Emmy voters seemed to be as divided over Game of Thrones‘ final season as the rest of the fantasy series’ fans. On the heels of a controversial ending, Thrones took home the prize it most needed to win to cement its place in television history: Best Drama. But, one week after the series picked up 10 Creative Arts Emmys, it only won one other major award at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards — Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for Peter Dinklage — and the night never quite evolved into the victory lap that many fans were expecting.
It’s a fitting end to a complicated season. Game of Thrones‘ eighth season, which left behind George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books entirely, was so controversial that some fans started a petition asking HBO to remake the ending. Emilia Clarke expressed at least minor misgivings about her character Daenerys’ arc. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss essentially went into hiding after the finale until the fan response blew over. And yet, clearly even the hate-watchers kept watching, propelling the series to record ratings.
Leading into the Emmys, prognosticators seemed to think the show would either sweep the many categories in which it was nominated and mark the end of the television monoculture or tip-toe away with a couple of smaller wins.
But Emmy voters defied expectations. They opted to dole out a single acting award to the most decorated actor in the show’s cast. On Sunday night, Dinklage set a record for most wins in his category with a fourth trophy. Meanwhile, eight of Dinklage’s cast members, including Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke, walked away empty-handed, and the writers and directors failed to take home any awards for their work on the series.
Instead, the TV Academy opted to shine a light on smaller shows and lesser-known actors, like Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer, who beat Clarke in the Best Actress in a Drama category. Comer was so shocked by the victory she joked in her speech that she hadn’t even invited her parents to the ceremony because she didn’t think this would be her year. (They were watching from home in Liverpool.)
Up-and-coming Ozark actor Julia Garner beat four different Game of Thrones stars (Gwendoline Christie, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner) in the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama category. And Pose’s Billie Porter made history as the first openly gay black actor to win in the Best Actor in a Drama category, beating out Thrones’ Kit Harington.
The biggest upset came when Ozark star Jason Bateman single-handedly beat four Game of Thrones directors to win the Best Directing category. Directing seemed like an easy win for Thrones. Yes, you had to turn up the brightness on your screen to really see the Battle of Winterfell. And, yes, there was the coffee cup incident.
But David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who co-directed one episode), David Nutter and Miguel Sapochnik helmed the biggest and most complicated battle scenes and fights ever to grace the small screen. Sapochnik’s take on the Battle of Winterfell — which has often been compared to the Oscar-worthy Battle of Helms’ Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — felt like nothing if not awards bait.
And yet Bateman beat them all. The actor-turned-director sat in his seat staring in disbelief when he realized he had just beaten out the people responsible for one-half of Game of Thrones‘ final season.
Don’t mourn too long for Daenerys Targeryen and Jon Snow, though. They’re not exactly slinking out of pop-culture prominence.
Game of Thrones still holds the record for most Emmys ever won by a television drama or comedy with 59 wins. And with its fourth and final Best Drama win, Thrones ties the category’s record holders — Mad Men, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and The West Wing, an impressive group.
We can’t know yet how exactly Thrones will be remembered, especially with several prequel series on the way. But it was the first fantasy series to really attract and sustain the attention of Emmys voters. Before Thrones, the genre was long ignored, considered unserious. In the coming years, new fantasy and sci-fi series will vie for its spot at the awards show, including HBO’s own His Dark Materials adaptation, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series and Disney’s Star Wars spinoff, The Mandalorian.
Game of Thrones‘ legacy will be complicated. But it certainly changed what we consider “good TV” forever.