(Warning - spoilers ahead)
Everything about Game of Thrones is big. It's the biggest show on TV both literally and figuratively, with its massive cast (some episodes have more speaking roles than the average feature film) and innumerable story threads resulting in huge ratings and record Emmy wins. The books are doorstoppers even in paperback form, the production takes place in at least three countries, there are so many characters that no single actor has appeared in every episode... the only small thing about is the detail in some of its (yes, massive) sets. So it's fitting that the Blu-ray releases are mammoth in turn, offering up nearly fifteen hours of bonus content in a four-disc package that has not one but two slipcovers. Some TV seasons are rather thin when they come to disc; you'll get a commentary or two, maybe a couple of quick (and toothless) behind the scenes fluff pieces, and that's about it - but HBO and the show's creators do right by the fans each and every year.
And for the first time, I've been able to go through it all! I got the first season when it first came to disc (I don't have HBO, I should mention), but with life, work, video games, horror movies, other shows, and general bad time management working against me, I wasn't able to finish it by the time Season two was already hitting stores as well. Likewise, when Season three hit I had barely even started Season two, which I still hadn't finished when Season four reached shelves. When I did finish a season, I had the choice between using that limited time to press on or watching bonus features - and I always went with the former option, in my attempt to finally catch up on the damn show and have context for all of those spoilers (it got to the point where someone would tweet out a death and I wouldn't even know who it was). I got serious about this quest over this past summer (Jon Snow's death was the last straw as far as spoilers were concerned), getting through my remaining discs and begging a friend for their HBOGo account to watch Season five. And on August 31st (thanks, Twitter search) I watched 5x10 ("Mother's Mercy") and was, for the first time since the show premiered, as caught up as everyone else.
Or, I should say, everyone else who hasn't read the books. I've since listened to the original A Game of Thrones on tape, but I have a few others I want to get to before listening to the 2nd volume (A Clash of Kings), so it's a safe bet I won't be up to speed on George RR Martin's prose until the show is long gone. But that worked out nicely when I sat down with the bonus features (all of which are on disc four, save for the commentaries and episode guides, which are obviously on their respective discs), as some of them are devoted to fleshing out the backstories and histories of the show's various people and locations, text that is, I assume, taken directly from the book. There is a lot focused on the show's production as well, but for those who know the books inside and out, there might not be as much useful info here as there is for someone like me who pretty much only knows what the TV show has told us.
It should be noted that the two primary "historical info" pieces, "The Dance of Dragons" and the "Histories and Lore" section (comprised of about a dozen tales) are exclusive to the Blu-ray, though by now if you haven't upgraded you probably aren't the sort who cares much about this sort of thing anyway (we're as far into Blu-ray's lifespan as DVD was when Blu first started hitting shelves). "The Dance of Dragons" runs about twenty minutes and in motion comic form tells the story of the Targaryen civil war, which killed off most of the dragons and was fought about 170 years before the events on the show. It's narrated by the actors from the show (including Jack Gleeson, telling about a *different* Joffrey who also died young), but since it's largely unrelated to the show's story, I found it hard to remain engaged by it, though I should point out I rarely enjoy the "motion comic" format unless it's something I'm already familiar with (the Watchmen one, for example).
This style is used for the "Histories and Lore" as well, but as they are relatively brief (3-5 minutes each) and focusing on in-show characters and locations, I found it much more appealing. Of particular interest was the history of Winterfell, which I have to assume was shown on a previous Blu-ray (probably narrated by Sean Bean or another Stark actor), but this time it's from the perspective of Roose Bolton (voiced by Michael McElhatton, naturally), giving it a fun spin on what may be a familiar story. The history of Dorne and the Many-Faced God were also quite enlightening, and in some cases I wish I saw them BEFORE I watched the season as it might have helped give the context the show sometimes glossed over.
On that note, I realize I didn't say much about my opinion of this season - it was not my favorite by any means; I think the last three episodes were terrific but getting there wasn't always as engaging as the other seasons. Between the people Arya was with, the religious group led by Jonathan Pryce, and those creepy masked dudes hellbent on killing Daenerys, it felt like there were too many "mysterious groups" for one season, and not enough time to develop them into compelling storylines. When the episodes would switch to Jon Snow, Stannis, or Tyrion, I was often riveted... but as soon as I saw Arya walking around with oysters again, my interest would deflate. Presumably, had I read the books or watched the "histories and lore" pieces, I might have found them more fulfilling, having a greater sense of these new folks' goals and background than the show had time to really offer. Then again, I understand the show is going down their own path more and more (they kind of have to, since season six doesn't have a book equivalent yet) so maybe it would have just made it more annoying, having something set in stone in my head and then seeing the show change it without doing enough to justify those changes. It wasn't a bad season, and again the last three hours made up for most of my issues anyway, but if I were to find myself with ten hours to kill and all of the seasons at my disposal, it wouldn't be the one I grabbed.
Anyway, back to the extras! The only other Blu exclusive feature is the now-standard episode guides that can be toggled on or off fairly easily. If you've never used it, you get a little HUD on the right side of the screen with a few buttons - one for characters, one for location, etc. Highlighting one will tell you who the people in the scene are, where they are, and even some of the historical info. I love this option and missed it dearly when watching on HBO for the first time instead of my Blu-rays, as they are quite handy to turn on and get a reminder of who someone is and why they're mad at the other people in the scene. I'm not sure when they stopped doing it, but the first season's disc came with a family tree map of the major families (Starks, Barratheons, Lannisters, etc.) and I remember having it in my hand the entire time for the first few episodes before getting comfortable enough to watch along without it, but the guides got turned on at least once an episode throughout the rest of that season and the next three - there were just too many characters for me to keep track of when watching in such scattered bursts. The show is gorgeous and deserves a high def presentation (please note - you're not getting the full extent of that on HBO streaming no matter how good your connection is), but honestly the guides alone make it worth spending the extra couple bucks on the Blu set*.
