My close-reading instincts typically compel me to focus on scenes more than structure, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. So let’s talk about structure from the point of view of someone who went to film school before the advent of DVDs and Netflix, by which I mean before we could finish one episode and jet right into the next. Traditional dramatic structure in serial narratives involves table-setting and brain-burning. In “You Win or You Die,” here’s how the table’s set:
Jaime Lannister enters the tent of his father, Tywin, but he does so out of focus and in the midground. In the foreground, shot in shallow focus, is a big dead stag-looking beast, which creates a connection in our heads between whatever it is Jaime’s talking about and big dead beasts. (That stags are affiliated with House Baratheon isn’t immaterial either. Especially when you consider that when introduced to Tywin, he’s elbow deep in a dead stag, suggesting his role in Baratheon’s demise.) This is significant because it’s not just that beast is big and dead—as we’re fine with that when such heads are hung on walls—but that it’s in the process of being broken down:
As everyone knows, if you want to make the majority of Americans uncomfortable, ask them where their meat comes from. Tell them that it wasn’t born shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam plate and that it had a sad face when it was dispatched. Point out that the meat department in their favorite grocery store is a literal wall of death befitting of a serial killer’s trophy closet. Or not. You don’t have to do that: seeing Tywin going to town on that beast has already made them uncomfortable enough. The writers and directors know this, which is why they shot this conversation, which could have occurred anywhere, in a room in which Tywin Lannister was butchering his kill. Moreover, it’s significant that Twyin is butchering the beast himself, because as is noted in the “Prologue,” being suckled at your mother’s teat is a sign of being low-born, so surely he has someone in his employ who could butcher this beast for him. The fact that he’s doing it himself is somewhat admirable, in that hunterly way, but it also suggests that he enjoys it, i.e. he enjoys doing something that the majority of Americans can’t even bear thinking about, which makes them dislike him.
Not that they didn’t already, mind you, because the show has long since marshaled our sympathies against the Lannisters, but this is the opening scene in the episode—the lens through which all the events that occur in it will be seen. And there’s a lot going on there. There’s not just the beast on the table, there’s the deliberate arrangement of dialogue and imagery, e.g.
Read in deictic terms—in which the names and pronouns within a context point to items present in it—you would think that “Poor Ned Stark” referred to the beast being butchered. It obviously doesn’t, but it’s not a coincidence that Tywin is berating Jaime for unsuccessfully murdering Stark while he’s breaking down the beast. This accounts for why Jaime’s eyeline matches, as above, consistently lead to the floor, or that wall there, or anywhere other than the beast. It represents his failure to take care of his business himself: he hunted down and wounded Stark, but he failed to kill him. Jaime’s attempt wasn’t
That pun on “clean” wasn’t an accident. Tywin is “cleaning” that carcass, which means that the pun doubles back on itself, because “cleaning” a carcass involves getting your hands dirty:
The slight smile on Tywin’s face as he does to this beast what Jaime failed to do to its double, Ned Stark, only makes the audience feel more animosity towards Lannisters. Note that no new emotional manipulation is at work here: the general feeling the audience has toward these houses is merely being intensified by this opening scene. Foremost in the audience’s mind as this episode begins, then, is the fact that the head of House Lannister enjoys a bloody hands-on approach to his politicking, especially when it involves
Just in case you think I’m overemphasizing Tywin’s significance in this scene, I should point out that the shot ratio is two-to-one in his favor. As you can see from the above, we have the foregrounded Tywin in medium close-up, but because both he and Jaime face the camera, there’s no traditional reverse, just a zoom into a medium on Jaime:
And a reverse-on-action of Tywin:
Shot distribution is a subtle means of signifying importance, but the fact that Tywin gets two shots to every one of Jaime indicates where the ethos of House Lannister originates. This is the table that’s been set: Lannisters kill with their own hands and clean what they kill with them too. Though mildly admirable as an ethos, it still discomfits an audience who, first, doesn’t like to think about where meat comes from and, second, has come to associate that particular beast with Ned Stark. Meaning that, two minutes into the episode, we’ve been reminded of exactly why we’re not supposed to like the Lannisters. (Or, as a student mentioned in class, it’s like we’ve been handed “urine-tinted lenses, like someone metaphorically pissed on our face.” Which works, although maybe not metaphorically, at least as concerns the Lannisters in this episode.)
Before moving on to the brain-burning, a few points are worth mentioning. The first is that the word-image-play prevalent in the first scene is equally so in the last. After Robert’s death, Ned brings a letter that states that he will be regent until an heir comes of age. He hands the letter to Ser Barristan, because
At which point the director cuts to:
Get it? As Cersei reads the letter aloud, she comes to the point where Robert declares Ned to be
At which point the director cuts to:
See? The “Protector of the Realm” is a crippled man leaning on a cane, and therefore, visually at least, utterly unqualified to protect the realm. The use of the long shot here is deliberate—we need to see his entire body for the visual pun to work—and unusual, because almost every other shot of Ned in this scene is a close-up. Why? Because close-ups of sympathic characters engender even more sympathetic identification. We know we like Ned, but we need to be reminded of it:
That pain on his face? It’s honorable. It’s for the kingdom. It’s what separates him from everyone else. Speaking of which, remember that self-reliant Lannister ethos that was established in the first scene? Here’s its structural counterpart in the last:
Not that it’s any revelation that the boy-king’s blood runs deep with delegation, but in this scene it’s particularly apparent how reliant he is on his mother’s machinations. In the first scene, Tywin compared Lannisters to lions in a positive sense—male lions are powerful beasts, kings of all animals and what-not—but in this final scene the little lion is portrayed in an almost naturalistic light, inasmuch as that in the wild, the majority of hunting is done by the lionesses. All of which is only to say that Joffrey is no Tywin, nor even his father’s son, who at least tried to kill Ned himself.
Speaking of which, we should discuss the brain-burning. What do I mean by that? The last image of an episode—the one the director intended to burn onto your brain until the new episode aired next week, or did before the advent of DVDs and Netflix. However, I believe that directors trained before DVDs and Netflix still adhere to the traditional serial logic that requires the final image in an episode to be of maximal import. Why? Because episodes still end like this:
After using close-ups to revitalize our sympathy for Ned throughout the final scene, the director cuts to black right after shoving his face into ours. Imagine sitting there on your couch at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and the last thing you see before the room goes dark is that. That is the image you’ll live with for the next week: Littlefinger’s betrayal on his lips and knife beneath Ned’s chin. That’s no accident. That’s structure.