Many fans went into the second season of Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of the epic George R. R. Martin series, The Song of Ice and Fire, wondering if creators David Benioff (Troy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and D. B. Weiss (debut writer/producer for Game of Thrones) could sustain the televised story past the death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and the initial splash of season one. But the remaining ensemble cast of Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon) and Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon), among numerous others, stepped up to the plate, creating an equally solid season two that surpassed the expectations of fans and critics alike.

So HBO went all in, backing Game of Thrones (season two of which is now available on Blu-ray, with all the requisite bells and whistles) as its new dramatic flagship (Girls being the comedic one), relying on the morally ambiguous charisma of its characters, the intricacy of its otherworldly subplots, and the diehard devotion of the nerd community.

Picking up shortly after season one left off, Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne with his betrothed hostage, Sansa, by his side, despite the fact that his far-from-secret Lannister lineage gives him less of a right to the crown than any of his imminent challengers. Robb Stark, who seeks only the title of King of the North, advances on King’s Landing to rescue his sisters, avenge his father, and kill Joffrey — not necessarily in that order. For leverage, Robb holds Jamie, Joffrey’s ostensible uncle and actual father, prisoner, while he puts Stark matriarch Catelyn to work as head diplomat, which has her traveling to various lands accumulating allies (and an unexpected wife) for her son.

Arya Stark is on the run, masquerading as a boy and inadvertently befriending one of the many unwitting bastard sons of Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), as well as a mysterious prisoner, Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha), who later resurfaces as the faceless Man of Braavos. But back to the Baratheans. Enter brothers Stannis and Renly, who waste no time laying claim to the Iron Throne — the former out of a sense of ambition, religious fanaticism, and a modicum of sage propriety, and the latter because, well, his brother is doing it.

While we’re ticking off bidders for the throne, let no one forget Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons and the only daughter of Mad King Aerys II Targaryen. Daenerys is arguably the rightful heir to the throne, but it’s going to take more than the guts she borrowed from her late husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and her trio of yelping baby dragons to rule the Seven Kingdoms.

Birthright aside, these hapless contenders for the throne each exhibit at least one fatal flaw that ultimately makes them unsuited to occupy it, be it Robb’s honor-bound naiveté that he mistakes for bravery, Renly’s shortsighted carelessness, Stannis’ lovestruck insanity, Daenerys’ youthful bravado, or Joffrey’s bat-s–t craziness. The commentary the show makes is obvious and even darkly amusing — those with the greatest thirst for power are rarely those equipped to wield it. The most compelling characters in Game of Thrones lay no claim to the throne at all, and while they may be no more deserving of power, they are certainly more satisfying to watch.

It’s impossible to talk about the world of Westeros without the names Tyrion and Cersei on your lips, both of whom have been made even more devilishly appealing now that they’ve been given the opportunity to interact with the other. Tyrion and Cersei reveal their love/hate (or, more accurately, loyalty/hate) relationship with all the civilized venom their respective positions as Hand of the King and Queen Regent require, occasionally offering an unspoken acknowledgement that, in a parallel universe, they might harbor something other than disgust for one another, but in this one, enmity is the price of their wretched similarities. Game of Thrones has been hit-and-miss with its casting (Clarke as Daenerys? Madden as Robb?), but there’s little room for issue with these two, if you can get past Dinklage’s forced English accent (and what is a Kings Landing accent, anyway?).

Though it’s far from revolutionary at this point to praise Dinklage’s performance as the black sheep Lannister, it’s endlessly enjoyable to note the emotional subtlety he applies to a role that a less nuanced actor might phone in with simple comedic timing and passable charm. Dinklage reveals the vulnerability, guile, intelligence, and heart that begs to surface in the character of Tyrion, and he does so while delivering delicious one-liners like, “It’s hard to put a leash on a dog, once you’ve put a crown on its head,” referring to his nephew, and, “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!” in the thrilling “Blackwater.”

But even Dinklage has nothing on Headey, who manages to bring a tragic compassion to the otherwise unsympathetic Cersei. Every line Headey’s Cersei delivers is weighted with the intense sorrow and wisdom she has accumulated as a queen among selfish and destructive men — one of whom is her own son. The doomed Cersei lacks the luxury of self-denial that so many of her relations rely on, and, as such, she does not make the best statesman, much to her critics’ satisfaction and her brother’s disapproval.

Unfortunately, compared to the Lannisters and the diabolical games they play, characters like Jon Snow, with his "wildling" adventures and his lukewarm love story, just can’t keep up, despite the show’s halfhearted struggle to occasionally pull the plot northward. Harington is going to need more than soulful black eyes and flawless ivory skin to hold fans’ attention in the face of such competition.

Other captivating performances that help justify the Game of Thrones craze are delivered by the young Williams as Arya, Rory McCann as the intimidating-but-we’re-not-completely-sure-why Hound, Gwendoline Christie as the blindly devoted Brienne of Tarth, Liam Cunningham as the reserved Ser Davos, and Gleeson, who captures the needless cruelty and chilling immaturity of King Joffrey so well that he might have just guaranteed himself a future of typecasting.

Ultimately, there are too many solid performances in Game of Thrones season two to praise, and an impressive number of them come from the supporting cast. The big boys often drop off the radar for as many as three episodes while the momentum is effortlessly carried by the bit players. The storylines, while intricate, are far from convoluted, and the overall tension is palpable and real, as you will quickly be reminded re-watching “Blackwater.”

If there is any overt criticism for GOT season two as a whole, it involves the show’s relative clumsiness when incorporating the fantastic elements into the larger “real world” framework, evidenced, for example, by the almost laughable Melisandre (Carice van Houten) labor scene and the anticlimactic march of the White Walker army in the season finale. As for the frequently cited issue that much of Game of Thrones’ nudity and sexual situations are gratuitous, it seems wrong to fault HBO for catering to what is undoubtedly one of GOT’s key demographics — teenage boys who love to … er … read. If anything, it seems high time to speak out against HBO’s repeated insistence on depicting sex in such distinctly un-sexy ways.

As for the Blu-ray collection itself, it follows the trend of providing a smorgasbord of special features to compensate for increasingly short seasons (ten measly episodes here). This Game of Thrones set offers the usual audio commentaries by cast members Dinklage, Headey, Fiarley and Harington, as well as author Martin and creators Weiss and Benioff. There is also an in-episode guide, internal “hidden dragon eggs” that uncover never-before-seen content, and other interactive features that can be toggled back and forth anytime during playback.

The major goodies on Disc 5 feature several independent segments, including character profiles, a making of the “Blackwater” episode, a “War of the Five Kings” segment, and an animated “Histories and Lore,” narrated by several characters about how their people got to where they are. And while the religions of Westeros play second fiddle to the politics in the series, an entire feature dedicated to the history of the regions’ religions will satisfy diehard fans. You know who you are.

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