, but there are others vying for control, too, including Robert Baratheon's brother Stannis, who is also plotting to take the Iron Throne, and the King's Small Council of advisors, such as the one known as "Littlefinger" and the eunuch spymaster Lord Varys.

Each episode moves at a rapid pace, jumping from place to place as the characters' stories move forward little by little. Over the course of a season, some characters may move several places on the chessboard while others could gain little ground, but as the seasons unfold, the epic scope of the story reveals itself. Game of Thrones may sometimes require a cheat sheet to keep track of who's who and what's happening where, but its larger-than-life story sucks in the viewer and compels them to watch one episode after another.

The first two seasons of the series have been out on Blu-ray before, but these sets feature attractive steelbook packaging and collectible magnets with the Stark and Lannister family crests, along with Dolby Atmos audio tracks that feature more immersive sound. If you have the previous release, that's all you should take into account if you're considering double-dipping, since the bonus features are the same. (Be aware that the steelbooks have the Blu-ray discs stacked on the hubs, making them difficult to remove. Not sure who thought that was a good idea.)

If you don't have the earlier season collections, though, these sets are definitely worth purchasing since they each contain copious bonus features, too, along with several Easter eggs that are, of course, in the form of dragon eggs. (A quick Google search will point you to sites that explain how to access the dragon eggs, which lead to brief audition clips.)

Both collections feature audio commentaries on most, but not all, of the episodes, with a few episodes receiving two tracks. Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss show up on a few of them, and Martin takes a solo turn on a couple episodes. It's interesting to hear how Benioff and Weiss discuss their approaches to the material, especially on the series' first episode, which was reshot after an earlier version was thought to be too confusing, compared to Martin, who has a TV writing background too and understands why the show has had to deviate from his books in many ways large and small.

Various cast members show up on other tracks, along with directors, writers, and visual effects people here and there. As with many film commentaries, the cast members' discussions tend to be the least interesting if you're looking for insight into the creative process, since they often simply relate anecdotes from the production. The directors and writers tend to dig into the nuts and bolts of storytelling, if that's your thing, but all of the commentaries are worth listening to if you're a big fan of the show.

Both season sets also feature character profiles on their first discs, in case you need a refresher, along with a guide for each episode, so you can see which characters and locations are in use for each scene. In the season one set, you can leave the in-episode guide any time to learn even more information in the Complete Guide, which tends to be handy with the series' many minor characters.

The first season set also has an "anatomy of an episode" feature with several behind-the-scenes featurettes for the "A Golden Crown" episode, along with a 30-minute making-of piece. The collection wraps up with very short featurettes about the adaptation process, how the well-known opening was created, how the Dothraki language was put together, and a look at the Night's Watch.

Since the season one set covers the basics, season two's main making-of piece looks at how the Battle of Blackwater Bay was assembled for the ninth episode. Another featurette has Weiss and Benioff moderating a discussion among some of the cast members in which they talk about their characters and how they felt about shooting scenes in exotic locations. There's also eight minutes about Westeros' several religions and how they connect with the characters and the story world.

The second season set concludes with a collection of stories about Westeros' history, read by characters from the series, and an interactive map that details the competition for The Iron Throne. The hidden dragon eggs in this set lead to some deleted scenes -- again, a quick Google search will reveal how to find them.





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