As fans patiently wait for the show's final episodes to premiere next year, HBO went back to the beginning with Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season. Though improvements over the standard Blu-ray are subtle, the series makes its 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray debut with a beautiful Dolby Vision/HDR10 transfer and the same great Dolby Atmos mix found on the previous SteelBook. Almost all of the supplements from the old release are ported over as well, rounding out a strong package. Viewers who already own the SteelBook Blu-ray might not need to rush out to double dip just for the 4K transfer, but the video's expanded colors and contrast do offer a pleasing, albeit modest, upgrade. Likewise, if you still only have the original Blu-ray release without the Atmos mix, the improved audio on this package makes it an even more enticing option. Recommended.
When the initial trailers for HBO's Game of Thrones first hit the airwaves, I must admit, I was fairly underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, given the cable network's prestigious track record, I fully expected the show to be good, but to me, the series looked like generic, dark fantasy material, with very little to distinguish it from other seemingly more original and successful efforts in the genre. As it turns out, however, I was wrong. I was very wrong. In fact, I could not have been more wrong. From the moment the first episode ended, I was hooked, fully and completely. I was immediately transported into another world with a past and history as storied and multifaceted as our own. I was totally sucked into an expansive, rich tapestry of feuding houses and exotic lands, of complex relationships and morally ambiguous motivations, of timeless themes, and yes, even tiny hints of magic. Episode after episode, the series simply takes hold, fully gripping its viewers as it gradually reveals an epic scope while maintaining an intimate core of character driven storytelling. Each new development, each new surprise adds to an increasingly intricate, deeply layered narrative, forged of blood and steel, of fire and ice. I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier.
Based on George R.R. Martin's novel of the same name (the first of an ongoing series of books, collectively known as "A Song of Ice and Fire"), the show focuses on the fictional, medieval land of Westeros, and the various noblemen and warriors who vie for its control. After the King's advisor dies under mysterious circumstances, the despot calls upon his old friend, the honorable Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) to serve as his new "Hand." Though reluctant to leave his family, Eddard, or Ned, as his friends call him, eventually relents, fueled by grave suspicions that the King may be in danger. As Ned embraces his newfound duties, he gradually uncovers a complicated conspiracy that could send shockwaves across the Seven Kingdoms and incite an all-out war. With various houses, families, and foreign invaders all plotting for control of the Iron Throne, Ned attempts to keep the peace while the very safety of the realm hangs in the balance.
The plot is endlessly complex, with layers upon layers of scheming and intrigue, and the mythology of Westeros itself is rife with intricate back-stories and fully developed histories. Those who have read the books will surely be at home with the material, but those new to the Seven Kingdoms (like I was) might be a little overwhelmed at first. Thankfully, the writers do a magnificent job of gradually introducing the show's sprawling cast of characters while revealing tiny morsels of lore throughout the season. Yes, the plot can be a little confusing and daunting at times for the uninitiated, but given the grand scope of Martin's tale, the level of cohesion and accessibility is really remarkable. Before long, it will all make sense and you'll be on the edge of your seat, fully immersed in the series' dense conflicts, patiently waiting for each new twist and turn to play out to their invariably bloody conclusions.
Beyond its epic, winding narrative of politics, betrayal, and loyalty, what really makes Game of Thrones so special, is its multifaceted web of characters and the emotional relationships that develop between them. Every role, from major player to seemingly inconsequential extra, is brought to life with nuance and believability through expert writing and impeccable casting. All of the actors perfectly inhabit their characters, making it nearly impossible to imagine any other individual in their shoes. Sean Bean is inspiring as Eddard Stark, a lone, truly honorable man thrust into a sea of sharks. He is everything all heroes aspire to be, but that doesn't make him perfect, and it's his human flaws that end up fueling his greatest strengths and weaknesses. His journey and battle against corruption is the heart of the first season and Bean carries Ned's arc to an emotionally stirring conclusion that will leave viewers breathless.
As Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled, "rightful" heir to the Iron Throne, Emilia Clarke is spectacular. Her character starts out as nothing more than a submissive victim, but throughout the course of the season she slowly finds inner strength, and the actress does an amazing job of imbuing her transformation with equal parts grace and power. Emmy winner, Peter Dinklage, is also a scene stealer as the Queen's dwarf brother, Tyrion Lannister. Despite his family's despicable actions, his character always remains likeable, and Dinklage plays the role with wit, charm and insightful wisdom. The show is also home to an exceptional troupe of child actors, with Maisie Williams serving as a real standout. The young actress plays fan favorite, Arya Stark, Ned's youngest daughter, and her tomboy character is among the show's most entertaining and fun to watch. Honestly, I could go on and on extolling the great merits of every single cast member, which is a true testament to the level of skill on display here. There really is no weak link in the entire bunch.
