Praise for the cinematic splendor of the blockbuster HBO show “Game of Thrones” is a dime a dozen these days, yet many of the program’s admirers would rather talk about plot, theme and characterization than the techniques its directors use to depict their world on screen. This extends to criticism beyond “Thrones”: Recently, RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz pleaded for film and TV critics to devote more of their energy to discussing form and craft. In the spirit of Seitz’s call to arms, and in preparation for the fourth-season premiere of “Game of Thrones” April 6, here is an appreciation of the show’s form, via a closer look at five standout moments from the first three seasons. Spoilers ahead.
The Death of Ned Stark (“Baelor” – Season One, Episode Nine)
There is, in television, an underlying expectation that the biggest threats to the most important characters will always resolve themselves in the end. Alan Taylor, the director of “Baelor,” subverted those expectations quite deliberately in his staging of the geography of noble patriarch Ned Stark’s execution. Taylor cuts from close-ups of Ned (Sean Bean), as he looks out at the King’s Landing crowd to shots of his daughter Arya (Maisie Williams), tiny sword Needle in hand, attempting to reach the stage where he’s being held. We should know, inherently, that there’s no way a small girl with a puny sword can single-handedly thwart this execution, but the shots of Arya are the only indicators of hope Taylor provides throughout the entire sequence, and they are the ones we cling onto — up until Arya is pulled aside and the moment actually happens.
If making the choice to cut Ned’s impending doom together with the efforts of someone who can’t possibly save him seems a cruel jest, it’s forgiven by the final kindness Taylor extends in the episode. He doesn’t show the executioner separating Ned’s head, instead cutting away to more peaceful, though no less devastating imagery: crows, symbolic of the Nightwatchman fate promised to Ned before his untimely demise, flying free from this evil place.
The White Walker Army (“Valar Morghulis” – Season Two, Episode 10)
Another Alan Taylor episode, his final one before departing the show to direct “Thor: The Dark World.” But what a way to go. Taylor ends “Valar Morghulis” with one of the most prolonged and blisteringly effective slow reveals in modern filmmaking, a minutes-long buildup unveiling the massive scale of the undead White Walker army. Taylor ramps up the tension through six distinct sensory elements: the three horn blasts in the distance; the mist that engulfs Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) as he scrambles for cover; the outlines of the reanimated Whites emerging from parts unknown; then the hooves of the dead horse and the slow pan upwards to the horrific White Walker himself.
This is the first glimpse of a White Walker in the entire series, and it’s already sufficiently terrifying because his grand entrance and reputation make clear he is far more powerful than any human of Westeros. But it’s not enough for Taylor, who soon pulls back into a generous dolly shot of the CGI-assisted army. It’s this exponential amping up of stakes, packed into the last three minutes of an episode with an hour-plus runtime, that creates the unique, overwhelming sensation of doom.
Margaery Tyrell Tames King Joffrey (“Dark Wings, Dark Words” – Season Three, Episode Two)
Throughout the series, the directors of photography often shoot sequences inside the Red Keep in a soft, royal palette of gold and maroon hues, a sharp contrast to the dastardly veiled threats and betrayals that often take place in the castle. One of the more riveting Red Keep scenes comes when Marjorie (Natalie Dormer) enters the chambers of her betrothed, the psychotic and perverted King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and plays his antagonizing nature to her advantage, gaining his allegiance and a hint of desire in the process.
The episode’s director, Daniel Minahan, and writer, Vanessa Taylor, accomplish this through precise scripting and stage direction. When the scene begins, Joffrey has a crossbow pointed at Margaery from across the room, but Margaery bridges the gap between them while verbally downplaying her own cunning instincts. Ultimately the two share the same frame, and the same side of the crossbow. And in keeping with the lighting tricks of the Red Keep, the sequence opens with the two of them each shrouded in dark corners and ends with them standing together in…not bright light, exactly, but a sinister glow.
Jamie Lannister Loses His Hand (“Walk of Punishment” – Season Three, Episode Three)
“Walk of Punishment” is the only “Game of Thrones” episode from the first three seasons to be directed by series co-creator David Benioff (co-creator D.B. Weiss also co-wrote the episode). It’s amusing to think of “Walk of Punishment” as a pure expression of Benioff’s vision for the show because it includes what might be the series’ strangest moment: the smash cut from Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) screaming in pain and shock at the loss of his sword hand to the rollicking rock band The Hold Steady performing their take on “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”
Benioff’s framing of yet another horrific mutilation is so different from the rest of the series’ takes on bodily harm because it retroactively lends Jamie’s plight a comic vibe. Jamie’s screams become a punchline, with Benioff holding on them for just a beat longer than feels necessary. Benioff’s handling of that cut-to-black moment (the quick slice after a drawn-out poking of Jamie’s eyeball; the way both Jamie’s hand and his bloody stump remain in the frame after they’ve been separated; the tiny shakes of Benioff’s handheld camera in the final seconds) calls to mind the schlock-shock humor of Troma and Roger Corman. It’s a stark contrast to, say, the dank, morose torture-porn aesthetic of Theon Greyjoy’s captivity that plays out over the course of the third season.
The Red Wedding (“The Rains of Castamere” – Season Three, Episode Nine)
Though it’s one of the most shocking sequences in modern TV history, it’s difficult to tell how much of “The Red Wedding’s” raw power comes from the staging of the scene itself and how much from the broader agony of witnessing seasons-long character arcs cut away in an instant. One moment that stands alone as a pure masterpiece of form: Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley), at the end of her life, slitting the throat of Lord Walder Frey’s disposable young wife. Director David Nutter holds the camera on Catelyn for a full 17 seconds in between her deed and her own murder, an eternity of time that lets us feel the final release of oxygen from her dying soul. Catelyn’s death comes as the music, which climaxed with her shriek of remorse upon witnessing the death of her son, has all but faded away. Everything is silent when she dies, making her actual demise feel superfluous: there is nothing left in her to kill.
There is an elegant, horrific symmetry to the way Nutter frames this final take. Catelyn cuts her hostage’s throat from behind and to the right. When Frey’s anonymous guard does the same to her, it’s framed in the same way. Nutter keeps her left-of-center for the entire length of the shot. The staging could be interpreted as a spiritual linking of the two victims, both women who have no leveraging power, and who have become all-too-disposable pawns in a much larger game of men’s egos. And it also functions as a concise visual metaphor for the mind-numbing chain of murder that keeps the story moving forward, one body stacked on top of another, with no end in sight.