Gutting Game of Thrones

At Scientific American, Zeynep Tufekci argues that “the real reason fans hate the last season of Game of Thrones is not just bad storytelling but the style change from sociological to psychological.”

A storyline moved by institutional forces and social pressures acting decisively upon characters was replaced by characters’ psychological impulses driving action and sociopolitical consequences.

Tufekci provides zero examples of this, merely positing that since some main characters were routinely killed off, the story was sustained by social pressures and plot movements rather than by psychological pressures and movements.

But was it? Isn’t it as equally likely that central characters were killed off by the adequately dramatized paranoid or deranged psychological impulses of other characters? And if so, the drop in quality of the last seasons could be explained by the rushed, nonsensical, and otherwise inadequate psychological dramatization of additional murders.

The two examples of murdered main characters that Tufekci provides don’t necessarily help his argument. Ned Stark was not murdered primarily for sociopolitical reason. He was killed because his murderer was a raving lunatic. Similarly, with the Red Wedding murders that Tufekci invokes. That murderer was also portrayed as immensely depraved and deranged. Yes, both lunatic murderers offered sociopolitical justifications for the murders, but these were mainly unhinged rationales, albeit with some tenuous connection to sociopolitical justification. It wasn’t much but it was there. By the last season, even mere tenuous connections to the sociopolitical were typically missing or entirely nonsensical.

So, Tufekci makes a reasonable point, but just because the sociopolitics fell apart utterly by the end doesn’t mean the psychological storylines of a small group of people were not the main drivers throughout for holding audience interest. The sociopolitical power struggles were more personal, private interest based, than grounded in popular sociopolitical issues and popular well-being, the content and context of peoples’ lives. Watching the show is sort of like watching a corporate-state elite contest (US election) being carried out with swords and dragonfire rather than with the advertisements of debates and media blasts. Somewhere, somehow are the people at large, and their problems, barely in the picture.

Furthermore, the sociopolitics were often greatly flawed and false in Game of Thrones all the way through, not least in the astoundingly racist portrayal of the Dothraki, and misogyny, widely commented upon. The character arc video clips cobbled together on Youtube made for as compelling or more compelling viewing them most of the seasonal episodes. Why? Because virtually throughout, the psychological journeys of the character arcs were more interesting (involved and revealing) than the sociopolitics. The primary driver for watching Game of Thrones remained the psychological story paths.

Additionally, the fact is that television is not exactly “a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual,” as Tufekci states. Rather, it is and it isn’t. Much TV is sociopolitical, and certainly purports to be – cop (and now military) shows, crime shoes – and the Wire also was a very problematic version of this – have been the main staple of TV for over half a century. Why? Because even more important than gutting sociopolitics from “entertainment” is falsifying the sociopolitics, for reasons of corporate (state) power, the owners of the medium. Thus the endless glorification of a de facto police state via cop and cop/military shows, which of course pour on a lot of psychodrama to both obscure and confuse and falsify the sociopolitics.

It’s what one would expect of corporate productions. The industry is extremely sociopolitically conscious, and engaged in much distortion, not only evisceration, perpetuating class warfare from the top down.

Thus by the end of Game of Thrones, at the latest, it would have been compelling to see the power elites and their personal narrative arcs completely obliterated by a sociopolitics of clear and vital substance, that is, of popular import. A pipe-dream of course in the corporate scheme of things but would fit, only moreso, with the early Game of Thrones structure of offing bigshots. The characters could have survived climate collapse (white walkers) only to be wiped out by nuclear destruction (dragon fire), self-imposed, both purposeful and accidental, as is the logic of ultimate weapons and psycho and sociopath aggrandizement (violent profiteering). Would have been great to see a wise “commoner” give an explicit summation of such cataclysmic events of civilization and its power-mad elites to a youth, perhaps, or a traveler, at the very end. Or a keen youth could have made the summation.

In fact the would-be greatest moment of the final episode was the most important sociopolitical moment objectively – Sam Tarly opining for democracy – and not the biggest sociopolitical moment of the story, the slaying of the queen, Jon killing Dany, which was done purely for sociopolitical reasons (against the psychological impulse). The show falsely presented the objectively most important sociopolitical moment as an amusing aside, passed over quickly, while foregrounding and dwelling on the poorly construed sociopolitical slaying of the Queen, which seemed almost irrelevant because the sociopolitical context leading up to the moment was, not missing but, ludicrous.

