The Social Dynamics of Fantasy Dragons
May 19, 2019 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Even if the new season had managed to minimize plot holes and avoid clunky coincidences..., 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. The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones by Zeynep Tufekci (previously). Caution: Spoilers for the current season of GoT.
posted by Cash4Lead (48 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dumb article. The distinction between 'psychological' and 'sociological' is essentially incoherent, as the author suggests in this revealing admission:

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course...

When someone says "of course" in a piece like this, they are hoping the reader will choose to ignore the fundamental flaw in the whole premise.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:18 PM on May 19 [9 favorites]


The distinction between 'psychological' and 'sociological' is essentially incoherent

It's not a clear binary, because they're all stories about human beings, but there are unquestionably stories that focus primarily on human beings in large social groups (the first recent one that comes to mind is The Three-Body Problem) and those dynamics and stories that focus primarily on individual human beings and their interpersonal dynamics (or even more narrowly).
posted by praemunire at 12:27 PM on May 19 [32 favorites]


The difference is that character's actions are shown to be influenced by what's going on around them and what we learn about them isn't just their own thoughts and feelings but how society shaped them. It's a type of 3 dimensional storytelling that's not that easy to do because you can't just have your characters say stuff like "I feel angry" and then call it a day. That made GOT unique and interesting when it first came out.
posted by bleep at 12:31 PM on May 19 [12 favorites]


I'm developing an idea for a TV series: it's about two showrunners for a wildly popular and critically lauded TV series who drink from a font of genius. One day the font runs dry, and they are left trying to fake it, while all around them people tell stories about how and why they fell from grace, and what it all means.
posted by adamrice at 12:32 PM on May 19 [43 favorites]


Edit on Preview: I internally applied the terms agentic (individual agent driven) vs structural when I read the piece. Maybe that will quell peoples' issues with her choice of categories.

Or call it personal vs societal. Anyway, it's not really a dumb article as whole chunks of social science and history look at similar themes, use a set of words that don't offend your sensibilities and maybe it won't raise your hackles so much.


I'm glad that Zeynep Tufekci is taking a break from trying to save humanity from the impending subjective reality apocalypse in order to write in Scientific American about GoT.

This rings true to me and maps over my many criticisms of the last 3ish seasons. I think a lot of our current problems in real life stem from our misapplication of big structural ideas onto individual situations and vice versa. What I mean is that population level issues might not scale down to single experiences. (Ecological fallacy.) More importantly, people reject a lot of technocratic solutions because of a basic mistrust of large organizations/governments/experts because the solutions don't ring true to them.

This is a kludgey way of saying that people always want to rely on "great man" narratives to explain events rather than materialist/structural trends. I liked GoT when it dismissed a lot of heroic fantasy tropes. Sometime around 2-3 years ago the series swerved and started embracing all these boring old cliches that make for very boring stories.

*Sorry, in the middle of writing a paper on conspiratorial ideation and my brain is making weird segues.
posted by Telf at 12:32 PM on May 19 [27 favorites]


I thought this piece was fantastic. For anyone else who’s been disappointed with the past couple GoT seasons, I recommend reading the books. From the way I heard them described, I expected confusion, too many plots, etc, but the meandering-ness is a plus, not a minus—they’re a story of a certain era in a certain place, from the perspectives of various people living through it (or not). It’s much less “will this character I love make the right decision” and much more “how did this character I’ve slowly grown fond of come to this point in his life, and what’s going to push him to his decision.”

Some of the most moving parts of the books involve characters you never meet or barely meet on the show, and might only be with for a short time in the books, especially the perspectives of the common folk along the roads. (I especially loved Book 4, which apparently a lot of people dislike. (How???))
posted by sallybrown at 12:55 PM on May 19 [17 favorites]


Insightful article. The standout difference between GoT and most mainstream TV fiction is that in GoT the character (with agency and motivations etc) that goes against the existing systems loses every time. In a normal show, the characters are allowed to be exceptions to the systems they live in. Walter White can stand against drug barons and the US legal system and win because he's an exception to the system.

