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Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Catelyn and Jon Snow

[ 28 ] September 25, 2012 |

(This is another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this upcoming course … which now has its own website that’s only a demo at the moment so don’t judge.)

To recap: in the first post, I demonstrated how Van Patten turned Will into a sympathetic character. In the second post, I established that the scenes in Winterfell that weren’t in the novel were designed to establish a perspective on Will’s coming execution that’s focalized through Bran, but which also introduces the audience to the larger Stark family dynamics. (I also, as Julia Grey pointed out, inadvertantly indicated how Arya’s character would develop over the course of the season. I’ll let Julia’s analysis carry the weight of that interpretative thread for now and return to it when it comes to fore later.) Before I can yoke those arguments together, though, it would behoove us to see what happens when Bran steps off-stage, as it were, beginning with the announcement of Will’s capture:

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Those smiles are residual: for one of the only time in the series, Ned and Catelyn have watched Arya and Bran engaging in what we might call “play.” She hits his target and he’s encouraged by his brothers, bastard and true, as well as his parents, to take off after her:

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There’s levity to this scene, from the shocked faces in the medium shot of the first frame to Arya’s mocking curtsy in the long shot of the second, but Van Patten has other intentions here: Bran needs to look fast and agile, and Van Patten establishes this by how he reverses the camera. In the first frame, Bran stands motionless in a medium shot; in the second, Arya curtsies in a long shot that seems longer because the level of framing makes her look smaller by leaving the top-third of the frame open, in the sense that her head doesn’t occupy it. The fact that it’s not only occupied, but stuffed full of objects-which-are-not-Arya further diminishes her. In the third, the level of framing shifts slightly down—which you can measure by the line on the pig or the distance between the head of the man on the right and the top of the frame—as Bran begins giving chase to his sister. His head barely turns in that frame before Van Patten cuts quickly to the fourth frame of the happy couple observing their children frolic, but then the camera reverses and Bran’s halfway up the stable fence. That’s significant: in the third frame he’d barely turned, merely tousling his hair, and still occupied the same plane in the mise-en-scene as Jon and Robb; by the fifth frame, Bran’s traversed the distance between Jon and Robb and Arya during a half-second cutaway to Ned and Catelyn. He’s moved to and mounted the fence so quickly that his older brothers, though stationary and clear enough to be seen visibly laughing, have become victims of the shallow focus that Bran’s speed has necessitated.

Because Bran is fast and Bran can climb. Establishing that seems important for some reason. But I digress. We’ve come to talk about Will and how his death brings this family together. Returning to those residual smiles and the announcement of Will’s capture: the smiles on Ned and Catelyn’s respective faces are wiped away by disturbing news:

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Note how tightly framed this shot is: almost every bit of it is occupied by people, which creates a claustrophobic effect. These people are close, certainly, but they’re too close. Winterfell is fine old castle, but it’s still behind battlements and there aren’t crenels wide enough to make it feel spacious. That’s not to say there can’t be distance between people, as Van Patten demonstrates in the conversation about Bran that follows, which begins with a medium shot of Ned and Catelyn:

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Compared to the first frame above, which preceded this one by about ten seconds, it’s obvious that there’s some space opening up between Ned and Catelyn. The scene isn’t becoming less claustrophobic: it’s becoming more visually expressionistic, in that the blocking and framing are now explicitly replicating the emotional content of the narrative. When Catelyn pleads with Ned to let Bran stay behind, the switch to the more intimate close-up shot mimics the personal nature of her appeal:

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She’s trying to get closer to him as only she can: by calling him his private name, “Ned,” instead of “Lord Stark” or “Eddard.” At first, it seems to work, as he turns to her and allows her to have her say:

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But note that she’s allowed to do so in a medium shot that undercuts the intimacy of the previous one. Ned will listen, but he has an even more intimate reason for refusing to grant her request, which of course is presented in an extreme close-up in order to hammer home its intimacy:

