(This is another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this upcoming course.)
In the previous post we established that the director of “Winter Is Coming,” Tim Van Patten, went to great lengths to transform Will into a sympathetic character. He can choose immediate death at the cold hands of the white walker or run back to Winterfell and face immediate death for having deserted his post on the wall. He chose the latter, which in terms of prolonging his life was the correct choice, but eventually his decision caught up with him:
As hinted in the previous post, this shot is almost a graphic match that straddles the opening credits. Will’s forlorn face as he decides to run to this death rather than face the other resembles, in a compositional sense, this medium long shot of his capture. The difference is one of scale, and it’s an understandable one, as the previous medium close-up highlighted his pained indecision, whereas this medium long shot diminishes him to the “proper” height of one about to be beheaded.
But as I noted in the previous post, Will is but a directorial tool—a means to a sympathy-creating ends. The deep focus in the shot above emphasizes the fact that despite the fact that Will’s in the middle of an open field, he’s surrounded and escape is impossible. Unlike when he was north of the wall and the danger was effectively hidden in plain sight and shallow focus, south of the wall, easily spotted threats arrive from all directions. Hence, the look of resignation on Will’s face. Not that Will matters.
He doesn’t. He’s but a means to an end, and that end is the introduction of the rigorously structured points of view present in the novel. This episode, “Winter Is Coming,” translates nine chapters of Game of Thrones from the page to the screen. Ignoring, for the moment, Daenerys I and II, which cover happenings an ocean away, the episode must introduce the perspectives presented in Bran I, Catelyn I, Eddard I, Jon I, Catelyn II and Bran II. Without going full-Rashomon, how can Van Patten accomplish this? By introducing their internal thoughts and feelings via their reactions to Poor Will’s unfortunate fate. The shot above follows some of the riders to an establishing shot of Winterfell:
Without knowing anything else about what’s going on here, what has Van Patten communicated? Unlike the inhumanely scaled wall presented in the Prologue, this castle is imposing but clearly of human design and repair. It’s also clearly a castle, which creates in the audience the expectation that they’ll be meeting the groomers and smithies and kitchen wards. Of course not: if Van Patten had cut to a crack in the castle wall large enough for someone half-starved to slip through, that might be the case, but he cut to a majestic extreme long shot of a castle lording over its domain, so of course we’re about to be introduced to royalty:
Or people with pretentions of royalty. That’s Bran—of Bran I and Bran II—along with his half-brother Jon Snow and the next Lord of Winterfell, Robb Stark. (Who I initially mistook for Theon Greyjoy, because I need glasses, but which is an interesting mistake.) Snow and Stark will eventually have chapters of their own, but at this point Van Patten is more interested in introducing Bran’s perspective because that’s who narrates the chapters in the novel. That said, the introductory image of Bran is telling: Jon Snow, the Lord’s bastard son, dominates the center of the frame with what I’d call a pedagogical calm. He’s instructing the Lord’s legitimate heir, Bran, in the niceties of hitting what one aims at, and Bran’s clearly trying to impress him. Bran and Robb flank Jon, but because the movement in the shot belongs to Bran, Robb’s position is akin to not insignificant backdrop, but backdrop nonetheless. From this shot, then, it’s apparent that Bran wants to impress Jon and isn’t unaware of Robb, which is just as it is in the novel.
Only it isn’t.