Emmys 2019: 'Game of Thrones' earns record number of nominations — but are they deserved?

It's worth looking at why one of the most acclaimed programs in recent memory was widely perceived as concluding with a thud.
Image: Emilia Clarke as Daenerys in the series finale of "Game of Thrones."
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys in the series finale of "Game of Thrones."HBO
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By Ani Bundel

The Emmy nominations announced Tuesday included a record-breaking 32 for “Game of Thrones.” Considering just how outstanding the final season of the massive hit was, and how many high-profile shows moved their premieres to June to get out of the way of what was expected to be the show’s victory lap, this is not a surprise.

But it is shocking in the context of the cacophony of angry critics and fans who assailed the show’s last year for issues ranging from it feeling “rushed” to charges of sexist tropes. So as we head into the beginning of awards season, it's worth taking a look at how one of the most acclaimed programs in recent memory — an unlikely decade-long hit that became HBO’s flagship series — was widely perceived as concluding with a thud.

Though the show did have some serious problems of its own making, it largely suffered from the cultural moment in which it arrived.

Though the show did have some serious problems of its own making, it largely suffered from the cultural moment in which it arrived and the difficulties inherent in adapting a beloved, sweeping epic to the small screen.

Many of the complaints about the final season can be dated all the way back to decisions made in the show’s first season. Seemingly insignificant changes to the story from the version in the books slowly created a wedge between the television production and author George R.R. Martin’s source material. That the show debuted at a moment when the country was changing in significant ways made parts of the production (and the source material itself) painfully out of step with the times. Add to that the world of spoiler culture and Martin’s slow pace of writing the remaining books — which ensured no one involved in the show knew the ending until several seasons in — and disappointment was practically guaranteed.

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When the first season arrived on HBO in 2011, after two attempts at a pilot, readers of the novels were stunned at how surprisingly faithful the show was. Sure, minor characters were cut or downsized, but most saw the filming of the continent-sprawling epic as shockingly close to the books. Even the beheading of Ned Stark reproduced for TV viewers the same shock that readers felt at approximately the same time.

However, Martin, who had spent decades working in TV writing for different series like “Beauty and the Beast,” was more pragmatic. He warned viewers that small changes would work like the butterfly effect. He wasn’t wrong, but he didn’t help matters by refusing to reveal the ending of the show to the producers until after three seasons had already aired.

The result was that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss didn’t know how the story ended until 2013. That they were working in the dark turned out to be a big problem. The “shock deaths” of Ned and the Red Wedding, for instance, were given different motivations in the TV version than in the books because the showrunners didn’t know the theme connecting them — a belief in their innate righteousness — would matter down the line.

The lack of books published from season five onward seemed to turn fans into crazed maniacs, leading to two massive breaches in protocol.

And when the showrunners found out Daenerys would turn into something of a mad dictator in the final book, driven by that same self-righteous impulse, it was too late to do much foreshadowing. Worse, they did not inform Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays Daenerys, that her seemingly heroic character was going to take a violent turn toward the dark side.

To be fair, spoilers have been a massive problem for “Game of Thrones.” Obviously, the aforementioned deaths work a lot better if you don’t know they’re coming. The lack of books published from season five onward seemed to turn fans into crazed maniacs, leading to two massive breaches in protocol (and nondisclosure agreements) in seasons five and seven.

On set, the showrunners became paranoid, with unfortunate consequences. As with Clarke, other actors didn’t know their characters’ fates until the scripts for the season arrived. That might be fine for say, the death of Jorah Mormont, or Sansa’s moment of triumph over Ramsay Bolton. But actors like Clarke were clearly done a disservice, as was their character development. The reason her switch feels abrupt is because she was playing the hero for the first 67 hours of the show’s run. (Compare that to Alan Rickman’s slow-burning brilliance in the “Harry Potter” films; Rickman knew Snape was a twisted hero before even the first movie was filmed, before author J.K. Rowling finished the series, and even before the directors.)

Then again, perhaps Daenerys’ turn might not have felt like such a betrayal to viewers had the show cultivated more credibility with its female characters generally. But that ship sailed years ago, as those involved seemed unable to adapt to the social shift happening under their feet.

“Game of Thrones” season five began filming in the summer of 2014, the same month that both the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and GamerGate conversations were roiling the internet. The end result of both was a social shift — women and people of color felt more emboldened to speak out. The medium of criticism had already been slowly changing, moving away from the gatekeeper publications, but that summer began an acceleration. This was the landscape that “Game of Thrones” found itself in when the season five, episode six ended with the rape of Sansa Stark, sparking a huge uproar.

To be clear, the show had been foreshadowing this scene for weeks. Moreover, the actors involved had telegraphed the rape was coming in interviews for months. Even if one hadn’t read the novels (in which Ramsay’s sexual and emotional abuse is more explicit), it was pretty clear what was coming. Still, the show handled the controversy badly. HBO executives made tone-deaf remarks about how male characters on the show were regularly killed off, as if this was a moral equivalent. To this day, the writer of the scene seems mystified at what he could have done differently. The problem, in the end, was that the material called for it, and the showrunners, in their insistence to be as faithful to it as possible, could not imagine doing otherwise.

Not everything ages well, but it’s a rare show that gets to experience that cultural shift in real time.

Later, the series tried to course correct. Brothel scenes disappeared, as did the show’s use of “sexposition” — once lauded by critics as “clever” and talked about like it was some sort of deep meditation on sexual politics. This cultural sea change is ongoing. When explicit sex scenes were brought back in the final season, they were deemed “gratuitous,” and the finale ending on a brothel joke elicited irritation from reviewers.

Within this context, Daenerys’ season eight change of heart felt like the same old sexism all over again. (It is notable that when interviewed, Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, immediately worried this would be the audience reaction.) Without a clear emotional journey, most fans complained Daenerys’ arc felt rushed, an ironic reaction since the production spent 10 months filming these last six episodes.

Considering the way the show and the books had split by the time the final seasons were greenlighted, the show might have done better by straying further from Martin’s vision. After the finale, Benioff and Weiss gave no interviews and insisted they would be staying far from the internet, as if they understood there was no way the ending would be received the way it had been intended. Not everything ages well, but it’s a rare show that gets to experience that cultural shift in real time. Martin’s planned ending of Snow killing his lover while the North declares independence from the Seven Kingdoms reads far differently after a 2016 U.S. election in which a man who “knows nothing” defeats a woman who prepared her whole life to lead. (Not to mention the nationalist chaos of Brexit.)

But it was the story “Game of Thrones” and HBO chose to tell, and because of that choice they produced a brilliant series that stayed true to Martin’s vision. Heading into awards season, it looks like they will come out winners for sticking with it. Now it remains to be seen if Emmy judges will agree.