Game of Thrones: “Valar Dohaeris,” indeed. But who? Where? To what end?
(It goes without saying that this is one those visual rhetoric posts.)
The title of the third season premier of Game of Thrones comes from the traditional Braavosi exchange: one meets the chipper greeting, “Valar Morghulis [all men must die]” with the equally cheery response, “Valar Dohaeris [all men must serve].” Given that the last episode of the second season was named “Valar Morghulis” and the first episode of the third season is “Valar Dohaeris,” it seems sensible to consider these two episodes together because they are, if only ritually, conversing with each other. What are they saying? “Valar Morghulis” would be saying “I may not be a liar, but I’m not telling the whole truth,” because the episode’s final shots demonstrate that all men must die except for the ones that don’t stay dead:
Combine that with the man who was Jaqen H’ghar becoming another man after advising Arya and it becomes clear that the certitude of the Braavosi greeting is a comforting ruse. All men must not be anything—not absolutely—if they can also be both one thing and another. What can change its face isn’t a man and what can’t stay dead can’t be trusted. Meaning I’m not sure how much I want to invest in “Valar Morghulis” as a title tied to its theme; in “Valar Dohaeris,” however, the theme that “all men must serve” manifests repeatedly, beginning with the opening sequence. This sequence ties the two episodes together almost comically, as the change in scale from the first two close-ups (from “Valar Morghulis”) to the extreme long-shot (from “Valar Dohaeris”) resembles the kind of fear-realizing and mad-scrambling often found in cartoons:
Sam Tarly’s service is twofold here: first, his general service as a man of the Night’s Watch; second, his particular service as a member of a scouting party, which was to tend to and dispatch distress-ravens. That he failed to do so during his epic flight from the White Walker only indicates that he failed to meet the terms of his service, not that he escaped the responsibility of serving altogether. The episode’s director, Daniel Minahan, could have foregrounded the humiliation written on Sam’s face when his Lord Commander upbraids him by using a close-up, which would’ve captured every mortified muscle trying not to twitch with shame; instead, Minahan decided to shoot Sam in a medium close-up with his Lord Commander in an off-center two-shot that suggests both the bonds these two share and the precariousness of their situation:
But it is not just these two, bound by service though they may be, who are in a tight spot. The reverse to the long shot—which is even more unbalanced than the one from which it reverses—heightens Sam’s humiliation by including the presence of everyone he failed to serve:
Point being, the opening sequence strongly suggests that service (and its terms) will be a thematic element of this episode in a way that death (in its finality) was not in “Valar Morghulis.” In truth, saying that service “strongly suggests” itself as a theme is an understatement so grave as to almost be a lie: from Jon Snow and Ser Barristan pledging their respective fealty to Mance Rayder and Daenerys, to Tyrion and Davos bemoaning their father and father-figure’s reluctance to recognize their commitment to the cause, and did I mention the Unsullied? The elite band of warrior-eunuchs who have been on their feet for nearly two days just waiting to someone to slice off their nipples? These are examples of the meaning of “service” to which the phrase “Valar Dohaeris” conventionally applies, so connecting the visual rhetoric to iterations of this theme would be a bore.
More interesting is the visual pun on another meaning of the word “serve” that worms its way into the episode. Consider the scene in which Cersei comes to talk to Tyrion, who is still convalescing in his new quarters. Tyrion hears her knock, pulls a stool to the door and greets his sister through the bars:
He is not a prisoner in King’s Landing any more than his sister is:
And yet Minahan chooses to shot both through the bars. The tightness of the framing on Tyrion makes him seem the more imprisoned one, because this shot is, debatably, from Cersei point-of-view. Despite having an entire door to look at, she focuses her attention (via the camera’s close-up) on the one section of the door that emphasizes the bars between her and her brother. (She could just look at the door, after all.) The reverse shot from Cersei, however, isn’t even debatable: it’s clearly a point-of-view shot from Tyrion’s perspective. He’s looking at his sister as if he is serving time, and and for what? For successfully defending King’s Landing at Blackwater? Tywin will answer those questions later, but for the moment I want to focus on Minahan’s decision to imprison, visually at the very least, members of the Lannister family. Because they aren’t serving—they’re serving time.
It’s not just Cersei and Tyrion who find themselves behind or speaking between bars. When Joffrey and his newly betrothed, Margaery Tyrell, venture into the city, here is the perspective the young king has of his subjects:
Those bars framing the shot? They’re bars:
This medium shot is almost too precious. Look at little King Joffrey peeping at his bride-to-be through the bars of his processional. He doesn’t occupy the center of the shot, nor does his tiny blue carriage, the size of which suggest that peeking out requires he kneel before his subjects. The bars quadrisect his face into a giant ear, an eyeball, another eyeball, and another giant ear.:
He’s less of a person than an assemblage of odd-looking sense-organs seemingly on display for all and sundry. He may think he looks regal as he jealously peers out the rear of his cage, but Minahan’s framing suggests that Joffrey misunderstands what’s meant by “the trappings” of royalty here. Who is free to move as they please and who is serving time in a gilded hot box?
Which brings me to my point: what do all of these characters have in common? They’re all serving time in Tywin Lannister’s royal scheme. Much as you admire Tyrion or detest Cersei and Joffrey, this episode erases all doubts about who has agency in the House Lannister: it’s Tywin and Tywin alone. His children and grandchildren are pawns imprisoned by the moves Tywin plays. Just look at the poor bastards.
But maybe it’s a coincidence that the Lannister brood is shot in a manner suggestive of imprisonment, and maybe other characters with claims to the throne are also shot in a similar fashion. It would be nice if Minahan provided some sort of direct reference for the sake of comparison. Maybe something like this?
In both shots, a claimant to the throne is surrounded by a repetitive vertical element that meets slightly to the right of frame-center. By structuring the shots the same, Minahan invites the audience to pay attention to the differences: Joffrey’s vertical elements terminate at hard wooden walls and ceiling, creating a claustrophobic effect amplified by his retracted posturing, as if he wished there were more wall for him to cower before; Dany’s vertical elements extend into open sky, and she stands with her dragon before her and her friends beside her, resulting in a shot as expansive as Joffrey’s is confining. Same structure, similarly stationed subjects, but these shots convey vastly different messages about the “service” required by the throne.