“All men must die.”
The official tagline for Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones also doubles as a helpful reminder of author George R.R. Martin’s no-character-is-safe philosophy. But even plastering that quote all over posters and promos isn’t likely to prepare you for the most devastating and thrilling season of a show that specializes in “devastating and thrilling.” Those thrills have now been given an extra kick: Game of Thrones is the first TV show to be offered in all-encompassing Dolby Atmos. After re-releasing seasons 1 and 2 in a pair of handsome Steelbook cases late last year, HBO has given the next two chapters in Martin’s saga the same treatment.
Season 4 of Game of Thrones is (roughly) based on the second half of “A Storm of Swords”, the third novel in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series and widely considered the dark, Empire Strikes Back-esque entry in the saga. (There are also elements from Martin’s fourth and fifth books.) So it’s no surprise to find the powerful, conniving Lannisters — led by imperious Hand of the King Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) — continuing their victory lap after dispatching of their biggest immediate threat during season 3’s Red Wedding. Speaking of nuptials, the early part of the season revolves around a royal wedding, but even that ostensibly-happy occasion is marred by the fact that the people getting married are Vicious Idiot King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and alluring, cunning bride Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
Although they’ve seized the Iron Throne, all is not well at House Lannister. The long-awaited reunion between amorous twins Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) is somewhat dampened by Jamie not being totally whole following his harrowing ordeal. Meanwhile, Tywin’s youngest son Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is in a forced marriage with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), kin to one of the Lannisters’ many felled foes.
“Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
While Joffrey is busy picking out invitations and plotting his latest cruel humiliation in King’s Landing, Thrones offers what is likely its darkest, most emotionally expansive season to date. The standout new character is Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who arrives in King’s Landing from Dorne —a previously unexplored southern region of Westeros — on a single-minded mission of revenge. “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her how-to-rule dress rehearsal while attempting to liberate a slave city and learning how to raise a trio of unruly, fire-breathing teenagers. Both of the surviving Stark girls — Sansa and Arya (Maisie Williams) — form uneasy, beneficial alliances that threaten to blacken their souls, even as those unseemly allies keep them alive in an increasingly cruel world. We even get an amusing glimpse into the world of Westerosi finance when would-be king Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) visits the Iron Bank of Braavos for a loan. (Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss has a small, terrific turn as a chilly bank representative.)
I could spend another 1,000 words synopsis-ing— especially since I haven’t even mentioned the events up North that lead to the major showdown between the Wildlings and the men of the Night’s Watch (unofficially led by Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow) in Ep. 9/“The Watchers on the Wall” — but you probably get the picture.
Since the start of season 4 coincides with the middle of “A Storm of Swords”, the action within these episodes moves at a comparatively breakneck pace. Fans of the Thrones TV show — which has been expertly shepherded to the small-screen by co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — have been conditioned to expect each season to build towards something epic/earth-shattering in the penultimate episode. But instead of waiting for that ninth episode this time around, viewers get their first tectonic jolt during Ep. 2/“The Lion and the Rose.” The show never really looks back from there.
“If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
At this point, even the most naïve Thrones fan probably felt that sentiment was a little redundant when it was uttered by a character during season 4. Martin appears to enjoy toying with reader/viewer expectations. (Pascal’s Oberyn seems like a sluttier Inigo Montoya on paper, but that’s before Martin presents his idea of an exotic, charming prince.) Then again, that “all men must die” saying — the English translation of the High Valyrian phrase “Valar morghulis” — doesn’t specify that “all good men must die.” In fact, season 4 also marks the departure of some of the show’s best and most detestable villains. And while I’m handing out superlatives, I’ll say Ep. 8/ “The Mountain and the Viper” features one of the most gruesome deaths in the history of television anything. I actually had some trouble going to sleep the night after that episode originally aired. (Special kudos to the Thrones sound department.)
Game of Thrones is rightly lauded for its audacious storytelling and visual spectacle, but the show continues to have some of the best acting on television. The series particularly excels in extensive two-person duets, whether it’s Arya’s complicated relationship with The Hound (Rory McCann), or Tyrion grimly holding court with a variety of visitors. Dinklage won an Emmy for his work in season 1 — and picked up a nomination for his work in season 4 — but his work here represents a career-high in my opinion.
It’s no spoiler to say that even the Lannisters’ prosperity doesn’t last forever. And even those who are able to seize a throne and hang on to it — Daenerys’ record in battle is unblemished — find out that the business of ruling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a semi-cruel joke that makes you wonder why all these characters are metaphorically killing themselves (and literally killing others) for a job that is terrible by all accounts.
Season 4 ends with a couple of key characters heading in bold new directions. The same continues to be true for this excellent, groundbreaking series.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 29 mbps. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Game of Thrones is the best looking thing HBO has ever done. (No small feat, considering the lavish, historical dramas the network has produced.) The visual presentations for Thrones continue to be unparalleled in their quality and versatility.
Season 4 episodes were filmed in Northern Ireland, Croatia, and Iceland. Those three countries stand-in for a variety of fantastical locations very convincingly, and this top-notch Blu-ray helps sell the visual wizardry. The image is unfailingly clear and blemish free and offers extraordinarily fine detail in the grimmest conditions. (For the second consecutive season, a notable character spends a good amount of his time in a dungeon.) The palette alternates between sunny and colorful (King’s Landing, Meereen) and oppressively chilly (The Dreadford, Castle Black). Speaking of “Black”, the black levels on these releases get the best workout they’ve ever had during “The Watchers on the Wall.” The episode is cloaked in darkness — and mostly features characters we don’t know that well — but the inky black levels and terrific separation go a long way toward making this epic battle feel coherent at all times.
