This originally appeared on VICE CA.
Spoilers going forward, but most of them are pretty old, and you should be up to date by now.
The people of Game of Thrones should never genuinely smile. And by genuine, I'm talking about the "I'm happy with life" variety, not the "I plan on killing some folks" sort. After all, the former kind of smiling doesn't really benefit this world of family massacres, child sacrifice and sexual slavery.
Amidst all this impending shittiness, It's hardly surprising that the default expression of many characters is a powerful scowl. As a man that would rather not smile by choice, I champion it. When someone says "cheese!" my response isn't what you'd call traditional; but more like a placated upside down grimace that needs a stretch to work up to a full-on curl. The scowl feels so much more natural; the first expression that meets the morning sun. A contortion of the muscles in your face, and a contraction of the eyebrows to express disapproval or anger and there you have it.
Few shows have nailed the art of the scowl quite as well as Game of Thrones. They understand the genuine, non-forced forced scowl, generally avoiding the stilted kind, as if something hard was stuck up the person's ass and never quite made it out kind, a la Steve Bannon. What we get is the rich, "don't fuck with me" scowl that displays the mean, unspeakable shit a person could do—even if unintentional. Think Jack Nicholson.
In my effort to analyze this facial feature that's often disrespected by mainstream society, I've accumulated the definite list of scowls in Game of Thrones.
Brienne of Tarth
This is an upper level version of the "resting bitch face." These usually come in a few varieties: focused, serious, or angry, but Lady Tarth's contortion is built from a steady stream of life's terrible trashiness. Consider that her mother died before she was born, that her siblings didn't even make it to their 18th birthdays, and that she; a woman in a man's world, remains the sole heir of her house; the creases of her face have the right to spell out, "not about the bullshit" more than most of the faces in this show.
There's this full rainbow of frowns that seem to shine from Lady Tarth's face in episode "Valar Morghulis." Just before Jaime Lannister attempts to swordplay his way out being a prisoner, he hits her with the low blow: "You move well," he says, "for a great beast of a woman." The subtle shifts from anger, to a frown, to the look of general pity and annoyance suddenly show up on Lady Tarth's face make her appear so much more intimidating over Jaime's weak quips. We know how the scene was going to end just from her scowl.
She's the baroness of doom, duchess of bitch-ness, marchioness of evil, and her scowl is a hard thing to catch. Cersei Lannister, the first of her name, temporary ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and a royal piece of shit. If you're reading this far in, you already know this. But she's a piece of shit who deserves respect. Her equal parts insecurity, entitlement, and selfishness—while bad—are all carried with a measured smile. She doesn't overuse her anger. It's what makes her seem so much more menacing when it actually appears. Because tactfully, she understands when it's important to show her pearly jaws behind the beautiful facade.
Cersei is looking down on a water-boarded, strapped down Septa Unella in episode "The Winds of Winter." Her expression is pretty much flat, still holding a standard smirk. Shift to a moment when she grips Unella's wrist and speaks sweet taunts in her ear, "I killed your high sparrow, and all his little sparrows, all his Sceptons and all his Sceptors, all his filthy soldiers, because it felt good." Her smile morphs into a scowl for a brief moment. A single fascinating moment when her dignified queen, Cersei-lite, fuses with Cersei-dark, reminding everyone once again why she's not to be fucked with.
Ramsey and his own rare scowls actually play second to his creepy-as-shit grin. Like Cersei, he's delusional, depraved, and repulsive. No one should like him, and if you do, stay away from me. He's not a quick killer of subjects, but a perpetrator of heinous acts in the name of pleasure first… the crown second. But it's his scowl that reveals the momentary lapses when he forgets his witticisms and grand schemes and devolves into a spoiled sulk. It's a satisfying thing to see for reasons different from anyone else on this list.
In the episode "The Battle of the Bastards," Ramsey offers the terms to Jon Snow, promising to pardon him for deserting the Night's Watch and rebelling, in exchange for Sansa, his sister. Jon suggests a one-on-one duel to settle matters, to which Ramsey refuses, giving Jon the opportunity to throw the verbal jab, "Would your men fight for you when they hear you wouldn't fight for them?" All that uppity elitism and wit falls from Ramsey's face and reduces him to a scared child next to a man. That seasonally demented smile finally curls into a crooked scowl until he admits with a nervous laugh "he's good." For the briefest of moments, we saw a living embodiment of a heel, get stepped on—or his ego at least.
Jon Snow is this embodiment of all the brave, noble and good things Westeros clearly isn't. Like a GoT Superman. This of course puts him at odds with the ridiculously depressing shit around him. It's no wonder he can never look happy. While his honesty and morality still manage to inspire folks somehow, it comes at the cost of his own happiness and freedom. The man has obligations that he will always keep. He's better than me and he's better than you. So his scowl isn't contorted from anger, but a general disappointment in the bullshit of the whole damn situation.
That "damn situation" is best represented in "Lord Snow." Jon already has a reason to be in a pissy mood after being sent to the Knight's watch for a lifetime of no-pussy having coldness. To be hated by your own step-mother for being a bastard is one thing, but to be delegated to a life of sharing bunks with crusty aged-men is a brooding agitator. He was already plenty serious from episodes previous, but his attitude spikes when he's tasked with facing his new brothers of the Night's Watch who clearly don't respect him in a dual. Every frustration in the "situation" comes out in the creases of his face, giving rise to just how fearless Jon Snow when triggered every episode going forward.
The GoT motivational speaker, Stark cheerleader, and ruler of Bear Island. She's 12 years old and has the balls to shame grown men with her wordplay. Lyanna Mormont, may be four feet tall, but her scowls of absolute self-confidence shatter the certitude that she hasn't even gone through puberty.
We come back to Ramsay Bolton in "Battle of the Bastards." As mentioned earlier, he'd much rather torture than grant his enemies death. Throughout the exchange of testosterone fueled jabs between Jon Snow and Ramsay—including the latter's promises of beheadings, deaths, and possible rape—Lyanna Mormont stands scowling at this grown man like he was a piece of literal shit. Her face, a mark of a defiance, has no logical right to exist in a girl of only 12, making her scowling abilities even more impressive, even compared to the other women scowlers on this show.
A farmboy, practical nobody, who Jon foolishly trusted and got killed for on some misplaced anger shit. Not much to say about this little bastard aside from the fact that no one likes him.
After Olly is convicted of stabbing Jon and killing him in _"_Oathbreaker," the now survived Snow looks him in the eye. There's no exchange of dialog in this scene. No types of begging or guilty exchanges. Just a scowl. This kid, with a rope around his neck has the nerve to scowl at the man who had nothing to do with his reasons for vengeance. It's telling to see how much hate and stupidity can exist on a boy who has hardly lived. It's a face many fans have equally rejoiced over and disdained all at once.
He doesn't have the natural charisma of a Tyrion Lannister or the idealism of a Jon Snow, but Stannis is a straight shooter who's strictly about the business. The guy gets no respect. He's the rightful king of Westeros but no one gives two shits. But that's exactly the kind of predicament that keeps a forever unsmiling mug bound to his facial contours.
Stannis's obsession with the throne comes to the forefront when the red witch, Melisandre suggests that offering up his daughter for a sacrifice will give Stannis the power of a king's blood and give him favour of the Lord of Light. Of all the twisted shit one can do on this list, Stannis's decision to go along with this beats them all. We later witness Shireen Baratheon scream as she's burned alive; Stannis's scowl unmoving, as if forcing himself to watch an act that clearly hurts him. It's a powerful scene that shows that not even the death of his own blood can crack the scowl forever imprinted on his face.
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