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In the tug-of-concern between Ned and Catelyn, Ned earns the final word by virtue of the extremity of the close-up and getting to name the episode. The extreme nature of this close-up suggests intimacy, but it also creates a crowded shot reminiscent of the one that opened this scene. Suddenly the entire frame is occupied by people—people who are close or possibly too close to each other—which makes Van Patten’s reversal all the more painful:

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When Ned vacates the previously established medium shot, not even zooming in on Catelyn can counter the effect of his absence: she is more alone now that she was mere seconds ago, when her children were playing and her husband was laughing by her side. Speaking of her children, what’s happened to them in the interim:

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Her child, the one in back to which she’s paying no attention, is doing nothing of importance, which is why he’s not in focus. Her husband’s bastard son, on the other hand, receives this:

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She’s not exactly angry with Jon—no more so than she typically is when reminded of his existence—but this medium long shot redoubles the isolating effect of her previous medium close-up. The slightly low angle of framing doesn’t make her seem powerful, as such shots conventionally do, if only because we’ve just witnessed a demonstration of her powerlessness. She couldn’t stop Ned from bringing Bran along to Will’s execution, so she’s going to scowl weakly at her husband’s bastard son and the camera’s going to gently mock her pretensions with an ironically low angle of framing. However:

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Jon can’t catch the irony. The high level of framing here makes it clear that whatever airs Catelyn’s wearing here, they’re effective enough to cow Jon. On reversal, a point-of-view shot from Jon’s perspective makes this abundantly clear:

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Whereas one shot previous her pretensions were being undermined by ironic framing, once we see her through Jon’s perspective she cuts an entirely different, more powerful figure. Here the low angle of framing presents her as an imperious woman who holds Jon’s fate in her hands and he knows it. And do you know what she’s doing with this knowledge right now? She’s abusing Jon with it. She’s lashing out at him because she couldn’t prevent Ned from bringing Bran to Will’s execution. As I said in the previous two posts, even though the explicit structure of the novel isn’t being replicated Rashomon-style on screen, there’s a deliberate attempt to create discrete perspectives in the episodes.

And all of this happens in the brief minute and a half that Bran’s being discussed and thought about instead of appearing. He’s still a presence: he motivates this entire exchange, verbal and otherwise, but it’s important to note that even when he’s off-stage all these characters are thinking through him: what’s in his best interest as a son, what’s in his best interest as a brother, and what’s in his best interest as a future lord. Even when absent, then, these opening scenes are still focalized, albeit obliquely, through his perspective.

Tomorrow, in what I promise will be the final post about the opening minutes of “Winter Is Coming,” we will finally see the “punchline,” as it were, to Van Patten’s extensive set-up. The joke, we know, will be on Will, but how will the rest of the players react to Bran’s reaction to it?

Comments (28)

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  1. Peter Hovde says:

    This is so good it makes me want to try the show again, even though I’d be all like “No! That’s wrong! Will got wasted by wight-Weymar!”

    • SEK says:

      Thanks! I probably spend nine or ten times as long on these as I do my political posts, so it’s nice to know they’re appreciated. (Granted, they’re technically my job, but it’s not like I have to put them up on the blog.)

      • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

        I’m far from the point of being able to do any coherent analyses, but I have found that these posts have gotten me noticing angles and perspective and such while I’m watching some of my favorite shows, and at least appreciating what’s going on visually, even if I can’t always put a finger on it. Even in shows that you haven’t written about yet (Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey) I’m seeing all sorts of interesting technical stuff going on. Good stuff.

  2. SamR says:

    So much has happened in the series that its jarring to see Robb, Jon, Bran, Arya, Ned, Cat, etc, hanging around Winterfell and practicing archery.

    I also hadn’t thought of the issue of Cat reacting to a lost argument with Ned by transferring her wrath to her favorite target Jon.

    • SEK says:

      You’re telling me. Given that I’ve already read all the novels, I’m constantly having to stop myself. The whole “Arya’s character will develop” bit is about as much as I’m willing to concede.

