Television, broadly speaking, asks a lot of its audience—too much, probably, given how rarely the investment of time and emotional energy demanded by even a single season of network drama pays off in a substantial way. So when Game of Thrones concluded its wildly popular first season by pulling a Marion Crane with its ostensible protagonist, it seemed a brazen fuck-you to anybody in the audience not already intimately familiar with the uncaring narrative dice rolls of the source material. Even for a series accustomed to regularly upending expectations and frustrating viewer desires, as Games of Thrones tends to do a few dozen times per episode, lopping off the head of the drama’s moral center—the one character for whom “good” is a remotely accurate descriptor—disrupts that unspoken sense of trust established between any long-form drama and those most committed to its rhythms, and it wouldn’t be surprising if more tentative fans simply gave up there and never looked back. It seemed, at the moment of swift death, to be asking too much.
Game of Thrones’s second season refutes the very idea that the world of Westeros could have a moral center, and in doing so recasts the untimely death of Eddard Stark as a necessary proof of the show’s essential disorder. It also finds the show drifting away from its roots as epic fantasy and instead toward a dramatic register more reminiscent of The Wire; the tendency of the first season to subvert or otherwise undermine audience satisfaction is more usefully deployed through season two as a function of the politics of power, where navigating everything from embittered personal rivalries to widespread institutional corruption becomes, to lean on the titular metaphor, nothing more than a game to be played. As in The Wire, the ruthless and the cunning yield rewards where the strictly noble do not, and the point at all times seems to be that, in fantasy as in reality, there’s no cosmic order governing the action to the benefit of the duly just and principled. Ed Stark, in other words, was a good man who played the game badly. And Game of Thrones has no patience for bad players.
That unforgiving quality makes Game of Thrones a smarter show than it is an especially satisfying one, but that’s also what distinguishes it from the bulk of its contemporaries; few other shows, even among HBO’s comparatively difficult prestige dramas, are as dead-set against pandering, which in an era of nearly limitless content is a commendable strategy. It has been fashionable lately, of course, for television to articulate (if crudely) a degree of moral ambiguity in the way it deals with violence and death, and those dramatically meaty grey areas are certainly as interesting to Game of Thrones as they are to, say, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, both of which take pleasure in casting aspersions on their own heroes. But Game of Thrones doesn’t linger over the implications of hard decisions or the psychic toll of immorality; that dimension of its characters, whether largely forefronted or hidden from view, is taken for granted as a necessary consequence of real thought and action. A betrayal isn’t a revelation to be regarded with shock or awe; it’s a calculated move to be judged on the basis of its efficacy. The real focus, especially across season two, is on the space between the characters, the actions yet unmade and the decisions being pondered. It’s like watching chess: Each new move changes the character of the board, and what’s interesting is how the strategy of both players must fluctuate and shift.
Game of Thrones is, simply put, the best-looking show on television, and so it was probably a given that HBO would put every effort into bringing the series to home video with the best possible A/V presentation. And, like season one before it, season two’s Blu-ray is basically flawless: This sterling 1080p transfer is bright, balanced, and crystal-clear throughout, matched only by the rich, booming DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack.
HBO has made it standard practice in recent years to lavish absurd amounts of effort and expense on collections for home video, and the intimidating box set within which season two of Game of Thrones arrives is no exception: This whopping seven-disc collection (that’s five Blu-rays and two DVDs) includes a wealth of special features, including multiple cast and crew commentary tracks per episode, a host of featurettes and making-of specials, and several in-episode, drop-down cue cards designed to help unpack the show’s often labyrinthian plotlines and character arcs. Blu-ray-exclusive extras include the exhaustive "War of the Five Kings," an interactive guide allowing viewers to explore the map of Westeros and examine in some depth how its individual components relate to one another. The bulk of this content is encyclopedic, which, given the complexity of the material’s lore, seems a sensible move. If there’s literally anything you’d like to know about the world George R. R. Martin has created, from how the Old Gods are distinguished from the New to precisely how far Denariis is from everybody else at any given time, this set has got you covered.
Whether you pay the gold price or the iron price, HBO’s top-notch box set of Game of Thrones’s second season is well-worth the investment.