It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones was the belle of HBO’s Emmys ball.Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

LOS ANGELES—“Soph! Soph!” a man shouted from inside the HBO Emmys party at the Pacific Design Center as he tried to help the Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner navigate the throngs of people surrounding their reserved section. So many well-wishers showed up to congratulate the Thrones team on their Outstanding Drama win—among them the Veep cast members Tony Hale and Timothy Simons, as well as the drag queen Nina West, who posed for photos with the series’ star Kit Harington. By the time Turner made it up to her show’s section, the place was packed, yet she eventually managed to get a shot with her co-star Nathalie Emmanuel—and one with West, of course.

It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones was the belle of HBO’s Emmys ball. The series’ achievement in winning the coveted Outstanding Drama Series trophy, after all, felt momentous—and inevitable. Last night’s award ceremony singled the show out as a cultural juggernaut in honor of its final season. An opening montage celebrating television as a medium used scenes from Thrones as its framing device. And an hour into the presentation, the cast members arrived onstage to celebrate the show with a scripted tribute. “As much as we wished the show could have gone on forever, our time had come,” the actor Maisie Williams, who played Arya Stark, read stoically from a teleprompter. “And tonight is a chance to once again thank all of those who watched.”

Game of Thrones tied its own record last night for most Emmys won by a series in a single season, scoring 12 trophies in total. Yet the show lost in most of the major categories: Its finale failed to win for writing and directing, and among its 10 performance nominees, only one triumphed. In the end, 10 of its 12 record-tying honors had been picked up at the Creative Arts Emmys the weekend before.

The Emmys delivered a clear message: Game of Thrones was a cultural monolith, but it wouldn’t be awarded for its final season’s technical and storytelling chops. Even the showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, seemed relieved while collecting their final trophies for the series: “I can’t believe we finished it,” Benioff marveled. “It’s over.” Added Weiss, addressing his family: “We’re sorry we were gone for so long. We hope someday you decide it was all worth it.” For a win that had the audience deliver a standing ovation, the remarks felt subdued, rather than celebratory.

Then again, that speech arrived immediately after perhaps the most electric of acceptance of the night. The address Phoebe Waller-Bridge gave when her series Fleabag won Outstanding Comedy Series was an elated, vibrant, and welcome game-changer late into the ceremony. (She even yielded the floor to her co-stars and crew, to hilarious effect, as the director Harry Bradbeer gamely stepped up to the mic to apologize to his wife for forgetting to thank her in his earlier speech.) The comedy arena had been a toss-up leading up to the show. Even awards prognosticators had been uncertain of whether Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would repeat its success or if Fleabag would break through; the odds for either winning had been projected to be the same, along with Veep’s.

With those final speeches, the Emmys demonstrated a truth about the way Hollywood awards its own—as satisfying as it was to watch an objectively excellent series win its honors, it was just as important for a mainstream project to be accepted by the filmmaking community and cemented as an influential show, regardless of the quality of its finale. Fleabag’s win was delightful; Game of Thrones’ felt perfunctory—but if Thrones hadn’t been awarded at all, the Emmys would have seemed out of touch.

Plus, it’s not like Thrones bombed on Emmys night. It broke the record for number of nods with its 32 nominations. Peter Dinklage won his fourth Emmy for playing the troubled Tyrion Lannister, and the series itself walked away with the top prize. But the real victory lap for the show took place months ago, when fans tuned in to the final season.

Still, to the cast and crew behind the show, being together to celebrate their series meant more than any amount of awards. “Coming from another country, you know, to be [a part of] the ‘best’ show, it’s such a nice experience,” the Emmy-nominated Dutch actor Carice Van Houten, who played Melisandre on Thrones, told me as the party wound down. Being onstage and getting to read a few scripted lines with her peers felt “pretty good,” she said, smiling. “I was very happy.” Minutes later, she slipped out of the party with other members of the cast as they wandered off to drop by more after-parties. The first stop, allegedly? Netflix’s bash, just a few minutes of a car ride away.

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