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Game of Thrones: “Lord Snow,” you’re no bigger than a half-man*

[ 8 ] October 22, 2012 |

Since I have two classes to devote to “Lord Snow,” the third episode in the first season of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d divide them between the characters. In this post and the next we’ll hie to the Wall with Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister; in the final one, we’ll churn through the Dothraki Sea with Daenerys Targaryen. I’m pairing Jon and Tyrion not simply because of the odd bond they form on the way to the Wall, but because they present similar problems to director Brian Kirk: both must be built up, knocked down, and rebuilt. As you recall, in the first episode of the series Jon Snow’s the victim of Catelyn Starks’s redirected aggression: she can’t stop Ned from taking Bran to an execution, but she can glower at her husband’s bastard from above.

Then he decides to take a position in the Night’s Watch, which means leaving Winterfell and joining his “black brothers” on the Wall. So lowly Jon Snow arrives at the Wall and finds himself a trained fighter among thieves and rapists and people who believe they deserve the nickname “Ser Piggy.” In this lot, lowly Jon Snow isn’t nearly so lowly. Director Kirk establishes that when in a prolonged training sequence early in the episode:

Game of thrones - lord snow00004

Everyone in this long shot is diminished by its dimensions: Ser Alliser Thorne, who likes Jon not one whit, is the closest to occupying frame-center, but the scale’s so small that his figure can hardly be said to “dominate” the shot:

Game of thrones - lord snow00004a

My patented yellow-line-technology demonstrates that frame center’s about a foot above his head, but it also reveals something else about the Wall’s intended scale: all of the sparring combatants are in the bottom triangle, and all of the spectators are in the the one on the right, which leaves the top and left triangles empty of people. (Note: I’m officiating the next two frames like a football ref with a sketchy understanding of what constitutes an offside position.) The compositional weight of the left and top frames seems to bear down on the tiny figure in bottom one, such that even the foremost among them, Alliser, cedes center-frame to a weathered baluster. All of which is only to say that, initially, Kirk continues shooting Jon with the same disdain that came from Catelyn’s eyes. Until:

Game of thrones - lord snow00138

He cuts to a medium shot in which a weathered baluster still occupies center frame—except in this case it creates a telling vertical element that divides the frame between Alliser and Jon like so:

Game of thrones - lord snow00138a

It’s close enough for government work—which might cause those who have finished the novels to chuckle—but the basic point is that the purpose of this scene is for Alliser to break Jon, but that frame speaks to his inevitable failure. They each occupy the central position of their respective sides, but the importance of each is tempered by the unusally high level of framing:

Game of thrones - lord snow00138b

As noted previously, unusally high levels of framing—by which I mean shots in which the characters who should occupy the entire vertical space in the frame don’t—creates the impression that the world the characters occupy is pressing down on them. It communicates to the audience that the circumstances in the frame are, in this case, at least one-third as important as the characters who aren’t even central to it. If I wanted to be really clever I’d skew the vertical line from the frame-before-last and claim that the most important element of this shot seems to be the baluster’s weathered head:

Game of thrones - lord snow00138c

But I won’t, because the baluster’s head being elevated is less important than Alliser and Jon’s being humbled by the composition. Alliser considers himself Jon’s superior, but the shot says otherwise. Alliser’s words directly harken back to Snow and Catelyn’s encounter in “Winter Is Coming,” meaning the audience should remember that Jon’s not the spitter but the spat upon. All of which adds up to Ser Alliser putting on airs and Jon being right about where he should be in the social scheme of things. At least until he begins to fight. He glowers to the left:

Game of thrones - lord snow00005

He growls to the right:

Game of thrones - lord snow00008

He owns those medium close-ups. He beats down every person from the bottom triangle above because he is the Big Man on the Wall. Or not:

Game of thrones - lord snow00014

Cutting away from the scene of Jon’s successive victories to Mormont and Tyrion simultaneously accomplishes two things: first, it puts both Alliser and Jon back in the below-place, beneath the betters whose lowly subjects they are no matter how skillfully they fight; second, it places Jon beneath Tyrion in a manner that, again, reminds the audience of Catelyn’s earlier disdain. Except unlike Catelyn, who has the luxury of despising her husband’s bastard, there’s no condescension in Tyrion’s positioning. Is this because he’s a “half-man”? (A term I use because it’s what the novels and series do, not because I endorse it entering the common tongue.) I don’t think so … and I don’t think so because that shot of Tyrion dominates him and Mormont as thoroughly as the earlier one oppressed Alliser and Jon. Feel free to draw your own yellow lines on it, but by now pointing out that the characters are off-center and that the spaces above and beneath them make this long shot feel longer than it is.

