Home / General / <em>Game of Thrones</em>: “Winter Is Coming” for Catelyn and Jon Snow

Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Catelyn and Jon Snow


(This is another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this upcoming course … which now has its own website that’s only a demo at the moment so don’t judge.)

To recap: in the first post, I demonstrated how Van Patten turned Will into a sympathetic character. In the second post, I established that the scenes in Winterfell that weren’t in the novel were designed to establish a perspective on Will’s coming execution that’s focalized through Bran, but which also introduces the audience to the larger Stark family dynamics. (I also, as Julia Grey pointed out, inadvertantly indicated how Arya’s character would develop over the course of the season. I’ll let Julia’s analysis carry the weight of that interpretative thread for now and return to it when it comes to fore later.) Before I can yoke those arguments together, though, it would behoove us to see what happens when Bran steps off-stage, as it were, beginning with the announcement of Will’s capture:

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Those smiles are residual: for one of the only time in the series, Ned and Catelyn have watched Arya and Bran engaging in what we might call “play.” She hits his target and he’s encouraged by his brothers, bastard and true, as well as his parents, to take off after her:

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There’s levity to this scene, from the shocked faces in the medium shot of the first frame to Arya’s mocking curtsy in the long shot of the second, but Van Patten has other intentions here: Bran needs to look fast and agile, and Van Patten establishes this by how he reverses the camera. In the first frame, Bran stands motionless in a medium shot; in the second, Arya curtsies in a long shot that seems longer because the level of framing makes her look smaller by leaving the top-third of the frame open, in the sense that her head doesn’t occupy it. The fact that it’s not only occupied, but stuffed full of objects-which-are-not-Arya further diminishes her. In the third, the level of framing shifts slightly down—which you can measure by the line on the pig or the distance between the head of the man on the right and the top of the frame—as Bran begins giving chase to his sister. His head barely turns in that frame before Van Patten cuts quickly to the fourth frame of the happy couple observing their children frolic, but then the camera reverses and Bran’s halfway up the stable fence. That’s significant: in the third frame he’d barely turned, merely tousling his hair, and still occupied the same plane in the mise-en-scene as Jon and Robb; by the fifth frame, Bran’s traversed the distance between Jon and Robb and Arya during a half-second cutaway to Ned and Catelyn. He’s moved to and mounted the fence so quickly that his older brothers, though stationary and clear enough to be seen visibly laughing, have become victims of the shallow focus that Bran’s speed has necessitated.

Because Bran is fast and Bran can climb. Establishing that seems important for some reason. But I digress. We’ve come to talk about Will and how his death brings this family together. Returning to those residual smiles and the announcement of Will’s capture: the smiles on Ned and Catelyn’s respective faces are wiped away by disturbing news:

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Note how tightly framed this shot is: almost every bit of it is occupied by people, which creates a claustrophobic effect. These people are close, certainly, but they’re too close. Winterfell is fine old castle, but it’s still behind battlements and there aren’t crenels wide enough to make it feel spacious. That’s not to say there can’t be distance between people, as Van Patten demonstrates in the conversation about Bran that follows, which begins with a medium shot of Ned and Catelyn:

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Compared to the first frame above, which preceded this one by about ten seconds, it’s obvious that there’s some space opening up between Ned and Catelyn. The scene isn’t becoming less claustrophobic: it’s becoming more visually expressionistic, in that the blocking and framing are now explicitly replicating the emotional content of the narrative. When Catelyn pleads with Ned to let Bran stay behind, the switch to the more intimate close-up shot mimics the personal nature of her appeal:

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She’s trying to get closer to him as only she can: by calling him his private name, “Ned,” instead of “Lord Stark” or “Eddard.” At first, it seems to work, as he turns to her and allows her to have her say:

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But note that she’s allowed to do so in a medium shot that undercuts the intimacy of the previous one. Ned will listen, but he has an even more intimate reason for refusing to grant her request, which of course is presented in an extreme close-up in order to hammer home its intimacy:

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In the tug-of-concern between Ned and Catelyn, Ned earns the final word by virtue of the extremity of the close-up and getting to name the episode. The extreme nature of this close-up suggests intimacy, but it also creates a crowded shot reminiscent of the one that opened this scene. Suddenly the entire frame is occupied by people—people who are close or possibly too close to each other—which makes Van Patten’s reversal all the more painful:

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When Ned vacates the previously established medium shot, not even zooming in on Catelyn can counter the effect of his absence: she is more alone now that she was mere seconds ago, when her children were playing and her husband was laughing by her side. Speaking of her children, what’s happened to them in the interim:

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Her child, the one in back to which she’s paying no attention, is doing nothing of importance, which is why he’s not in focus. Her husband’s bastard son, on the other hand, receives this:

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She’s not exactly angry with Jon—no more so than she typically is when reminded of his existence—but this medium long shot redoubles the isolating effect of her previous medium close-up. The slightly low angle of framing doesn’t make her seem powerful, as such shots conventionally do, if only because we’ve just witnessed a demonstration of her powerlessness. She couldn’t stop Ned from bringing Bran along to Will’s execution, so she’s going to scowl weakly at her husband’s bastard son and the camera’s going to gently mock her pretensions with an ironically low angle of framing. However:

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Jon can’t catch the irony. The high level of framing here makes it clear that whatever airs Catelyn’s wearing here, they’re effective enough to cow Jon. On reversal, a point-of-view shot from Jon’s perspective makes this abundantly clear:

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Whereas one shot previous her pretensions were being undermined by ironic framing, once we see her through Jon’s perspective she cuts an entirely different, more powerful figure. Here the low angle of framing presents her as an imperious woman who holds Jon’s fate in her hands and he knows it. And do you know what she’s doing with this knowledge right now? She’s abusing Jon with it. She’s lashing out at him because she couldn’t prevent Ned from bringing Bran to Will’s execution. As I said in the previous two posts, even though the explicit structure of the novel isn’t being replicated Rashomon-style on screen, there’s a deliberate attempt to create discrete perspectives in the episodes.

And all of this happens in the brief minute and a half that Bran’s being discussed and thought about instead of appearing. He’s still a presence: he motivates this entire exchange, verbal and otherwise, but it’s important to note that even when he’s off-stage all these characters are thinking through him: what’s in his best interest as a son, what’s in his best interest as a brother, and what’s in his best interest as a future lord. Even when absent, then, these opening scenes are still focalized, albeit obliquely, through his perspective.

Tomorrow, in what I promise will be the final post about the opening minutes of “Winter Is Coming,” we will finally see the “punchline,” as it were, to Van Patten’s extensive set-up. The joke, we know, will be on Will, but how will the rest of the players react to Bran’s reaction to it?

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