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Game Of Thrones: Season 1
Based on George R. R. Martin's book series A Song of Ice and Fire (and named after the first book in the series), Game Of Thrones debuted on HBO in the United States on April 17, 2011 and has pretty much been a pop culture phenomena ever since. The first season has been released on Blu-ray a few times already, and now HBO gives the initial ten-episode run a 4k UHD facelift. More on the technical side of the release further down this review, but for now…
The initial episode, Winter Is Coming, opens when three Soldier's Of The Night's Watch go past their protective wall out into the wilds of northern Westero where they come across the dead bodies of some wildlings and then ultimately the White Walkers they suspect killed them. Two of the men are killed, but Will (Bronson Webb) survives and deserts the Night's Watch, heading south hoping to find safety.
Meanwhile, in the locale know as King's Landing, Queen Cersei (Lean Headey) and her twin brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) stand in quiet observation as the corpse of Jon Arryn, ‘The Hand Of The King,' is looked after and prepared to by the Silent Sisters. Cersei and Jaime are concerned that before he passed, Jon may have revealed certain secrets that'd prefer remain secrets to anyone.
Then we head north to Winterfell where we meet Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), his wife, Lady Catelyn "Cat" Stark (Michelle Fairley) and their five children: oldest daughter and heir Robb (Richard Madden), oldest daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner), youngest daughter Arya (Maisie Williams), middle child Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and then their youngest son, Rickon (Art Parkinson). Ned is also the father to two illegitimate sons in the form of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his ward Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Ned is told of deserter Will's capture and brings his sons to see him put to death for deserting the Night's Watch. Will tries to talk to Ned about the White Walkers but it's of no use and soon enough Ned decapitates Will in front of the crowd. After all, the White Walkers have been extinct for years. Things go from there as Ned learns of the death of a close friend named Lord Arryn and then that the King himself will be arriving in Winterfell soon. Not too long after that, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) arrives with Cersei on his arm accompanied by their three children: Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), Princess Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) and their youngest, Prince Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman. Jaimie is also with them, as is his younger brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), a randy dwarf known more commonly as "The Imp". The reason for their arrival is that King Robert intends to announce Ned as the new Hang Of The King and that Sansa should be wed to Joffrey in an arranged marriage that will solidify their families. Meanwhile, Caitlyn gets news that Jon Arryn may have been murdered some members of the Lannister family and, to add further chaos to all of this, Bran accidently stumbles across Cersei and Jaime having an incestuous coupling.
In the area known as Pentos, Prince Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd), who lives in exile, arranges a marriage between his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and the warlord leader of the violent Dothraki, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), in hopes of forming a union strong enough that they can overthrow King Robert and reclaim the throne. Oh, and there are dragons too.
We're not going to go into a whole lot more detail than that, no spoilers here for those who haven't seen it (and those who have don't need a synopsis in the first place) but let it suffice to say that Game Of Thrones is complex. There's so much going on in the first episode that it can be a bit hard to keep the seemingly massive cast of characters straight, let alone the different plots that they all get involved with and the countless back stabbings, betrayals and political maneuvering that occurs. That said, if you feel overwhelmed in the first couple of episodes, stick with it. The series gets incredibly tense and proves to be quite gripping. Even if you're not a fan of ‘fantasy' shows, this is still worth taking the time to explore thanks not as much to the environments that it all plays out in and the creatures that inhabit them (though that is one aspect that helps to set this all apart) but to the quality of the production as a whole.
The writing in the series is excellent. Often times penned by creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, and, less frequently, by Martin himself there's a lot of depth to the characters that, once we get to know them (and it does take some time) they become quite fascinating. There are so many layers to what happens in just this first season that you can't help but get swept up in all of this, making the investment that first-time viewers will be required to make while diving into this material well worth it. The writing team does a fine job of humanizing many of the characters, Bean's Eddard Stark in particular (easily the most important character in this first run of episodes as so much of what happens winds up revolving around him), making many of their motivations understandable and relatable. Even the villains in the series (and the series does not want for villains) are fleshed out in ways that make them multi-dimensional characters rather than typical genre stereotypes. There's a nice flow to the dialogue that, without getting too flowery, has a somewhat poetic tone to it suiting the vibe of the story and the time/landscape in which it unravels rather nicely.
HBO has also given the series a substantial budget to work with, and as such we get a very strong cast and pretty solid production values. Yes, some of the effects and backgrounds have clearly been conjured up digitally and maybe practical effects would have been more interesting for some viewers, but the scope of the series is so huge that it would have been unrealistic to expect that. Still, what's accomplished in terms of the look of the show is often times impressive. Performances, likewise, are really solid across the board. Bean is great, as noted, but so too is Momoa and especially Emilia Clarke and the fantastic Peter Dinklage.
The series was clearly meant with an adult audience in mind and as such, never shies away from sex or violence. Some of the content here is pretty strong, but it all fits in, keeping with the story and never really feeling like too much. In fact, it's interesting how the series often uses sex scenes to offer characters the chance to indulge in likely exchanges of dialogue, so it's best to actually pay close attention to what is said during the show's frequent bouts of coitus! The action choreography and set pieces definitely come at you with an admirable ferocity, however, and that absolutely adds to the show's intensity.