GoT allows characters to be exceptional in their own lives, to have exceptional personalities, but it doesn't extend that to allowing them to have exceptional effects on the world around them. Jon Snow can come back from the dead, but he can't resolve the inherent tensions between North and South. Daenerys has a systemic advantage due to lineage and dragons, but nobody believes she can be the breaker of chains: their society can't switch to a situation without serfdom, and she can't imagine one. Their exceptionality doesn't matter to anyone but them. They might climb to the top of the tree, they might fall to their death from the tree, but they don't get to choose the tree, and the tree is the real story.

That changes when Arya saves the day. It changes when Daenerys is mad and burns the city because that's her plot-job. Suddenly we can't see the tree, only the monkeys.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:56 PM on May 19 [51 favorites]


The standout difference between GoT and most mainstream TV fiction is that in GoT the character (with agency and motivations etc) that goes against the existing systems loses every time.

And this the apt comparison to The Wire, which I'd not considered before.

Can't speak to the precise labels the article uses, but the distinction between the two concepts felt clear and resonant to me.
posted by ominous_paws at 1:06 PM on May 19 [12 favorites]


I thought the article was good, I had not thought about the storytelling in those terms before, and the analysis rings true.

I do however object to the Arya ex machina crap criticism. The show arguably spent too much time on Arya’s story, showing her develop the skills that would enable her to kill the Night King. She was not some clumsy plot device from nowhere; her role in the story was developed over many seasons!
posted by ericost at 1:26 PM on May 19 [9 favorites]


Dumb article. The distinction between 'psychological' and 'sociological' is essentially incoherent, as the author suggests in this revealing admission:

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course...

When someone says "of course" in a piece like this, they are hoping the reader will choose to ignore the fundamental flaw in the whole premise.



The thing I was looking for and didn't find was a more robust description of the role of power. And it's kinda surprising from what I see of the author's background.

Power is mentioned insofar as it affects character (corrupting) and as an ends to be achieved and held onto by persons. "Power is power", Cersei says and she couldn't be more incomplete in saying so. Power is entirely about means. The show's sociological chops were built on deftly showing the transmutability of power and how our favorite characters danced with it along the spectrum until they ultimately mis-stepped and arrived at violence. Violence, the zero value along the axis of power (the vertical being political influence).

So I don't find her thesis incoherent, just incomplete.

And I don't find all of the recent episodes poor, though it's completely true that the narrative increasingly hinges on unwarranted political influence and/or fantastical (outsized) displays of physical (violent) power.

Though I actually liked Dany's turn and the tone of the penultimate episode. We'll see how they do tonight.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 1:31 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


I would like more examples and titles of shows and movies that are considered sociological fiction.
posted by Rash at 1:37 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


Though I actually liked Dany's turn and the tone of the penultimate episode.

If there's anything I think they probably did get from GRRM, it's the fact of that turn. The problem is much, much more a problem of execution, and more than anything of how other characters have to be diminished in order to make the big turn happen on time.
posted by atoxyl at 1:39 PM on May 19 [13 favorites]


Yes, I would also love more sociological fiction.

This article is great because it gives me words to express a dissatisfaction I've long felt with, well, just about all of television, film, and "literary" fiction. They're about people in this weird unconstrained way that's completely uninteresting.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 1:42 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


There's a long tradition of this type of storytelling. The Iliad for example, or War and Peace. Even the strongest, most exceptional people are plowed under by the unstoppable bulldozer.
posted by mono blanco at 1:49 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


I would like more examples and titles of shows and movies that are considered sociological fiction.

It may be a little of a stretch, but it helps to explain why I don't like the new Star Trek stuff very much (both the nuTrek films and the Discovery series). Kirk and Picard were only heroes in so much as they were the embodiment of certain utopian society ideals; Roddenberry created an imaginary universe and then filled it with interesting characters. Their actions and motivations were informed by and illustrated Roddenberry's vision of the future. The new Trek stuff, on the other hand, is just bog-standard adventure/super hero fiction focused on good guy/bad guy conflict that takes place on futuristic sets with funny costumes and makeup.
posted by peeedro at 1:56 PM on May 19 [20 favorites]


I thought that this article most accurately described what I found missing from the later seasons, and I found the comparison to The Wire to be spot on.

(If anyone reading this is thinking "OK, yes, I loved The Wire and early GoT; what else can I watch that's like this?", I can suggest a Canadian series called Da Vinci's Inquest, although how you can actually get your hands on it I have no idea. I think there are DVDs.)

