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Game of Thrones: Table-setting and brain-burning in “You Win or You Die”

[ 52 ] November 16, 2012 |

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00009

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00017

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.

Game of thrones - you win or you die00003

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

Game of thrones - you win or you die00031

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00032

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

Game of thrones - you win or you die00027

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00019

And a reverse-on-action of Tywin:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00020

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

Game of thrones - you win or you die00039

At which point the director cuts to:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00040

Get it? As Cersei reads the letter aloud, she comes to the point where Robert declares Ned to be

Game of thrones - you win or you die00044

At which point the director cuts to:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00045

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00054

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00073

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:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00070

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.

Comments (52)

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  1. Julian says:

    Also, I assumed it was intentional that Tywin is gutting and cleaning a stag, which is the sigil of house Baratheon.

  2. Ian says:

    Interesting discussion! A small point: I would assume that the “elk-looking beast” is actually a stag–that is, the animal of House Baratheon. Thus, while the animal is certainly associated with Ned, it’s also about Robert’s death, and what’s happening in this scene is also what the Lannisters have done to the royal house.

  3. Rob says:

    I think it may also be important that when we first see Tywin he is arm’s deep in the stag. As to signify that this new character has already been very important to what has gone on previously.

    • SEK says:

      Instead of dwelling on the fact that I missed something so obvious, I’m going to flip it around and tell myself that I’m just more right than I thought I was.

  4. Leeds man says:

    That’s no accident. That’s structure.

    Of course it’s not an accident, but structure? How is leaving the audience in suspense structure? Is the structure destroyed if the following scenes were shown?

    • thusbloggedanderson says:

      Is the structure destroyed if the following scenes were shown?

      Yes, that’s structure. Is it not structure in a serialized novel to have a chapter end on a cliffhanger? What *is* structure, if that ain’t?

      • Leeds man says:

        I haven’t quite got to this scene in the book, so don’t know (or much care) if the relevant chapter ends here. But I’ve always viewed cliffhanger punctuation as a sort of cheap trick, whether in book or film.

        The structure lies in the narrative, not the arbitrary cut-offs imposed by the length of a television serialization. Ending an episode here is an admission you’re worried the rubes may not come back for more, rather than a natural break in the building of a story.

        • SEK says:

          I don’t remember if this was where the scene cut off in the book, but 1) I don’t think the cut-offs are arbitrary or 2) a sign of weakness, because 3) they neatly mimic the structure of the novel, which perpetually keeps you wanting more as it flits from perspective to perspective. Martin keeps you wanting more of the narrative you’re in every time he ends a chapter (Sansa notwithstanding).

          • Leeds man says:

            Sansa notwithstanding

            Yeah, I’m about 2/3 of the way through the first book, and already dreading “Sansa” headings.

          • Hob says:

            Yes, that’s where the chapter ended.

            • And it’s something GRRM loves to do – he’d end every chapter on a cliffhanger if he could.

              • Leeds man says:

                Any thoughts as to why Tolkien didn’t? Ending chapters on cliffhangers seems to me to be a sign of insecurity.

                • Ending chapters on cliffhangers is a sign of good showmanship.

                  Tolkien didn’t because he was a stuffy academic and not a professional entertainer.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Good showmanship is a workaround for substandard product. Like selling used cars.

                • JazzBumpa says:

                  The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. the gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.

                  Thus endeth THE TWO TOWERS.

                  173 hardcover pages later we rejoin Sam in what to JRRT was book VI.

                  Why end a mere chapter on a cliff hanger when you can do it to a whole volume.

                  [wanders off, shaking head, muttering . . .]

                • rea says:

                  I can think of a number of instances in which Tolkein did just that.

                • Leeds man says:

                  I can think of a number of instances in which Tolkein did just that

                  I don’t doubt it. But at the end of The Fellowship, Frodo and Sam are in a boat, and their mates are looking for them. No hanging off cliffs, just “What happens next?”. I’d love to see a treatise on where the Iliad, or Beowulf, was broken up to tempt the audience back for the next installment.

                • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

                  I love cliffhanging chapter endings. In most cases when reading something, the chapter break is the obvious point when I put the book down for a rest. When I pick the book back up I’m far more excited to continue if I was left hanging in some way. It also makes it much easier for me to hit the mental reset and remember where things were when, if the last thing I read had an element of suspense and significance.

                  Here’s an interesting article on cliffhangers. i would agree that (both in tv and novels) when done poorly, it can be just a parlor trick of sorts. But when done well, it’s an added positive element to the work. And a big one. Whether it’s Dickens or Stephen King, when the masters do it I think it’s great.

