If anything, Game of Thrones season eight reminds us that a show is only as good as its writers.
As the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones approached, more than 17 million people were excited to see how the epic would end. When the season aired, it was apparent that something was off, and it only got worse as the episodes progressed. Characters were acting different, the interactions seemed random, and the risk of a major character’s death established by Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) death was out the door.
Where did it all go wrong?
Critics and fans believed that the show took a turn for the worse due to too many plot holes, inferior writers, and a shortened season. The show no longer had the original books to guide them, too.
While those changes do create a change in storytelling, the shift wasn’t enough to create a train wreck of a season.
We recently read about the show’s shortcomings and sociological vs. psychological storytelling in Zeynep Tufekci’s research. Let’s look at what it means for screenwriters!
Sociological vs. Psychological Storytelling
The shift from sociological storytelling to a psychological one was the nail in the coffin for Game of Thrones. This switch in the narrative changed how fans and critics were able to connect and understand the world and the problems the characters encountered.
Sociological storytelling focuses on the story of a system and how the system affects the people within it. This narrative looks outward, allowing external factors to be as important as internal ones. Characters have personal stories and agency, but the institutions and events that happen to and around them help shape their character. The incentives for characters’ behaviors come from external forces and are influenced by their inner lives.
A good sociological story encourages viewers to put themselves in the place of any character, not just the main protagonist.
Psychological storytelling is the story of a person’s internal and external journey to get something they want. That character is the center of the story’s universe, and without them, the story wouldn’t exist. A psychological story relies heavily on empathy toward the central character.
The structural storytelling of GOT lasted throughout the seasons when the show was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who specialized in having characters evolve in response to the world around them. At some point, the show ran ahead of the novels, and Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss took over, opting for a narrative that fitted Hollywood tropes.
A psychological narrative is often the only way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.
Why Did We Love Game of Thrones?
There were countless reasons to love Game of Thrones. But there is one aspect to the show that made it stand out. The show wasn’t afraid to kill off major characters.
We’ve talked about how Game of Thrones uses sociological storytelling before, and it’s one of the reasons we loved it so much.
TV shows that have a psychological narrative rarely can kill off major characters because they are the key to building the story and are used to put the viewer in an emotional choke-hold. GOT had no problem slowly killing off as many Starks as they could, because it did not rely on those characters to move the story forward.
The appeal of a show regularly killing off characters was gut-wrenching, yet exciting. The story never relied on one character, but the entirety of the cast and the events that shaped them. That’s because sociological storytelling provides a deeper comprehension of events and history.
As Tufekci points out, we have a bias for the individual self as we interpret our everyday life and interactions with others, but we fail at recognizing the influence of external factors on others’ behavior. If you were to snap at someone, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you didn’t have enough sleep last night or might have been hungry. You are not a bad person, you were just hungry.
But if a coworker snaps at you, it is more likely that you will think of them as a jerk without going through the same kind of justification or rationalization.
This fundamental attribution error is the tendency to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual’s behavior while seeking situational excuses for our behavior.
Why is understanding fundamental attribution errors important? Because when we watched the characters in GOT make decisions, we see the internal stories, desires, psychology, and external pressures, institutions, norms, and events that influenced their behavior. The viewer understood why characters performed evil acts or how their good intentions were subverted.
The complexity made the storytelling richer than a simplistic morality tale of good versus evil, which is what the final season gave us.
How Psychological Storytelling Ruined GOT
One of the many pitfalls of season eight was that GOT did not kill off major characters. When it did, the deaths were justified by the character’s bravery or villainy.
The loss of risk for major characters was an indicator that the weight of the story was being placed on an individual, abandoning the sociological narrative with one swift knife-stab to the Night King’s neck, killing one of the main sociological tensions of the series.
With the main factor of tension dead, Benioff and Weiss could take the narrative in whatever direction they pleased while following the rough plot outline given to them by Martin. Their newfound freedom corrupted the power of the narrative as they decided to take a simplistic approach by changing characters using simplistic explanations.
Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) rise and evolution from victim to evil ruler was done to make her a strong antagonist, yet the writers decided to rewrite her character in the final season. Instead of killing Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) with her archers when the opportunity presents itself, Cersei instead lets him live for no reason, despite hating him.
This moment is in direct contradiction with the beginning of the season when Cersei sends Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to kill Tyrion and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The moment was written to create flat tension between the two characters whenever the story has already established Cersei’s relationship with Tyrion as one of hate and spite.
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) started as the breaker of chains while her morality weighted heavier on her each season. She embraced war, dragons, and fire, but she wasn’t someone who would take innocent life to achieve power. What could have been a dynamic story about rivals transforming each other as they seek power was ruined as Dany snapped after hearing the bells of surrender.
Dany’s descent into madness could have been a strong story if it was told sociologically. Instead, it became random, causing viewers to turn on the show for not providing evidence for the switch in Dany’s personality. The breaker of chains hears the bells and becomes a tyrant. How was this rationalized?
Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), the advisor who dies trying to stop Dany, says to Tyrion that for Targaryens, “the gods toss a coin in the air, and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.”
That is lazy writing at its best. She becomes a mass-murder because it is in her genes?
Sociological stories don’t discount personal, psychological, and genetic explanations, but Dany had not shown an ounce of tyranny toward those who did not ask for mercy in the past seasons. Even if the “Mad Queen” ending was the one that Martin gave Benioff and Weiss, spontaneous psychology and genetics were the only way they could justify the act.
Characters didn’t feel like they were in danger, they no longer used their wit to stay alive, and the show suffered. GOT began to feel like another drama fantasy show that didn’t give any consequences to characters’ actions.
The world around them no longer had any influence on their actions, and fans were rightfully upset.
Sociological Storytelling Matters
The dominance of the psychological and hero/antihero narrative is the reason we are having a hard time dealing with the current historic-technology transition. Tufekci’s research for Scientific American has found that the impact of digital technology and machine intelligence have created significant obstacles in society that don’t rely on a person’s internal state of being.
Yes, personalities matter, but external factors also matter more than ever before.
It is not reasonable for people to expect that incentives and forces do not shape a person, let alone a character in a show. The individual and psychological narrative are understandable because it is easier to tell, but easy is not innovative. It’s lazy. Don’t forget to incorporate sociological storytelling into your work, as well.
Want to learn more about psychology and writing? Check out the three-minute rule for screenwriting, or try taking your characters to therapy.
What was your least favorite moment from season eight of Game of Thrones? Let us know in the comments why!