This article and the recent Twitter thread (and subsequent article) about "plotters" vs "pantsers" made me think of some of the theory written about tabletop RPGs, which calls this magical element "simulationism": all the emergent bits which are generated by the player characters and NPCs doing stuff and having stuff happen as a result because the GM is trying to model some level of realism in the game world -- in contrast to "narrativism", which is the bit that makes the game "a satisfying story", and "gamism", which is the bit that makes it "a fair and interesting challenge for the players". A lot of this nomenclature is considered dated and obsolete by now, but it's what I imprinted on and still how I think about games.

While gamism isn't really a thing in a TV series, because it's not an interactive medium, I would call the contrast described in this article a transition from simulationism to narrativism: this is no longer a story about a world, in which reasonably realistic and sometimes fatal things happen to people as a result of their interactions with each other and the world, but a story about specific characters. Things no longer happen in the story because they're the logical consequences of certain character decisions; they happen because the writers decided that they are necessary to produce a satisfying story arc.

These storytelling elements aren't mutually exclusive -- they should balance and complement each other. Unfortunately I think the slider has been pushed all the way to one end of the spectrum, and the results are disappointing to fans who really liked the old settings.
posted by confluency at 1:59 PM on May 19 [19 favorites]


I would like more examples and titles of shows and movies that are considered sociological fiction.

Tolkien based "Fellowship of the Ring" on Medieval history; Asimov based the "Foundation" trilogy on the Roman Empire. Yet you might hesitate to call those sociological fiction. Good historical Fiction (like "War and Peace") tries to show the tension between the individual and the society and times the character lives in. The Joseph Conrad of "Heart of Darkness" and "Lord Jim" is a novelist of the individual; the Joseph Conrad of "The Secret Agent" and "Nostromo" is more of a sociologist.
posted by acrasis at 2:12 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


I realised after I posted my previous comment that I've completely butchered GNS theory. The original author proposes that these categories are (or should be) mutually exclusive and uses them as descriptions for players and game systems, going on to state that systems which clearly focus on fulfilling one of these goals are "good" and systems which try to be generic are "bad". Which... I've never really been on board with. I've found the category descriptions useful in isolating and identifying elements present in concrete games and play styles, although Ron Edwards would probably disapprove.
posted by confluency at 2:14 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


I think an important thing to keep in mind is that GRRM was a television writer and he quit to become a novelist because he hated how the medium and bosses constrained his writing. It is zero surprise to me that the magic of the show vanished once it outpaced the books and the writing was taken over by TV writers and showrunners because the books were the antithesis of that.
posted by srboisvert at 2:29 PM on May 19 [11 favorites]


A lot of people already noted that the Hollywood screenwriter method is fundamentally incompatible with creating science fiction (you end up with character drama against an exotic backdrop instead) but screenwriters can adapt science-fiction stories to screen. That's why each sci-fi channel-written tv series devolves into a window-dressing setting while characters argue with each other like soap opera. That's why the screen science-fiction that works as science-fiction was adapted rather than written by screenwriters (eg The Martian, The Expanse, etc). That's why screenwriters can create really good space opera (Firefly, Star Wars, etc.)

Game of Thrones has been described as a science-fiction take on the fantasy genre, and "sociological vs psychological storytelling" seems like a fair description of some of fundamental gulfs between the screenwriter character-focus method of storytelling vs system-focused methods.

By necessity, screenwriting is a very fine-tuned craft. If you are a master of it, you think and understand and breath stories in terms of its axioms. You can't just slip outside that box, without doing something like GRRM.
posted by anonymisc at 3:07 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


I would like more examples and titles of shows and movies that are considered sociological fiction.

Some huge series novels and/or novels of very wide scope like La Comédie humaine ("Balzac used art as a tool of social inquiry"), The Epic of the Wheat ("Like Balzac ... Norris was sociologically oriented"), Life and Fate ("sweeping, panoramic vision" and "the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century") come to mind as examples of "sociological storytelling" in which characters are "greatly shaped by institutions and events around them." But on a smaller scale, there's the social novel, writing influenced by journalism (Novels in Three Lines), and a lot of things by well-known novelists who actually did some sort of journalism or ethnography (e.g. Chekhov's ethnography of Sakhalin Island or London's The People of the Abyss).
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:18 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


Deadwood had great characters, but it was also largely a story about the development of civilization in the wild west. The characters had their own personalities, but their actions were largely determined by their position in the overall social dynamic.
posted by snofoam at 3:21 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


I would like more examples and titles of shows and movies that are considered sociological fiction

For a blend of both sociological and hollywood, "Altered Carbon" is a future detective story in the hollywood tradition, but every supporting character and extra serves to show a different consequence of the story's What-If; "what if our minds could be stored on a disc and put in a different body?", exploring how different groups, cultures, and walks of life could be affected very differently by the same tech just because it exists, not because they chose it.
posted by anonymisc at 3:35 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


It's a good piece.

It's seemingly very hard for dramatists to confront the fact that war is never decided by individual effort. Shakespeare, of course, gets it right, bookending Agincourt with the St. Crispin's Day Speech - everyone will have his share of the victory -- and with the post battle summing up in which Hal doesn't even know who won until the enemy's messenger tells him so.

It probably does too much credit to George RR Martin's original story, though. The "history" is much more shaped shaped by a few individual and non-sociological forces (Dany's magical dragon-birthing; Joffrey's impulsive sadism) than it is by "sociological" forces (Tywin's and Littlefinger's scheming, as potential examples).
posted by MattD at 4:18 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


I think you have to look fairly hard after the Augustan era and prior to the sixteenth century to find fiction in the West that is predominantly about individual psychology. There are some very memorable characters in the Icelandic sagas, but for the most part the drama of their lives is governed by the working out of tensions in the community, which can go back three or more generations. The Battle of Maldon has heroes (who mostly die) but is about the war-values of a Germanic society. You have a bunch of Christian stuff in the ensuing period which is technically about salvation of a soul but does not feature recognizable human beings, rather deliberately stereotyped symbolic figures, so maybe not satisfactorily accounted for by either category. Even many of the earlier novels in English may feature a lead protagonist but as a means of exploring a complex social backdrop--say, Moll Flanders or Tom Jones. Gulliver's Travels is mostly about the bizarre societies he encounters, rather than about Gulliver's psychology. Jump forward to the Naturalists in the nineteenth century (Zola, Balzac) and you're back to the crowds.
posted by praemunire at 4:21 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


I would point to Shakespeare’s history plays — to piggyback on MattD’s comment — as strong examples of sociological storytelling. Certainly, the rulers have tragic flaws, but they’re also shown to be limited by their offices, if not downright destroyed by them. Written at a time when England was ruled by *gasp* a woman, whose succession would be to a *Scot*, and a generation after the end of a very long civil war, the stories explore the consequences of power and ambition, and also the necessity of leadership. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” is what it says.

Come to think of it, the comparison to “Game Of Thrones” is probably a little on the nose, since the War of the Roses is its historical model.
posted by chrchr at 4:33 PM on May 19


I first read GoT as science fiction, and I think this helps explain why that interpretation mostly worked; social science fiction is an existing subgenre.
posted by joeyh at 5:47 PM on May 19


> "That's why the screen science-fiction that works as science-fiction was adapted rather than written by screenwriters"

???

Inception? Ex Machina? Brazil? Her? Wall-E? Mad Max: Fury Road? Gattaca? Galaxy Quest? The Matrix? The Abyss? None of these work as science fiction?
posted by kyrademon at 6:00 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Dabbler from field X: everyone in field Y is wrong because the real problem is a lack of X. I shall define good Y as "Xish Y" and bad Y as "Zish Y," in defiance of all of the practitioners of Y, Z and much of X.

I'll side with the literary and mainstream critics, as well as most writers' self-conception of what they are doing: the psychology and sociology of GOT are equally garbage, as is the plotting, logic, politics, and almost everything else. One weird trick of adding more sociology would not solve anything.
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.
All psychologically realistic fiction shows "characters evolv[ing] in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them." The alternative picture of literature implied by this is laughable.
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.
That's the definition of bad narrative art, not "psychological TV shows." Good TV shows don't "kill major characters," they have them die in the process of "evolving in response to broader institutional settings" as well as their own psychology, behaviors, friends, etc.
The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.
This is of course a false dichotomy, but as a dichotomy, it's pretty garbage. What characters don't have external forces "strongly influence their inner life"?
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. ... 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.
Overcoming this "bias" and the false dichotomy it is premised upon is almost entirely what good literature is about.
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.
That's just a description of what makes a story good -- or rather, a fairly low bar for what makes something not terrible.
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.
"I will now label all good forms of Y, Xical Y."
Whether done well or badly, the psychological/internal genre leaves us unable to understand and react to social change.
"And I will now label all bad forms of Y, Zical Y."

