This shouldn’t even have to be said, but: spoilers below through S8E5.
Everyone with and without a paid content platform has weighed in on GoT’s failures since running past GRRM’s original books. Some of the recurring comments: Benioff and Weiss simply aren’t up to GRRM’s storytelling level (true). What happened to the epic dialogues and monologues like Tyrion’s beetles speech? (Also true; couldn’t they have at least let GRRM run some lines by them?) Major events like Arya killing the Night King are pulled out of their asses (half-true; GRRM had probably been building up Arya to do precisely that, although the show’s execution was lazy). The Dany of the books would never have burnt King’s Landing (see above). They seem to have little idea what to do with female characters who are not platinum blondes (poor Brienne deserved better than this!). Both Tyrion and Varys seemed to have grabbed the idiot ball by both hands (true, and another sign of bad writing). Someone at Disney, after handing a Star Wars movie to Benioff and Weiss, must be muttering “I have a bad feeling about this.”
But season eight has not been a total failure, remember. For one thing, the acting, costuming, directing, etc remain as top-notch as ever. Also, though Benioff and Weiss themselves seem to have overlooked it, someone in the writer’s room actually did seem to want to show that Dany’s burning of the city was at least partly premeditated, as opposed to a villain-switch suddenly being flipped. Remember this scene?
Moments after Drogon struck, Grey Worm — apparently alone among the troops at not being surprised at this turn of events — throws his spear through a surrendering soldier’s chest. It could mean that he and Dany had discussed venting their shared rage and grief upon their enemies, going full no-quarter instead of accepting surrender, and that he was merely waiting for the signal. Executed more skillfully, and this sequence could have done much to dispel the instant-evil strangeness of Dany’s rampage. A callback to Tyrion’s description of city-sacking clear back in season 2 (one hint out of many that King’s Landing’s fate was ultimately sealed) might have helped as well.
Either way, the above are all just details. An essay released today by someone much smarter than me named Zeynep Tufekc brings together all the threads of our discontent to weave one masterful answer: a fundamental shift from GRRM’s sociological approach to storytelling, to Benioff and Weiss’s more conventionally Hollywood psychological approach.
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…
The overly personal mode of storytelling or analysis leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history…
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.
While GRRM gave us some typical high-fantasy heroes such as the sellsword, the warrior lady, and the assassin, he ultimately subverts the heroic narrative by showing them swept up by the forces of history instead of shaping them. This is why the show continues even after Ned and Robb stark lose their respective heads, and is why the worldview of GRRM’s GoT is starkly (pun not intended) at odds with that of, say, the MCU. Major characters leaving/dying without the departure signaled way in advance would be unthinkable in a superhero franchise, and apparently, is also unthinkable to Benioff and Weiss.
Which doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with enjoying Avengers movies! It does mean, however, that Jon Snow was never meant to be Captain America and Dany was never meant to be Thanos.
Tufekc then goes on to note the parallels between GRRM-Thrones and another HBO show, The Wire. While characters such as McNulty tried to be the hero, and Omar the badass antihero, ultimately they were just products of their environments. As with GoT, major characters could die without seriously altering the plotline. After Stringer gets killed off and Avon sent back to prison for good, all that happens is Marlo Stanfield takes their place.
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.
A minor quibble: both The Wire and GRRM-Thrones did include a few completely demonic monsters with zero redeeming qualities such as Stanfield and Joffrey. That said, it otherwise did a masterful job of showing the human, relatable elements of baddies like Cersei, Tywin, and future baddie Dany.
Another way GoT bent away from GRRM’s sociological bent towards the typically heroic psychological is how they dealt with the Night King and his undead hordes. Now, it’s true that GRRM may have written himself into a corner with those guys, requiring Tolkienesque heroics no matter what; on the other hand, I bet he may have come up with a more interesting end. Just making this up as I go along but: what if the Night King’s designs for Bran weren’t to simply murder him but to serve him? What a scene that would have been!
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. […say, that DOES sound familiar. –FC] 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.
Again, I believe it was always GRRM’s intention to have Dany end up the worst villain and the “final boss” of the series; it just wasn’t done credibly by the show.
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.”
Perhaps that is what The Wire creator David Simon was getting at with his follow-up project aptly titled Show me a Hero where, once again, the would-be hero winds up doing more harm than good.
Another analogy may be the world of medicine, where there exists the term “heroic measures.” Trust me, you do not want to be the patient needing to be at the receiving end of heroic measures. The term is never used in a positive light, and means something or someone has spectacularly failed to get the patient to that point. The specifics of the failure — the doctor? the hospital? the disease? gun violence? the patient himself? — are less important than the systemic deficiencies that led up to some square-jawed ER doc shouting “CLEAR!” while bringing out the thoracotomy tray.
In any event, GRRM’s Westeros was never intended to witness Jon Snow channel Aragorn. I believe that either he intended for that society to finally reform itself from its medieval stasis and enter its own Renaissance, or else be wiped clean by the army of the dead with perhaps Essos, across the Narrow Sea, learning from their mistakes and emerging more enlightened. (The Asia/Africa continent was totally forgotten by Benioff and Weiss, focused as they are on fantasy-Europe… what if GRRM had other plans?)