‘The Sweeping Reveal’ – A Note on the Second Episode of Game of Thrones, S5
Andy Medhurst has called the category of HBO-type ‘quality’ series of which Game of Thrones belongs to, ‘television for people who don’t like television’. In conversation, Victor Perkins has told me he can’t see the difference between this type of work and cinema. Many other critics have talked of the ‘cinematic’ dimension of this type of work.
Watching the second episode of the latest series of Game of Thrones, I’m coming to the view that it’s a kind of cinema designed to be viewed on a small screen. Narratively, it’s episodic and relies on cliff-hangers to create suspense, and the roots of this can probably be traced to the very earliest serials. However, unlike early serials and much of traditional American network television, the narrative develops and acquires depth and texture from episode to episode, something which the mini-series developed for television but which the HBO series have since refined. Moreover, there’s not one central protagonist but various, something movies have always found difficult to do (bringing into the discussion something like Coronation Street in the UK would complicate the broad strokes sketched above but not negate them).
What fascinates me about Game of Thrones is that it sets out to be spectacular and succeeds. Thus for the first time, I find my eye gazing at the credits for cinematography (David Franco), production design (Deborah Rivery) costumes (Michele Clapham) and sfx (Steve Kullback and Joe Bover) as well as the director (Michael Slovis).
In looking at how the series achieves its intent to be spectacular, one begins to detect patterns in certain types of shots. In a note on the first episode, I remarked on how ‘I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and, as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling’.
In the second episode, we get a very similar shot at the very beginning (see below), just after the Captain tells Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) not to be afraid and we get a close-up of her saying ‘I’m not afraid’, she looks off-screen but instead of her point-of-view of the shot of the statue of the Titan, the focus of attention, and what her gaze and ours has been directed to thus far, we get a shot which rhymes but surprises; instead of cutting in to the shot of the statue of the titan (‘it’s just a statue’), we get a sweeping panoramic shot which moves away from the statue and which shows us what she doesn’t see, a busy port city beyond, full of people and activity, and which suggests that it’s a place to be feared if not by the character then by the audience.
Cinematographer Ed Moore has intriguingly remarked that Michael Slovis, the director of this episode, ‘joins the likes of Phil Abraham (Mad Men et al) as TV directors who were very successful TV cinematographers first (Slovis shot almost all of Breaking Bad; Abraham was launched by The Sopranos). Because on these shows the “show runner” producers are so in charge of script and edit, it does make sense that they would really look for directors with a strong visual sense above all else’.
What made me think of this as a particular type of cinema made for a small screen is that the image would not stand up to close scrutiny on a larger screen. We’d see how such a shot is constructed, the image might lack detail, the city on close scrutiny seems drawn in. But one doesn’t see this on a small screen. What one sees is a brave and frail though increasingly skilled young girl in a new, exotic and dangerous context. The shot is both spectacular and melodramatically expressive. Its spectacularity and expressiveness are both maximised on a small screen. And this is beginning to seem a characteristic shot in the series.
Watching the first episode of Game of Thrones, Season 5, I was struck by how satisfying the use of colour and composition are in the series: the richness of the imagery, the colour, the texture of the materials, the design of the sets and costumes. I’ve not yet thought through the expressiveness of imagery – is it ‘merely’ pretty or is the full expressive potential of these particular arrangements of line, colour, people, places and things being realised? This is something that intrigues me and that I mean to come back to at a later point. But what struck me immediately was how delighted I was by them; and how much I’ve missed this kind of pleasure at the cinema recently. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the only recent film I can remember making an impression on this basis; the rest of the films seemed grey or otherwise lacking in luminosity, thinly textured visually, mis-arranged (Jurassic World) and sometimes even un-arranged (Pitch Perfect 2).
In this first episode of Game of Thrones one sees imagery that would be the envy of many a feature film but designed to be best viewed on a smaller screen. It’s not only a question of privileging close-ups or medium shots (though one detects that element as well, though decreasingly so) but more of keeping the image relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen. Just as magazine covers tend to focus on faces or at most full-figure shots, rather than put landscape or busy arrangements of crowds of people on their covers, these type of shows are also designed to take optimum advantage of the context in which the majority of their viewers might be expected to see them (arguably the home television 1st, and the computer screen second)
I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and,as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling.