While I've kept plot details for the second season to a minimum, please be aware that there are some major spoilers for the show's first three seasons.
"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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season' in a new limited edition Steelbook package. Four BD-50 discs are stacked (two on the left side, two on the right side) in a sturdy Steelbook case that comes housed inside a plastic shell. A plastic tray is also included that features a magnet of the Night's Watch sigil. Instructions for an UltraViolet/iTunes digital copy are included as well. After some warnings, logos and skippable trailers, the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates the release is region A compatible.
For all intents and purposes, this appears to be the exact same video presentation as the previous release. Here's what I had to say about the video in my original review:
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.
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.
As with the previous Steelbook releases, HBO has upgraded the audio here, offering a new Dolby Atmos immersive soundtrack. And like those earlier Atmos discs, the results are quite spectacular. To evaluate the Atmos audio, Pioneer has been gracious enough to loan me a VSX-1131 7.2 Channel Receiver, a pair of SP-T22A-LR Add-on Atmos Speakers, and an SW-10 Subwoofer (full reviews for each coming soon!) to bolster my existing Pioneer SP-PK52FS 5.1 Home Theater Speaker Package into a 5.1.2 upfiring Atmos system. It should be noted, however, that the discs default to standard Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks upon startup, so Atmos and TrueHD users should make sure to switch the audio settings in the menu before watching any episodes.
Since I've already covered the basics of the audio in my original review (for all intents and purposes the same strengths apply here), I'm going to focus exclusively on the Atmos-specific benefits of the new mix in this review. Just as with the concurrently releasing Season three discs, the Atmos mixes here improve upon the previous 5-star soundtracks in both subtle and more overt ways. It's not always a dramatic night and day upgrade, mind you, but the added height objects bring an extra plane of audio to the series, enhancing the show's general sense of atmosphere with ambiance and music cues that fall from above the listening area. Rustling wind, drifting snow, chirping crickets, fluttering crows, bellowing horns, and screeching dragons all make their way to the height speakers when appropriate, extending the show's varied landscapes in every direction. The battle between the Viper and the Mountain features some notable height objects as well, sending crowd reactions of delighted applause and horrified screams overhead. Of course, it's really episode nine, "The Watchers on the Wall," that proves to be the highlight of this disc. The majority of the runtime focuses on a thrilling battle as the Wildlings attack Castle Black, and the way arrows pierce through the air from above, moving overhead to the rears and vice versa, is quite impressive. Likewise, the episode's infamous scythe attack just might feature my favorite use of Atmos mixing in the season. As the massive blade extends from the wall we hear shards of ice break free and fall from above, and then we hear the sharp metal extend across climbing enemies in a loud burst of overhead chaos. I'm trying to be as eloquent as I can in my description, but it's simply badass -- and in ways that a traditional surround sound mix just can't be.
Taking the show's already impressive surround sound mix to another level, the Atmos audio provides an often delicate but effective upgrade. Audiences likely won't be able to pinpoint overhead effects in every scene, but height objects are employed in both subtle and aggressive ways when called for, leading to a natural and intricately layered immersive audio experience. Beyond the obvious benefits of these new mixes, it should also be noted that the Atmos tracks will play as Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for users who don't have Atmos systems. This means that 7.1 users will still get an upgrade over the 5.1 tracks found on the previous release, even if they don't have Atmos yet.
HBO has included all of the same great supplements from the last release. All of the extras are presented in 1080i with DTS 2.0 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. This new Steelbook package offers the same great video and supplements from the last release, and adds a great new Dolby Atmos audio presentation -- improving upon an already exceptional mix. With that said, since there really isn't any new content here, it makes the bottom line recommendation a little tricky. For Atmos users (or those who plan to upgrade) who don't already have the show, this is an absolute must own set. Likewise, depending on how big of an audiophile you fancy yourself, even Atmos users who already own the previous Blu-ray might want to consider upgrading to this release. If, however, you already own the series and don't have (or plan to ever have) Atmos, then this set will really only appeal to diehard Steelbook collectors. But any way you look at it, this is now the best Blu-ray version of one of the best shows on TV.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.