It’s not just bad storytellıng—ıt’s because the storytellıng style changed from socıologıcal to psychologıcal
By Zeynep Tufekci on
Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, is as big as television gets these days. More than 17 million people watched the season’s opening. Judging by the fan and critic reaction though, it seems that a substantial portion of those millions are loathing the season. Indeed, most of the reviews and fan discussions seem to be pondering where the acclaimed series went wrong, with many theories on exactly why it went downhill.
The show did indeed take a turn for the worse, but the reasons for that downturn go way deeper than the usual suspects that have been identified (new and inferior writers, shortened season, too many plot holes). It’s not that these are incorrect, but they’re just superficial shifts. In fact, the souring of Game of Thrones exposes a fundamental shortcoming of our storytelling culture in general: we don’t really know how to tell sociological stories.
At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.
After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.
This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.
I encounter this shortcoming a lot in my own area of writing—technology and society. Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing with digital technology and machine intelligence—but more on all that later. Let’s first go over what happened to Game of Thrones.
WHAT STORYTELLING IT WAS AND WHAT IT BECAME IN GOT
It’s easy to miss this fundamental narrative lane change and blame the series’ downturn on plain old bad writing by Benioff and Weiss—partly because they are genuinely bad at it. They didn’t just switch the explanatory dynamics of the story, they did a terrible job in the new lane as well.
One could, for example, easily focus on the abundance of plot holes. The dragons, for example seem to switch between comic-book indestructible to vulnerable from one episode to another. And it was hard to keep a straight face when Jaime Lannister ended up on a tiny cove along a vast, vast shoreline at the exact moment the villain Euron Greyjoy swam to that very point from his sinking ship to confront him. How convenient!
Similarly, character arcs meticulously drawn over many seasons seem to have been abandoned on a whim, turning the players into caricatures instead of personalities. Brienne of Tarth seems to exist for no reason, for example; Tyrion Lannister is all of a sudden turned into a murderous snitch while also losing all his intellectual gifts (he hasn’t made a single correct decision the entire season). And who knows what on earth is up with Bran Stark, except that he seems to be kept on as some sort of extra Stark?
But all that is surface stuff. Even if the new season had managed to minimize plot holes and avoid clunky coincidences and a clumsy Arya ex machina as a storytelling device, they couldn’t persist in the narrative lane of the past seasons. For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.
To understand the narrative lane shift, let’s go back to a key question: Why did so many love Game of Thrones in the first place? What makes it stand out from so many other shows during an era critics call the Second Golden Age of Television because there are so many high-quality productions out there?
The initial fan interest and ensuing loyalty wasn’t just about the brilliant acting and superb cinematography, sound, editing and directing. None of those are that unique to GOT, and all of them remain excellent through this otherwise terrible last season.
One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.
In contrast, Game of Thrones killed Ned Stark abruptly at the end of the first season, after building the whole season and, by implication, the entire series around him. The second season developed a replacement Stark heir, which appeared like a more traditional continuation of the narrative. The third season, however, had him and his pregnant wife murdered in a particularly bloody way. And so it went. The story moved on; many characters did not.
The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.
In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.
People then fit their internal narrative to align with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way. (Thus the famous Upton Sinclair quip: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”)
The overly personal mode of storytelling or analysis leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history. Understanding Hitler’s personality alone will not tell us much about rise of fascism, for example. Not that it didn’t matter, but a different demagogue would probably have appeared to take his place in Germany in between the two bloody world wars in the 20th century. Hence, the answer to “would you kill baby Hitler?,” sometimes presented as an ethical time-travel challenge, should be “no,” because it would very likely not matter much. It is not a true dilemma.
We also have a bias for the individual as the locus of agency in interpreting our own everyday life and the behavior of others. We tend to seek internal, psychological explanations for the behavior of those around us while making situational excuses for our own. This is such a common way of looking at the world that social psychologists have a word for it: the fundamental attribution error.
When someone wrongs us, we tend to think they are evil, misguided or selfish: a personalized explanation. But when we misbehave, we are better at recognizing the external pressures on us that shape our actions: a situational understanding. If you snap at a coworker, for example, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you had difficulty sleeping last night and had financial struggles this month. You’re not evil, just stressed! The coworker who snaps at you, however, is more likely to be interpreted as a jerk, without going through the same kind of rationalization. This is convenient for our peace of mind, and fits with our domain of knowledge, too. We know what pressures us, but not necessarily others.
That tension between internal stories and desires, psychology and external pressures, institutions, norms and events was exactly what Game of Thrones showed us for many of its characters, creating rich tapestries of psychology but also behavior that was neither saintly nor fully evil at any one point. It was something more than that: you could understand why even the characters undertaking evil acts were doing what they did, how their good intentions got subverted, and how incentives structured behavior. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.
The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. “Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances” is a way into a broader, deeper understanding. It’s not just empathy: we of course empathize with victims and good people, not with evildoers.
But if we can better understand how and why characters make their choices, we can also think about how to structure our world that encourages better choices for everyone. The alternative is an often futile appeal to the better angels of our nature. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they exist along with baser and lesser motives. The question isn’t to identify the few angels but to make it easier for everyone to make the choices that, collectively, would lead us all to a better place.
Another example of sociological TV drama with a similarly enthusiastic fan following is David Simon’s The Wire, which followed the trajectory of a variety of actors in Baltimore, ranging from African-Americans in the impoverished and neglected inner city trying to survive, to police officers to journalists to unionized dock workers to city officials and teachers. That show, too, killed off its main characters regularly, without losing its audience. Interestingly, the star of each season was an institution more than a person. The second season, for example, focused on the demise of the unionized working class in the U.S.; the fourth highlighted schools; and the final season focused on the role of journalism and mass media.
Luckily for The Wire, creative control never shifted to the standard Hollywood narrative writers who would have given us individuals to root for or hate without being able to fully understand the circumstances that shape them. One thing that’s striking about The Wire is how one could understand all the characters, not just the good ones (and in fact, none of them were just good or bad). When that’s the case, you know you’re watching a sociological story.
WHY GOT PAUSED KILLING MAJOR CHARACTERS
Tellingly, season eight shocked many viewers by … not initially killing off the main characters. It was the first big indicator of their shift—that they were putting the weight of the story on the individual and abandoning the sociological. In that vein, they had fan-favorite characters pull off stunts we could root and cheer for, like Arya Stark killing the Night King in a somewhat improbable fashion.
For seven seasons, the show had focused on the sociology of what an external, otherized threat—such as the Night King, the Army of the Undead and the Winter to Come—would do to competing rivalries within the opposing camp. Having killed one of the main sociological tensions that had animated the whole series with one well-placed knife-stab, Benioff and Weiss then turned to ruining the other sociological tension: the story of the corruption of power.
This corruption of power was crucially illustrated in Cersei Lannister’s rise and evolution from victim (if a selfish one) to evil actor, and this was clearly meant also to be the story of her main challenger, Daenerys Targaryen. Dany had started out wanting to be the breaker of chains, with moral choices weighing heavily on her, and season by season, we have witnessed her, however reluctantly, being shaped by the tools that were available to her and that she embraced: war, dragons, fire.
Done right, it would have been a fascinating and dynamic story: rivals transforming into each other as they seek absolute power with murderous tools, one starting from a selfish perspective (her desire to have her children rule) and the other from an altruistic one (her desire to free slaves and captive people, of which she was once one).
The corruption of power is one of the most important psychosocial dynamics behind many important turning points in history, and in how the ills of society arise. In response, we have created elections, checks and balances, and laws and mechanisms that constrain the executive.
Destructive historical figures often believe that they must stay in power because it is they, and only they, who can lead the people—and that any alternative would be calamitous. Leaders tend to get isolated, become surrounded by sycophants and succumb easily to the human tendency to self-rationalize. There are several examples in history of a leader who starts in opposition with the best of intentions, like Dany, and ends up acting brutally and turning into a tyrant if they take power.
Told sociologically, Dany’s descent into a cruel mass-murderer would have been a strong and riveting story. Yet in the hands of two writers who do not understand how to advance the narrative in that lane, it became ridiculous. She attacks King’s Landing with Drogon, her dragon, and wins, with the bells of the city ringing in surrender. Then, suddenly, she goes on a rampage because, somehow, her tyrannical genes turn on.
Varys, the advisor who will die for trying to stop Dany, says to Tyrion that “every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” That is straight-up and simplistic genetic determinism, rather than what we had been witnessing for the past seven seasons. Again, sociological stories don’t discount the personal, psychological and even the genetic, but the key point is that they are more than “coin tosses”—they are complex interactions with emergent consequences: the way the world actually works.
In interviews after that episode, Benioff and Weiss confess that they turned it into a spontaneous moment. Weiss says, “ I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did. And then she sees the Red Keep, which is, to her, the home that her family built when they first came over to this country 300 years ago. It’s in that moment, on the walls of King’s Landing, when she’s looking at that symbol of everything that was taken from her, when she makes the decision to make this personal.”
Benioff and Weiss were almost certainly given the “Mad Queen” ending to Game of Thrones by the original writer, George R. R. Martin. For them, however, this was the eating-ice-cream-with-a-fork problem I mentioned above. They could keep the story, but not the storytelling method. They could only make it into a momentary turn that is part spontaneous psychology and part deterministic genetics.
WHY SOCIOLOGICAL STORYTELLING MATTERS
Whether done well or badly, the psychological/internal genre leaves us unable to understand and react to social change. Arguably, the dominance of the psychological and hero/antihero narrative is also the reason we are having such a difficult time dealing with the current historic technology transition. So this essay is more than about one TV show with dragons.
In my own area of research and writing, the impact of digital technology and machine intelligence on society, I encounter this obstacle all the time. There are a significant number of stories, books, narratives and journalistic accounts that focus on the personalities of key players such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos. Of course, their personalities matter, but only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.
It’s reasonable, for example, for a corporation to ponder who would be the best CEO or COO, but it’s not reasonable for us to expect that we could take any one of those actors and replace them with another person and get dramatically different results without changing the structures, incentives and forces that shape how they and their companies act in this world.
The preference for the individual and psychological narrative is understandable: the story is easier to tell as we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. We are, after all, also persons!
In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play, Life of Galileo,Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying “unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
Well-run societies don’t need heroes, and the way to keep terrible impulses in check isn’t to dethrone antiheros and replace them with good people. Unfortunately, most of our storytelling—in fiction and also in mass media nonfiction—remains stuck in the hero/antihero narrative. It’s a pity Game of Thrones did not manage to conclude its last season in its original vein. In a historic moment that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changing (technological challenges, climate change, inequality and accountability) we need all the sociological imagination we can get, and fantasy dragons or not, it was nice to have a show that encouraged just that while it lasted.