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Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Poor Will

[ 57 ] September 19, 2012 |

(I think it goes without saying that this is another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)

As this is to be the first of many posts breaking down the visual rhetoric of Game of Thrones, I want to tell you either “You’re welcome!” or “I’m sorry!” I need to write them for my class this quarter so they will written. Regular blogging will continue as usual. (See?) Now on to “Winter Is Coming.”

For those of you who haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s Games of Thrones, it’s important to note that there are twenty-four characters through whose perspective the narrative is occasionally focalized, meaning that the writers and directors of the television series needed to go full-Rashomon or find another way to imbue each episode with the feel of perspectival diversity. Which makes the decision to open “Winter Is Coming” with the Prologue odd but instructive. On the one hand, beginning where the novel begins is a simple decision: Martin placed the Prologue where he did because he wanted to set the mood for the scenes to come and director Tim Van Patten followed suit. On the other hand, in an episode that can only be 52 minutes long and in which numerous perspectives must be introduced, devoting 11 minutes to the quick end of the short life of Will, the Prologue’s narrator, seems excessive. I’m going to argue otherwise: what the material contained in the Prologue provides the audience is a means of sympathizing with the different perspectives on Will’s life and death, and in so doing begins to recreate the structure of the novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First we need to be introduced to Will:

He’s one of those little black dots on horseback in this extreme long or establishing shot, the purpose of which is establish the scale of the wall by providing us with an identifiable reference and the state of the environment by showing us an unimaginably large wall made of ice and a cover of snow that follows the wall to the vanishing point. Before we even meet Will, then, Van Patten informs us that he is a small man beholden to powers great enough to build and maintain that wall, and that he is likely in peril, because no one who isn’t builds and lives behind a wall like that. Moreover, the contrast between the blue-white snow and the black riders suggests that not only is Will in peril, he’s conspicuously so, which means he’s all the more likely to meet a sad end. And Van Patten’s communicated all of this in a single shot.

Games of thrones - winter is coming00003

He cuts to another establishing shot that works much like the first: in what we’ll call a very long shot, the world is still white and empty of all but some men and trees. This is the classic Russian technique of turning a forest into the cinematic equivalent of a barren desert: the only life visible is either human or snow-coated evergreen. These riders aren’t as tiny as they were in the opening shot, but the scale still makes them appear vulnerable because they’re still dominated by the other elements of the frame. The deep focus suggests that all of the elements in the scene may be of equal importance, which is strange because the only visible elements are the people and the trees. Combined with the relatively high-key lighting, which should allow us to see everything in the scene, the deep focus creates the conflicting impression that we can see everything in the scene, but that there’s something in it that we’re still not seeing. But if it’s there why can’t we see it?

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It could be because we are the something we can’t see and we’re watching the riders approach from our point-of-view. Intimating that camera’s perspective belongs to something monstrous is quite common in horror films and series. For example, the first episode of The Walking Dead, “Days Gone By,” fiddled with this suggested perspective for nearly five minutes before dispensing with the conceit. Van Patten only plays with it momentarily, but the effect is unsettling enough because as the riders move closer to the camera, their faces become more distinct, and the more we can distinguish about them from their faces, the more likely we are sympathize with them. In the long shot above, the rider’s face betrays a wariness about what’s behind the trees, and well he should, because it might be us and we might be a monster. We’re not. However!

Games of thrones - winter is coming00011

Over there! What’s over there? The medium long shot allows us not only to see his face, but to see it clearly enough for Van Patten to create an eyeline match between what Will and what he sees:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00012

What is that? Another long shot of trees in deep focus. It should be disconcerting for the same reason the previous long shot of trees in deep focus was: we should be able to see everything in the shot, but there’s nothing that demands our attention except maybe a little mist. The shot is highly structured: on the vertical axis, two trees occupy the central area and two more flank the left and right sides of the frame. A single line of dark something bisects the frame horizontally. When a shot is this structured it suggests either literal or figurative confinement. Encountering the symmetry of entrapment in the middle of a vast wood compounds the earlier disquieting suggestions and doesn’t Will know it:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00013

Or maybe he doesn’t. The medium close-up alone just indicates that we’re looking at him looking at those eerily symmetrical trees. But wait!

Van Patten begins zooming in from the medium close-up into a genuine close-up. We may have the beginning of what I refer to as a “thinking zoom,” in which a director zooms in on a character’s face in order to indicate that that character has had a thought. Did Will?