      Because it really was heartbreaking to breakdown this little, quasi-domestic scene knowing what I know. Sigh. God damn you, George R. R. Martin, God damn you to Hell.

  3. Jon H says:

    Van Patten will always be Salami to me.

  4. Stephen Frug says:

    I have to admit a suspicion that if a director of a Game of Thrones episode ever read these, they’d give them whatever the directorial equivalent of writer’s block is. I imagine this is all instinctive; thinking it through would, I imagine, be paralyzing. Imagine trying to sit down and do all this deliberately.

    (PS I love the posts, and am sorry there’s only one more in the series…)

    • SEK says:

      Well, one more for this episode. I’ve still got nine other to cover this quarter. Probably only two per episode once I’m in the thick of grading, but still, there will be many more. (In addition to the ones I just write because I “have” to, for whatever reason.)

      That said, I don’t think I’d give them the directorial equivalent of writer’s block. I’ve actually gotten feedback from Adam Smith (who directed the Doctor Who episodes I wrote about) and John Rogers (who directed the Leverage episode I wrote about), and for the most part, they agreed that I caught a lot of what they’d done; gave them the benefit of the doubt about a few things that were purely practical, including, on Who, Smith having to deal with a few lights on set blowing right as they were about to film; but occasionally just didn’t understand X or Y about some technical point, like whether the medium shot was actually shot or was created in post-production, as per here. Point being, I think they’ll do just fine even if they read these.

      • Stephen Frug says:

        there will be many more

        Yay!

        I don’t think I’d give them the directorial equivalent of writer’s block.

        Ok, maybe it’s just that I find them intimidating in their detail & thoroughness. (Wonderful — impressive — spot-on — but intimidating.) Guess that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. (Or rather reason #456,434)

        Still, interesting it’s more or less how they’re thinking about things.

    • Hob says:

      It’s just like any craft, or athletic skill, or what have you: you internalize a set of useful moves until you can deploy them instinctively (if you can call anything “instinctive” that involves as much pre-planning and repetitive effort as directing does)… but that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t describe the principles behind what you’re doing, or that you’d suddenly lose your skills if someone else described them.

  5. eric from cleveland says:

    A major GoT nerd here. Without giving anything away here spoiler-wise lots of foreshadowing here too.

    :the most minor of spoiler warnings:

    The major players in this scene are Jon and Bran doing the [training for] fighting and Arya faceless offscreen hitting a deadly bullseye. Robb, Ned, Catelyn, Theon, and Ser Roddrick are off to the side/not involved.

  6. Julia Grey says:

    Whereas one shot previous her pretensions were being undermined by ironic framing, once we see her through Jon’s perspective she cuts an entirely different, more powerful figure. Here the low angle of framing presents her as an imperious woman who holds Jon’s fate in her hands and he knows it. And do you know what she’s doing with this knowledge right now? She’s abusing Jon with it. She’s lashing out at him because she couldn’t prevent Ned from bringing Bran to Will’s execution.

    Oh, very nice. She really was looking daggers at him, wasn’t she? And just moments after seeming to enjoy watching him teach Bran to shoot?

    Jon couldn’t have a clue what caused the change in her attitude between the moment of apparent approval and the sudden expression of contempt. Showing his “downcast” look in a shot from above was very evocative.

    I noticed in that first still that Robb really DOES look amazingly like Theon Greyjoy, at least at this callow point in his development.

    • Hob says:

      The visuals there work especially well because the previous shot of Ned and Cat from below, where they’re both smiling and everything looks peachy, coincides with Jon’s line to Bran: “Father’s watching… and your mother.” That’s a really economical way of conveying a major piece of backstory, and also establishing that Jon is the kind of guy who speaks very literally and colors inside the lines when it comes to social roles. We’re not really given time to process the implications of the line right then, it just registers as a slightly odd phrasing in a slightly tense tone of voice, but the happy-family-together image doesn’t support that– and the pause before “your mother” doesn’t correspond to any visual emphasis on Cat– so we move on. Then as soon as everyone else is gone, we get the second looking-up shot and this time it’s clearly about Cat and all is clearly not well; now we’re getting the image that fits with that line.