Of course, given the story's vast scope and extensive cast, some characters are marginalized from time to time (I actually forgot the youngest Stark child even existed until he showed up again in the last few episodes) but to the writers' credit, almost everyone gets their moment to shine. Dialogue is poetic and lyrical while still remaining believable (and wonderfully crass when it wants to be). While the show is full of grand, dramatic beats, the series' quieter moments are equally memorable. Simple exchanges, like a heart to heart between the King and Queen, or a drinking game with Tyrion and his companions, prove to be just as revealing and emotionally resonant as any of the show's louder scenes. Then of course, there is the end of episode nine, "Baelor." I dare not spoil the scene for any who might be unaware of its content, but suffice to say, it ranks among the most artfully staged, beautifully realized, emotionally devastating sequences in any show, period. The writers and performers take classic archetypes and breathe new life into them, allowing the characters to become so much more than mere "Imps" or "Bastards." While many fantasy stories rely heavily on the concept of good versus evil, in Westeros there are no true heroes or villains, keeping the various conflicts cast in a morally ambiguous cloud of grey.
Like many HBO series, Game of Thrones is home to lots of sex and violence. Action is wonderfully choreographed, exciting, and absolutely brutal, with a few really great (though mostly brief) sword fights peppered throughout. Despite the show's awe-inspiring production design and sets, there are a few instances where the simple budgetary realities of TV do come into play, minimizing the range of some of the later episodes' action oriented events. Still, this is easily forgivable, and while a pretty major battle is forced off-screen, fans of medieval combat should be quite pleased with what the series has to offer. On a similar note, fans of sex and nudity should also rejoice, as the show offers plenty of skin. The world of internet bloggers has even come up with a new word to describe the series' trademark blend of exposition and sexual content, dubbing these instances "sexposition" scenes. Some have criticized the show for these sequences, but I never found the racy content to be gratuitous. Hell, mixing the sex scenes with important information actually makes them less superfluous than on most shows where sex is purely meant to titillate. In Game of Thrones when women start taking off their clothes you might actually learn something in the process.
Though technically a fantasy series, supernatural elements take a backseat to political maneuvering and character development. While I expect future seasons will feature more fantastical aspects, in this batch of episodes instances of magic are few and far between. Dragons are mentioned as having existed in the realm, but are now extinct, and while a potentially otherworldly threat is introduced in the show's very first scene, this subplot is mostly sidelined for the remainder of the season. This all lends the series a stark sense of realism while still keeping the door open for later mystical content. With that said, the season's closing moments are sure to please genre fans, as its final image is the stuff fantasy geeks' dreams are made of.
Before watching Game of Thrones I couldn't tell a Stark from a Targaryen, a Lannister from a Baratheon, but now I could probably recite a pretty decent version of the "Mad King's" fall during the "Sack of King's Landing." This is the type of deep storytelling that incites rabid followings and diehard fans. This is TV at its best. Beneath all of the violence, sex, politics, scheming, and tiny bursts of magic, rests a character driven story about love and honor. Head writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff take George R.R. Martin's novel and turn it into a masterful piece of serialized television, weaving an epic tale full of excitement, brutality, humor, gravitas, wonder, and poignant insights into the human condition.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
HBO presents Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in a black keepcase that slides out of a cardboard outer case with an embossed image of the iron throne. Four BD-100 4K Blu-ray discs are housed across two swinging trays (one disc on each side of each tray) for easy access. Instructions for an UltraViolet/iTunes Digital HD (not 4K) copy are included as well. With that said, the set does not include a regular Blu-ray copy of the season. After some warnings and logos, the discs transition to standard menus.
The series arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a 2160p HEVC/H.265 encode in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Vision (and HDR10). In short, the transfer looks gorgeous, but specific improvements over the original standard (and still demo worthy) Blu-ray release are more subtle than some viewers might be expecting.
The first season of Game of Thrones was reportedly shot and finished in 1080p resolution, meaning that this is an upscale rather than a native 4K presentation. With that said, apparent detail does still seem to receive a slight upgrade, especially during close-ups which reveal every tiny pore on the characters' faces and each and every whisker on Ned's beard.
