"If you want justice, you've come to the wrong place."
A fallen hero's sword is melted down to scrap, remolded, and reshaped into weapons for his enemies. His wife is dead. His oldest son is dead. His surviving children are either crippled, held prisoner, or in hiding. His family house is on fire and his legacy is now nothing more than a cautionary tale: honor gets your head chopped off. His foe throws a wolf's pelt into the flames, while a familiar, foreboding melody plays on in the background. Not a word is uttered. This is the opening scene for the fourth season of HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' In just two minutes, the producers succinctly and artfully usher in a new era for the series, laying the Stark's hopes to rest while perfectly setting the stage for even more shifts in power to come. Shifts marked by growing dragons, deadly poisons, scheming betrayals, epic battles, and some of the best storytelling on TV.
Primarily based on the second half of George R.R. Martin's novel "A Storm of Swords," the fourth season once again focuses on the fictional medieval land of Westeros. In the wake of the "Red Wedding," the Lannisters reaffirm their control over the crown and prepare for the marriage of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) to Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). But when disaster strikes, the King's uncle, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), is put on trial for a crime he did not commit. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) conquers the city of Meereen and continues her quest to free the region's slaves. And back at the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and the Night's Watch prepare to fend off a Wildling invasion that could spell doom for the entire realm.
Further examining concepts related to power, justice, vengeance, and honor, the season's various plotlines continue to delight, shock, and devastate all at once. Without giving too much away, a good chunk of the story focuses on Tyrion's trial, and this murder mystery proves to be an engaging diversion. Peter Dinklage gives another powerful performance, and his verbal diatribe at the end of episode six is absolutely masterful, serving as a cathartic payoff for all of the terrible injustices we have watched him endure. Though some viewers might be disappointed by its lack of forward momentum, Dany's story arc is also rather thought-provoking. The "Mother of Dragons" has been building an army to take back her kingdom for several seasons now, but in reality the woman has no real experience ruling -- and in season four she is finally given a chance to test drive a throne of her own. Faced with numerous ethical dilemmas, the character must learn when to enact force and when to allow mercy, revealing what it really means to be a queen.
Other returning characters like Sansa, Littlefinger, Arya, The Hound, John, Jaime, Cersei, and Tywin are all given strong material to work with as well, and each performer brings their A game. And joining these old faces, are a few new characters, including Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell. After a perfect introduction that highlights the man's thirst for vengeance and physical pleasures, the "Red Viper" becomes one of the season's most compelling aspects. Charismatic, enigmatic, dangerous, and righteous in his quest for revenge against the Lannisters, he helps mix things up in King's Landing, leading to an incredible showdown in episode eight. But the season's true climax actually rests further north, back on the Wall where a raging fire spreads across the snow.
Each season of 'Game of Thrones' is known for having a very important penultimate episode, and season four is no different. Echoing season two's "Blackwater," the epic ninth installment focuses exclusively on one storyline, following the Night's Watch as they attempt to fend off a Wildling attack. Action-packed, brilliantly choreographed, and expertly shot, the battle sequences here easily rival those found in many big-screen productions, and director Neil Marshall brings a truly cinematic quality to the proceedings. One extended shot that circles around the castle courtyard is especially striking, creating a true sense of sustained chaos. And as exciting as all of the sword slashes are, the episode is also home to some great character moments, never losing sight of the series' emotional core amidst all of the violence and piercing arrows.
But as impressive as the show's plotting and production remain, the previously tight seams in the adaptation process are starting to unravel just a bit. As the series grows closer and closer to catching up with its source material, the writers have had to reconfigure the structure of the novel's storylines and inject a lot more original material into the proceedings –- and while I have not read the books, I am aware of many of these changes and tweaks. Unfortunately, some of these additions, omissions, and alterations don't end up working (including a very controversial sex scene between Jaime and Cersei), and the show's various subplots feel even more disconnected here than they have in previous years. Likewise, certain arcs remain problematic -- especially Theon and Bran's storylines which continue to be the least engaging -- and the overall momentum of the show's major plot threads can be frustratingly slow. Thankfully, the season as a whole does offer some intriguing developments and the finale promises new dynamics and potentially big changes for the future.