      This is probably my least favorite scene in the episode and one of my least favorite in the series, just as far as the texture of it and the acting– especially in contrast to the very intense scene right after it– but I have to admit it’s beautifully constructed.

      • SEK says:

        This is probably my least favorite scene in the episode and one of my least favorite in the series

        I’ll confess that I really like this scene, as it condenses so much information into so few seconds, but that shot of Jon laughing at the arrow right before Cat stares him down infuriates me. In the midst of what’s an otherwise almost perfectly orchestrated scene, there’s this perspectiveless medium shot of an unintroduced character smiling at an arrow. Bonkers, I tell you, it drives me bonkers.

        • I thought it was just Jon coming down from a fit of the giggles from Bran’s fraca with Arya, and a way to set up the effect that Catelyn’s disapproval has on Jon Snow.

          • SEK says:

            I’ll address your other comment after I incorporate it into my course blog, but quickly now, what bothers me about that shot is that from the perspective of, well, perspective, it’s a pointless shot. There’s no cause to shift the level and angle of framing to a medium of Jon, because that suggests, if you think about the geography of the castle, that the point-of-view is of someone who’s currently standing where Arya was when she shot the arrow. Except no one’s there now; if they’d introduced someone in a subsequent shot who’d been sneaking a peek at Jon, I’d be fine with it. But as it is, it’s just unmoored.

            Does that make sense outside of my head?

        • Hob says:

          Rickon, not Jon. Yeah, that shot sure is clunky – I wonder if that was a last-minute edit due to the very young actor, i.e. they couldn’t get a good take that had him along with the others so they had to shoot a separate insert.

          It’s great in terms of information delivery and introducing the characters – like I said, it’s just something about the tone that feels a little flat to me. Maybe because it’s introducing a whole new environment that’s inside a huge castle, but you don’t get much sense of where you are yet because it’s busy introducing the characters.

  7. These articles really are fascinating. I love Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn, her looks, and voice, really remind me of family.

  8. Great as always – hadn’t even thought about how the shot of Catelyn staring down Jon Snow immediately follows her losing on the whole “have children witness executions” thing.

    On to the political/historical!

    * Jon the Bastard – As I explain in longer detail here, George R.R Martin’s portrayal of bastardy in a world that parallels 14th century England is actually one of those things that shows the difference between realism and reality, in that Martin deliberately exaggerated the stigma of bastardy.

    In Westeros (under normal conditions), bastardy is a block against virtually all social advancement – in a society built on feudal contracts and agriculture, Jon Snow cannot inherit land unless all other relatives die and even if legitimated by royal decree, he inherits dead last despite being born first. As Snow himself thinks, ““Robb would someday inherit Winterfell, would command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name. His sisters Arya and Sansa would marry the heirs of other great houses and go south as mistress of castles of their own. But what place could a bastard hope to earn?”

    However, in history, things were more complicated. William the Conqueror was widely known as “William the Bastard” before his invasion of England in 1066, and yet he inherited the Duchy of Normandy and laid claim to the throne of England. Beginning with the Normans, royal and noble bastards often were granted quite extensive lands and titles – Robert Fitzroy, the son of Henry I, became the First Earl of Gloucester and a powerful enough noble to lead the armies of the Empress Matilda against Stephen I in the civil war known as “the Anarchy” (and indeed was mentioned as a rival candidate to Stephen I as the successor to Henry I); Henry I’s daughters became Duchesses of Brittany, Countesses of Perche, and Abbesses of Montvilliers. Royal and noble bastards played the same role that legitimate siblings did in the feudal system: they were ways to play the feudal game of distributing lands and titles while still keeping land in the family, just as Bran and Rickon would be as rulers of holdfasts for Robb.

