Review: 'Game of Thrones' Season 3 DVD does right by The Red Wedding and more
Come for the seasons, stay for another charming Maisie/Sophie/Isaac commentary
The primary reason to get Season 3 of "Game of Thrones" on DVD when it drops on Tuesday (February 18) is, of course, Season 3 of "Game of Thrones."
HBO's George R.R. Martin adaptation has made my annual Top 10 list each year since it premiered and came in at No. 7 for 2013 in what was probably its strongest season.
Most of the Season 3 hype surrounded the long-awaited Red Wedding, which viewers were able to celebrate -- in a manner of speaking -- in the penultimate episode, "The Rains of Castamere." But that was hardly the only shocking standout in an admirably consistent season. There was the epic Daenerys-centric conclusion to "And Now His Watch Is Ended," the icy scaling of The Wall on "The Climb," long stretches of awesome scenes with Arya and The Hound, long stretches of awesome scenes with Brienne and Jamie, at least one epic butting-of-heads between Peter Dinklage and Dame Diana Rigg, several wargs, three dragons and one bear. And *then* there was The Red Wedding, which might have been the centerpiece of 2013's single best episode of television, were it not for "Breaking Bad."
If you skipped the season on HBO, either because you aren't a subscriber or you were waiting to binge, it's great stuff. And if you're already a fan of "Game of Thrones" and you like owning DVDs still -- there are a few of us out there -- you know that you probably want this one already and that's especially true if you're a Blu-Ray user, because the show's cinematography and visual effects look rather gorgeous in the format.
That makes the DVD bonus features truly that: They're bonuses and after spending a day making my way through a slew of commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes, I'll just say that nothing here is essential, but there's an awful lot of good stuff that will supplement your enjoyment of the series, whether you're a fan of Martin's novels or you're choosing to experience Westeros primarily as a TV experience. At the very least, a deep dive into the bonus features will have you champing at the bit for new episodes, which are still a month-and-a-half away.
Click through for my review/overview of some of the bonus features. I'm going to probably spoil some things, so if you haven't watched Season 3 yet, you should just watch the season and then maybe check back here, if you happen to care still.
Last warning on the spoilers...
As one would expect, the bonus features peak on the fourth disc with material around "The Rains of Castamere."
It's an episode that comes with a pair of commentary tracks, including a great and fittingly sad track with Richard Madden, Michelle Fairley and David Nutter, plus a second tech-heavy track with stunt coordinators and the various weapon masters.
With those two tracks, there's some overlap on the episode-length "'The Rains of Castamere' Unveiled,'" which is an interesting mix commentary, talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage that cover every bit of the episode, including the scenes that aren't related to the Red Wedding. As a viewer who quibbled, at least slightly, with the amount of the episode that was spent away from the main drama with the Starks and Freys, I welcomed the attempts to explain the intended purpose behind what felt more like unnecessary elongations of the episode than anything that enriched the main story. Basically every notable producer, writer, director and star gets to weigh in during the doc, including Madden, Fairley and Oona Chaplin, plus David Bradley and even Alexandra Dowling, who plays Walder's Unexpectedly Hot Daughter. The doc has a good mixture of amusing stories and interesting technical insights into how the shocking effects were made more shocking. Then, when the episode reaches its climax, you can choose to watch uninterrupted, go to commentary-only with Martin, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, or continue with the hybrid doc.
HBO has been marketing the DVD set with the familiar footage of shocked audiences and their reactions to The Red Wedding and I wish that there had been another 15 minutes to focus on the aftermath, for the departing actors to weigh in on the experience and for a bit more on fan response. That's a minor quibble, though. "Unveiled" does right by the pivotal episode and is easily the most substantive and essential of the DVD featurettes.
Actually, the other featurettes are limited, at best, in their appeal. The 14-minute "A Gathering Storm" is a very basic Season 2 recap, aimed mostly a forgetful newbies. Similarly, "Inside the Wildlings" and "New Characters" are closer to promotional materials than any kind of enriching material.
The brief "The Politics of Marriage" talks about the importance of matrimony in the power struggle in Westeros, but does so in such a superficial manner that I'm not sure why they bothered. I've talked to several of the actresses from the show and I know that Fairley and Natalie Dormer and Lena Headey all have interesting thoughts on this subject and I'd have loved to get insight from a few smart critics with an interest in gender-and-power, somebody like Friend of HitFix Alyssa Rosenberg. If you think the topic is important -- and it is -- give it 30 minutes or even an hour, don't skim with only eight minutes.
A couple of the better features are presented almost as afterthoughts and I'd recommend both "Histories and Lore" and "Roots of Westeros" for TV-only fans looking for more breadth and depth on this world, or for less-than-obsessive readers looking for reminders. Both featurettes are poorly laid-out, but they offer a series of brief animated takes on geography, history and characters who are central to the mythos of Martin's world, but maybe haven't been covered on the show. The animation is varied, the stories are interesting and several of the best bits also feature the show's actors in character.
As for deleted and extended scenes, it's a weak lot. Across the full 10 episodes, you're looking at only five scenes, three featuring Jon Snow and stuff Beyond the Wall. None of them added any real value for me, but I guess it's nice to get a couple extra seconds with Ciaran Hinds' Mance Rayder. At least the deleted scenes weren't another 45 minutes of Theon getting tortured.
The "Game of Thrones" team has made a solid commitment to commentary tracks and the Season 3 set includes 12 of them, highlighting every episode other than the premiere. Why did nobody want to talk about "Valar Dohaeris"? No clue. And nearly every major actor is represented other than Peter Dinklage. Part of me wants to believe that Drunk Peter Dinklage recorded the most awesome commentary track imaginable for "Valar Dohaeris" and it was just too awesome for HBO to allow the public to experience it.
Sadly, there's only one commentary track featuring Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright, who have proven in the past that as a trio they produce a rare audio alchemy that's simultaneously goofy, hilarious, adorably unaffected and yet also informative. Their commentary on "The Climb" is totally charming and it's the only commentary I listened to in its entirety during Sunday's binge. I'd probably listen to 10 Sophie/Isaac/Maisie commentaries per season. I may be the only one.
While commentaries from Martin and Weiss & Benioff are reliably solid, I'd also definitely recommend Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie with writer Bryan Cogman on "Kissed by Fire." I'd advise steering clear of the "Mhysa" commentary from Emilia Clarke, Iain Glen and the weirdly shoehorned-in Iwan Rheon, which does a disservice to the season finale and finds one of the actors uttering those commentary track words-of-death, "I know we should be speaking but the scenes are too good to interrupt." Ugh.
[In comments, folks are explaining that a better way to use the "Histories and Lore" and "Roots of Westeros" animations are through the In-Episode Guides. Next time!]
"Game of Thrones" Season 3 hits DVD on Tuesday, February 18. The fourth season premieres on Sunday, April 6.