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Game of Thrones is back and I’m running down my favourite and least favourite things about season four. Spoilers follow.

 Game of Thrones: Season Four
The Best of Season Four:
  • At one time, Jon Snow was possibly the most boring character on Game of Thrones. It has always been clear that author George R. R. Martin had plans for him, but waiting for those plans to go anywhere was rarely entertaining. Kit Harington’s doe-eyed performance rarely helped matters. Season three had started the character on the right path and season four solidifies him as not only viable to the bigger story, but positions him in the most entertaining subplot. Oh, and Harington appears to have taken some substantial acting classes between seasons.
  • Generally speaking, everything at and north of The Wall is riveting. From Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and company’s journey into the most fantasy-heavy realms of Martin’s world to the epic action of episode 9, The Watchers on the Wall (where director Neil Marshall manages to top his already exemplary work on the series), I could’ve watched a show exclusively devoted to this part of the story.
  • Though I’m not sure I really like the place Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) ends the season – i.e. her banishment of Ser Jorah (Iain Glen), simply because I can’t see it going anywhere interesting – her place in the rest of the season is one of the high points. Following the swift, joyous victories of season three, it’s very compelling to see her noble quest turned muddy by moral and political grey areas.
  • Anything involving Brienne of Tarth (the completely and utterly fantastic Gwendoline Christie) is golden in season four. Even the wrenching moment that she murders The Hound (Rory McCann), another favourite, is great. She is now the stand-out character in a show of stand-out characters, as far as I’m concerned.
  • And speaking of The Hound, he plays an important part in Arya Stark’s descent into cynicism and brutality. Actress Maisie Williams continues to upstage her adult co-workers this season and her supposedly tragic turn remains one of the more exciting season five prospects.
  • It’s disappointing to have Tyrion Lannister, played by the show’s most electric performer, Peter Dinklage, chained in a dungeon for most of the season, but the ordeal is more than worth it for its conclusion and his scenery-devouring demand for trial by combat during court proceedings.
  • And that ‘trial by combat’? Oh boy. Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) was the season’s most endearing and dynamic new character and the moment that he agrees to be Tyrion’s champion is enormously rousing. Then the fight goes oh so terribly wrong and the results are positively and brilliantly gut-wrenching.
  • The budding relationship between Daenerys’ supporting comrades Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) is by-the-numbers, but diversifies the cast and helps broaden the scope by telling part of Daenerys’ story from the point-of-view of actual ex-slaves.


 Game of Thrones: Season Four
The Worst of Season Four:
  • Season four (as season three) takes too long to pull itself together. The scope of the story and number of characters certainly makes jumping straight into the ‘good stuff’ a difficult task, sure, but the creeping game of catch-up that persists throughout the first three or four episodes is still difficult to really enjoy.
  • Immediately after Tywin’s (Charles Dance) fantastic speech about leadership to young Tommen Baratheon(Dean-Charles Chapman), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) attacks and rapes Cersei (Lena Headey) right next to Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) dead body. This was a particularly controversial moment among fans and critics. I’ll leave it up to all of you to find and read the think-pieces on what is or isn’t wrong with the scene on a moral level. My take has less to do with it being awkward and offensive (which it is) and more to do with the fact that it is weak storytelling. The writers, fearing that maybe Jaime was becoming too sympathetic and Cersei too unsympathetic, tossed in a one-off cheap shot to quickly sway the audience’s allegiance. It’s especially annoying, given that the rest of the season is spent putting Jaime on the road to redemption and Cersei on the road to ruin.
  • Speaking of sexual politics – Game of Thrones isn’t particularly nice to any of its characters, but season four is especially hard on women. Cersei spends almost all of her time in an angry stupor, Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie) is a raving, jealous madwoman, and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) dies with surprisingly little fanfare – but the really painful turn is Shae (Sibel Kekilli), who sells out Tyrion during the trial. It is revealed later that this formerly strong and interesting character doomed her ex-lover to death, because she is a woman scorned – the oldest and most outdated cliché in the book. The constant stream of brutal rape and threats of brutal rape in the Craster's Keep subplots is also pretty problematic, even if it could be argued that it ‘serves the story.’
  • Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) creepy field trip with uber-creep Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen) has its moments – specifically the shocking a climactic murder of Lysa Arryn – but it constantly drags the more interesting plots to a standstill and rarely achieves the prime soap opera lather that the writers intended.
  • Of all the series’ problems, the key one remains the Theon Greyjoy/Reek (Alfie Allen) subplot. His torture and humiliation during season one was boring enough, but then he didn’t die. In season four, it is revealed that the writers were playing a long, one that will fully payoff in the next couple seasons, it seems. That’s fine and good, but doesn’t forgive further time wasted, such as a go-nowhere sequence in episode 6, The Laws of Gods and Men, where Theon’s sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) fails to save him from his captors.


