The hollowing out of Game of Thrones

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The radical critique of class society and colonialism intrinsic to earlier seasons of Game of Thrones was replaced more recently with an individualised tale of psychology, characterised by a deep fear of its original revolutionary potential.

David Benioff and DB Weiss, the producers of the immensely popular TV show, had based the first five seasons on books written by George RR Martin but carried on largely without him for the final three. This resulted in a stick figure version of a masterpiece. It’s not that there was something wrong with the key elements of the outcome but that the depth of the story was absent.

As Zeynep Tufekci argues on the Scientific American blog, the sociological approach to storytelling used by Martin (and, for example, by the creators of The Wire) is distinct in a world dominated by a focus on the personal. We understand more fully what motivates individuals’ choices through a grasp of the institutional and social forces at play in their lives.

As Marx put it, people “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

The blinkered personal psychology that Hollywood tends to favour (Benioff and Weiss are off to do Star Wars) might manipulate our heartstrings but doesn’t leave us much the wiser.

Martin wanted another 25 episodes but the producers were in a hurry to reach the conclusion. When they took full control they hollowed out the drama and overused surprise as a baseless plot mechanism. This resulted in (spoiler alert) scenes that we have seen a thousand times before such as in the final episode when Jon Snow (Kit Harington) kills Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). She had to die; Jon had to kill her.

The only reason it was even a slight shock was because we thought “no, Game of Thrones wouldn’t do something so obvious”, especially after she had been “revealed” in the previous episode as a tyrant fighting tyranny.

The masses signing a Change.org petition to remake the series had a general problem with the writing, but the anger stepped up over Daenerys’s supposed fall from grace when she burned the city of King’s Landing – and its inhabitants – to the ground. Yet this was a turning point that made sense, albeit not for the reasons given by the producers, who explained it as a moment of personal anger.

Her battle with justice and mercy has been an important part of her story. From the first season we had been swept off our feet by her benevolent ideals, her revolutionary rhetoric, her breaking of chains. But there was also a growing thread of Daenerys dealing out brutal carnage to anyone who was against her. Perhaps the audience was swept up in support for Daenerys based on the flawed philosophy of humanitarian intervention – after all, we live in a world which encourages us to believe that reigning down fire on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria for the greater good is normal.

Daenerys went from burning people that we were encouraged to hate to burning people we were encouraged to sympathise with in a rushed and badly written way. Nonetheless, as argued in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daenerys acted in a rational way according to the logic of the Game. It was less that she lost advisers to check her worst impulses but that almost all her allies were either disloyal or dead. “You win or you die,” said Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) in season one. Daenerys learnt this in practice. The message is that there are no benevolent kings or queens.

The TV show encouraged viewers to draw the conclusion from the rushed penultimate episode that it was sudden “madness” that drove Daenerys. Yet Martin painted a world which resembled our own. Alright so we don’t have dragons, but we have destructive power far worse. Who really thinks that US president Harry Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of madness? It was the product of inter-imperial warfare. It is class society and imperialism that drive people to take such violent and seemingly irrational actions.

It is difficult to find anyone that is thrilled with the ending to Game of Thrones. The most enthusiastic say it was an alright way to sum things up. As Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) says about the final political compromise, “no-one is very happy”. And that’s just it: despite the focus on the personal, the outcome made you feel nothing. It became disentangled from the wider social critique and tried to force feed you a kinder version of the status quo, which earlier seasons had done so much to expose as destructive to people’s lives.