Emmys: ‘Game of Thrones’ Aims for Valedictory Honors as Next Year’s Class Preps for a Bloodbath (Analysis)

As the 71st Emmy Awards get under way, all eyes are on “Game of Thrones.” The HBO juggernaut is expected to continue its victory lap, as the show’s producers, cast and crew lap up a final round of awards for their eighth and final season.

Haters be damned (and, yes, a lot of people hated that final season), “Game of Thrones” made history this summer by scoring a whopping 32 nominations — the most of any program in a single year.

And if there were any doubts that “Thrones” would one more time claim the Emmy throne, last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys put that notion to rest. The show garnered 10 awards, including drama single-camera picture editing; casting for a drama; music composition (original dramatic score); main title design; stunt coordination for a drama, limited series or movie; make-up for a single-camera series (non-prosthetic); fantasy/sci-fi costumes; special visual effects; and sound editing, making it the early leader.

That was the warm-up to what should be a decent night for the show. There has never been a series that won the outstanding drama Emmy in its eighth season, but “Game of Thrones” has already proved to be an outlier. Fantasy shows rarely receive nominations, let alone wins, in the top Emmy categories, but “Thrones” shattered that conventional wisdom by taking the top prize in 2015, 2016 and 2018 (it wasn’t eligible in 2017).

“Game of Thrones” is already in the record books for winning the most Emmys by a comedy or drama series (which stands at 57 as of last weekend — and 47 going into this year). And “Thrones” also boasts the most Emmys won by a series in a single season — 12, which it won both in 2015 and 2016.

As for this year, “Thrones” wasn’t expected to win in the top drama performance categories, however, due to the tough competition there from other series such as “Killing Eve,” “Pose,” “Ozark” and “Better Call Saul.” Perhaps because of its sprawling cast, the show has not traditionally done as well at the Emmys with performers — with the notable exception of Peter Dinklage, who has won three times as supporting actor in a drama for playing Tyrion Lannister.

Adapted by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, “Game of Thrones” was a phenomenon for HBO — becoming the most-watched series in the premium network’s history. It also turned Benioff and Weiss into major TV players — evidenced by their new multi-million dollar deal with Netflix, which they signed after a major bidding war. The duo is also developing an untitled “Star Wars” movie for Disney targeted for 2022.

Benioff and Weiss also won the Emmy for outstanding writing in 2015 (for the episode “Mother’s Mercy”) and 2014 (for the episode “The Children”) in addition to the series wins.

Meanwhile, the race for outstanding comedy wound up being a bit more competitive than perhaps initially expected this year, as Amazon Prime put up a big fight for both “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag” against HBO’s mega-winner “Veep.” The Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy has been an Emmy darling since its inception, having been nominated every year since its premiere in 2012, and winning the comedy series Emmy in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Louis-Dreyfus, of course, has made history by tying Cloris Leachman for the most Emmy wins ever as a performer (eight overall) and has already won the most acting Emmys in the same role and on the same series — six, for playing Selina Meyer on “Veep.”

As Emmy Sunday approached, Louis-Dreyfus was in line to surpass Leachman to become the most-awarded performer at the Emmys ever, at nine. And most Emmy pundits saw her win as a bit of a foregone conclusion.

But given the strength of “Maisel” and “Fleabag,” another win for “Veep” wasn’t as assured, especially given its 2018 hiatus — which meant last year’s winner, “Maisel,” was now the incumbent. “Maisel” won six awards at the Creative Arts Emmys, more than any other comedy — giving it a bit more momentum heading into Sunday’s Primetime Emmys ceremony.

Meanwhile, there was also a bit of intrigue in the limited series category, as HBO’s “Chernobyl” dominated the Creative Arts ceremony with seven wins in categories including cinematography, sound editing, music composition, single-camera picture editing, special visual effects, production design and sound mixing.

That tally would seem to have given it a leg up over the competition, notably Netflix’s “When They See Us.” But the Ava DuVernay limited series was less reliant on below-the-line and much more on story, which is why it was still seen as a frontrunner for the key limited series award. Meanwhile, “Escape at Dannemora’s” best bet was still seen as star Patricia Arquette.

Among other categories, many were expecting and hoping for Sandra Oh to make history as the first winner of Asian descent in the outstanding drama actress category, for “Killing Eve.” The actor category was seen more split between Jason Bateman (“Ozark”), Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Billy Porter (“Pose”).

In comedy, while Louis-Dreyfus was seen as a lock for actress, her HBOmate Bill Hader (“Barry”) was expected to repeat in the actor category.

That was where most of the excitement was expected to lie, as “Saturday Night Live,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” were all long thought as shoo-ins to repeat in the variety sketch, competition and variety talk categories, respectively.

In many ways, this year’s Emmys feel like the end of one TV era, as the farewells of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” remove two dominant HBO players from the competition. Next year, the playing field will be upended as new outlets, including Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Disney Plus and Peacock, enter the fray. Some are thirstier than others when it comes to showcasing prestige, awards-friendly fare — but all will be in the hunt to make a name for themselves.

That could make for an interesting 2020 telecast. For 2019, Fox opted to forgo a host and lean in to the shows making history by bringing on the casts of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” for one final valedictory round, among other strategies.

With “Thrones” and “Veep” now history, and new shows gunning for those key wins, the 2020 campaign (which actually launched on June 1, when program eligibility began) starts now. If this year’s Emmy campaign was the most expensive ever, even with obvious frontrunners like “Thrones,” “Veep” and “Maisel” taking up most of the oxygen, it’s hard to imagine what will take place next year when the categories are more wide open — and the new entrants dive in with hefty pocketbooks.

It’s going to be bloodier than, well, the “Thrones” Red Wedding.

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