Again, the upgraded audio in this set is why we’re all here. In my previous review for this season, I awarded the Blu-ray release’s Audio presentation a perfect 5 out of 5. I completely stand by that assessment, but the sonic presentation on this release is even better.
The Dolby Atmos track defaults to a middling Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Fortunately, there’s also a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation here, which is what I ended up reviewing. (My home theater isn’t equipped for Atmos.) Might as well go straight to the sonic centerpiece: Ep. 9/”The Watchers on the Wall” is essentially a mini-war movie and the two extra-channels help put you in the midst of battle. The track’s excellence stems from the fact that the big moments (whooshing arrows, a stampeding giant) get as much attention as the smallest detail (the sound of fire burning in the distance). This season was also particularly heavy on electrifying two-person scenes. Those dialogue-heavy sequences are nevertheless enhanced by lively ambient noises in the rear speakers. Dialogue is always crystal clear, and even composer Ramin Djawadi’s majestic score gets some added depth here. This is a massive TV show about a massive world, and this new track captures even more than its excellent predecessor.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD and has been ported over from the previous Blu-ray release. The slick Steelbook case features a designed inspired by The Wall and comes with a magnetic sigil featuring a crow and Jon Snow’s sword, Longclaw.
Audio Commentaries: Every episode except Ep. 3/“Breaker of Chains” features a commentary track, and Eps. 9/“The Watchers on the Wall” and 10/“The Children” come with two tracks each. Participants include actors like Dinklage, Headey, Coster-Waldau, Pascal, Gleeson, Harrington, and crew members like Benioff, Weiss, director Alex Graves and the VFX team behind “The Watchers on the Wall.” My favorite tracks tend to be the ones with Martin himself, and he’s part of the commentary for Ep. 2. It’s always interesting listening to the author talk about the original source material and the TV adaptation. (We also learn he doesn’t at all mind the fan-coined term “Purple Wedding.”)
In-Episode Guide: Certainly the most useful special feature, this pop-up guide allows you to access information about each character and setting while the episode is playing. So if you’re not sure how two characters in a given scene are related to one another or which part of the Seven Kingdoms we’re currently visiting, press the menu button and take a quick peek. Definitely recommended for people who haven’t read the books. Available for every episode.
Histories and Lore: A series of animated/motion comic-style videos narrated by in-character cast members — including Oberyn Martell, Jamie Lannister, Bronn “YouWouldn’tKnowHim”, and more — that details key events and family connections in the world of Thrones. None of the segments are longer than five minutes. Does not feature a Play All option.
(Available on Disc 1)
The Politics of Power — A Look Back at Season 3: (25:02) A handy primer before you sit down to binge on Season 4. The insightful comments from cast and crew are a nice bonus, especially when you consider this is a glorified “Previously on…”
Bastards of Westeros: (7:16) Author George R.R. Martin and Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss talk about the role illegitimate children play in the expansive story. While the royals and noblemen on the show have thus far treated them with varying levels of derision, season 4 gave us an intriguing peek at a Dornish culture that is more accepting of bastards.
New Characters and Locations: (7:39) A brief featurette highlighting new locales like Meereen (Daenerys’ current destination) and The Dreadfort (Ramsay Snow’s twisted playground), as well as new faces like Prince Oberyn, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), and more.
(Available on Disc 4)
Behind The Battle for the Wall: (37:11) Kit Harrington refers to this giant, mammoth hour as the most action-packed episode in the show’s run. (There are literally giants riding on mammoths in this battle, by the way.) Director Neil Marshall — responsible for the other Thrones landmark battle in season 2’s “Blackwater” — and the rest of the crew take us through the making of the episode, which blended complex logistics with both practical and state-of-the art effects. A very good “Making of”, even if it’s a slight step back from the all-consuming, 360 special feature dedicated to season 3’s “Red Wedding.”
The Fallen — A Roundtable: (29:37) Probably the most fun bonus feature on this set. Writer/producer Bryan Cogman moderates a discussion with seven actors whose characters bit the dust during season 4. (This is a “No Spoiler” zone, so I won’t tell you who participates.) The actors recall how they joined show and their reactions to their characters’ deaths. Mostly though, it’s a kick seeing the performers — some of whom hadn’t actually met before sitting down for this roundtable — hang out and bust each other’s chops. (Given how many people died on Thrones this year, they probably could’ve filled a whole conference table for this.)
Deleted Scenes: (3:05) There are only two, and the best moment features Bronn and Shae after a gut-wrenching breakup. The other quick scene reinforces Dany’s lonely, steely reign in Meereen. Features a Play All option.
Season 4 Blooper Reel: (2:02) Your basic collection of flubbed lines, though I was amused by the fact that they bothered to bleep out a curse word. (The curse words on Thrones are definitely *not* bleeped out.)
As with the season 3 steelbook set, upgrading to this gorgeous looking release isn’t quite a slam dunk.
If you already own the previously released Blu-ray set and don’t have a Dolby Atmos/7.1 channel setup (and you don’t plan on getting one any time soon), I’d hold off on grabbing this set. Don’t get me wrong: the Steelbook is extremely attractive, the magnet is neat, and the slimmer case saves you some storage space. On the other hand, that slimmer design means Discs 1 and 2 are stacked on top of each other inside the case (same goes for Discs 3 and 4), which is a personal pet peeve. There are also no new special features on this release.
If you’re picking up the show for the first time, this is as good as it gets right now. I’m actually typing this review less than a few hours before the newest Game of Thrones episode airs. So, as far as I’m concerned, winter can never come soon enough.