There is no real definition for what an outstanding drama should be. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Rules and Procedures for the Primetime Emmys note that most dramas should be around 60 minutes in length, but there is only one requirement for the Outstanding Drama Emmy: “A minimum of six episodes must air within the current eligibility year to qualify as a series.” Other than that small note, the Academy lets its voters decide what defines “outstanding.”
That makes Monday’s win for Season 7 of Game of Thrones particularly interesting. In recent years, the Outstanding Drama Emmy has generally gone to a show that combines prestige with popularity (as we understand it in the streaming era, at least). That was certainly true when Thrones won in 2016 and 2015, and also when Breaking Bad won the two years before that. Both of those were ratings hits and both provided excellent seasons of television. But with Game of Thrones’ 2018 win, the Emmys swung away from prestige and went all in on the popular. Because while Thrones is still a massive hit, Season 7 was a mess.
At its best, Thrones can combine high fantasy, intricate plots, and cinema-quality action. It can stage battles that make you root for both sides. It can inspire deep dives into the story’s lore. It can produce the wildest fan theories, some of which even turn out to be true. But on the latest season, it treated magic like an afterthought and weaved a plot so incomprehensible that even the most astute viewers couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. Hey, at least stuff still blew up.
Even the biggest fans of the show looked at Season 7 with ambivalence. The show has had more questionable moments as it’s moved past George R.R. Martin’s books, and Season 7 skimped on the world-building and the character development that are so integral to its success. We’ll never get answers for how Daenerys flew from Dragonstone to the Wall, how Jaime Lannister escaped Dany’s troops, what Littlefinger’s plan was, how Dany’s armies teleported all over the continent, why Jon’s plan to capture a wight was so nonsensical, or why the Loot Train Attack has such a dumb name. Seriously, what’s with that one?
The above description does not scream “outstanding drama,” but maybe there’s some wisdom here. Season 7 of Thrones, for all its disappointments, was also a special achievement. The show is massively difficult to pull off (the Loot Train Attack alone took weeks to film) and is our very last piece of TV monoculture. In the age of binge-watching, Thrones is the last show that everyone watches at the same time and talks about at the watercooler the next day, and it’s the only show that has ever featured Hollywood-level action sequences. Like any awards ceremony, the Emmys are susceptible to outside narratives—awards are sometimes given late in a career to honor TV veterans or at the very beginning as a vote of confidence from a fickle industry. It is easy to understand how they might want to reward the last Truly Successful TV Show in the era of Peak TV. Season 7 may not have been a prestige drama, but it was still unlike any show we’ve seen before. With all due respect to the other nominees, there are worse ways to define “outstanding.”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.