                  I would also guess that there’s the fact that sometimes the author doesn’t yet know where the story will go next. Whether it’s between books in a series or chapters in a book. Not to mention if they grew up reading Dickens, King or whoever, they likely are imitating the authors that they admired.

                • Pinko Punko says:

                  That is a pretty big cliff hanger at the end of FotR- because it is literally the end of the Fellowship.

    • SEK says:

      Well, you can’t have suspense without structure. Some bit of information has to be in abeyance for us to desire and/or fear its arrival. That said, I don’t think the suspense is destroyed if you jump to the next episode, but it’s certainly not felt so strongly if your ignorance only hangs in the air, suspended, for half a minute instead of a whole week.

      • Leeds man says:

        for half a minute instead of a whole week

        A week is just annoying, rather than strengthening, to me. A couple of chapters much less so. If a story is worth telling (unlike most cliffhangers), where you pause in the telling shouldn’t matter.

        If it’s not already obvious, I am a cranky sod, so don’t bother with this too much.

        • JazzBumpa says:

          Well, also consider that when GRRM leaves a character cliff hung, it might be several chapter before he gets bask to that PoV.

          Cliff hanging might be a trick, but it’s pretty much SOP in detective and adventure fiction. I don’t really think you can legitimately say it’s a cheap one.

  5. owlbear1 says:

    The sense of connection and empathy you get from spending several hours elbow deep in the guts of the animal who will be a big part of your survival for the next month or two is something every human being should experience.

  6. Murc says:

    Not that they didn’t already, mind you, because the show has long since marshaled our sympathies against the Lannisters,

    Can we talk about how the structure of the scene and the dialogue are designed to invoke a certain degree of empathy with Jaime Lannister, who is usually a putative villain?

    Tyrion, of course, is an unambiguous protagonist throughout both seasons of Game of Thrones, and is presented as such despite the fact that he can be quite brutal at times. Cersei, Joffrey, Lancel, Tywin et al. are unambiguously antagonists (despite the fact that Cersei has been considerably softened for the TV series). Jaime has to undergo an antagonist-to-protagonist conversion during the third and fourth books (which will equate to the third, fourth, and fifth seasons of the show) and the directors have begun laying the groundwork for it already.

    This is usually done by placing him in a subservient position, both literally and metaphorically, although most of the heavy lifting is done with dialogue. His excellent scene with Jory Cassell comes to mind.

    But in this scene specifically… remember, this is the first time we’ve seen Tywin, who has been built up pretty heavily off-screen; by this time we’re very familiar with Jaime and Cersei and Tyrion, but we know they have a father and we know he must be something… special… to have produced those three.

    Jaime usually looms large and centrally in any scene in which he’s in. As SEK notes, in this one, his father gets something like a 2:1 ratio of screen time. But more than that… the camera never gets closer to Jaime than medium, whereas it goes in close on Tywin more than once, and if you look at the second of SEKs screenshots in particular, the blocking (their legs are obscured, so it isn’t instantly apparent that Jaime is BEHIND Tywin) is such to make Tywin appear bigger, more in charge than Jaime. That’s a reversal; as I said, usually it is Jaime commanding the scene.

    Jaime also, unusually, is the one whose hands are clean. Tywin is the one with a knife, covered in gore, saying things that, when not callous, border on monstrous. Jaime, in contrast, is attired as an honorable warrior; armor, sword, even his cape. He’s not as spectacularly gilded as he is in the novels but he’s very much prettified. You can almost forget he shoved a child out a window, especially since in this scene HE is the child, being yelled at by his Daddy, who he is a constant and perpetual disappointment to.

    (The books go into this deeper; other members of the Lannister clan recognize that, while to all outward appearances Jaime is all Tywin could ever want in an heir, it was TYRION to whom all of Tywin’s gifts and the better part of his personality went to. Instead Tywin constantly tries to make Jaime into his vision of what the Lord of Casterly Rock should be.)

    But I thought an important part of the structure of this scene was to highlight the contrast between Tywin and Jaime in a way that is to Jaime’s benefit with regards to getting the audience to sympathize with him.

    • Yep. And although we haven’t seen a scene with Tywin and Cersei yet, it’s instructive that Jaime and Tyrion, who normally are masters of wordplay, who strive always to dominate the scenes they’re in, absolutely collapse when they’re in the presence of their father.

      Like the mutant powers of the Summerses in X-Men, Lannister quippage does not work in the presence of the father.

      (hat tip to Boars, Gore, and Swords)

  7. herr doktor bimler says:

    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

    Shirley butchering the animal oneself is a signifier of prestige, if it was killed in the hunt.
    DISCALIMER: all my knowledge of high-feudalism status signifiers comes from “The Once & Future King”.