Which isn’t to say the low angle of framing is unimportant: Mormont and Tyrion are supposed to appear superior to Alliser and Jon, but the scale of the shot indicates that “superior” is a relative term here because everyone is dwarfed by the wall.** In sum, this short scene re-establishes Jon’s unimportance, establishes his potential significance, then re-re-establishes his unimportance as a function of everyone’s insignificance compared to the Wall. “Everyone” is, of course, a group that includes Tyrion, whose building-ups and tearing-downs I’ll cover tomorrow.

*The logic of this post and the next isn’t entirely different from that of this one, about “Blackwater,” except that I can’t teach the “Blackwater” post because I’m working through the first season and it’s in the second.

**No pun intended. I just couldn’t bear to type the word “diminish” again.

Comments (8)

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  1. I actually haven’t gotten to this bit yet in my blog, but here are some thoughts:

    There is an interesting tension in this scene: on the one hand, Jon is supposed to learn his lesson about checking his privilege at the door of Castle Black and to realize that he needs to turn outwards instead of inwards and stop wallowing in his pain (because otherwise he turns into another Ser Alliser), because the Watch is supposed to be a brotherhood of equals, a band of brothers, be they never so base, etc.

    On the other hand, Ser Alliser is proof that there is something seriously wrong with the Night’s Watch because he is, as Lord Commander Mormont acknowledges, a shit teacher. He’s a sadist and a bully and a coward and a schemer, and the only reason that he’s in charge of training novitiates is because he’s a belted knight. (Interestingly, the backstory behind Alliser’s pathological hatred of Lord Snow hasn’t been revealed in the show – Ser Alliser was a Targaryen loyalist, and a veteran of the losing side on Robert’s Rebellion. A native of the Crownlands around King’s Landing, he saw Tywin Lannister sack the city from the battlements he was defending when Eddard Stark broke through the defenses – and Stark was probably the man who made him choose between death and the Wall. And here comes a boy with the face of the man who destroyed his life.)

    And Mormont tolerates this as the cost of doing business, because he’s a pragmatist doing the best of a bad job with the tools available to hand, and in part because he’s also an aristocrat (albeit the bluff rural squire type) who looks at Jon Snow as someone who’s been in part trained to rule, and he needs that quality in what is essentially the Arctic equivalent of the French Foreign Legion.

    Also missing in the book is the fact that there’s a real teacher at Castle Black, Donal Noye, the one-armed master smith who had crafted Robert Baratheon’s warhammer, a man destined for greatness. It’s Donal Noye who brings Jon up short for his privilege blindness, and it’s Donal Noye who tells Jon Snow what it means to be a good ruler of men:

    “Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.”

    And the question for Jon, going forward, is whether he’ll learn to bend and then bounce back.

    • JazzBumpa says:

      SEK – Great post.

      Steven – Brilliant comment.

      JzB

      • Thanks, JzB!

        FYI, that little detail about Alliser is one of the things I love about GRRM’s characterization. There’s very few traditional monsters in the series, because even the villains are given human motivation rather than the traditional high fantasy “For the Evulz.” Alliser is a bastard, but as the result of a life shipwrecked on the shoals of grand politics he had no way to deal with; Joffrey is the product of a very dysfunctional upbringing (his younger brother and sister faring better due to benign neglect, most likely); Viserys is a man broken by genetic predisposition to insanity and being placed in a situation in which the stresses of his life and the almost guaranteed failure he faced; etc.

        The only real motiveless monsters out there are Euron Greyjoy (although I expect a Faustian bargain motive), Ramsay Bolton, and Gregor Clegane (although I think Clegane’s extreme lack of empathy and severely reduced pain sensation is symptomatic of something).

        • Julian says:

          I think that with Gregor, you’re confusing reduced pain sensation with reduced sensitivity to painkillers. He drinks “milk of the poppy” constantly to help with bad headaches, and it therefore has a reduced effect on him.

          I think Gregor is just supposed to be a monster.

        • Hob says:

          It is a nice detail about Alliser, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t really miss it in the TV show. I think that says something about the actor’s feel for the role, but also about how any well-done dramatic presentation can get mileage out of things it doesn’t even show you or tell you, just because they proceed naturally from human experience.

          That is, most of us have probably worked with/for someone who’s clearly been there way too long and hates everything and everyone– except for some long-gone colleague/boss who was the only one they got along well with or did well from– to the point where whatever intelligence they may have is drowned out by bitterness. If a person like that lives in Westeros, where office politics can be fatal, then his history is likely to be something like what Martin wrote. So all the show has to do is make it clear that Thorne is a person like that.

          • Hob says:

            I forgot to say that that all works well for me even though the guy playing Thorne is absolutely nothing like how I’d imagined him looking or sounding. But he embodies that pissy/canny/awful teacher/manager archetype so well that I feel I know him.

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