With its fourth season, 'Game of Thrones' continues to subvert narrative expectations, creating a world where the scales of good and evil perpetually swing, and both honor and cruelty are punished in equal measure -- but rarely how or when we want them to be. Epic in scope yet intimate in storytelling, the show excels at large-scale action and nuanced character moments, weaving a plot that grows more rich and textured with each passing year. Though this season's structure feels slightly jumbled and occasionally stagnant, the major beats and emotional payoffs are absolutely riveting and the groundwork has been laid for many future exciting twists and turns. Season five premieres on April 12, when we'll finally get to learn just how big those dragons have grown…
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season' in a Blu-ray/Digital Copy Combo pack. While the version being reviewed here is the standard variant, different retailers are offering their own exclusive sets with various packaging flourishes, extras, and bonus discs. For a rundown of the different retail options compiled by the Blu-ray Retailer Exclusives Blog, click here. Four BD-50 discs are housed together in an attractive foldout case that comes packaged in a sturdy outer case with a cardboard slipcover that bears the image of a three-eyed raven. Instructions for an UtltraViolet/iTunes digital copy and an insert with episode details are featured as well. After a skippable HBO promo, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The show is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. It's not quite perfect, but HBO has once again delivered an absolutely gorgeous video presentation.
For all intents and purposes, the picture here is essentially just as impressive as previous seasons with exceptional clarity and dimension. Fine textures are rendered in every varied location and intricately designed set and costume, bringing an unrivaled level of TV production design to the screen. Colors are also beautifully realized with varied palettes for each region, bringing warm reds, cool blues, and earthy tones to each corner of Westeros and beyond. Episode two's royal wedding and subsequent party scene are especially striking, with very rich colors and tiny details highlighted throughout the extravagant ceremony. Contrast is balanced well with bright whites that don't overpower the image and usually deep, inky blacks. With that said, some dark scenes do exhibit a slightly muddy quality. Likewise, while the show remains one of the most impressive series on Blu-ray, the encode leaves just a little to be desired with a few minor technical issues. Spikes in noise crop up here and there and banding/false contouring is visible in some instances. Dark and foggy sequences (like the scene where Sansa meets up with Littlefinger) prove to be especially troublesome, revealing some very slight but still noticeable compression artifacts.
Despite a few nitpicky flaws, the vast majority of the video is rather breathtaking, upholding the high standards set by previous season releases.
The series is presented with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, along with a few additional foreign language tracks and subtitle options. As I've said before in my reviews for seasons 1-3, 'Game of Thrones' is in a class all its own when it comes to sound design on TV, and season four is every bit as impressive as what's come before.
Dialogue is clear, full, and well prioritized throughout highlighting every memorable line and "Hodor!" whether whispered or shouted. Intricately textured with subtle and aggressive layers of effects, the soundscape is deep and spacious, extending the ambiance of each location in every direction. Castles, towns, inns, dungeons, and battlefields all carry a striking sense of authenticity with seamless imaging and directionality, spreading rustling winds, crackling fires, shrieking dragons, and clashing swords all around the room. The royal wedding party is once again a highlight, with bustling activity that creates a very convincing atmosphere. Likewise, episode nine's epic battle scene easily rivals many big screen action film mixes, offering powerful bass and commanding range, placing us right in the thick of all of the chaos.
Flawless and immersive, 'Game of Thrones' provides one of the most enveloping audio experiences on Blu-ray. Each and every episode is worthy of being demo material.
As fans have come to expect, HBO has put together a fantastic and extensive collection of supplements, including eleven commentaries, a behind-the-scenes documentary on episode nine, and a great look at the series' deep history and lore. All of the extras are presented in 1080i with DTS sound and the same subtitle options as the show (unless noted otherwise).
'Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season' offers another masterful collection of episodes from the increasingly popular and epic series. There are some slight pacing and structural issues, but this continues to be one of the very best shows on TV. The video and audio are both exceptional, offering a fully immersive experience. Supplements are comprehensive, informative, and entertaining, rounding out another fantastic package from HBO. Living up to the high standards set by the previous seasons, this release is a clear must own!