The rest of the extras are available to all, with the best one being "The Real History Behind Game of Thrones", which is (for some reason) broken up into two parts, running a little over forty minutes total. Here, Martin and several experts discuss the various real world battles and figures that inspired Martin's fictional characters and locations, all mixed and matched from various eras and locations. The Wars of the Roses of the 15th century was the primary influence, but Joffrey's death was inspired by the death of Prince Eustace (son of King Stephen), over three hundred years earlier. And the infamous "Red Wedding" was directly inspired by a Scottish event over two hundred years after the Wars of the Roses ended! This pick and choose method has been a wise one, as no one can look at the Wars of the Roses and figure out who will ultimately "win" in his series by matching every character up to their real life counterpart. Plus I enjoyed imagining these folks, who have devoted their careers to real history, getting called up to talk about something that really happened and how it relates to a show its own actors refer to as "Titties and Dragons".
(And while Snow's death isn't really covered, his very obvious historical influence was reflected in a very fun way - the set came out on March 15th, i.e. The Ides of March. Heh.)
Then there are a pair of featurettes that offer a tiny glimpse of how massive this production is, with "A Day in the Life" focusing on what goes on during a given day of filming across its three major shooting areas (Croatia, Belfast, and Iceland), focusing on everything from corralling the extras to blocking out major scenes with the actors, while coordinating what needs to be done for previous/upcoming episodes - it's insane how many pieces have to fall into place for just one day's worth of shooting to get into the can. The other one, "Anatomy of an Episode: Mother's Mercy" doesn't spend too much time on the production, but instead tackles all of the major storylines (with some behind the scenes footage, primarily quick bits of how the visual FX are put together) and characters that just one episode showcased. There's a bit of promotional "and wait til you see what happens next in season 6!" feeling to it at times, but mostly it does a fine job of showing how just one episode (a season finale, granted) can change the course for so many major characters.
A handful of deleted/extended (mostly the latter) scenes are also offered on the 4th disc, curiously lumped together despite being from various episodes. It's not too difficult to figure out where they would have been, roughly, but a little context couldn't hurt. The best of the lot is an extended scene between Jamie and Bronn as they sit in the bowels of the ship en route to Dorne (from "Sons of the Harpy"), where Bronn explains why he doesn't care much about having a personal, well-kept sword - more Bronn is always a good thing, so this was my favorite of the four. With the show's inconsistent length (episodes run anywhere from 50 to 65 minutes) I guess it makes sense that there wouldn't be a lot of deleted material - by now they are probably well aware of how much they need to shoot for an episode, and have the ability to go longer/shorter when needed (unlike say a network sitcom which has to be 21:30 pretty much to the second).
As for the commentaries, they're a mixed lot. I didn't get to all of them (there are twelve in all, with only one episode - "The Gift" - lacking one, so yes some episodes have more than one), but the ones I did varied from "this should have been a five minute interview" ("High Sparrow", featuring a production designer, a costume designer, and a DP - nothing against them but hearing someone talk about a costume isn't particularly engaging especially when their narration extends past the scene in question) to quite fun, like "Hardhome" featuring the episode's director, the stunt coordinator, and two of the actors (Kit Harington and Kristofer Hivju). There's some ball-busting (after Harington introduces himself and says he "played Jon Snow in this episode", someone asks who he played in the previous one) and a lot of talk about how that massive battle scene came together, plus a few reminders of how disconnected the production can be for the actors (when the talk turns to the throne room, Harington remarks how he's never actually seen it). Usually actor commentaries pale in comparison to directors/writers (for me anyway), but this is an exception - the actors are often a delight, as they not only have plenty to say about their own characters but charmingly watch the other scenes as fans, whereas camera operators... well, are probably interesting to camera operators, at least. Pretty much every actor of note offers a track on a key episode for their character (yes, Lena Headey is present for "Mother's Mercy" and her walk of shame), but all of the ones I listened to (even "Hardhome") had some dead spots - David Benioff and DB Weiss are probably the only two who could conceivably have something to say about every scene, after all, and they only appear on one track (also "Mother's Mercy"). Hardcore devotees of the show might eat all this stuff up, but as a casual fan I can honestly say I doubt I'll ever go back and watch every one of them (or do so for the previous seasons - I'll pick and choose if the time ever allows).
But I guess having more supplementary material than you actually have time to view is hardly a bad thing, and with so many people doing stellar work for the show on both sides of the camera, I am glad HBO gives them their due. It'd be strange and even somewhat insulting for something this big and rich to come to disc with the episodes and nothing else, and they've done a fine job of reflecting all that hard work. There are some things that I was surprised to see go rather under-represented, like an in-depth look at the special FX or the stunt work, but I also assume that those things have been covered in previous seasons and would be redundant by now (just as I assume the look at one average day in the production is a new idea for this year). Long story short, even if the season itself was spotty, it has been given a thorough and often enriching presentation on disc, and if you have a day job/family obligations I wouldn't be surprised if you weren't able to watch every single thing on it by the time Season six starts in April. But at least I can vouch that it's worth the effort to try.
*The Blu-ray sets used to come with a DVD version as well, but HBO has phased that out, sadly. Not that I'd want to watch the show on a little portable, but the commentaries and regular making of features would be a fine way to pass the time on a flight or long commute on public transportation, so I always loved when my Blu-rays came with a DVD "backup". You could also be a hero to a non-high def friend and give them the discs if you didn't have any use for them!