‘Game of Thrones’ Emmy Love Confounds the Show’s Critics (Column)

Today’s widespread Emmy recognition for “Game of Thrones” — now the most-Emmy-nominated series for a single season, a record that it seems odd the heavily-decorated drama didn’t already have — comes in most senses as no surprise. This series is both an awards favorite, having won the top prize at the ceremony for its last three seasons, and putting its final season forward: This is to be the last chance the Emmys have to honor the vision of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss.

Which brings us to the one way in which these nominations might have come as a surprise to some. Benioff and Weiss’s plan for the show — which, in its final hours, leaned, hard, into the totalitarian side of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), leaving many fans feeling as burned as the peasants of King’s Landing by the time the series wrapped — was widely pilloried online and by critics. Among critics, I was among the most positive about the show’s eighth season, which struck me as in keeping with the show’s traditional strengths and weaknesses, but a bigger-than-ever audiences certainly seemed newly aware of, and vocal about, those weaknesses. It’s not that “Thrones” wasn’t going to show up in Best Drama, but its being nominated about as widely as it might have been — with, say, three directing nominations and widespread love for the show’s ensemble cast — was striking.

Part of this can be attributed to Emmy gamesmanship, as shows the Emmys have liked in the past ducked out of the way of the Westerosi dragon. (Perhaps “Game of Thrones” loses a few nominations if the newest seasons of “Big Little Lies,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Stranger Things” are in the mix.) But that’s not everything: The nominations list comes as a striking reminder, once again, that the industry and the commentariat represent two groups that speak different languages. 

But the show’s nominations are not, entirely, the result of a burst of valedictory love for a departing series, or recognition of the show’s status as a smash hit. (In other words, it’s not like this year’s other great example of pure populist appeal trouncing critical bona fides, when “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” ran the table on “Roma” at the Oscars.) Within the burst of “Thrones” love are nominations that come as genuinely pleasant surprises — as, for instance, in the best actress nomination for Clarke, a performer who sold Daenerys’s heel-turn but who might as easily have been snubbed, had voters felt as betrayed by the plot turn as the loudest components of the general audience seemed to. Similarly, Kit Harington picked up only his second nomination for “Thrones” for a season’s worth of work — dogged, persistent, and un-flashy — that epitomized his character over the show’s run, but that was less inherently grabby than some of his castmates’ performances. 

The Academy found a way to honor “Game of Thrones” that felt, in a way, out of line with the moment — given the apparent consensus view that the show’s eighth season represented a creative collapse. As a fan of the show who was mainly fine with the way things wrapped up, I found myself gratified that the nominations came out about two months after the show ended; they already seem to take a longer view of things than fans were able to do in the moment. In the long run of television, season 8 of “Thrones” will seem, and indeed, already does, both a piece of work with glimmering moments of beauty amidst bits that work less well, and like a sharp and pointed argument for the extant power of the medium. Was there a performer whose work stood up to more and more detailed scrutiny over the course of the past year than Clarke? Was there a writing team whose work was more pulled-apart? That the show could sustain such assiduous attention from its legion of fans and be remembered, months later, for how very much of it worked well — from nominated performers extending as deep in the cast as Alfie Allen and Gwendoline Christie to the startling and fluid horror direction of “The Long Night” — cements its case as a show that epitomized, and that stood astride, a moment of increasingly pitched debate online. Was it the season’s best drama? That it aroused such passions from a fanbase that stood by it for a decade, and that it drew those fans even closer as it pushed back against their affection, makes the case. 

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