 Game of Thrones: Season Four

Video


Previous seasons of Game of Thrones were spread rather unnecessarily over six or seven discs. Season four is still a modest 10 hour-long episodes, but the Blu-ray collection is a bit more modest and containing ‘only’ four discs. That’s still a lot of space and, even with extras accounted for, there’s plenty of room to avoid compression. These 1080p, 1.78:1 transfers look generally the same as previous seasons, aside from the changes in colour palette made after the more practically-shot first season. Details are sharp and complex, specifically when supported by stronger highlights, and blocking effects are never really an issue. The major change seems to be that some of the darkest scenes are a bit muddy this year. I think this is a case of the series’ cinematographers deciding they can get away with less stage lighting in general. It feels like a lot more of the shots are lit by source light alone. On the other hand, I also noticed more edge enhancement and related sharpening effects than I recall seeing in previous installments. Given these minor errors and the punchy, hyper-vivid qualities of some of the daylight sequences (especially the gardens in King’s Landing), it’s possible that the crew is using new cameras and/or software (technical specs on imdb.com still read ‘Arri Alexa,’ but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything). The same artefacts tend to appear on the special features, where they are set against interview footage that is plenty clean, so I assume it isn’t an issue with compression. The differences are also so minor that it may all be in my head.

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack also follows the suit set by previous releases in terms of aggression and balance. Having watched the season on HBO GO with compressed Dolby Digital audio, I appreciated the small differences that an uncompressed track makes. The overall sound design might be a smidge more dynamic than any other season, especially in terms of ambient enhancements throughout the episodes. The sounds of bustling cities, windy wilds, and wet dungeons are more lively and natural than ever. The fight scenes are good and gushy, specifically the nearly hour-long battle at The Wall, which is full of multi-directional clanging swords, shouting soldiers, growling mammoths, LFE-vibrating explosions, and goopy, gory impact noises. There are a few choice moments where the sound designers pull back on the background noise to emphasize a more subjective veiw of the battle, but the basic thrust of the sound is quite busy. Composer Ramin Djawadi continues to outdo himself with the series’ music, getting especially good use out of variations on the original title theme. The warmth and clarity of the strings during the Castle Black battle are immaculate.

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

Extras


  • Commentary tracks:
    • Episode 1: Executive producers/writers/directors David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and actor Pedro Pascal
    • Episode 2: Creator George R.R. Martin, director Alex Graves, and cast members Jack Gleeson & Natalie Dormer
    • Episode 3: Director Michelle MacLaren and DP Robert McLachlan
    • Episode 5: Actors Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams
    • Episode 6: Director Alik Sakharov and writer/co-producer Bryan Cogman
    • Episode 7: Producers Bernadette Calufield & Chris Newman and actors Aidan Gillen & Kate Dickie
    • Episode 8: Production designer Deborah Riley, costume designer Michele Clapton, and DP Anette Haelmigk
    • Episode 9: Track one with actors Kit Harington, Rose Leslie, and John Bradley; track 2 with VFX producers Steve Kullback and VFX supervisor Joe Bauer
    • Episode 10: Track one with director Alex Graves and actors Rory McCann & Gwendoline Christie; track two with actors Peter Dinkage, Lena Headey, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • In-Episode Guides, including character, location, and history pop-ups
  • The Politics of Power: A Look Back at Season 3 (25:00, HD, Disc 1)
  • Bastards of Westeros (7:20, HD, Disc 1) – Martin and the show’s crew explore the ‘bastard’ culture in Game of Thrones
  • New Characters & Locations (7:40, HD, Disc 1) – Concerning the design and histories of season four’s new cultures, characters, sets, and locations.
  • Behind the Battle for The Wall (37:10, HD, Disc 4) – A look at the making of episode nine’s big battle sequences, from pre-production planning to execution and final post-production visual effects.
  • The Fallen: A Roundtable (29:40, HD, Disc 4) – Writer Bryan Cogman discusses the Game of Thrones experience with all the actors whose character’s died during season four.
  • Histories & Lore (Disc 4) – Another interactive exploration of the Game of Thrones world. It matches the scope of previous Histories & Lore entries on the other Blu-rays, including both text-based and ‘animated’ entries (more like motion comics). Once again, features plenty of pre-production artwork.
  • Two completed deleted scenes (3:10, HD, Disc 4)
  • Blooper reel (2:00, HD, Disc 4)


 Game of Thrones: Season Four

Overall


Game of Thrones season four took some time to really get going and dips into some of the series’ deepest low points, but it also reinstates some of the narrative balance from the first season and features a litany of high points. I’d say that the good and bad even out in the end in terms of where it stands in the greater series canon and basically maintains the quality set forth when the show premiered in 2011. This Blu-ray’s HD video has some minor clarity issues that I believe are ingrained in the original digital photography, but is mostly very pretty. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack is practically perfect and the extras are pretty extensive.

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

 Game of Thrones: Season Four

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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