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‘Game of Thrones’: Will Season 8’s Slump Cost HBO at the Emmys?

Backlash is building toward HBO's award-winning epic, as an Emmy season imagined as a victory lap gets a lot more interesting.

Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke Daenerys

Emilia Clarke in “Game of Thrones”

Helen Sloan/HBO

Daenerys Targaryen may think the last battle lies at Winterfell, but HBO knows it’s Emmy night at the Microsoft Theater. Come September, the three-time Best Drama Series champion “Game of Thrones” will look to make it four trophies in eight seasons, and heading into its last spin on ol’ Drogon, the series looked to be in good shape. After taking a year off from competition, it defeated the stand-in title holder, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the culture buzzed with anticipation; actors held their tongues on who would win the Iron Throne. All was well, as the six closing episodes lied behind House Box Office’s (kind of leaky) walls.

But four episodes into the final season, “Game of Thrones” is taking serious qualitative hits, and its odds of hoisting the trophy are falling faster than Rhaegal crashing into the sea.

Well, they could be. Maybe. OK, probably not, but it’s a question that must be asked given the mixed reception so far: Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” faced attacks on virtually all fronts: Fans were outraged when, after a confusing split, the badass warrior Brienne (played by Gwendoline Christie) was reduced to a teary mess. More underdeveloped character choices sprang up with Dany (Emilia Clarke) and Jon’s (Kit Harington) reductive transformations, and the heated backlash to Sansa (Sophie Turner) seeing her own vicious rape as an empowering moment culminated with Jessica Chastain chastising the series on Twitter.

Racial insensitivity — an issue in prior seasons — came roaring back in Episode 3, when the non-white armies defending the North were put on the front lines and promptly wiped out, and again in Episode 4 when the series’ only woman of color was brutally beheaded solely to emphasize a mean character can still be mean! All of these issues are on top of pacing complaints plaguing the first two episodes (and again in the third), as well as unexpected technical errors. LatteGate highlighted the uncharacteristic formal mistakes, but fans previously complained so loudly about the darkness blurring the “Long Night’s” battle that the cinematographer himself lashed out. Unconvincing special effects during Jon and Dany’s dragon rides rounded out citations made against an ornate blockbuster given all the money it needed to do right by its grand ambitions.

Worse still, the mistakes are piling up and the backlash intensifying as the season gets closer and closer to its conclusion. With two entries remaining, an abrupt turnaround will be needed to ensure a favorable parting reputation, but even if the ending is better than its beginnings, will that be enough for Emmy voters?

Game of Thrones Nathalie Emmanuel

In short, yes. But if “Game of Thrones” snags one final crowning ceremony, it may not be because the TV Academy is forgiving, blind, or otherwise in opposition to slights cast against Season 8. The HBO drama could win simply because there’s a lack of better options — or, to be clear, a lack of better options with enough voters to support them.

If you remember, plenty of previous Best Drama nominees were scared off by “Game of Thrones.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” won’t premiere in time to compete, and Netflix series “The Crown” and “Stranger Things” will also miss the 2019 eligibility window. HBO wisely cleared out internal competitors — saving “Big Little Lies” Season 2 for June and “Westworld” Season 3 for sometime in 2020 (though that release is more in line with production schedules than Emmy maneuvering).

What’s left to compete with “Game of Thrones” looks too weak to topple the juggernaut: “Killing Eve” may have the best shot, but it’s been saddled with “sophomore slump” critiques for a second season sans Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “This Is Us” seems to have lost traction over a less exciting third season (and isn’t exactly a critical darling to begin with.) “Better Call Saul” could capitalize off all this “Breaking Bad” buzz — not to mention great reviews — but can AMC mount a campaign to contend with the unceasing onslaught of “Thrones” coverage? Can any of these networks?

Only the streaming giants seem to have the money needed to compete. Netflix is pushing “Ozark” and “Bodyguard”; both are well-watched series, by whatever metric you choose to trust, and both received their fair share of solid reviews. But each has at least as many slights cast against them as “Thrones,” and neither has the same drawing power (because nothing does.) Amazon’s “Homecoming” checks a lot of key boxes: a superstar lead (Julia Roberts), an award-winning writer/director (Sam Esmail), and an excellent reception (an 83 rating on Metacritic). No one knows how many people watched, though, and its half-hour format could make older, more traditionally-minded voters hesitate. Speaking of breaking from tradition, Ryan Murphy’s power over awards voters could get “Pose” across the line, but only if its Netflix release gives it a much-needed boost in viewership.

With every contender showing weaknesses, it’s hard to bet against the behemoth. “Game of Thrones” faced plenty of criticism during Season 7, and even then it managed to unseat a respected, timely Hulu drama and take back its sole place as Lord of Television. Final seasons are far from guaranteed to earn a legacy vote, but it’s hard to deny that “Thrones” fever has swept the nation, and the Best Drama Series Emmy often goes to the series dominating conversation. Individual races may be a little more competitive than expected, though it’s hard to imagine “Game of Thrones” losing Creative Arts Emmys even after leaving a Starbucks cup in the frame. We’ll see what happens when the nominations announcement narrows the field in July — and what happens in these final two episodes — but “Game of Thrones” is still sitting in prime position.

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