The 4K 2160p resolution HEVC/H.265 encoded transfers on the four discs in this set are framed at 1.78.1 widescreen and while the content has been upscaled (it wasn't shot in 4k) it still looks excellent. Close up shots are consistently very impressive, showing excellent fine detail on skin and in the costumes to the point where you can almost get lost in some of it. Color reproduction is perfect and black levels are pretty much reference quality. As the show is shot digitally, there aren't any damage or grain related issues to note, the entire image is remarkably clean from start to finish. The effects-heavy sequences do look softer than those without the digital magic laid overtop, however, and some of the digitally created sets and landscapes also look less than completely natural. This would seem to be a case of the enhanced resolution exposing some of the flaws in the older digital effects work that was maybe less obvious in a 1080p presentation. Still, the good vastly outweighs the bad here and if this isn't quite UHD reference material, it's still damn good. Compared to the Blu-ray discs we not only notice an increase in detail but also better, richer and deeper color reproduction. Is it a huge upgrade over the standard Blu-rays? No, but it's still a very impressive effort.
Audio chores are taken care of by an English language Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 options that sound excellent. The Atmos option is pretty much flawless, offering crystal clear dialogue, sumptuous sounding music and remarkably crisp effects. Surround usage is excellent throughout each episode and the levels are always properly balanced. As you'd expect from something like this, there are absolutely no issues with any hiss or distortion to note, in fact, there's really nothing to complain about at all. There was clearly a lot of attention to detail paid to the sound design for this series and the Atmos mix really shows it off beautifully. Even in quieter moments there's plenty of, sometimes very subtle but not less effective, surround activity to take in and the battle scenes really rip, pulling you right into the action.
Alternate audio tracks are provided in French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Latin American Spanish Dolby Audio 2.0 Stereo, Castilian Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, German Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Brazilian Portuguese DTS 2.0, Czech DTS 2.0, Hungarian DTS 2.0, Polish DTS 2.0 and Russian DTS 5.1 Surround Sound options. Subtitles are available in English, French, Latin American Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovenian, Turkish, Chinese, Korean and Thai.
There's quite a bit of bonus content included in this set, though it doesn't look like any of it is new (meaning it looks like it's all been ported over from past Blu-ray releases of the season, of which there have been quite a few, and it looks like a few supplements from various editions have been left off of this set).
First up are the commentary tracks, which are laid out as follows:
Winter Is Coming: executive producers/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
The Kingsroad: with cast members Lena Heade, Mark Addy and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Lord Snow: with cast members Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright
Cripples, Bastards And Broken Things: writer Bryan Cogman and actor Kit Harington
A Golden Crown: director Daniel Minahan and cast members Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Harry Lloyd
The Pointy End: co-executive producer/author George R.R. Martin
Fire And Blood: with executive producers/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director Alan Taylor
These are thorough and interesting and feature a wide range of the people involved with the show and, as such, manage to cover a lot of ground. We hear from directors, producers and cast members but also from Martin himself and it's quite interesting to hear his thoughts on the episode he dives into. Lots of talk here about effects work and technical challenges, location work, costuming, character development, plot details and loads more.
The rest of the extras are found on disc four, starting with eleven-minutes of Cast Auditions wherein we see footage of Harry Lloyd, Rory McCann, Jason Momoa, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams and Miltos Yerolemou all vying for their roles. From there, dig into thirty-one minutes of Character Profiles in which we're primed on the basics for Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Khal Drago, Petyr Baelish and Robert Baratheon. These aren't essential but given that the performers do the voice work for them, they're interesting enough to dig through once.
More interesting is the hour-long featurette Anatomy Of An Episode: A Golden Crown, which is essentially a making of piece done in picture-in-picture format. So as the sixth episode plays out with this enabled, we're treated to a host of behind the scenes footage, cast and crew interviews. It's very well done, making it a shame that we only get this option for one of the episodes in the set. The half-hour Making Game Of Thrones piece is a fairly standard look at what is involved in putting the series together. Again, we get some cast and crew interviews that elaborate on many of the challenges faced in an epic production such as this, and there's some insight from Martin here as well. The five-minute From The Book To The Screen piece is pretty much what it sounds like: an exploration of how Martin's source material was translated into the live action series that it is. Insight from Martin here is key, but we also hear from Weiss and Benioff. In the seventy-minute Histories & Lore segment provides detailed histories of the importance and significance of the series' characters and locations, categorized by houses and Westeros geography. It takes a pretty deep dive into all of this, but if you want more, this'll give it to you.
The eight-minute The Night's Watch is a brief look at the Soldier's Of The Night's Watch and an exploration of what they're all about, what drives them and their commitment to protecting what they need to protect. We get cast and crew insight here and again, Martin chimes in too. Up next is the five-minute Creating The Show Open which examines how the series' iconic opening sequence was put together, and then, there's the five-minute Creating The Dothraki Language piece that shows us how the fictional language featured in the series was created.
The four discs are housed inside a black keepcase that also holds an insert card containing a digital download code. The keepcase in turn fits inside a nice, embossed slipcover. The packaging for this is quite nice.
HBO's 4k UHD release of Game Of Thrones: The Complete First Season is a very strong one, and while some supplemental material might have given fans more of a reason to double dip than just a nice increase in presentation quality, that increase is nothing to sneeze at. The material looks very good and sounds even better and there's still plenty of supplemental content here to keep fans of this uniquely engaging series involved for hours. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.