Many high-profile TV series came to an end this past season — among them, CBS' The Big Bang Theory; The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin; Netflix's House of Cards and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; and Amazon's Catastrophe and Fleabag. But none left a bigger Emmy footprint during their runs than HBO's two stalwarts: Game of Thrones, which has scored 128 nominations, more than any other scripted show in history, and 47 wins; and Veep, which saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus win the Emmy for best actress in a comedy in all six of its previous seasons. Most strikingly, both shows won the series Emmys in each of their past three seasons.
Now the question is, will one or both go out with a four-peat?
Thrones' final season — and, in particular, its series finale, which was watched by an HBO record 13.6 million people — was slammed by critics and many viewers, whereas Veep's ending was met with the opposite reaction. The contrast is starkest when seen through the prism of IMDb user ratings: The last episode of Veep was the highest-rated of its entire run (9.6 of 10), whereas the finale of Thrones was the lowest (4.5 of 10).
What happened? Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted their final two seasons to consist of fewer episodes than the previous six. For character studies like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which split their last seasons into two, this was not an issue, but for a sprawling epic like Thrones, cutting down the episode count altered the pacing to which viewers had become accustomed, making big moments feel rushed. Furthermore, Thrones boxed itself into a corner by hyping a single question for years: Who will sit on the Iron Throne? The danger was that the audience might not like the answer — and that is precisely what happened.
Thrones' viewers were anything but dispassionate — before the series finale, more than 1 million signed a petition calling for a remake of the season "with competent writers," and the flash of a 21st century water bottle in a scene in the finale nearly broke the internet.
In Veep, there was only ever one contender for the throne — or, in her case, the Resolute Desk — that audiences cared about: Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer. In the end, Veep's finale gave viewers exactly what they had responded to throughout the show's run — namely, Meyer behaving abhorrently (in this case, selling out everyone from Tibet to her daughter to her assistant, Gary) en route to getting what she wanted (an election victory).
When TV Academy members receive their Emmy ballots, will it matter that Veep ended in a way that satisfied most, whereas Thrones did not? Or that both shows' final-season episode counts were so low? (Thrones set a record for a series victory last year when it won with just seven episodes, the same number with which Veep is competing this year; Thrones, meanwhile, is vying this year with just six, the minimum number required for Emmy eligibility.)
Only nine shows have won a series Emmy for their final season. Shows with famously satisfying finales have won (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Breaking Bad), lost (Mad Men, The Americans) and not been nominated (Newhart, Justified) — and shows with infamously divisive endings have won (The Sopranos), lost (Seinfeld, Friends) and not been nominated (Lost, Dexter). This is the case because shows do not exist in a bubble — they exist among competition. And, this year, Thrones actually has less of it than Veep.
Veep will have to wrest back the comedy title from Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which won last year when Veep wasn't competing, and had a strong sophomore season that has already brought it the comedy series Critics' Choice Award and best ensemble in a comedy series SAG Award.
Thrones, meanwhile, will probably benefit from the fact that there is no obvious single alternative around which TV Academy members are uniting. BBC America's Killing Eve, NBC's This Is Us and AMC's Better Call Saul have passionate backers, but none generates anywhere near Thrones' viewership or chatter. Others that might have stood a better chance (Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, HBO's own Big Little Lies) sat out this season, perhaps assuming Thrones was unstoppable.
In any event, no show will garner anywhere near the number of nominations that Thrones will — for any story faults (and mislaid plastic bottles), its craft and technical work is second to none. And when the noms are announced July 16, Thrones' haul will only fuel the notion that it can't be beaten. In short, despite final-season hiccups, it remains hard to imagine anything ultimately coming between Thrones and a record-tying fourth drama series Emmy.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.