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Will most certainly did. Note that when Van Patten zoomed into the extreme close-up he also elevates the level of framing slightly in order to emphasize Will’s widening eyes. Will’s not just thinking that there’s something’s odd about those trees, he believes he’s seen something that verifies his thoughts. He’s not sure he’s seen what he thinks he’s seen but he’s not about to take a chance:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00020

He climbs a drift to take a closer look at the trees and examine what he thinks he might have seen. He looks to his left and Van Patten employs another eyeline match to show us what Will sees near that mist:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00021

The long shot of the mist clears up one thing: it’s smoke not mist. But the long shot doesn’t provide enough visual information for us to make any sense of it. There’s smoke and some other things there but it’s difficult to discern what those other things are. But there are some disturbing inferences for Will to draw from what he can see: the first is that these riders aren’t alone, someone else set and abandoned that fire; the second is that something bad may have happened to that someone else because people don’t abandon fires in this environment unless they have good reason to. Why am I discussing this long shot as if it’s a point-of-view shot from Will’s perspective? Because I think it is. Van Patten’s bridging these shots together via eyeline matches:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00024

When he cuts back to Will behind the drift, Will looks to his right instead of his left this time and sees:

An extreme close-up of a head upon a stake. The zoom from the long shot of the smoke to the close-up of the head is the point-of-view equivalent of the thinking zoom. Instead of zooming into the mind of the character thinking, this zoom approximates what happens when a perspectival character paying more attention to an object in the mise-en-scene. Van Patten provides further evidence that Will’s been thinking when he cuts back to him:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00030

Moving in to a close-up on the reverse is something like an implied thinking zoom. It also provides us with a better opportunity to read Will’s face and sympathize with the horror written upon it. There’s an intimacy to a close-up that naturally engenders sympathy in audience members who capable of it. It can also be quite creepy, as demonstrated by the image from Eyes Wide Shut that the Yale Film Analysis site uses an example. Where exactly are we, the audience, in relation to Cruise and Kidman in that shot? That’s right: we’re standing three inches from their noses while they’re making out. Point being: we can more clearly read Will’s face now and that allows us to better sympathize with the dismay he feels at what he’s seeing. Which is:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00031

He looked to his left and his right before looking straight ahead and taking in the whole scene. Remember earlier when I mentioned that the high-key lighting and deep focus suggested that we should’ve been able to see something that wasn’t there? This may be that something. Even the way Van Patten edited this sequence suggests that this is something Will didn’t want to be seeing: he looked left and couldn’t make it out, looked right and noticed the head on the stake, and only then did he confront what he didn’t want to see. But there the ghastly scene is and he has no choice but to survey it. Then of course run. Running is a bad thing for a member of the Night’s Watch to do: the penalty for running is death. His companions think him a coward and ask him if he wants to run. He declines and decides to return to the scene of the massacre. But when he returns with his fellow riders there’s nothing there. No mutilated corpses. No heads on spikes. Just trees and snow and the remains of that fire and what’s this?

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Let’s have a closer look at that:

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It’s a red something.

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A red what?

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A red something that’s not as important as what’s behind you.

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You mean the trees and snow?

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He doesn’t mean the trees and snow. Note the difference in the depth of field in this series of reverse shots. The rider with the red something is shot in deep focus, whereas his companion is shot in shallow. The shallow focus allows the white walker to enter the frame without being immediately intelligible. It’s a tall something with blue eyes whose creepiness is partly a function of our inability to see exactly who or what it is. Like the earlier shots of the forest, this use of shallow focus is another means of showing the audience what’s there without exactly showing us what’s there. The horror, in short, is a function of what we imagine we see when it’s not there and can’t quite focus on when it is. The least horrifying shot in the sequence is the one immediately above because we can so clearly see what’s in it. But that’s only because I captured one of the two or three frames in which the white walker’s visible. If you watch the episode, that frame occupies the screen for a split-second before Van Patten cuts to poor Will:

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Poor Will who was right about everything but not believed. Van Patten continues using shallow focus here because he’s already established that terrible things can appear in it. As it happens what’s frightening Will now is directly in front of him: it’s the white walker about to behead his only remaining companion. Will now has no choice but to run, and run with the knowledge that he’s running from one certain death to another. Which is exactly what happens:

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The transition from the snow-covered forest to the green field full of knights straddles the opening credit sequence, but the contrast makes it point nonetheless: not only has poor Will run, he’s run quite far and possibly for quite some time, but he hasn’t outrun the horrors he saw or the death he sentenced himself to. He could’ve chosen to die at the hands of the white walker beyond the wall, but instead he ran until reached Winterfell, where at least he’ll die at the hands of human being.

All of which is very sad.

Which is my point: Van Patten creates a very sympathetic portrayal of Will in order to use that sympathy to distinguish the perspectives of the characters in Winterfell by virtue of how they react to him. He can’t replicate the structure of the book, but as I’ll discuss tomorrow, he can create situations in which the content of those individual chapters is efficiently communicated.

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  1. ChurchHatesTucker says:

    the green field full of knights

    The North doesn’t have many knights. That’s an Andal tradition. There are a few who’ve gotten battlefield commissions, but that’s fairly rare. (Excepting houses like the Manderlys that are transplanted southerners, of course.)