So it is that the content and context of the sociopolitics matter more than merely the fact that sociopolitics are the focus. That could be the continuation of Tufekci’s argument – but given that he praises David Simon’s highly problematic cop show The Wire as much as he does, such an exploration wouldn’t seem likely to be much revealing. Yes, Game of Thrones shifted more to the (absurd) psychological as it went on, but the sociopolitical was already threadbare from the beginning, apart from royal machinations. Game of Thrones, after all. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Or, rather, dragons. (No great loss, perhaps, since flawed sociopolitical shows often do more social and personal damage than the more purely psychological shows – good or bad – for a variety of reasons, though mainly because they have the capacity to affect more.)

Game of Thrones could be a compelling watch to many people, but the basic sociopolitical misses and mistakes that it makes throughout are often as enormous as its limited and ludicrous psychological falsifications. It would be very difficult to argue that character was not almost always foremost to the social or political in the show. From the start, the story compels the audience to root for Dickensian type underdogs, from scene to scene, until by the end of the show there are, long since, no underdogs left, merely a collection of victors intent on fighting for a seat of conquest to almost no real point other than personal aggrandizement. There was no great sociopolitical planning or reforms or movements explored beginning, middle, or end of Game of Thrones. The show was almost a domestic comedy/tragedy of royals. The fundamental sociopolitics were basically camp, from the start, and by the end so was everything else.

Thus, it would have made satisfying sense and viewing for the Sam Tarly democracy-opining scene to morph into side-splitting Monte Python farce. Nothing made sense by the end. Not the sociopolitics, not the psychologies, and it wasn’t basically because “the storytelling style changed from sociopolitical to psychological,” but equally – or more – because the sociopolitics (and psychologies) were all along both greatly eviscerated and purposefully chaotic, in content and context.

Does Game of Thrones have compelling sociopolitical and psychological moments? Yes, of course, but the show is geared toward spectacle above all, rather than toward, say, sociopolitical revelation and significant movement on either basic or grand levels, despite portentous pretensions and some genuine efforts. And why is that? Game of Thrones novelist Martin stated that his modus operandi was relying on characters who make wrong decisions. Well, okay, that’s a curious falsification of life that can provide great spectacle, in passing, but the basic sociopolitics of the story are then going to suffer in falsity every bit as much as the basic psychologies of the story. Movement via such a mechanism will cultivate and end in a circus and chaos of increasingly tedious magnitude – whether sociopolitical or psychological or both. And so it was.

There were sociopolitical fixes that could have been made all along, also psychological ones, but the authors themselves made the wrong decision in choosing ongoing mechanistic spectacle over vital focus and revelations, both sociopolitical and psychological (of course the two are intertwined). The fundamental problem wasn’t the prioritizing of a psychological “style” over sociopolitical style as the thing went on (though that was a problem), rather the mechanistic and eviscerated approach to storytelling and life that gutted both the psychological and the sociopolitical from the outset.

Fatalistic spectacle become chaotic con, the characters’ (author-determined) need to make wrong choices. Going that narrative route, or any narrative route, needs to result in some vision ultimately. What’s revelatory about Game of Thrones? Don’t love your sociopathic CEOs, murder them, in impossible context? Dragon-nuke the seat of power? As it was in the beginning, of the story, so it is in the end? Nothing changes? Characters making bad decisions after bad decisions? No other pattern or revelation? Even for the bad, let alone for the good?

In reality, things do change. People don’t always make decisively wrong decisions. Wouldn’t know that from watching Game of Thrones, fundamentally. Very convenient to power. Sociopolitically convenient. In Game of Thrones, the psychology was distorted all along, and there was no sociopolitical vision to begin with, other than fatalistic chaos. The sociopolitical was a kind of historical happenstance that the operating psychological device necessarily distorted and played with for the thrill of medieval spectacle. When the medieval sociopolitical vision (actually, fixation) is used up and worn out and the novelty is gone, what is left but psychological twists and turns to nowhere that further cement the severe limits of the sociopolitical vision?

Corporate power HBO wanted to keep funding Game of Thrones for years to come, certainly not to any revelatory end. It loves the medieval! Very profitable. Possibly HBO’s love of the medieval became in no way inspiring to the creators. Truly, the authors should have burned all the power elites with the city to the ground in the final season. That after all fits the logic of continuously making key wrong decisions – call it, the Corporate Way: psychopathic and sociopathic profiteering chaos and conquest that destroys everyone and all in the end. By then, apparently nobody, not even creator Martin, had the courage of the story’s fundamental conviction. The “style” might have changed marginally in the final season, but Game of Thrones was deeply and fatally flawed – sociopolitically and psychologically gutted and distorted – from the start.

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