Remember the last season of “Game of Thrones”?
If you weren’t a sentient human being during the first half of 2019, here’s a recap. After two years of hype, HBO dropped the final six episodes of its most popular show, and many people were disappointed with it. Scratch that. Many people loathed it.
As one viewer told The Washington Post after it ended: “The finale failed to deliver on the feeling of purpose for every character or event, or a reason for all of their strange journeys and horrific struggles we saw during the show.”
One of the major battle episodes was too dark for most TV viewers to see much of anything. Characters who seemed headed for climactic finales evaded death in insultingly flukish ways. The Night King, the show’s big bad, turned out to be a big nothing. Dragons turned out to be incredibly (and suddenly) vulnerable. Bran was . . . Bran. There was a Starbucks cup in one episode and a stray water bottle in another — despite ale and plum wine being seemingly the only thing to drink in Westeros.
Yet this season just broke a 25-year record for earning the most Emmy nominations in a single year, surpassing the vaunted “NYPD Blue,” which earned 27 nods in 1994.
So how does a season of television so reviled — more than 1.6 million disappointed fans signed a petition demanding HBO remake it — win the most nods in television history? By being the last season.
One of the dirty little secrets of TV awards is how much final seasons are graded on a curve. When voters have one last chance to award a show, they often do.
Sometimes, the nominations roll in as a course-correction, so to speak. For six seasons, the TV-watching community scratched their heads and wondered how Jon Hamm hadn’t won an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper, the “Mad Men” character so popular that he became a household name. Hamm finally took home the trophy in 2015, coinciding with the show’s seventh and final season.
The same thing happened last year when Matthew Rhys won the best lead actor Emmy for his role as Philip Jennings on “The Americans.” Here, as well, years had passed, filled by the sounds of critics decrying the awards show for not recognizing Rhys. Then, at the last possible moment, the Television Academy did just that.
Of course, “Game of Thrones” isn’t exactly like these examples. For one thing, the show has been heavily awarded throughout its eight-season run. As of Tuesday, it has racked up a whopping 160 nominations and 47 Emmys.
Those numbers probably account for why the frustrating final episodes were so highly recognized. The show had built up an incredible amount of good will, not to mention viewers, over the years.
Ah, yes, the viewers. Much ado has been made about “Game of Thrones” representing the dying breaths of the monoculture, and while that might sound hyperbolic, there seems to be some truth to it.
Consider this: The show, which aired on a premium cable channel requiring a subscription, set an HBO record when 19.3 million people watched the final episode. Live. On average, if one adds delayed viewers, each episode of Season 7 drew 44.2 million viewers.
Meanwhile, “The Big Bang Theory,” a network show that once averaged nearly 20 million viewers an episode, aired its finale to 18 million people, a full 1.3 million fewer than the more-difficult-to-access “Game of Thrones.”
It’s not surprising that the academy would want to honor a show that proved it could cross almost all boundaries, including a paywall. Today, there may be more original, scripted TV shows than at any other point in history, but the industry was built on water-cooler shows, the ones everyone watches together and discusses at work the next morning. Everyone watches shows now, but no shows are watched by everybody.
“Game of Thrones” showed that hits could still exist, but it also raised an anxious question: Will they ever again?
With that in mind, the impulse to reward a season that felt like a long sigh in order to cling to some cultural relevancy makes an awful lot of sense.