  2. BrianM says:

    I’m really looking forward to this series.

  3. James E. Powell says:

    I didn’t read any of the books until after I watched the whole of Season One. I recall wondering why the series opened with so much concerning a character who was soon gone for good.

    After reading the books I see it mostly as a set up of one the main ideas in the whole story: You numb-nuts are screwing around with your games and thrones while the real problem is beyond the wall.

  4. Very good stuff; just to embellish on your analysis (and blow my own horn a bit), I thought the TV “prologue” did a nice job of hinting at some of the deeper subtext from the Prologue in the book, namely how the relationship between the three Nights Watchmen resembles in microcosm the strengths and weaknesses of the organization as a whole.

    In the book, we learn that the arrogant gent in the nicer clothes has only been at the Night’s Watch for a few months; that this is his first time north of the Wall, but he’s been put in command of this ranging because he’s a knight from an influential family and they’re just peasants, and that Will and Gared (the bearded one) have zero respect for this guy who has warmer clothing, better weapons, a better horse, but who doesn’t know anything about the world he’s dealing with. It gives the Prologue something of a ‘Nam subtext – this is the green West Point grad who’s going to get more experienced men killed because he’s scared and covering up with a defensive arrogance. At the same time, in the book, Ser Waymar Royce is the only one of the Night’s Watch who doesn’t shrink away when the Others suddenly appear. He goes down swinging to the very last, buying them time to get away.

    By contrast, Will and Gared are the common grunts. Will himself is a poacher – someone who’s been sentenced to either losing a hand or what amounts to a life sentence on the chain gang for the crime of making use of what was once common land – and so he defers to Waymar even when he shouldn’t, because everything he’s ever been taught tells him that this is the natural order. Gared’s a forty year veteran and a volunteer (!) of the Night’s Watch, a man who should be listened to when it comes to what kind of equipment to use, whether to build a fire, etc. but even he can’t break out of the feudal mindset even when Waymar basically taunts him to the point of violence.

    Thus in one package, we have bravery (Waymar), cunning (Will), and experience (Gared) fatally undercut by the flaws of their society and thus unable to fight the enemy their order was created to stop.

  5. cpinva says:

    i haven’t read any of the books, and only started watching the series probably a third of the way in. however, i don’t recall mention that the wall was man-made. i always got the impression it was a natural glacial feature or something, becoming a natural boundry line, like a river.

    • ajay says:

      The books make it very clear that the wall is artificial, but I’m not sure if the series has mentioned it yet.

    • Lurker says:

      The Wall is, according to the series, an old artifact from the time of First Men. It has been constructed using magic, and it is magical in nature. The physical wall is to stop the wildings, but its unseen function is to stop the White Walkers magically.

      In my view, the undercurrent in the whole series is the change of paradigm: Westeros is essentially a late-medieval, but quite secular society. Cloaks and daggers. No magic, no gods functioning supernaturally. Now, as the series progresses, magic and religion start to really work. Greendreamers, greenseers, miracle-working priests and priestesses, prayers answered, maesters getting their magic working first time since centuries. Dragons reborn. White walkers coming. And no one really pays any attention.

      This might be a parallel for climate change, you know.

      • matt says:

        The wall was made by men but how it was constructed and by whom is stuff of legend by the time of the events of the novels. Even its true purpose is mostly forgotten by even the men who guard it.

        The magic in the book draws you in precisely because like in our world magic is the stuff of legends and educated people (like Tyrion) are skeptical of it. I think Tyrion even says he wouldn’t believe in dragons if he had not seen their bones.

        • Cody says:

          I agree completely. Magic is by leaps and bounds the best part of these books. When I describe the book to people I tell them it’s not a fantasy book. It’s a book about a world where there just happens to be magic.

          You don’t find Gandalf running around, you just happen to discover a sword has weird powers you can’t explain or a huge wall exists.

          It maps well to childhood fantasies. When you’re 8 you know you can’t shoot fire out of your hands, but you’re still looking for that mythical item that has a small possibility of existing.

          • Mercy says:

            Well no, it’s a horror series set in a pseudo-medieval world. It’s lumped into the fantasy genre cos of it’s format and setting and so on, but if you approach it as one you’ll be continually blindsided by the way events play out.

            Well, lumped in is wrong, but it’s basically the opposite of Buffy, which took a horror setting and treated it’s monsters like the bad guys in a fantasy novel. Whereas GoT treats fantasy magic like the occult in horror: a twisted reflection of the human sins on display in the earlier part of the series.

