Will Divisive 'Game of Thrones' Ending Hurt Its Emmy Chances?

Only nine shows — just four of them dramas — have ever won a series award for a final season.
Courtesy of HBO
'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones, the HBO drama series that David Benioff and Dan Weiss adapted from and then grew beyond George R.R. Martin's novels, came to an end Sunday night after 73 movie-scale episodes spanning eight groundbreaking seasons of television — but, unlike the Iron Throne and so many of the characters who fought over it, the show itself lives on, at least for the next few months, as a contender for the 2019 Emmys.

Thrones has been a favorite of the TV Academy throughout its run, garnering a total of 128 nominations, more than any other scripted show in history, 47 of which it wound up winning. Among that tally are best drama series nominations for all seven of its previous seasons, the three most recent of which — coming in 2015, 2016 and 2018 — resulted in wins. And in 2015, Thrones established a new record for most Emmy wins for a series in a single year, with 12.

But a danger of making a show that builds toward the answer of one question, above all else, is that viewers may not like that answer, and, having invested a great deal of time and emotion in the journey to that point, may react very negatively. Just ask the creators of Lost or Dexter.

We now know that 13.6 million viewers tuned in to the Thrones series finale, or 19.3 million if you count replays and early streaming, both HBO records. And, based on post-show polling, social media chatter and opinion pieces, it appears that very few of the people who tuned in are content with how everything turned out.

The entire eighth season of the show has taken flak. Five of its six episodes are among the show's six most-watched episodes ever, but that may not be a good thing, considering that more than one million fans have signed a petition calling for HBO to remake the season "with competent writers."

Thrones is not a show that people watched dispassionately — the oversight of a water bottle for a flicker of a scene nearly broke the internet, to say nothing of the revelation about which character won the 'game.'

Now, at a fraught moment for HBO — the cabler has endured an exodus of executives in the wake of its acquisition by AT&T and in the face of Netflix's ascendance, just as Thrones and the Emmy-winning comedy series Veep are ending their runs — comes a once-unthinkable question: Could the final season of Thrones actually lose best drama series at the 71st Emmys on Sept. 22?

Apart from reservations from fans, there is further cause for concern. Reviews for the season have been mixed leaning to poor, with many critics arguing that the show's resolution felt rushed, perhaps because Benioff and Weiss wanted the series' final two seasons to consist of fewer episodes than the previous six. TV Guide, for instance, wrote, "The final season of Game of Thrones has largely turned into an unstoppable dumpster fire because of the writers' ongoing mistreatment of women and rushed writing that mistakes foreshadowing for character development."

The New York Times, for its part, opined that the finale was "plagued by the same incoherence that has inspired abundant Twitter rage this season and at least one effigial petition," while also knocking the "weird pacing that has marred much of the past two seasons" and lamenting that "over the past couple of seasons, at least, the series became something different from what most of us signed up for."

It added, "The things that established Game of Thrones as a phenomenon — the epic scale, the shocking twists — began to work against it. Plot swerves got more abrupt as the writers tried to stay ahead of the obsessive audience — without the benefit of a blueprint, once the show surpassed the books — and story was sacrificed at the altar of spectacle as the series strove to top itself over and over. And it's partly because Benioff and Weiss failed to anticipate the ways in which dramatically abbreviating the last two seasons would exacerbate all of the above." So that could be a problem.

Moreover, no show — drama or comedy — has ever won a series prize at the Emmys for as few as six episodes, the minimum number for which a show is eligible. (Thrones set a record low last year when it won for just seven.) And, furthermore, only nine shows — just four of them dramas — have ever won a series award for a final season: drama Playhouse 90 in 1960; comedy The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1966; comedy My World and Welcome to It, which won for its one and only season before being canceled due to poor ratings, in 1970; drama Upstairs, Downstairs in 1977; comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977; comedy Barney Miller, the only final-season winner that had never even been series-nominated before, in 1982; comedy Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005; drama The Sopranos in 2007; and drama Breaking Bad in 2014.

Logic dictates that this is because most series, if they were good enough to win an Emmy, wouldn't be ending; many prefer wearing out their welcome over going out on top (see: Modern Family). And it is striking to note that even beloved classics that ended in a way that was widely embraced, such as Mad Men, came up short for a top prize.

On the flip side, though, there appears to be no clear alternative to Thrones around which large numbers of TV Academy members are uniting. Likely fellow nominees such as NBC's This Is Us, BBC America's Killing Eve and AMC's Better Call Saul certainly have passionate backers, but none generate the magnitude of viewership or chatter that Thrones mustered in this era of Peak— but fragmented — TV. Even if they did, none of them would generate anywhere near the number of total noms that Thrones will deservedly receive — its craft and technical work is second to none in the history of the medium — which, upon being announced on July 16, will only fuel the notion that the show can't be beaten.

In short, despite Thrones' various hiccups, it remains hard to imagine anything ultimately coming between the show and a fourth drama series Emmy, which would tie it with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The West Wing and Mad Men for the most wins in the category's history. Game of Thrones, not unlike the final installment in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, will, in all likelihood, be recognized as much for the scale of the whole series' ambition and impact as its most recent achievement. And, at the end of the day, as a certain three-eyed raven could tell you, a win is a win.