(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:
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:
But only momentarily:
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:
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: