Heading into the 2019 Emmys, the conventional wisdom had it that not only would Game of Thrones win Outstanding Drama Series but it would smash its previous record for most Emmys won by any TV show in a single season. Conventional wisdom also held that the Outstanding Comedy Series category was a dogfight between The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Veep, the most recent two shows to win that category. And it held that Outstanding Limited Series was a race between Chernobyl and When They See Us, with an outside shot for Fosse/Verdon.
The actual Emmys, as they so often do, had other ideas.
Some of the above happened, but a lot of it didn’t. Game of Thrones won its fourth Drama Series trophy but failed to break its own record. Neither Mrs. Maisel nor Veep could vanquish Fleabag in several comedy categories. And while Chernobyl won Limited Series, it did so seemingly in a walk; When They See Us ultimately managed just two wins out of 16 nominations, only one of which was broadcast during the primetime awards.
If there was an overall theme to this year’s awards, then, it was a dislike of inevitability. What the 2019 Emmys made clear is that, in an age when more and more broadcasters are dumping huge amounts of money into their awards campaigns in hopes of snagging a prize, the voters are still going to vote for what they like, no matter how many TV Academy members take home paychecks signed by HBO or Netflix brass. The result was a wild, unpredictable night — as well as a genuinely entertaining TV broadcast.
Here are eight winners and five losers from the 2019 Emmy awards.
Winner: Game of Thrones
Look, on the pure level of “Did Game of Thrones win Emmys?” ... yes. Yes, it did. The show won a staggering 12 awards total, tying the record it set in 2015 for its fifth season. It won Outstanding Drama Series for the fourth time, joining the august company of Hill Street Blues, LA Law, The West Wing, and Mad Men. It made Peter Dinklage one of the few performers to win four times for the same role and the first since Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston to do so for a drama.
But sometimes these things aren’t about actual winners. They’re about perception. And from that point of view ...
Loser: Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones should have won more than 12 Emmys. It just should have. After its record-shattering 32 nominations, after its 10 wins at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, after everything, it should have been able to take home more than two awards during the Primetime awards.
At the very least, it seemed to have Outstanding Drama Series, Supporting Actor in a Drama (Dinklage), and Directing for a Drama in the bag, which would have made for 13 total wins. But it lost Directing (to the incredibly same-y visuals of Ozark!), and it couldn’t manage to best Julia Garner (again of Ozark) in Supporting Actress or overcome its own network mate Succession in Writing. And that’s to say nothing of the lead acting races, where it was thought to have less of a chance at winning (it did, indeed, lose both, to Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and Pose’s Billy Porter).
What has to be most galling to the folks behind Game of Thrones is that a resounding night at the Primetime Emmys was supposed to be the best argument they’d have going forward against the idea that the final season was kind of bad. Instead, the best they can now argue is that their haul was more of a Pyrrhic victory than anything else — yeah, technically they won a couple, but they lost many more at the Primetime ceremony.
A healthy suspicion is that vote-splitting felled the show many times, meaning that in categories where it had multiple nominations, it kept robbing votes from itself. (It’s really hard to explain how Ozark won Directing otherwise.) But then consider that Dinklage overcame two of his castmates to win his category and that Game of Thrones lost the Writing category (where it had but one nomination and when the scripts were by far the most criticized element of the final season). Suddenly, a larger picture becomes clear: The show was over-nominated and people got a little tired of it.
In a few years, when people look at the Emmy record books and see that Game of Thrones won 58 awards across its eight seasons, including Outstanding Drama Series four times and that it had two years where it won 12 awards total — they’re going to think (rightly!) that the Emmys loved this show. But from the vantage point of right now, in 2019, it’s not hard to feel like team Thrones hoped everything would go differently.
Even with Game of Thrones’ unsteady evening, HBO pretty well cleaned up. It won nine total awards during the night, leading to a smashing total of 34 when you add in the Creative Arts Emmys. And its wins were from a wide spread of programs — Barry and Chernobyl and Game of Thrones and Last Week Tonight and Succession. Plus it had the two biggest winners of the year when all Emmys ceremonies are added together, thanks to Game of Thrones’ 12 and Chernobyl’s 10.
Yeah, it was probably expecting to perform better in the Comedy categories (where only Bill Hader won for his lead performance in Barry), but you can’t have everything. The HBO Emmy party should be pretty happy, all things considered.
But we can’t abandon HBO entirely just yet. For the network had one other fairly significant loser ...