            • StevenAttewell says:

              I don’t think the way that Game of Thrones handles magic makes it not fantasy, it’s just much more low fantasy than high fantasy. In low fantasy, magic is dangerous, unreliable, and alien (a lot of the sorcerers in Conan or the like ended badly); in high fantasy, magic is more often reliable, rationally organized, and consistent, like a branch of the sciences we don’t understand yet. Also, magic in low fantasy tends to be slower and requiring of more setup, and also being more subtle and indirect; magic in high fantasy is more often instant and requiring an act of will and some magic words, and it’s more likely to be blatant and direct in its effect, like chucking fireballs.

              For example, in Game of Thrones, the kinds of magic we’ve seen is stuff like prophetic dreaming (which tends to be ambiguous and often mistaken), or require elaborate setup (Melisandre’s need for life force), it’s often not very obvious it’s working, and there are some rather dreadful drawbacks and sideffects.

              • Dana says:

                I was under the impression that “low fantasy” was a euphemism for romance novels.

                • Nope. Low fantasy (often referred to as sword and sorcery) is a subgenre that emphasizes realistic environments and situations that are impinged on by the supernatural, rather than largely supernatural worlds inflected by romantic concepts of cosmic good and evil.

                  I.E, Conan vs. Tolkein.

                • Hob says:

                  Steven’s usage may be something other people share, but the only way I’ve ever heard “high fantasy” defined is the same way Wikipedia has it: high fantasy takes place in an entirely invented world, rather than having magic things happen in our world. Westeros isn’t supposed to be the distant past of some place on Earth; Conan’s world was.

                  I think what Steven said about different approaches to magic is more a side effect of the ancestry of subgenres rather than their inherent nature. All the “rules of magic” stuff is heavily influenced by role-playing games (which stole plenty from Tolkien, but added a systematic approach that he didn’t really share) and by mid-century science fiction. Stuff that derives largely from Conan tends not to have that, because it wasn’t part of the pulp landscape of Howard’s time.

                • Hob, it’s true, it’s a bit of a kludge.

                  However, I’d say that Westeros is at least based on research into the Wars of the Roses, and actually approximates the actual feudal order much better than a lot of high fantasy which tends to really abstract away from the actual social order suggested by kings and knights.

      • ajay says:

        This might be a parallel for climate change, you know.

        Remember the words of House Gore: “Summer is coming”.

    • In addition to what folks have written about the creation of the wall, the books also make it clear that the Night’s Watch kept building the Wall up back when they had the manpower to do so – the whole thing looks striated in layers going back 8,000 years, which gives it part of that natural feel.

  6. Jeremy says:

    The “full-Rashamon” link is broken.

    And I’d also like to say that I am also excited about this series. For some reason, I have yet to watch the second season. I don’t know why. I enjoyed the first season when I saw it, then I devoured the books in a very short time (and on an iPhone, which tells you how into it I was).

    • Cody says:

      Personally, this show kills me. I loved the books, and the show. However, I can’t take a lot of it. After reading the last book I basically swore it off for now.

      I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the whole thing is depressing. Beginning to end. Every time something good is about to happen, the character I like dies! I’m not even joking, R.R. Martin is amazing at killing the one character out of all of them I want to live.

      I can only assume this is on purpose. I was furious after the final book. Still mad at the damn author!

    • Heron says:

      The second season’s ok. There are some significant alterations regarding Dany’s story, but I think most of that was due to the limitations of their budget and live action television. It’s still sad though, as the chapter with Dany at the House of the Undying is, as I have argued before and will likely argue again, one of those very rare examples of absolutely perfect writing.

      • Perfect writing, but not writing that transfers well between page and screen, I think. Prophecies work better when you can keep referring back to them by flipping back some pages, and a lot of the visuals she gets would be far too on-the-nose if you could see the details yourself.

        • Hob says:

          Yeah, I would’ve loved to see some of that stuff (if they did it *exactly* the way I imagined it, of course, and not the way anyone else imagined it)… but I did like the substitute visions they used, especially the frozen destroyed version of the Red Keep throne room. The part I was really sad to lose was the fairy-tale haunted-house logic: always go up, always take the first door on your right.

          • SEK says:

            The part I was really sad to lose was the fairy-tale haunted-house logic: always go up, always take the first door on your right.

            Agreed. I’m not entirely sure why they couldn’t do it. I mean, it’s not like David Lynch doesn’t exist and never filmed anything that could serve as a template.

            • That part I agree on; it’s more the visions that have to with a certain Scarlet Rehearsal Dinner, the Rhaegar/Lyanna prophecy backstory, and the “three mounts, three fires, three betrayals” that I don’t think would have worked.

      • witless chum says:

        They beefed up Dany’s storyline because of pure TV conventions. In the books not much happens to her outside getting to Qarth and the house of the Undying but the show hasn’t yet been willing to follow Martin in forgetting about characters for a season or two. If you’d just filmed the book of Clash of Kings, you’d have never seen Jaimie Lannister on screen, and only had one scene with Robb Stark in it.

  7. john says:

    The haters can go to hell, this was great.

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