When the Emmy nominations were announced Thursday, one thing was perfectly clear: “Game of Thrones” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are going head to head. It’s the Seven Kingdoms versus Gilead, with the costumes on both sides eye-popping, from Dany’s angular, militaristic dresses to June’s nun-like blood-red robes.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” won the outstanding drama prize two years in a row, in 2015 and 2016. But in 2017, the show was not eligible for the Emmys, leaving room for the freshman season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to take home the statue (along with seven other awards, including best actress for Elisabeth Moss). Now, for the first time, the two shows will compete, a pair of remarkably good TV adaptations of well-known novels. Which great saga will prevail?
It’s a rich duel, since the shows are both very much of the moment. Yes, “Game of Thrones” is a fantasy set in an invented past, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian drama set in a day-after-tomorrow future. One looks back, the other ahead. But both dramas share a few important themes. They aren’t set in the here and now, and yet they both reflect it in their own ways.
For one thing, they share an acute awareness of political realities. “Game of Thrones” is built on the race to occupy the Iron Throne — outside of the more external and supernatural threat, that of the creatures to the north. The vying among the would-be rulers, including Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, and Sansa Stark, is very much like the vying among our political leaders, but with swords and dragons. The battle for the throne plays out like a metaphor for our own election campaigns, and also for our international alliances and enemies. On “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the political situation — a theocracy governed by men — is at the root of absolutely everything.
Both shows are also informed by world history. Even though “Game of Thrones” contains magic, it still evinces a kind of medieval tone and style that makes it feel like historical fiction. Likewise, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dark projection into the future, but it is redolent of historical events; according to Margaret Atwood, author of the book upon which it is based and consulting producer of the series, everything that happens in the story has happened at some point, somewhere, on Earth.
Most of all, both shows share the interlocking themes of women and violence. “Game of Thrones” has steadfastly pursued the sexism and violence visited upon its female characters. It’s one of the most disturbing qualities about the show, a reminder that women are still oppressed and worse — in various countries. Interestingly, as a kind of optimistic note on the show, the remaining competitors for the throne include Sansa, Dany, and Cersei. “The Handmaid’s Tale” also refuses to let go of the abuse of women — not just of the handmaids, but of every female character in Gilead forced to live by a misogynistic interpretation of the Bible. It’s a brutal take on the treatment of women — the hangings, the missing eyes, the rapes — and unrelenting too.
Not surprisingly, both shows have been accused of exploiting violence against women in order to shock and compel viewers. They’ve been faulted for turning sadism into entertainment, for creating “torture porn.” For me, though, those accusations are overstated. The scenes of violence against women are critical to the points of the shows, and not usually gratuitous or exploitive. In some 30 countries right now, according to the World Health Organization, genital mutilation is still practiced. The shows drive home the horror, they rouse the viewer, and, in this #MeToo moment, they remind us that inequality and sexism are still very much in play in this country too.
I enjoy seeing these two series up against each other. Both are smartly written, beautifully filmed, well-acted, and relevant. But my vote for best drama goes to “Game of Thrones,” which continues to be of the highest quality as it pares the number of major characters and moves toward its conclusion. Season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was good, but it seemed to cover a lot of the same territory as season one. Some of the subplots seemed like filler. The narrative drive lost some energy, as plot twists were recycled, and as the near misses and close calls piled up.
But the acting on “The Handmaid’s Tale” includes some of the best on television right now. So while I’m cheering for “Game of Thrones” as best drama, and while I enjoy many of its performances, I’m hoping “The Handmaid’s Tale” will take some acting prizes. Moss deserves a best actress Emmy again for her gut-wrenching work, and Yvonne Strahovski ought to get the supporting prize, for her turn as Serena, a woman caught in a trap she helped to create. Each of them is as faceted a character as you’ll find in this era of morally complex TV.