Connor Bynum // Film Critic
GAME OF THRONES: SEASON 8
On the off chance you did not use the internet at some point in 2019, the hit HBO series GAME OF THRONES finally came to an impossibly over-hyped conclusion this past spring. While fans were quite vocally critical with the way the show wrapped things up, many people have been quick to forget just how much this genre-defining fantasy saga changed the film and television industry as we know it.
Season 8 was indeed encumbered by its fair share of problems on both a storytelling and technical level upon its release on HBO’s streaming platform HBO NOW. But now that the eighth – and final season – has arrived on the home video market in 4K UHD, it is safe to say that the argument for physical media is far from disappearing into the long night.
Show Grade: C+
GAME OF THRONES was given the seemingly impossible task of delivering a satisfying finale with the quality of a cinematic blockbuster on a budget of a six-episode television season. Adding in the fact that fans were forced to wait two years after the seventh season (as opposed to the traditional one year), expectations could not have been any higher. So naturally, when all was said and done, more than a few longtime fans were less than pleased with the final result.
Given the way the series began with ten-episode seasons that realistically depicted the intricacies of medieval politics and warfare, viewers had grown accustomed to the show taking its darn time in getting anywhere with its story. Everything felt calculated and well thought out, like a gripping game of chess. Yet, after the events of the fifth season surpassed the still-unfinished book series, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Wiess were forced to go it alone with a handful of cliff notes from author George R. R. Martin – and it shows.
By the end of it all, every decision made feels rushed and impulsive. Character arcs that likely would have made perfect sense had they been given the proper time to develop over a few more seasons instead of feeling almost completely unwarranted and cheap.
While the eighth is certainly not without its crowd-pleasing moments (the long-awaited “Clegane-Bowl” among them), it’s no question that the majority of character arcs could have been handled way better. But at the end of it all, every journey has its end no matter how many signatures some online petition may get.
Video/Audio Grade: A
While the first two episodes of the season were met with generally positive reception, the negative reviews started to pop up after the third episode, THE LONG NIGHT, was plagued with compression issues from HBO’s flagship streaming app, HBO NOW. The episode certainly earned its name upon its release. Due to the artistic decision to use minimal artificial lighting for an 82-minute battle sequence taking place entirely at night, the overwhelming consensus from viewers was that the episode was nearly unwatchable. Yet a variety of factors were at play upon the episode’s premiere. HBO NOW claimed that a combination of a record-high number of simultaneous streamers, limited bandwidth, and the lack of HDR for the platform all added up to a colossally disappointing experience for everyone.
However, after seeing the episode for myself that night, I resigned to wait until the episode could be viewed the way it was intended before making my final judgment. And if this series has taught us anything, it’s that waiting is just part of the game. And boy, did it pay off. This epic battle is nothing short of a masterpiece in 4K UHD with HDR10. While the first ten minutes or so are still a little on the darker side, from the moment the Dothraki horde ignites their swords with the holy flames of the Lord of Light and charge off into the night, I never found myself straining to see just what in the seven hells was going on. The rich darks contrasted with the blood-red flames that ingulf the castle of Winterfell create a gorgeous painting of doom and destruction, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with this 4K presentation.
Another visually significant episode of the season is unquestionably the penultimate entry known as THE BELLS. This is where the showrunners truly pulled out all the stops to give viewers an unforgettable spectacle filled with set piece after set piece. The shot of Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) finally standing off against his terrifyingly evil older brother, Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) in a burning castle staircase as a mighty fire breathing dragon flies through the city is simply awe-inspiring.
While THE LONG NIGHT may be a nearly perfect representation of the value HDR brings to the table, THE BELLS is by far the reason to have a Dolby Atmos sound system in your home theater. The audible chaos never feels unbearable, but rather a meticulous tapestry of thundering lows of castles collapsing mixed with the higher screams of the people amidst the siege. While the episode itself was met with unparalleled criticism for its handling of one of the series’ main characters, it succeeds on a technical level in the best possible way.
Extras Grade: A
The 4K version of Season 8 comes exclusively packaged in a collectible steelbook case with a nifty Dragon Glass (obsidian) arrowhead magnet. It should be noted, though, that the design of the case itself is frustratingly clunky. On the left side of the case are three stacked standard Blu-ray discs that contain the episodes as well as all special features, and on the right side are three stacked 4K UHD discs that contain the episodes as well as some of the special features found on the standard Blu-rays.
The problem is that the only way to get to the second or third discs of either format is to remove the discs on top of them, which can often feel as though you may damage either the discs or the case to do so. It’s a small complaint but still feels as though it could have been handled better. (Come to think of it, that seems to be the general consensus surrounding the season as a whole, so for all we know it fits right in.) A digital copy code for the season is also included in the case (HD version only).
Some special features make their way onto the 4K discs. A sizable portion of the features are the standard flair of the cast talking about their experiences throughout the run of the show and documentary pieces breaking down the unprecedented production of the larger setpieces (like the battle of Winterfell), but they are certainly worth your time. Additionally, the feature-length documentary, THE LAST WATCH – which aired on HBO independently after the conclusion of the series – offers a fascinating look at the labors of love put into the show by the often overlooked members of the production crew also made its way onto the set.
The following is a breakdown of the special features included on the standard Blu-ray discs.
- Recaps and Previews
- In Episode Guides
- Audio Commentaries
- Episode One with commentary by Co-Producer / Writer Dave Hill and Production Designer Deborah Riley
- Episode Two with commentary by Co-Executive Producer / Writer Bryan Cogman and Daniel Portman (Podrick Payne)
- Episode Three with commentary by Director Miguel Sapochnik, Director of Photography Fabian Wagner and Camera Operator Sean Savage
- Recaps and Previews
- In Episode Guides
- Audio Commentaries
- Episode Four with commentary by Director of Photography David Franco, Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm), Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandel) and Pilou Absek (Euron Greyjoy)
- Episode Five with commentary by Director Miguel Sapochnik, Director of Photography Fabian Wagner and Conleth Hill (Varys)
- Episode Five with commentary by Producer Chris Newman, Special Effects Supervisor Sam Conway, and Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer
- Recap and Preview
- In Episode Guide
- Audio Commentaries
- Episode Six with commentary by Executive Producers / Writers / Directors David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)
- Episode Six with commentary by Director of Photography Jonathan Freeman and Camera Operator Ben Wilson
- When Winter Falls (1080p; 29:13)
- Duty is the Death of Love (1080p; 31:36)
- Game of Thrones: The Last Watch (1080p; 1:52:58)
- Histories and Lore
- King’s Landing (1080p; 2:55)
- The Greyjoy Rebellion (1080p; 5:31)
- The Blackfyres (1080p; 5:15)
- The South (1080p; 2:30)
- The Defiance of Duskendale (1080p; 5:17)
- Maegor the Cruel (1080p; 5:18)
- Deleted Scenes (1080p; 8:28)
Final Grade: B+
While in no way a perfect season, GAME OF THRONES has never looked better. Fans eager to complete their collection should certainly opt in for the upgraded format if they’re looking for a reason to re-experience the show’s conclusion the way it was meant to be seen.