Tufecki is just redefining all good literature as "sociological" and all bad as "psychological," in defiance of centuries of literary and popular criticism, and how most writers conceive of their own works. I sympathize with the criticisms of GOT and like much of Tufecki's other work, but this is the worst version of discipline-splaining.
posted by chortly at 6:46 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


From the epilogue of War and Peace
we assume as the historians do that great men lead humanity to the attainment of certain ends - the greatness of Russia or of France, the balance of power in Europe, the diffusion of the ideas of the Revolution general progress or anything else - then it is impossible to explain the facts of history without introducing the conceptions of chance and genius.

If the aim of the European wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been the aggrandizement of Russia, that aim might have been accomplished without all the preceding wars and without the invasion. If the aim wag the aggrandizement of France, that might have been attained without the Revolution and without the Empire. If the aim was the dissemination of ideas, the printing press could have accomplished that much better than warfare. If the aim was the progress of civilization, it is easy to see that there are other ways of diffusing civilization more expedient than by the destruction of wealth and of human lives.



Why did it happen in this and not in some other way?

Because it happened so! "Chance created the situation; genius utilized it," says history.

But what is chance? What is genius?

The words chance and genius do not denote any really existing thing and therefore cannot be defined. Those words only denote a certain stage of understanding of phenomena. I do not know why a certain event occurs; I think that I cannot know it; so I do not try to know it and I talk about chance. I see a force producing effects beyond the scope of ordinary human agencies; I do not understand why this occurs and I talk of genius.

To a herd of rams, the ram the herdsman drives each evening into a special enclosure to feed and that becomes twice as fat as the others must seem to be a genius. And it must appear an astonishing conjunction of genius with a whole series of extraordinary chances that this ram, who instead of getting into the general fold every evening goes into a special enclosure where there are oats - that this very ram, swelling with fat, is killed for meat.

But the rams need only cease to suppose that all that happens to them happens solely for the attainment of their sheepish aims; they need only admit that what happens to them may also have purposes beyond their ken, and they will at once perceive a unity and coherence in what happened to the ram that was fattened. Even if they do not know for what purpose they are fattened, they will at least know that all that happened to the ram did not happen accidentally, and will no longer need the conceptions of chance or genius.

Only by renouncing our claim to discern a purpose immediately intelligible to us, and admitting the ultimate purpose to be beyond our ken, may we discern the sequence of experiences in the lives of historic characters and perceive the cause of the effect they produce (incommensurable with ordinary human capabilities), and then the words chance and genius become superfluous.

We need only confess that we do not know the purpose of the European convulsions and that we know only the facts - that is, the murders, first in France, then in Italy, in Africa, in Prussia, in Austria, in Spain, and in Russia - and that the movements from the west to the east and from the east to the west form the essence and purpose of these events, and not only shall we have no need to see exceptional ability and genius in Napoleon and Alexander, but we shall be unable to consider them to be anything but like other men, and we shall not be obliged to have recourse to chance for an explanation of those small events which made these people what they were, but it will be clear that all those small events were inevitable.

By discarding a claim to knowledge of the ultimate purpose, we shall clearly perceive that just as one cannot imagine a blossom or seed for any single plant better suited to it than those it produces, so it is impossible to imagine any two people more completely adapted down to the smallest detail for the purpose they had to fulfill, than Napoleon and Alexander with all their antecedents.
I read this after a long story about characters I became very attached to. It didn't make me feel like I wasted my time reading the story because Pierre or Andrey didn't shape the story by themselves. GoT was likewise the story of very interesting characters trying to make the best of a comically unfair universe. If they become able to shape that universe it removes the relatability from the characters all at once.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:49 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


I don't understand why you find it so hard to accept the idea that some forms of narrative emphasize one and some the other.