Loser: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
The Emmys have bestowed favor on Julia Louis-Dreyfus many, many times in the past. She’s won eight awards as an actor, a record she shares with Cloris Leachman. (She’s also won three awards for producing.) But though six of her eight acting Emmys are for her starring role on Veep, she didn’t win for the show’s final season of eligibility. The award went to Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge instead.
Louis-Dreyfus was heavily favored to win this year, and not only because she’d been on an unbroken winning streak for playing hapless politician Selina Meyer — the most wins any actor has received for playing the same character. In 2017, the day after she won her sixth Veep Emmy, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A little over a year later, in October 2018, she announced that she was cancer-free. Veep’s seventh and final season, which had been delayed for Louis-Dreyfus’s treatment, premiered last spring.
That cancer-beating narrative made it seem like Louis-Dreyfus was due for a record-breaking win. But after she lost the Emmy to Waller-Bridge, when she and the rest of the cast of Veep arrived onstage to present a different award, she seemed to take it all in stride, cracking jokes in character as Selina Meyer: She lamented that she’d been told she’d be up there alone to present and referred to co-star Timothy Simons as “Jonah,” his character’s name. And given that Louis-Dreyfus has never failed to earn a nomination for any TV show where she’s been a series regular since Seinfeld’s third season, it’s pretty clear this won’t be her last time at the Emmys.
In the race among the big three streamers to see who can become the biggest Emmy darling, Amazon has jumped out to a commanding lead. Hulu’s eight Handmaid’s Tale wins in 2017 feel like a distant memory, and Netflix still hasn’t won one of the big three awards (Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Comedy Series, and Outstanding Limited Series) in its time competing.
But Amazon not only won Comedy Series for the second year in a row (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in 2018, Fleabag in 2019), but it also had the second-highest awards total of the night with seven. And it boasted the night’s winningest show with Fleabag, which won four awards. (Fleabag also won the Casting award and an Editing prize at the Creative Arts Emmys, which brought its overall total to six.) On top of that, Mrs. Maisel won eight awards in total, making it the third-winningest program of the year. Altogether, those wins show just how well Amazon’s Emmy strategies have paid off.
And as if that weren’t enough, it pulled off a pretty stunning upset in the Supporting Actor in a Limited Series category, where Ben Whishaw vaulted over several contenders from the much more hyped Chernobyl and When They See Us to win for his work in A Very British Scandal. Which brings us to ...
Winner: Openly queer performers
No openly gay actor of color has ever won the Lead Actor in a Drama Series category — or, at least, that was the case before Billy Porter won for Pose. And though other openly gay actors have won in the supporting categories before, this felt different. Whishaw thanking his husband, Mark Bradshaw, from the stage is the sort of thing that still feels new at the Emmys, which have often lagged behind the Tonys and the Oscars in terms of queer representation.
And even when the 2019 Emmy winners weren’t queer themselves, they often took a moment to shout out, say, trans rights (as Supporting Actress in a Limited Series Patricia Arquette did, nodding to her late sister Alexis Arquette, a trans woman). Or you’d have someone like Fleabag’s Andrew Scott, an openly gay actor who wasn’t even nominated but was such a big part of season two that creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge spent a significant portion of her Comedy Series acceptance speech praising his work.
And speaking of Phoebe Waller-Bridge ...
Winner: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is on top of the world. She won three Emmys — for starring in, writing, and producing Fleabag — and as if that weren’t enough, she created Killing Eve, which won Jodie Comer the Lead Actress in a Drama Series award. Waller-Bridge is a British writer and actor whose demeanor combines “acidic” and “goofy” into a cocktail that works surprisingly well, and now she is headed off to help write the next James Bond movie and could theoretically do just about anything she wants going forward. (Her next TV project is an HBO series called Run. We’re instantly into it.)
She may never have it this good again, but in 2019 it’s really good to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The streaming giant came into the evening poised to win big, with 27 nominations. That meant it was second only to HBO (which had 34).
But while HBO won nine of its awards, Netflix only won four. Jharrel Jerome took home the lead actor in a limited series Emmy for his performance in When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s miniseries about the Central Park Five. Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror movie, won in the television movie category. And Ozark took home two awards: one for supporting actress Julia Garner and one for Jason Bateman for directing.
That’s a disappointing showing for Netflix, which for the past several years has been eager to rack up major awards. In 2013, the Netflix original series House of Cards became the first streaming-only TV series to be nominated for major awards, garnering four nominations and winning one (for director David Fincher). Its paltry haul this year likely hurts even more next to streaming rival Amazon, which turned its 15 nominations into seven wins, with shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag taking home some of the night’s biggest honors.
What’s more, When They See Us was considered Netflix’s prime contender to win lots of Emmys, but it could only manage two wins out of its 16 nominations — for Jerome and for its casting (awarded earlier, at the Creative Arts Emmys). Director and writer DuVernay couldn’t overcome the Chernobyl juggernaut.
But Netflix has repeatedly poured money into awards campaigns and shows no signs of slowing, with movies like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the docket for the upcoming Oscar season as well as a slate of TV and movies in contention for the Golden Globes, which take place in January. With deep pockets, big ambitions, and development deals with many hot talents like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, it’s likely that Netflix has years of Emmy showings in its future.
Winner: Michelle Williams’s speech
Williams won Lead Actress in a Limited Series for her tremendous work in FX’s Fosse/Verdon, and she gave the night’s biggest and best speech, calling for equal pay for women — especially women of color — and declaring that she’s ready for a world where women might thank their bosses, as she could, “for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.”
Watch the full speech below:
Loser: Diversity (especially racial diversity)
The Emmys rallied after the early winners provided white face after white face. After all, both the Limited Series lead actor Jharrel Jerome and Drama Series lead actor Billy Porter are black, and as mentioned above, this was a good year for queer representation.
But by and large, the 2019 Emmys were among the whitest in recent memory. Of the 12 acting winners, only Jerome and Porter were winners of color, and the three writing and three directing categories were all won by white folks, with only Waller-Bridge’s win in Comedy Writing adding a woman to a mix that was otherwise comprised entirely white men.
Some of this is just a function of the shows that were up for awards. Popular, racially diverse series like Atlanta weren’t even eligible for this year’s ceremony.
Still, for whatever reason, the Academy didn’t nominate plenty of very good actors of color who might have been terrific winners (like, say, anybody from Pose who wasn’t Porter). The Emmys’ strides in diversity over the past five years have been heartening, and there was plenty to celebrate in 2019. But it also felt as though all involved had taken a step back, even if moments like Jerome’s win were electrifying.
Winner: The casting categories
Don’t look now, but the casting categories at the Creative Arts Emmys are becoming some of the most important harbingers of larger success. For instance, Fleabag won only two Creative Arts awards — but one was for casting, which has now called the correct Outstanding Comedy Series winner for the last five Emmy ceremonies.
The record for calling Outstanding Drama is a bit spottier, but the Creative Arts award for casting has called three out of the last five. And Limited Series casting has called seven of the last eight (though the one that missed was this very year, as When They See Us won for casting but ultimately lost Outstanding Limited Series to Chernobyl). If you want to win your Emmy pool, this is a category to pay attention to.
Winner: Thomas Lennon
The always entertaining actor and writer Thomas Lennon was the guy providing quick jokes to shepherd viewers in and out of the ceremony’s ad breaks, and his “random facts” about the various winners as they marched up to the stage were often very funny, like this bit about the cast of Saturday Night Live.
He was a highlight in a production that mostly moved efficiently, to the degree that toward the end of the show, a female announcer simply started reading off lists of nominees to keep things moving, a decision that mostly worked.
And, also, the show featured this gag, which is great, even if Lennon had nothing to do with it. (Consider this “winner” slot one for a telecast that mostly succeeded.)
The Emmys’ 2015 switch to a voting system where everybody in the TV Academy gets to vote on the awards (rather than restricting voting to specific members of blue-ribbon panels) initially coincided with dull years when shows swept their way to the win — see also that first time Game of Thrones won 12 Emmys. But the 2019 Emmys showed that the new system has introduced a sense of wild unpredictability to the awards. Would a show like Fleabag ever have won under the old system? Probably not. The same is true for Succession’s win for Writing, a decision surely bolstered by the show’s stellar second season airing while voting took place.
Emmy voters in 2019 seemed to chafe against the inevitability of certain narratives. Sure, they would give Game of Thrones some trophies, but not enough to shatter any records. And they might have enjoyed Veep and Mrs. Maisel at one time or another, but this year, they loved Fleabag more.
It turns out that passion still counts for something at the Emmys, even with how big and bloated and corporate they’ve become. Game of Thrones can win 12 awards. But it can’t win everything. And in and of itself, that’s a good sign for the Emmys’ future.
Correction: Fleabag won two Creative Arts Emmys, not just one.