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Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Bran

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(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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

This opening scene at Winterfell isn’t in the novel, which skips immediately from Will’s trial in the Prologue to the beheading of an unnamed deserter from the Night’s Watch. Significantly, Van Patten chooses to connect the Prologue with Bran I by having the deserter be Poor Will, and he interposes a scene in Winterfell prior to Poor Will’s beheading in order to establish the perspective of certain characters. In this case, the central perspective establish is Bran’s. He’s the one shooting target practice above and receiving tender archery lessons from his bastard-brother:

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Note again the composition of the shot: Jon’s the most central, only now he’s comforting Bran more directly. Robb’s still backdrop, but by including all three in the frame Van Patten’s suggesting that there’s a strong bond between lordling, bastard and heir. From the perspective of Bran I, not to mention future events aplenty, that’s clearly not the case—but Bran clearly feels some connection to Robb, and it’s established in these opening medium and medium close-ups. So too is the tenderness that Lord Eddard feels toward his sons, true-blood or otherwise:

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This odd, not quite point-of-view shot from a balcony above the boys includes both the three of them and the shoulders of Eddard and his wife, Catelyn. It’s significant because any time a director includes multiple figures in a shot, he or she suggests that they’re somehow connected. This is especially true in an introductory scene in which this type of framing is unnecessary. Of course, because Eddard and Catelyn have their backs to the camera it’s impossible to tell how they feel about this display, which is why Van Patten reverses:

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They’re clearly happy parents. Of course, the novel tells us otherwise, especially as regards Catelyn’s feelings about Ned’s bastard, but at this moment they’re engaged in something resembling domestic bliss. Only with bastards. Point being: Bran’s attempting to do something, Jon’s gently helping him, Robb’s indifferently watching Jon help, and Ned and Catelyn are looking upon the boys with laughter on their faces and something resembling love in their hearts. Or so it seems from Bran’s perspective which up to this point is where this scene’s been focalized through. This is Bran’s understanding of his world, and if it doesn’t align with Catelyn’s, that’s beside the point. Van Patten’s providing insight into Bran’s thoughts about life in Winterfell, including those about his sisters, one of whom:

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Is very much the little princess and important. Note that in this medium close-up of Sansa the Nurse occupies the same position Jon Snow did before the cut with one significant difference: whereas Jon towered over Bran as he taught him and only leaned over to provide advice, the Nurse is central to the frame but still sits in a position of supplication. Unlike Bran, then, who treats his bastard brother as an equal, Sansa can’t even bear to have her beloved Nurse look her directly in the eye. I’d argue that this is still Bran’s perspective of both this sister and the other one in the scene, Arya, who’s actually more central than her sister both initially, above, and as the camera tracks laterally to the left:

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Until Arya almost occupies the entire frame. The shift of attention from Sansa to Arya is significant despite the fact that her own chapter won’t feature in this episode. Arya’s more central, and thus more significant in a filmic sense, than her sister, and this is a point that will resonate throughout the series and the novels. For now, it indicates how connected Bran feels to each of his sisters, relatively speaking, although it doesn’t necessarily indicate how he feels about that connection given that when he finally hits the target:

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He didn’t hit the target:

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The family dynamics of House Eddard Stark are being delineated via the perspective of its youngest male heir. Although these scenes aren’t in the novel, they’re necessary to understand how Bran will react to Poor Will’s execution. Who will provide him guidance and who will provide him comfort matter, and they’re established in this short bit of domestic bliss. Tomorrow I’ll bring the sympathy-engendering Prologue together with the above non-canonical interactions in order to demonstrate how crucial Poor Will is to establishing the importance of perspective in the series.

NOTE: For some reason, some images seem to be disappearing, then reappearing, then disappearing again and claiming that there are errors in them. If this happens, please contact me. I’m not sure why that’s happening, but I can correct it by re-uploading the images. Also, if you know how to correct it, by all means, tell me. It’s annoying having to re-upload all these images.

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