I know, I know: the final season of Game of Thrones, which last night won Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys for the fourth time in five years, was not everything it could have been. Like so many repeat Emmy wins over the years, Thrones’ victory could be read as a reflex action, a winner picked because it had won many times before, even though, hour by hour and scene by scene, fellow nominees Better Call Saul, Succession, and Pose were superior. The season’s narrative architecture felt misshapen at times. The actors were often forced to sell moments that the scripts hadn’t fully set up, such as Brienne of Tarth losing her virginity to Jamie Lannister, which played like a particularly misguided attempt at fan service, and the death of the Night King, which was followed by his entire undead army turning to dust-like hench-creatures in a video game. I could continue listing the issues with the series during that final leg, but I already did it.
And yet I still think Game of Thrones deserved its big win this year — perhaps more so than for any year of its run since season four, arguably its creative peak, when it became impossible to dismiss as merely a sword-and-sorcery potboiler with a great cast, R-rated content, and a huge budget.
What other TV drama, or series, period, loomed larger? None.
To understand why means first accepting that the Emmys haven’t given awards to the “best” dramas and “best” comedies since 1960. That was the year when the categories were reworked around the word “outstanding,” which can be interpreted as providing voters with more wiggle room. The award is not for the best comedy or drama, it’s for the show that stands out the most.
If you look back over the Outstanding Drama winners during the past six decades, there are plenty of repeats that one could quibble with in terms of overall quality, compared to other series that might’ve had better seasons during that eligibility year. But there aren’t too many instances where you could claim that the winner didn’t loom largest in the culture among all the nominated programs that year.
Be it the one-and-done wins for Northern Exposure, Homeland, Lost, and 24, or the repeat wins for series like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Picket Fences, The West Wing, and Mad Men, in every case you can understand why voters were drawn to these series over the rest. Going by the “stands out the most” definition of the category name, even questionable repeat winners like The Practice make sense: I watched that anything-for-a-gasp legal series when it was on, and I am here to tell you that whenever a new episode finished airing, my phone would ring and my email box would start to fill up, thanks to friends who needed to talk about the outrageous, bizarro thing that we’d all just seen.
It’s not splitting hairs to say that these shows, whether they were the “best” of their year or something less, stood out more than other shows that were nominated during their years. Or for that matter, series that got consistently shut out of major categories but went on to establish themselves as pantheon dramas, such as My So-Called Life, the remake of Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, The Wire, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks: The Return, and The Americans (which didn’t get nominated for Outstanding Drama until its final season, then lost anyway).
It’s not a popularity contest — not exactly. But there is an element of buzz, of pop-cultural electricity, to the exercise. The Outstanding Drama is not just a good or great series, though ideally it ought to be. It’s the one you can’t ignore even if you want to. It’s the show that defines what the medium is, or was, or is about to become.
On those terms, this year it had to be Game of Thrones.
In the weeks leading up to the debut of the final season, and during those startlingly few weeks when it was on, it seemed as if there was nothing else on television. And it wasn’t just a case of the content maw deciding what pieces it wanted to feed itself: there was a voracious appetite for all things related to Game of Thrones, from hyper-specific analysis of plot, character, and filmmaking decisions (such as the funereal torchlight cinematography in “The Long Night”) to deep-dish arguments about whether the established psychology of characters was enough to justify drastic, world-altering decisions, such as Dany’s incineration of King’s Landing in “The Bells.”
I have not stopped thinking about the latter episode since I saw it. It might be the closest thing to the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan that the fantasy genre has produced. I’m also coming around to the idea that it’s better that Dany’s decision just sort of happened. She has a history of committing war crimes, she’d recently endured the death of two of her “children,” and besides, sometimes a feared leader just snaps and history is altered as a result. It took several weeks for me to relinquish my preconceived notions and give in on this point. I don’t think I’ll ever concede that the big bad’s death at the end of “The Long Night” paid off seven seasons of buildup (although that dagger did have a history), but it says something that both episodes lodged in my brain more deeply than more perfect episodes of television on more perfect series. It also says something that the superior of the two, “The Bells,” got no nominations in major categories, while “The Long Night,” the look of which had to be explained and basically apologized for, got just one, and the only writing nomination was for the finale, arguably one of the worst episodes of the entire series. I’d also submit that the deliberately slow and talky “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” essentially a long lead-up to “The Long Night,” was one of the best single episodes of the show, proving that it was ultimately the characters who held our attention all these years, with violence, sex, and production value being deployed as needed. Its omission outside of acting categories says a lot about what the show’s strengths were perceived to be within the industry, versus what they truly were.
The whole of Thrones really is greater than the sum of its parts, and the alchemy of that equation deserves to be celebrated. As a critic, I tend to operate under the principle that a work that inspires heated debates about concepts larger than itself is ultimately more desirable for the culture than a work that everyone agrees is exquisitely wrought. Any time a TV show can spark drastic arguments about whether a series or episode or scene or plot twist is great or terrible, we’re obligated to grant that its makers are onto something, regardless of what side of the quality question we come down on.
On top of all that, as I wrote earlier this year (somewhat hyperbolically, but sincerely), Game of Thrones might be the last drama that we all watch together, in the sense of gathering more or less simultaneously in order to experience the latest installment of the story, then spending the next six days talking about what we’d seen. There’s a lot of great conversation-piece television out there at the moment — Amazon’s Fleabag, winner of Outstanding Comedy this year, represents the future of TV-as-conversation-piece, along with other streaming series. We don’t all watch them at the same time, but we all seem to get around to them eventually, if we care about the medium and are dedicated to staying on top of where it’s headed.
Game of Thrones felt like the future when it debuted, presaging an era of handsomely produced series adapted from bestsellers, as well as shows that burned through cash as if they were making weekly Marvel or Star Wars films. Now it feels like a piece of history. We were there while that history was being made, and as we watched, we were continuously aware of the magnitude of what we were seeing. And now that there are no more new episodes, we’re already trying to contextualize it within the history of the medium that shaped it, and was shaped by it. If that’s not the definition of an Outstanding Drama, I don’t know what is.