The episode is dark and full of terrors.
This article is spoiler free!
If you’re like me, when the Game of Thrones episode “The Longest Night” started this past Sunday you wondered, “What is wrong with my TV?”
Instead of smooth gradations from the darkness of night over the fields outside Winterfell to the torchlight on the troubled faces of the army awaiting the fate of humanity, the sky was full of blocky artifacts. Banding surrounded the bright lights in the darkness. I had a new TV in for review and thought, “there’s no way this is all because of the display.”
Then the online commiserating began – Game of Thrones fans were complaining the episode was too dark across every social media platform. The problems were widespread, although better for some than others. So what caused it? As with almost everything, there isn’t a single issue but a collection that piled on top of each other.
“The Longest Night” was dark. It was one of the darkest, if not the darkest, episode in a series with a number of dark episodes. Whether you agree with the purposefully dark cinematography of episode 3 or not (I personally liked the use of darkness to support the coming of death incarnate to Westeros), images that dark are difficult for many TVs to handle properly.
The biggest quality culprit in the picture chain comes next: Compression. All that video and audio is a lot of information and in order for the signal to make it over the airways, or over the Internet, it has to be compressed. When done well, this compression goes unseen. On Sunday night it was not done well. HBO has long been behind the curve when it comes to its compression showing, and it shows up even more with dark images. (Or an 82-minute episode that takes place entirely at night.)
How the content gets to your home has the potential to degrade that signal even more. Satellite and cable have added compression as does streaming from an app. If the bandwidth of that stream isn’t high enough it’s even more likely to show artifacts in the video signal. Sometimes what platform the app is on can affect the stream. I watched through the HBO GO app on both my Xbox One X and my Sony TV and the Sony stream looked a little better.
Then there’s the number of users all trying to watch the show at the same time, both locally and across the country. If your Internet service has shared bandwidth and you’re attempting to watch at the same time as your neighbors your resolution can suffer and those pesky artifacts can be more prominent. Judging by the yells of surprise from outside my window, my neighbors and I were all watching concurrently.
The last cog in the machine is your TV. Dark scenes are generally more difficult for a display to handle than light. OLEDs have great black levels, but if yours isn’t properly calibrated it’s possible that it could crush the blacks, causing you to lose a bunch of detail in the darkest areas. On the flip side of the coin, the black level of an LCD can be higher and makes the darker images looked washed out. There are menu options that can help out including the aggressiveness of the set’s local dimming.
So what can you do to fix, or at least minimize, the problem on your end? The simplest things are make sure you’re watching in a dark room, adjust some basic menu options, and watch at off-peak times. Any lights on in the room, or even leaking in from the hallway, can make it difficult for your eyes to see any shadow detail that’s there. You could adjust your display’s brightness, backlight settings, or change the level of local dimming (or any combination of the three).
Waiting until the equivalent of the population of the Netherlands has finished watching will help significantly. HBO app streams looked drastically better the next day, when everyone was online complaining about the darkness of the episode instead of online streaming it.
For the long-term, the best solution is to calibrate your TV. Even some OLEDs have black crush problems before calibration. It costs a few hundred dollars, as you’ll want to hire a professional that has the equipment and knows what they’re doing. And, obviously, the Blu-ray release will offer much higher quality once the show is available for home entertainment – but that doesn’t solve the issue while the final season is airing week to week.
Or it’s possible you didn’t experience any of these issues. You might have a great TV, or didn’t watch at peak times, and it looked fine (although maybe still a little dark for your taste).
As I watched the episode again at different times throughout the following day, although the issues might not have been as blatant as Sunday night, they were still there. The compression is at the root of the issue and is only exacerbated by low bitrate streams and/or poor TV calibration. In the future we hopefully will see HBO improve its compression delivery. But as we say to the God of Death: Not today.
For more on Game of Thrones, check out why “The Long Night” was so disappointing for reasons that had nothing to do with darkness, how George R.R. Martin’s books handle the “Long Night,” our trailer breakdown of episode 4, and the clues we found in the next episode’s photos.