Outside of resolution, the HDR presentation offers its own set of improvements here and there. Most notably, the 10-bit video and wide color gamut offer a delicate expansion of the show's palette, rendering a greater range of colors. Skintones, in particular, seem to benefit from the upgrade, resulting in some added warmth and a natural, rosier tinge to faces. Greens in leaves and forests pop a bit more as well, and there's added depth to primaries in general. The reds in Sansa and Caitlyn's hair, clothing like Tyrion's leather vest and, of course, blood, all appear deeper and bolder. Vibrant locations like King's Landing feature the most noticeable improvements, but more nuances in hues are even brought out under the cool cast of Winterfell and The Wall. To be clear, the wide color gamut does not offer a night and day difference, but the improved gamut does create a rich and more natural appearance in many shots, making the original Blu-ray look just a hair washed out during direct comparisons.
Specular highlights and shadows are also a little more intense in certain scenes, but the HDR grading here is rather conservative compared to most contemporary titles developed with high dynamic range as part of their original workflow. Candles and torches pop a little more in dark scenes, and shimmering water carries some added brilliance during a sequence where Arya duels with a friend. Isolated elements push nits even further without obscuring detail, including one scene where the sun shines directly behind Cersei in episode 7, and the climactic pyre sequence in episode 10 is marked by bright fire and deep blacks. With that said, the HDR pass is often very subtle and those looking for some kind of dramatic enhancement in highlight/shadow detail might be disappointed.
On that note, however, I have to applaud HBO for respecting the source material and resisting the urge to boost the contrast too much. In an eagerness to showcase the format, some lesser HDR transfers can be a little too aggressive, resulting in an exaggerated and harsh quality. Though far from demo material to show off the nit output of your TV, this is actually one of the more consistent and natural HDR presentations I've seen, avoiding any odd overly dark scenes or balance issues. With that said, highlights on Varys and Ned's faces during the opening crypt scene in episode nine do look a little blown out to me, but that might have more to do with the specific tone-mapping of my display rather than the transfer itself.
Finally, the 10-bit color and higher bitrate have also eliminated the isolated banding present on the standard Blu-ray (most notably, during the initial fade-in transition after the first episode's opening credits). And outside of some negligible noise inherent to the source, I did not detect any other troublesome artifacts.
Though improvements over the standard Blu-ray are subtle, Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season looks great in 4K. The measured HDR grading is respectful to the original source, offering a delicate yet effective expansion of color and contrast. But are these relatively modest image improvements enough to justify a double-dip if you already own the Blu-ray? Well, as a big fan of the show, this might not be a release I'd need to rush out and buy, but it's definitely an upgrade I'd want to make somewhere down the road. Likewise, based on this transfer, I do hope HBO ends up releasing the rest of the series on 4K Blu-ray as the expanded visual scope of subsequent seasons could only benefit more from the process.
For its 4K debut, the show includes the same fantastic Dolby Atmos audio presentation found on the previous SteelBook Blu-ray edition. But once again, the discs default to standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes instead, so you'll want to make sure to select Atmos in the menu. You can read my in-depth thoughts on the audio HERE.
But while those impressions still stand, I have decided to reduce the score ever-so-slightly to a 4.5. This is still an exceptional mix, but in retrospect (and in the wake of three years' worth of intervening Atmos releases), the first season's comparatively restrained scope (large-scale battles, dragons, and whitewalkers are essentially absent), does limit the track's overall impact just a tad.
Though there's nothing new here, HBO has included virtually all of the supplements found on the previous Blu-ray release -- reviewed HERE -- with the commentaries spread across the discs and the remaining extras housed on the fourth disc. In addition, the "Cast Auditions" are now included in the menu as a regular special feature rather than a hidden easter egg.
With that said, while the various "Histories and Lore" animations are still included, the full "Complete Guide to Westeros" and its additional text bios and maps have been excised. Likewise, the "In-Episode Guide" is no longer available. Though worthwhile material for viewers unfamiliar with the show, these aren't exactly essential supplements so their omission is forgivable.
The first season of Game of Thrones remains one of the show's very best, offering a perfect introduction to the captivating world of Westeros. This 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition offers a very subtle yet effective Dolby Vision/HDR10 upgrade. The differences between this new video transfer and the original Blu-ray are modest, but the expanded colors look lovely and the conservative HDR grading avoids the urge to overly enhance the source material. The same fantastic Dolby Atmos audio mix and almost all of the supplements from the previous SteelBook release are carried over as well, rounding out a great package. This might not be a must-own upgrade, but the 4K Blu-ray is recommended for fans who want the absolute best presentation of the series.