Home / General / <em>Game of Thrones</em>: “Winter Is Coming” for Will and Bran

Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Will and Bran


(This is yet another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this frighteningly imminent course.)

You’ll recall that according to the first post, Van Patten made Will a sympathetic deserter and oath breaker; according to the second, Van Patten established the family dynamic through Bran’s perspective; according to the third, Bran remained the focal point because everyone believed themselves to be acting in his best interest; and according to the fourth and final post in this series, which would be this one, we’ll finally witness the “punchline” of the preceding scenes. To begin:

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The scene shifts from inside Winterfell to somewhere outside it. It’s difficult to tell exactly where because there’s a notched log occupying the majority of the frame. Why the log? Because Will’s world is now the size of its notch. His world closes in on him as his death nears, so it makes sense that his purview, visually speaking, follows suit. It momentarily expands into an extreme long shot when he believes he’s found an excuse that might could maybe save him:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00306

But only momentarily:

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Note contrast between these two shots: in the first, the camera is at a distance and captures a large swath of the highlands that are bright despite the mist blanketing them; in the second, the camera tightens in and centers on Will in a medium close-up, and the compositional structure is oppressive: he is flanked on both sides by armed guard and the hill behind doesn’t, as the one in previous shot did, suggest freedom so much as unscaleable-rock-that-might-as-well-be-a-wall. He’s trapped within the structure of the shot, and the medium close-up reminds us of the fear and pain we saw on his face when he was captured:

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The irony of being imprisoned on an open field is more apparent in the above because the framing is looser, but it’s essentially the same shot as the one in which he confesses his oath-breaking with one important exception: when he confesses to have broken his oath, he knows all hope is lost. In the shot above, the possibility of escape still exists, if not on that field, then possibly through pardon—hence his mentioning the white walkers two frames previous. But by the time he enters that structurally oppressive medium close-up, he knows his fate.

As do the other characters in the scene, and more importantly, the extent to which they sympathize with is indicated by the distance of the camera from their faces. This may seem like a simple means of identifying a complex emotional response, but it has a long history in film theory, the short version of it goes something like this:

Films used to be silent. Because actors couldn’t tell us what they were thinking and many directors found intertitles aesthetically unappealing, the close-up on actors’ faces became the preferred means of communicating their emotions. The heightened expressiveness evident in the close-up compelled audiences to pay more attention to the micro-expressions written upon the actors’ faces, which made directors pay more attention to directing their actors to wear particular micro-expressions to communicate particular emotions, and so began the vicious cycle that led to the conventions of the modern close-up. Combine that with the fact that we’re so hard-wired to pay close attention to faces that we’ll “see” the face of Satan in a cloud formation, Saint Mary slumming on some toast, or this Martian fellow looking at whatever it is he’s looking at. We want to see faces, and when we see them, we want them to communicate something to us. Just look at my cat. Can’t you see the wonder in his eyes? Of course you can’t. Whatever emotion Finnegan’s feeling might be the feline equivalent of curiosity, but it’s inhuman. Its humanity is merely imputed, drawn on his mug by our brain’s intense desire to find meaning in anything structured like a face.

All of which is a long way of saying that conventional close-ups have been building on extant brain architecture for more than a century now, which is why the simple act of reversing from long shots of some characters to close-ups of others will make it seem as if the narrative’s being focused through the latter. Let’s continue with the scene:

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Van Patten’s already established Will as a sympathetic character, so the medium close-up suffices to maintain sympathy. But then the camera reverses to:

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An extreme close-up on Bran’s face as he listens to Will’s sympathetic words. The camera builds on the concern generated for his well-being in the previous scene to continue to make his reaction central to the effectiveness of this one. How does Robb Stark feel about Will’s death?

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Not as deeply as his younger brother. The contrast between the extreme close-up on Bran and the medium close-up on Robb makes Robb seem more distant, which is only fitting given that he’s seen men executed before and considers it in an impersonal sense, as the responsibility of a lord. What about Theon Greyjoy?

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The medium shot indicates that he cares even less than Robb does about Will’s fate. (No surprise given what we later learn of his character and commitment to the responsibilities of a lord.) The sequence is impressive because with each edit the character in-frame cares less about Will, which in turn makes the audience care less about each successive character. After a close-up of Will’s neck planted in the aforementioned notch and a few more ironic “freeing” extreme long shots, Van Patten turns to Ned, who possesses both Robb’s distance, as is becoming of a Lord:

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And Bran’s proximaty, as is becoming of a good Lord:

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Between those two shots, Van Patten briefly cuts to Bran and Jon:

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This medium-very-close-up functions differently from the earlier one of Bran. It still captures the expressiveness in his face, but by backing off just enough to include Jon in the shot, we’re able to see not only the expressiveness on his face, but the object of his concern. Just follow his eyes as he says “Don’t ‘look away.” We’ve seen this look on his face before, and the tenderness it communicates is clearly setting up what will happen to these two as the season progresses. To reiterate my central point, though, that this scene establishes a continuity of sympathy between Will and Bran, and in doing so the audience and Bran, as Ned executes Will, Van Patten presents us with the following sequence:

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Games of thrones - winter is coming00343
Games of thrones - winter is coming00343
Games of thrones - winter is coming00343

Bran listened to Jon and did not look away, but neither did he watch the execution. He has both obeyed and disobeyed, but done so in a manner that no one but the audience can notice. We’ve learned something important about his character, about the conflict between the child he still is and his desire to behave like a lord. I don’t want to say too much more about that final sequence for fear I’ll overdetermine the discussion, but I think there’s a lot to be said about the contrasting faces of the three Brans in it: the first nervous, the second slack, the third steeled in a childish and almost pathetic way. So I’ll leave it at that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this extended tour through five minutes of the first episode of a series I’m teaching in its entirety this quarter. Posts on upcoming episodes will, of necessity, probably only span two posts, but they’ll be arriving very soon, because the academic calendar stops for no one.

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