    The point here is that Martin is exaggerating the stigma, both as a dramatic vehicle (further heightening the importance of Snow’s birth, bringing in the question of the inheritance of Winterfell, etc.) and as a way for you to grasp the character. Jon Snow may be well attuned to the moods of his home, but he’s also an emotional adolescent whose perceptions are colored by his heightened emotions. He had other options than the Night’s Watch – could easily have been fostered with one of Eddard’s bannermen, could have married into a vassal family and inherited land thereby, could have joined the church of the Seven, could have become a knight – but made a rash decision driven especially by his romantic belief in the Night’s Watch as a place free of social distinctions.

    * Catelyn the wronged wife – one thing that I find fascinating about the adaptation of the books into the series is the way in which the deliberate decision to avoid backstory as much as possible has shown how important information about past events is in how we perceive characters. In the first couple of episodes, Catelyn’s antipathy towards Jon Snow seems far beyond the norm one might expect, which caused some observers to react negatively towards the “cold” Catelyn.

    However, her feelings make much more sense when you have backstory. Catelyn and Ned weren’t supposed to be wed – she was engaged and in love with his older brother Brandon when Lord Rickard Stark and his heir Brandon were murdered by King Aerys II. Eddard inherited Catelyn along with Winterfell and the North, and the two were strangers to each other when they married. Hence, when Eddard rides off to fight in Robert’s Rebellion and comes back with another woman’s baby, the marriage has no firm foundation to build off of.

    Moreover, Catelyn learns that Eddard Stark had been in love, not just with a peasant girl named Wylla, but also with a highborn woman, Lady Ashara Dayne, who killed herself at the end of the war. Eddard returns home with a child, refuses to say who the mother is at all costs, and bans the name of Ashara Dayne from being spoken. To Catelyn then, Jon Snow becomes the embodiment of every uncertainty and doubt in her marriage. He’s the symbol of the woman Eddard loved and lost when he became Lord. He’s the one son Eddard has with the classic Stark features – which to Catelyn undermines subtly the legitimacy of her sons’ right to inheritance – and it is critical that people realize (due to our skewed 21st century interpretations of the later plot), of Eddard Stark’s five children with Catelyn, only one resembles Eddard Stark, with the others favoring their mother.

    This potential threat is more than just paranoia – bastard sons can be elevated to legitimacy, and in Westeros history, this always bring ruin. Aegon IV, known as Aegon the Unworthy, legitimized all of his highborn bastards upon his death, clouding the legitimacy of succession. Aegon had favored one of his bastards, Daemon, and gave him the royal sword, Blackfyre, which Daemon took to be a sign that he was the true heir. Daemon “Blackfyre” rebelled against his brother, Daeron II, claiming that Daeron was actually the bastard of Aegon IV’s brother and not the rightful King. Half of Westeros rose with Daemon, and for fifty years, Westeros’ peace was threatened with civil war and invasion on behalf of the Blackfyre claim to the throne.

    Hence why a mere boy is an existential threat to Catelyn’s marriage and peace of mind.

    • Hob says:

      Re: Catelyn as “cold” – I really like Fairley’s performance, and I’m not all that bothered by the story changes around her character; I think she’s much the same, she’s just being portrayed from a different angle, more external. It’s very plausible to me that the “warmer” person, as we experience her from her own point of view in the books, actually comes across to everyone else in the books (except Ned) more like the person we see on the show. Similarly, as seen from inside my own head I hardly seem like a cantankerous, pedantic stressmonger at all.

  9. Batocchio says:

    I think the other site’s got a decent design, nice and clean, that features the photos well. I imagine these posts are good class prep for you, and for students learning more about both watching film/TV and writing about it, they’re great primers.

    I’ve been quite impressed with Game of Thrones, from the writing and adaptation choices, to the performances, to the camerawork/shot selection (also production design, visual effects, and oh, extras on the season one discs). They’ve got a nice budget and schedule by normal TV standards, but it’s paltry compared to film, and they really make the most of it. Plus, it gets better with repeated viewings. (As for the books, I’m hoping Martin can deliver a strong finish. I tore through all them last summer.)

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