Hilary Mantel: I adore her historical fiction, which is set at key turning points in Western European history. As they are about major figures in that time, of course their lives are influenced by external forces. But while she is absolutely fantastic on the psychology of dramatic historical moments, she barely even tries to depict how the politics actually happens. Things always seem to be shifting just off-camera, and then her characters react to that. And people interested in the broader social forces underpinning the historical changes will have to look elsewhere. You would hardly believe that, say, Eamon Duffy and Mantel are writing about an overlapping period. To the extent we see how change does happen, it is almost entirely the work of remarkable individuals making remarkable decisions. It is profoundly individualist in its focus.

Compare this to, oh, Darkness at Noon. Rubashov is not a terribly interesting character in himself, and he's certainly not a hero, nor do his decisions or actions have any real effect on the outcome of the novel. He was always going to be shot in an underground hallway. The novel is about the way historical forces and institutions steamroller individual humans. People exist primarily as representatives of oppressive institutions, and the question is whether there is anything else to be loyal to.

Pick a dilemma. You can write about any character's failure to adhere to his intentions in face of challenges in terms of psychological characteristics: he lacked willpower, he had some kind of "tragic flaw," he was conflicted. Bob is an idealistic young public school teacher who wants to help his students, but his arrogance, naivete, and latent racism lead him to frustration, burnout, and detachment. Or you can choose to focus on the institutions and other social groups he's embedded in, such that they subverted or overpowered his individual intentions. Bob is an idealistic young public school teacher who was never prepared adequately for (or informed properly about) the challenges he is facing and finds himself confronting the forces of inequality and structural decay in a battle he can't win. His psychology doesn't matter that much, because his individual choices will never be enough to achieve what he wants to achieve. These stories are all told along a continuum, because, hey! human beings have characters and also are members of social groups. But you can choose to emphasize (a) or (b). American TV almost always goes for option (a). American narratives generally almost always go for option (a). But it's not the only way to tell a story.
posted by praemunire at 7:51 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


The article's a fun read, but I feel it falls into the same trap I see we the viewers collectively hitting, namely that it feels like the zeitgeist got caught up in making Daenerys a good-guy when any rational look at the character's behavior over the seasons would say otherwise.  I mean, to me she was always CooCoo for Crazypuffs, no different from the other Targaryens as described in the show.  She didn't bat an eye when her brother was murdered in front of her, and has since murderized her own way across two continents all because she "deserves" some stupid throne by reason of birth.

The fact she finally said "Fuck it, if it takes fear, fear it is," feels entirely in character, no matter what the article says, perhaps most especially because she's found out her claim to the throne, all her effort to get it, isn't even valid.  It feels like the article writer willfully ignores her practically psychotic behavior all these years setting the stage for this exact scene—the list of people she'd burned alive just because she could and they made her cross was already crazy long—but maybe that's just me.  Her character—to me—has been a toddler stamping her feet and demanding that people both love and obey her, and throwing dragon-fueled temper tantrums when it doesn't happen—for eight seasons.

So I guess I'm saying I don't feel a need to explain this tale couched in terms of sociological versus psychological storytelling, though it makes a fun read. It feels fairly straightforward when it comes down to it.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 8:14 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


As a work of media criticism, the article takes a pretty conventional perspective--basically, watered down Marxist film theory that celebrates when the dominance of social forces is kept in view and, as the article itself mentions in the bit about Brecht's (Marxist) play Life of Galileo, heroes are dismantled and taken off center stage.

A key respect in which it's watered down is that a Marxist position will also tend to celebrate when the medium is disrupted too, so that the audience sees the artifice in it and keeps in mind how it was produced, whether via obvious editing or asides from an actor or inclusion of TV cameras in the scene or whatnot. So the author isn't wrong to say what they like seeing in a story is simply sociological, because Marx is by far not the only social theorist to place an emphasis on society as the determining factor making individuals what they are--he's just the best known and most influential, particularly in film.

