Game of Thrones shouldn’t have won the Best Drama Series award at last night’s Emmys. This was a celebration of a final season that betrayed its most ardent fans, prompted backlash from most quarters and staggered to an uncertain, largely unsatisfying closer. Its victory felt less like a reflection of the show itself, and more a wake for what television used to be. Regardless of whether its final and truly culture-shaking series went out on a high or not, this was the Emmys recognising the last gasp of television as an all-encompassing pop force.
Speaking in the press room at last night’s Emmys, Game of Thrones co-creator DB Weiss said that it wasn’t up to him or anyone involved with the show to decide how people feel about the series in the future. “There’s no way to tell how things are going to be perceived in 10, 20, even five years,” he said. “These things change so fast. The landscape of television changes so quickly, it’s changing as we’re standing here right now. It’s so gratifying to have reached this many people. I hope people who are a little too young to watch now will grow up to learn about it and watch it in the future.”
But the Emmys win did nod towards something unexpected: that for all the vicious internet hectoring over Game of Thrones’s final season, it was likely only a short-lived backlash and our collective memory of the show, moving forward, will be far rosier than predicted.
Finales to long-running series with ardent fanbases wield significant power, which can be as much a salvation to a dicey run of wavering quality as they are entirely destructive. The denouements of beloved series such as Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ER acted like plasters covering up messy storytelling wounds, automatically fixing or subtly apologising for hair-brained plots that had previously alienated fans. None were especially provocative, often giving their respective audiences exactly what they wanted, but they were also so purely pleasurable that it didn’t matter.
Lost, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this weekend, may be typically regarded as going out with a whimper, but it was also a show that knew exactly what it was doing in its last leg. Die-hard fans were rewarded with earnest character resolutions rather than specific wrap-ups for each and every individual mystery teased along the way, infuriated casual viewers be damned. That Lost forever changed television despite its polarising climax has largely silenced the griping that accompanied it on its close.
A similar effect occurred with The Sopranos. That series may have ended with an ambiguous, dread-inducing cut to black subsequently debated around the world, but the sheer goodwill towards the show as a whole meant that it didn’t derail its reputation. Instead, the divisive nature of its final shot became just another example of the gutsy creative decision-making that always marked The Sopranos as singular television, and not a rare exception to it.
Series like Dexter and How I Met Your Mother, on the other hand, were cursed by their finales – both so profoundly and infamously unpopular among their respective fanbases that their legacies are today largely soiled. Nobody wanted to see Dexter end its run with an unsatisfying final episode involving a lumberjack beard and Michael C Hall’s murderous anti-hero hanging out anonymously in rural Oregon, and the modern conversation surrounding the show almost entirely revolves around that fact. Similarly, nobody wanted a cute, post-Friends “hang-out comedy” like How I Met Your Mother to resolve itself with a finale filled with last-minute red herrings and terminal illnesses. Both were testaments to the make-or-break power of a bad closer.
For a little while, Game of Thrones appeared to be in the same boat. Outrage over its final season grew with every successive episode, internet sleuths parsing Emilia Clarke’s red carpet facial expressions for anguish over the show’s scripts, and frustrated fans manipulating Google search results until the term “bad writers” automatically linked to Weiss and David Benioff. In the aftermath of the finale, even Game of Thrones actors expressed dissatisfaction with how it went out. Natalia Tena said she “ranted for an hour” after it ended and Lena Headey revealed she was “kind of gutted” by her character’s exit. Yet, four months after its finale, Game of Thrones has been awarded the highest accolade possible for a TV drama – suggesting such in-the-moment dissatisfaction is today worthy of a mere shrug.
Its closest parallel, somewhat unusually, is likely to be Seinfeld – which sent its main cast to prison in its finale, infuriating many of the millions who tuned in to watch. That episode still crops up on “worst finales ever” lists, for its unusual moralism towards the funny cruelty that the show always celebrated, and for being a glorified clip show. But Seinfeld’s general brilliance has far surpassed its less acclaimed final 30 minutes, its unpopular closer a mere footnote to its vast legacy elsewhere.
Game of Thrones was never genius in the same way Seinfeld was. Neither did it alter television to the same extent as The Sopranos, or Buffy, or Sex and the City or The Wire did. Even one-time TV juggernauts like Lost and Desperate Housewives had more narrative ambition and storytelling smarts in their prime. But it knew how to thrill, merging the gleeful, squirm-inducing sadism of Shakespeare with the twisty drama of a night-time soap. It was unrelentingly addictive, fuelled by shocks, cliffhangers and scenery-chewing. And its Emmys win appeared to be final proof that this will be the show’s legacy. Not the creative flame-out of its final season. Nor the time Cersei was buried under a bunch of rocks. Nor that Daenerys became an arch villain purely because the scripts called for it and not because it made a lot of sense. Game of Thrones didn’t deserve its award for its final season, but it did deserve it for what it once was. In effect, it was the worthwhile and appropriate sayonara that the show didn’t get on-screen.
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