Game of Thrones: The Complete Season Six (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) – For five years the epic HBO historical fantasy series “Game of Thrones” has followed the storyline of author George R.R. Martin’s novels. Until season six, when the series took the story beyond the five volumes Martin has published to date. Which means that for the first time the faithful readers were in uncharted territory.
The first episode reorients the audience with the vast cast of characters and the numerous storylines: Jon Snow dead (assassinated in a mutiny at Castle Black in the season five finale), Sansa on the run from the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, Cerci in a battle for control over King’s Landing with The Sparrow (a priest with a fanatical following), and Daenerys (the Mother of Dragons) captured by the Dothraki, a warrior race determined to stop her rise to power, and more besides.
The series, which began as a battle between powerful men with royal blood and hereditary claims to the throne, has transformed into a drama about powerful women—along with Daenerys and Cerci and Sansa are the cunning Queen Margaery, warrior Brienne, and assassin Arya—challenging the patriarchy and male outcasts and underdogs—bastard sons Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, dwarf Tyrion, eunuch Varys, crippled Bran—challenging all expectations of their potential. This is a fantasy on a massive scale, an entire world created on location in numerous countries and epic battles with massive armies, armadas of ships, and flying, fire-breathing dragons, and a story to match with huge set pieces and affecting moments of human connection and tragedy (the story of Hodor is heartbreaking).
10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary on every episode, the half-hour documentary “The Battle of the Bastards” on one of the biggest set pieces in the show’s history—the battle between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton—and additional featurettes and deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the interactive “In-Episode Guide” and featurettes on “Histories and Lore” of Martin’s worlds.
Outlander: Season Two (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – The first season of this costume romance and time-travel drama, based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon and developed for TV by Ronald D. Moore, ended with Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a 20th century British woman transported back to 18th century Scotland, and her Highland clan husband Jaimie (Sam Heughan) escaping Scotland on a ship headed for France.
Season Two picks up with the couple in Paris, where they plot to sabotage the fundraising efforts to the civil war that Claire knows (from history) will only end in disaster for the Scottish clans at the Battle of Culloden. The first half of the season follows them as they learn the ways of French society and run into their sworn enemy, brutal British soldier Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), in essentially “neutral” territory, and the second half takes them back to Scotland to protect Jaimie’s clan from the disastrous war.
The series has struck a chord with audiences, combining the spectacle of historical drama and hot-blooded romance featuring pay-cable nudity with a woman’s perspective and a remarkably (and yet believably) progressive marriage between a modern woman who is courageous and smart and speaks her mind and an 18th century man from the Scottish Highlands who is chivalrous and respectful and commits himself wholly to his wife’s time-traveling reality. It is a handsome series shot on location in Scotland and France and a worldly drama that is both sexy and sophisticated, and it has a strong following especially among women viewers and readers.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two featurettes and deleted and extended scenes. The Blu-ray also features an extended episode, bonus featurettes, and audio podcasts.
Better Call Saul: Season Two (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel to Breaking Bad, is a legal drama with a wily black humor that explores the origins of the show’s shady lawyer before he transformed into Saul Goodman. This is when he was Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the one-time con man and grifter turned lawyer (thanks to a degree from a Caribbean law school), and the second season chronicles his efforts to fit into the constraints and responsibilities of a major law firm and his personal battle with his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who suffers from crippling hypersensitivity to electricity and has become a shut in yet risks his health to sabotage his brother’s career. It’s not out of jealousy but a rather severe sense of justice: he sees Jimmy, who has a tendency to take short cuts and work around the law rather than through it, as a cheater and doesn’t think he deserves his success. The show also features the origins of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) a bodyguard and “fixer” who works outside the law and gets tangled in the conflicts of a drug-running gang.
Jimmy is neither quite hero nor anti-hero but he is loyal and commits himself entirely to his clients, his cases, and his friends; part of the fun of the show is watching him talk with clients with a friendly, folksy, ingratiating way that the more polished lawyers lack. The series puts the audience in the awkward position of rooting for Jimmy even as he breaks the law to help his friend and legal partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn). Nominated for six Emmy Awards.
10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with uncensored episodes with adult material (including language), commentary on every episode, featurettes, and a “table read” of one episode. The Blu-ray also features additional interviews, featurettes, and other supplements.
The Knick: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) of the historical medical drama set in a hospital located in a poor neighborhood of New York City at the turn of the 20th century picks up months after the end of the first season, with the Knickerbocker Hospital preparing to move to a more upscale neighborhood and its superstar Chief of Surgery Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) still in rehab for his cocaine addiction. Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), an African-American surgeon trained in the more racially-accepting Europe, is acting head of surgery, clashing with the bigoted Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), Thackery’s arrogant but less talented protégé, and the board of directors, which wants a white doctor in charge.
As in the first season, the show tackles racism, sexism, and class prejudice, the rampant corruption in politics and big business, and the hypocrisy of rich and powerful men who rob the public and keep mistresses while blaming the poor for prostitution, poverty and unclean conditions they helped create. Owen is intense and compelling as Thackery, a maverick, drug-addicted doctor driven to find new treatments for disease and injury and this season is dedicated to exploring the causes and possible cure for addiction (which the hospital board chalks up to weakness of character). The season also explores the birth of the racist Eugenics movement and features a subplot that echoes The Elephant Man: Thackery rescues conjoined twins from a sideshow and performs experimental surgery to separate them.
The second season has more of a soap opera quality than the first, building big, melodramatic storylines and making Thackery even more out of control (right to a finale where his hubris basically kills him), but it also develops the relationship between Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), the tart but devoted nun on trial for performing abortions, and Tom Cleary, the gruff ambulance driver and working class entrepreneur who becomes her protector and partner in a new business: selling contraceptives to hookers and clients alike. It’s also illegal, but a lot less dangerous than performing illegal abortions. Once again Steven Soderbergh directs all 10 episodes himself, investing every scene with a fluid style that keeps the show moving ahead and an energetic intensity, and creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler write most of the scripts, which are literate and smart. Soderbergh said that this is his last season helming the series but wants it to continue under the guidance of another filmmaker or filmmaking team for a six season run, though it as of this writing Cinemax has not committed to any further seasons. As it stands, it makes for a fine end of the series.
10 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray commentary by the cast and creators on select episodes, numerous short behind-the-scenes featurettes, and 10 brief “Episode Post-Ops.”