The titans of HBO: What sets ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Westworld’ apart in this Emmys race?

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In almost every year since its inception, “Game of Thrones” has been a popular Emmy contender for drama series categories. Its juggernaut success is partly what put HBO on the map as a distributor of serious programming. However, as the action in the final seasons ramps up, so does the waiting period between them. Last year, because of a long production gap between the sixth and seventh seasons of “Game of Thrones,” the frontrunners in the 69th iteration of the Emmys looked very different from how they had in years before. Instead of now-notorious critical favorite “Game of Thrones,” the favored contenders were the topical dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” and contemplative sci-fi show “Westworld.”

This year, however, “Game of Thrones” is back in the competition, and now it faces the formidable sophomore successes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Westworld” head on. Especially interestingly, “Westworld” also comes from HBO and shares many strengths with its predecessor. But the key differences between the two could be the vital component in predicting which of the two critical darlings will come out on top.

“Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” both take place in worlds very much unlike our own. The former is a high fantasy epic that takes place in what is essentially a medieval world featuring magic and dragons. The latter is a futuristic drama whose world includes theme parks built around the mechanization and assembly-line reproduction of human cognition. Both, however, earned their extensive praise by linking these unfamiliar worlds back to our present epoch by exploring universal human issues.

For example, “Game of Thrones” has us watch as female characters who initially cowered under the burden of a society keen on oppressing them find strength in defying expectations and seizing positions of power. “Westworld,” too, sees the downtrodden hosts learning to doubt the place they have been put into in society and fight for their freedom. Medieval women and human-like fabricants we are not — but these tales of shedding external fears in order to find unique fulfillment represent an essential part of human life, regardless of where and when we live.

But both series also excel at portraying the trade-off between this journey for personal strength and morality. Perhaps the difficulty in reconciling our sympathy for these characters with our fundamental disagreement with some of their actions is also part of what makes both series so compelling. In forcing us to think over our allegiances to these characters, the shows come alive and engage us the way a flesh-and-blood person would.

An essential difference between both — and what perhaps most sets them apart — is their relative stages within their plots. The “Game of Thrones” season in the competition is its penultimate; after this most recent season, there are only six extended episodes to come. As such, the seventh season had heavy plot-wise pulling to do in order to begin the arduous process of tying up the countless plot threads that made up the labyrinthine series. The resulting season was less concerned with character development and more so with plot development and resolution. This proved to be a weakness at some points — as the plot points proliferated, their thrills began to feel cheap, especially now that the episodes were left with little time to explore the character-driven moral quandaries and political strategies that made up the intellectual core of an action-packed series. However, even without these more thoughtful segments, this season of “Game of Thrones” was filled with enough stunning battle sequences and masterfully composed scenes to perhaps make up for their absence.

“Westworld,” meanwhile, is competing with only its second season. Also a series with a highly complex, deliberate plot, “Westworld” had to balance revelations with quieter developmental moments. Perhaps because of where it is in its lifespan — after the heavily expository first season, but still early enough that plot threads can arise with only the promise of a future resolution — this season of “Westworld” was able to spend whole episodes exploring the cognition and emotions of side and main characters alike. As a result, the show overall was richer — even if this richness came at the cost of a slower, more comprehensible plot.

Both HBO series undoubtedly earned their places as favorites among fans and critics alike, and both have contributed to the current golden age that television is experiencing currently. Regardless of the criteria by which they end up being judged at the Emmys, we can rest assured that both are strong contenders for their similarities and for their differences.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].