That said, I think the sociological aspects of GoT are pretty weak. As examples of what a sociologically-informed war saga looks like on TV or film, I'd suggest Culloden or The Battle of Algiers. I get what the article is saying re: GRRM's ambivalence about heroes and preference for stories with grand sweep that carefully build up across some distance and then cut off individuals' stories pretty abruptly, but I wouldn't have picked out structural divisions in society, institutional action, subsistence or production, collective resistance, and so on as themes of the show, where I do see that in the other show referenced in the article--The Wire.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:31 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Selfishly, I feel validated in my choice not to invest any time or emotional energy in this show. If it had had some mind-blowing ending, I would have felt like I missed out by not watching it. But, turns out it was a fallible TV show just like anything else.
posted by mantecol at 9:01 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


I wholeheartedly agree with the thesis of this piece, and I think it can be enhanced by considering something that disappeared in the last two seasons of the show: Any concept of time and distance. Westeros is *big,* basically the size of Europe. Traveling from Winterfell to the southern tip of Westeros would be the same as traveling from Edinburgh to Morocco. "The North" is considerably larger than France and Germany combined. In the earlier seasons, the time it took to get from place to place felt substantial, and this gave a feeling that, say, the armies involved had real substance (even though, in the earlier seasons, massive battles weren't really in the budget). In recent seasons, however, characters almost seem to teleport around the landscape. Characters who we think are on the east coast of the continent suddenly appear on its west coast, despite that trip, by sea, exceeding 3,000 miles and thus probably taking a minimum of two weeks (assuming the ships travel night and day and have favorable winds the whole time). They flit, from one episode to the next, between Winterfell and King's Landing (a journey of about 1,000 miles), despite that very trip taking more than a full episode in Season 1 (and quite a few pages in the first novel). In making the show About The Characters (rather than About Power), the whole show now feels smaller and less weighty, with stakes that feel lower and storytelling that feels rushed.

Put more succinctly: In the books, and in the early seasons, the setting was its own character (or, I suppose, collection of characters). In these final seasons, there appears to be no remaining interest in telling their story.
posted by belarius at 9:09 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


I don't understand why you find it so hard to accept the idea that some forms of narrative emphasize one and some the other.

It's perfectly possible to have purely "sociological" literature that focuses on large-scale forces without much in the way of psychology, though this is rarely successful without Koestler-level skills. But the converse -- purely "psychological" fiction without any attention to larger society, in the way Tufecki describes -- is even more rarely anything other than bad. The idea that "TV shows" specialize in a form of sociology-less psychological fiction is just a misguided way of saying these shows do psychology badly. It's not a coincidence that the later GOT manages neither the larger societal structures nor coherent psychology, nor is it a coincidence that complaints about the character motivations so readily bleed into complaints about their society and basic logistics -- the latter may be separable from the former, but the former almost always fails without the latter (with, again, always some notable exceptions). The main flaw of GOT is not that it specifically needs more sociology, but that it needs more sociology, psychology, moral reasoning, basic logic, and everything else that makes good things good.
posted by chortly at 9:30 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


adamrice: I'm developing an idea for a TV series: it's about two showrunners for a wildly popular and critically lauded TV series who drink from a font of genius. One day the font runs dry, and they are left trying to fake it, while all around them people tell stories about how and why they fell from grace, and what it all means.

And by "drink from the font of genius that runs dry" you mean "are handed a nearly-complete series of detailed books to adapt to TV, but come to the end of the series before the books are done," right? Maybe it is GRRM whose font ran dry. Did D&D add much to George's stories, beyond streamlining them? Because this final season feels more like they ran out of source material, and aren't good at spinning their own yarns, let alone trying to get GRRM's tone right.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:34 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


Rash, another, somewhat more recent example that I should have thought of before is Berlin Alexanderplatz, though (while it's a great work) I wouldn't read it just as an example.

the converse -- purely "psychological" fiction without any attention to larger society, in the way Tufecki describes -- is even more rarely anything other than bad.

This is an attempt to constrain literature by definition rather than an argument, and so I bow out.
posted by praemunire at 9:59 PM on May 19


I like this quote from the article. I’ve been thinking along the same lines in the context of the company I work at. You don’t want to set up a structure that requires individual acts of heroism to move forward, because it’s bound to lead to brittle results, and to politics. Much better to nurture a structure that encourages everyone to reach their potential and lead in small ways, rather than focusing on a few attention-seeking individuals.

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.
posted by mantecol at 10:14 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


I'm just so glad it's over. I'm sick of hearing about it. I hope the next big fantasy thing isn't so fucking rapey.
posted by Caduceus at 10:26 PM on May 19 [9 favorites]


This is an attempt to constrain literature by definition rather than an argument, and so I bow out.