    • ajay says:

      Shirley butchering the animal oneself is a signifier of prestige, if it was killed in the hunt.
      DISCALIMER: all my knowledge of high-feudalism status signifiers comes from “The Once & Future King”.

      As any hunter, feudal or not, would tell you, you don’t drag the kill home and clean it in your living room (or tent); you clean it right after the kill. Partly because it’s a lot lighter to carry that way, partly because the hounds will be wanting to eat their quarry (the entrails), partly for the good of the meat.

  8. Oh man, so much I want to say about Tywin.

    So first thing I find fascinating about this scene is that on the one hand it’s perfect, in that Tywin is absolutely the kind of man who would butcher his own kill, because Tywin gets his hands dirty because he is one of the purest Machiavellians GRRM has ever dreamed up.

    On the other hand, Tywin’s message in this scene (you shouldn’t care about what other people think of you) is the opposite of what Machiavelli argues (that you should do whatever you need to do, but you should be careful to make sure you don’t look bad). And Tywin is someone who cares deeply what people think about him and his House – this is the guy who had his father’s whore paraded naked through the streets of Lannisport to avenge the insult of her presence in his mother’s house; whose greatest self-inflicted wound came when his subordinates exceeded their orders and made Tywin look like a monster (which derailed Tywin’s political career and led to self-exile at Casterly Rock).

    The second thing – I love what they’re doing here with Tywin and Jaime. Because Tywin’s thing here is that he doesn’t care about Jaime’s perfect warrior self-image and never has, and that’s always been the problem between them. Tywin’s greatest shortcoming, unfortunately, is that he can’t stop being a Machiavellian, even when it comes to his own family – Tywin inspires fear in Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion, and it always backfires. Tyrion makes unfortunate marriages, Cersei goes behind his back to get Jaime to join the Kingsguard, Jaime abdicates from the position that Tywin was carved out for him as the perfect heir to Casterly Rock.

  9. jank_w says:

    That first scene you have listed above is my favorite of the entire series so far. Not sure how good my memory is, but it seems like that scene was a massive exposition dump, something about strategy or something.

    The reason it is great, I thought, is because the exposition happens against a backdrop that is so grabbing as to make the viewer not even realize there is an exposition dump going on.

    You may be over-analyzing and misattributing intention when you write about our aversion to the true source of meat (I could be wrong too!):

    “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.

    To me this scene played like a straight up info dump against a very memorable backdrop, which is how I look at it. Writers and directors always try to get the right balance in their exposition, a necessary, but sometimes poorly executed, part of storytelling.

    Then again, I never read the books so can’t hazard too many guesses about the specific subtext, implied or otherwise.

    • rea says:

      the exposition happens against a backdrop that is so grabbing as to make the viewer not even realize there is an exposition dump going on.

      Compare the opening scene of Hamlet. Shakespeare uses a ghost to get people to pay attention for the exposition.

    • Murc says:

      Then again, I never read the books so can’t hazard too many guesses about the specific subtext, implied or otherwise.

      This specific scene doesn’t actually take place in the books.

      In fact, Tywin and Jaime don’t exchange words on-camera in the books until the tail end of the third one, and it’s about a ten-sentence exchange. It is the ONLY one they have.

      • jank_w says:

        Interesting. Then I’ll maintain my position, that it is not an elaborate referral to the subtext of the story, but rather a handsome instrument that delivers necessary exposition.

  10. Julia Grey says:

    The exposition dump I thought was the most interesting was the one where Littlefinger idly divulges all his nefarious plans while two of his ladies disport with each other in the background.

    The only problem that I could see with that was that the straight male and lesbian members of the audience probably did not process a word he said.

    I’m a straight female and *I* barely managed to get the gist.

    In the theater game we called this “upstaging the monologue,” and it was a NO NO.

    • ajay says:

      In the theater game we called this “upstaging the monologue,” and it was a NO NO.

      Unless you’re in “Airplane!” which uses this for comic effect a lot of the time – two characters having a serious conversation with comic stuff happening in the background.

  11. thelogos says:

    Another interesting thing about the opening scene is that we see it takes place in a war encampment, so that it seems like what we are seeing is a foreshadowing.

  12. [...] Game of Thrones: Table-setting and brain-burning in “You Win or You Die” (lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com) [...]

  13. [...] can’t steal his eyes away from the knife is a telling detail: it’s part and parcel of his reluctance to do anything for himself. He’s as much of a Lannister as a person can possibly be, but he lacks the conviction for [...]

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  15. Alan says:

    Why are Tywin’s hands so clean as he is skinning the stag? The article mentions cleaning the carcass means getting your hands dirty but his are not.

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