So Why Are The Emmys About to Coronate It?
I have made it clear numerous times on this column that I have no patience for Game of Thrones. I think it’s ridiculously violent, overly sexual, and so misogynistic towards its younger female characters that I’m rather amazed #MeToo never set up a criticism. But my biggest problem with the series is that for more than a decade, it has dominated the Emmy nominations and awards so much that a lot of my favorite series have basically been denies any form of recognition during its run.
So understandably, I was upset when the Emmys gave the series 32 nominations this year — a record for any program. What makes this even more remarkable is that throughout the final six episodes, the cacophony from critics and many of the series biggest boosters was at a crescendo before the final episode. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that the series will win again (I’ll get to my logic there in the article), but it does kind of beg the question: why are the Emmy judges, especially in the middle of the Golden Age determined to over-recognize a final season that not only destroyed many fans faith in the series, but made just as many question why they watched the series in the first place?
Now, as a historian of television in general, and of the last twenty years in particular, I decided to see if there was another angle to this that other commentators and bloggers have not yet approached. So I decided to consider, has this kind of overreaction to a final season have any historical precedent? In order to do so, I decided that I would compare Game of Thrones final season, to four other series that have claim to the list greatest of all time, received a considerable amount of recognition from the Emmys, how they handled the build up to the final season, and how that final episode played out. I will then compare and contrast them to the last season of Game of Thrones.
The four series I have selected are, in order of their premiere dates, The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
(Note: I am assuming that everybody in the world knows at least some of the details of how these five series played out. For those of you who don’t: Decade Old Spoiler Warnings Ahead!)
1. How the Final Season Was Planned
The Sopranos: David Chase announced in late 2004 that the sixth season would be the last and HBO would air 16 episodes over two years.
Lost: Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse announced in 2007 that there would be three final seasons, each sixteen episodes long, concluding in 2010.
Mad Men: Showrunner Matt Weiner planned for the show to end after seven seasons. AMC eventually decided to split the seventh season into two seasons of seven episodes each, ending in May 2015 because…
Breaking Bad: Showrunner Vince Gilligan decided to air Season 5 in two blocks of eight episodes, which concluded in October of 2013.
Game of Thrones: Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss decided, after much debate to end the series after eight seasons. Season 7 aired in June of 2017, Season 8 started in April of this year.
2. Did the Writers Have A Plan?
The Sopranos: It’s hard to say. One of the many things that made The Sopranos a groundbreaker is that so much of the series had no overarching narrative. Chase and his co-writers were notorious for planning to have major characters be at the center of later seasons, only to kill them off before they reached their full potential.
Lost: Cuse and Lindelof went to great detail to say that they the final season mostly planned out by the time they got there, but while they were writing it, they cut bait on a lot of ideas. For example, the Temple storyline, which the series had spent several seasons building two, ended quickly when the writers realized the folly of introducing new characters this late into their story.
Mad Men: Yes. Matthew Weiner had always planned to end the series with the end of the 1960s.
Breaking Bad: Yes. Gilligan opened the first part of Season 5 with a flashforward that played out in the final episode, and ended that same sequence with Hank finally learned that Walter White was Heisenberg.
Game of Thrones: In theory, Benioff and Weiss were working off the notes that George R.R. Martin had for A Song of Ice and Fire. But they had left the books in a couple of key instances in the fifth season, so it’s hard to say for sure.
3. How Did Critics and Fans React to The Last Season Initially?
The Sopranos: Mostly critics were impressed. There was disappointment with some storylines (Vito in New Hampshire and Christopher’s heroin addiction), but some of the strongest episodes (Kennedy and Heidi, where Christopher dies, and The Blue Comet, the penultimate episode) are regarded as among the series best.
Lost: What is generally forgotten is how much fans were taken up with the flash-sideways timeline at least for the first half of the season. Ab Aeterno, the episode which reveals Richard Alpert’s history is considered one of the greatest episodes in the shows history. The problems began in The Candidate, when Sayid, Jin and Sun were killed in the sub explosion. After that, there was a real backlash.
Mad Men: Harder to measure because Mad Men had been one of those series that built up over the course of a thirteen episode season, and now they were cut in half. Still, the general consensus is by the middle of the second half, the show was firing on all cylinders.
Breaking Bad: Worked all the way. Watching Walter White finally complete his rise to power was exceptional TV. And the second half of the final season may be the greatest final season of any series in history. Some critics have mentioned that any one of the last four episodes could easily have served as a final episode, and fans would’ve been satisfied.
Game of Thrones: Fans and critics started complaining almost immediately. There had been gripes in the penultimate group of six episodes that the characters were starting to act afield. But when the final contestants for the Iron Throne began to campaign, people started to get royally pissed. They thought the romantic storylines were not playing out, they didn’t like how the alliances were being arranged, and they were incredibly angry that Daenerys Targaryen, the character that had spent much of the series being built up as the heroine of the story, turned into a monster in the final few episodes. By the time of episode 5, there was a petition online signed by nearly a quarter of a million fans of the show demanded that HBO reshoot the final season.
4. How The Ending Played Out
The Sopranos: When the show ended, or didn’t, millions at home wonder if the cable had gone out before Tony got shot. Even now, people are still arguing what happened, and David Chase will not enlighten anyone. The overall effect was that many people consider the ending diminished the series as a whole, though time has been a lot kinder to it than many of the others.
Lost: Oh boy. It’s been nearly a decade, and people are still pissed off about it ended. To the point that Lindelof and Cuse keep getting hate mail. There are those like Nikki Stafford, who thought that the final episode really did make sense, and helped bring the show to a satisfying conclusion, and there are those like Emily Nussbaum, who believe the entire series came down to a fight over a glowing cave and a bereavement holodeck. I have a feeling no one’s ever going to be happy with this.
Mad Men: As a general rule, critics were satisfied with how many of the individual storylines (Joan’s opening her own business; Roger settling down with a woman his own age) But the final shot of Don Draper seemingly using his enlightenment to come up with the idea of a Coke commercial, there are a fair amount of fans angry.
Breaking Bad: About the only complaint anyone gave about Felina was that it was Ozymandias, which many people (myself included) consider one of the greatest TV episodes ever made. Still, seeing Walter tell Skyler: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive” is still one of the greatest moments in TV history.
Game of Thrones: The nuclear fallout from The Iron Throne is still descending. But I think it’s safe to say that the writers have royally screwed up. It’s one thing to isolate the critics. It’s one thing to alienate the fans. But when your lead actress tells magazines she doesn’t like how her character’s arc played out, you’ve reached a special level of mucking it up. The only series on this list with a similar level of controversy over its ending is Lost, and even now, nearly a decade later, none of the cast has ever publicly commented that they were disappointed with how the show ended. This is, to quote some friends of mine, next level shit.
That’s a critical look at how I see it. I’ll be back tomorrow with some information about how the fan reaction is different to this series, and why I still think there might be a possibility for an upset at the Emmys.