Spoilers follow for the Game of Thrones season premiere and also The Shining, The Others, and the ravages of time.
Sunday night’s Game of Thrones premiere had barely finished airing before the internet was ablaze with people talking about the episode’s final scene. Recaps, explainers, reactions, reviews: everything you could possibly want to know about what the episode revealed—and virtually nothing about how it was revealed. Which is a shame, because director Jeremy Podeswa, cinematographer Gregory Middleton, and editor Crispin Green shrewdly used every trick they could to heighten the impact. The scene, as everyone knows by now, reveals the priestess Melisandre (Carice von Houten) to be a centuries-old crone who’s been using magic to appear young and beautiful.
That means Podeswa, Middleton, and Green already had a lot of established techniques they could have chosen from, because “find a way to reveal a young woman is secretly ancient” is a problem many directors have solved over the years, usually in horror films. (“Find a way to build a society where the most horrifying image imaginable is not the body of an elderly woman” seems to be a much tougher problem.) The most famous version is Stanley Kubrick’s, in The Shining.
After the initial tracking shot toward the bathroom door, Kubrick freezes the camera and cuts back and forth between the long shot of the bathroom and the creepy reaction shots of Jack Nicholson, establishing two distinct, unconnected spaces for Nicholson and Lia Beldam—until Nicholson unnervingly walks into her shot. The editing uses shots that held longer than seems natural, and the cut to an extreme close-up of Nicholson and the woman in room 237 kissing—after so many wider shots in which all the information is in frame—gives an uneasy feeling that we’re missing something. When the camera finally moves, whip-panning to the mirror to show just what we (and Nicholson) are missing, the startling, sudden motion adds to the horror of the reveal almost as much as the special effects.
Alejandro Amenábar handled the same reveal very differently in 2001’s The Others:
While Kubrick keeps everything in sight until he cuts to a close-up, Amenábar obscures actress Alakina Mann behind a veil from the first shot. And his camera is in constant motion during the reveal—pushing in on Nicole Kidman’s reaction as she sees her daughter is changed, panning up to the ancient hand holding the puppet, and circling both Kidman and Mann as Kidman walks around her daughter until her face comes into view. There are a lot of nice details here, from the light coming up on Kidman’s face immediately before the shock cut to the way the camera motion puts us in Kidman’s position of simultaneously wanting to see more and dreading what we’re about to see.
Which brings us to Game of Thrones. It’s not Kubrick or Amenábar, but that wouldn’t be a fair fight anyway, because Kubrick and Amenábar have a tool in their toolbox that Podeswa doesn’t: reaction shots. There’s no Jack Nicholson or Nicole Kidman to shape the audience’s reaction to Melisandre’s withered body, just Carice van Houten's own face. So even if the information is the same, the tone is different—less horror, more uncanny. Where Kubrick freezes the camera and Amenábar keeps it moving, Podeswa and Middleton use depth and focus to direct the audience’s attention. And Podeswa and his team have one thing that neither Kubrick nor Amenábar had: 50 hours of previous episodes of Game of Thrones, shaping the audience’s expectations for the way the show’s camera treats women’s bodies. But essentially all three directors are playing the same game: restricting the audience’s available information and then giving them much more information than they want. Here’s how it works. Podeswa opens with an unintelligible image: a blurry fire to the left with a sharp edge to the right:
The camera then tracks left and pulls the focus deeper into the frame, bringing Melisandre into view and taking the as-yet-unidentified object out of focus.
At this point Podeswa has established that the camera will use a shallow focus to move our attention forward and backward through the image. After a close-up of Melisandre’s hands (looking very young), Podeswa hammers this home with a rhyming shot: The camera tracks right instead of left, and the focus moves from Melisandre to the still-unidentified object on her desk.
Returning to the initial perspective, the camera and its focus stay on Melisandre as she rises from the bed and walks toward the desk. It seems like the two focal planes are going to converge, but then Podeswa cuts to Melisandre’s perspective and lets us see what she’s looking at:
It’s a mirror, and a bad one—no matter where the camera focuses, whatever it displays will be blurry, a nice deflection of the system of images Podeswa has just established. The next cut puts us back on firm Game of Thrones ground: Melisandre faces the camera and unfastens her robe, in the longest single shot in the scene.
It’s not the first time the camera’s lingered over her doing this, and if there’s one conditioned expectation Game of Throne viewers have by now, it’s that the male gaze will be catered to. This time, however, Podeswa cuts almost immediately to the blurry mirror:
There’s a brief shot from the perspective of the bed of Melisandre dropping her robe, then a medium shot that immediately zooms into safe-for-work territory as she unfastens her necklace:
Podeswa and team seem to be playing with the conventions of the show that Ian McShane derided as “tits and dragons,” and they have a good reason: Having done a sort of striptease, they’re about to give the audience much more clarity than they want. The next shot has three distinct focal planes, opening with a shot of some of Melisandre’s potions:
… before moving focus to the necklace as she places it on the desk:
… before finally moving to that blurry mirror again. Only this time the reflection looks a little different.
Podeswa’s just done everything he can to train our eyes to get as much information as possible from that blurry reflection, first through repeated shots that move focus to whatever’s most important and then by the oddly-frustrated-by-Game-of-Thrones-standards peepshow. Now he’s using an obscured image the way Amenábar used the bridal veil in The Others and Kubrick used the extreme close-up in The Shining: to create a moment where the audience thinks, “I get the disturbing sense there’s some information missing here, and I am entirely okay with never finding out what it is, so let’s just all go our separate ways.” But that’s no longer an option, as the next perfectly focused shot reveals:
Once Podeswa cuts to Melisandre without her magic, the camera language reverses. Before, it cut away or tracked in to hide Melisandre’s nakedness; now it pulls slowly back, merciless. This isn’t exactly a horror reveal like The Shining: Melisandre’s not surprised at her own appearance, and there’s no one there for her to terrify. In fact, with each cut back to the mirror, she looks sadder and less powerful. There’s a shot that seems like it should be a natural close, as she turns and walks away from the mirror, finally out of focus.
But the camera isn’t kind enough to let Melisandre decide when she leaves the frame; it cuts back into perfect focus as she slowly and painfully gets into bed. It takes 18 seconds before the camera tracks right, rhyming with the opening shot and drawing the mirror across frame like a curtain.
Melisandre’s power has always come from seduction, so taking away her control of the camera, of the way she’s perceived—especially through the bait-and-switch striptease that opens this scene—is cruelly effective. But the main lesson to learn from this scene is how little of its impact depends on the plot details. Instead, it's all about establishing a rhythm and pattern and then breaking it in whatever way will jar the audience most. The specifics of the surprise are less important than the way it’s revealed. It's easy to demonstrate this, because if you remove technique from the equation, every Game of Thrones fan has access to everything they need to duplicate the episode's ending. So here's the home game: To create your own Shocking Twist or Stunning Reveal, all you have to do is look in a mirror … and wait.