A personal value judgment isn't "an attempt to constrain literature by definition" is it? I'm happy to define my terms for what might count as psychological realism, or to try to characterize them by example, but in any case, the main thrust of my comment that quoted extensively from the article was to illustrate how the writer herself was engaging in a much more egregious "attempt to constrain literature by definition." I mean, look at any of the pull-quotes above, or even just the last one: "Whether done well or badly, the psychological/internal genre leaves us unable to understand and react to social change." That's either tautological if you define the genre thusly, or false. Even the title is basically just trolling, though that's entirely consistent with the rest of the article: "The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones." I myself prefer literature that well-mixes the micro and macro, and have fairly well-grounded reasons for that that are not very different from a century's worth of proponents of psychological realism, but in any case, the fundamental claim of the article -- that this specific lack of sociology is the "real" problem -- is demonstrably false, just by visiting the fanfare page for the penultimate episode. Either 1000 of some of the savviest viewers out there are totally mistaken about their own judgments, or there's a lot more wrong than merely omitting a sufficient helping of the writer's home discipline. More broadly, if someone is going to write an essay explaining to people the "real reason" they are upset, they should expect some pretty strong pushback.
posted by chortly at 10:34 PM on May 19


oh nevermind theres gonna be a prequel
posted by Caduceus at 10:38 PM on May 19


I see Mad Men as an example of a TV series that serves both sides well. On its face it’s about the choices of the main characters and the effects of those choices on their jobs and families. But it’s really about the social forces that make those choices seem like busywork.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a classic example of a story told more about social forces than about characters. The people in the story are given inner lives and deep thoughts and feelings, but their choices make no difference in the narrative.
posted by rikschell at 5:10 AM on May 20 [10 favorites]


There are some very memorable characters in the Icelandic sagas, but for the most part the drama of their lives is governed by the working out of tensions in the community, which can go back three or more generations.

I don’t know... the Sagas are unique in medieval European literature in presenting characters with detailed inner lives (although usually shown through external action). Those lives are heavily constrained by society, but the characters are driven by personal and idiosyncratic motives. Of course, the attempts by these people to affect society often leads to worse outcomes, and the “go it alone” and heroic characters are usually marked for death, but...
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:06 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


What I'm taking from this thread is that I should probably go read War and Peace.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 2:27 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


I see Mad Men as an example

There's way too much Don ex machina for that to really fit here. And Don's worst enemy isn't a dragon, ice kings or corporate,...it's himself (...uh and the friends he made along the way).
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 3:19 PM on May 20


And by "drink from the font of genius that runs dry" you mean "are handed a nearly-complete series of detailed books

... nearly complete? Half complete, possibly.
posted by Justinian at 4:27 PM on May 20


I wholeheartedly agree with the thesis of this piece, and I think it can be enhanced by considering something that disappeared in the last two seasons of the show: Any concept of time and distance. Westeros is *big,* basically the size of Europe. Traveling from Winterfell to the southern tip of Westeros would be the same as traveling from Edinburgh to Morocco. "The North" is considerably larger than France and Germany combined. In the earlier seasons, the time it took to get from place to place felt substantial, and this gave a feeling that, say, the armies involved had real substance (even though, in the earlier seasons, massive battles weren't really in the budget). In recent seasons, however, characters almost seem to teleport around the landscape. Characters who we think are on the east coast of the continent suddenly appear on its west coast, despite that trip, by sea, exceeding 3,000 miles and thus probably taking a minimum of two weeks (assuming the ships travel night and day and have favorable winds the whole time). They flit, from one episode to the next, between Winterfell and King's Landing (a journey of about 1,000 miles), despite that very trip taking more than a full episode in Season 1 (and quite a few pages in the first novel). In making the show About The Characters (rather than About Power), the whole show now feels smaller and less weighty, with stakes that feel lower and storytelling that feels rushed.

This is a common issue in fantasy series with big worlds that keep expanding as the serie goes forward. Wheel of Time had the same problem, characters spread all over a big map that would never see meet again if nothing was done, so the author chose to have the characters resdiscover teleportation and solve that issue "in-world" and incorporated this new reality in the context of the story.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 10:07 AM on May 22


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