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Who Stands Out in an Overcrowded ‘Lead Actress in a Drama Series’ Category?

This year’s Hollywood Reporter Drama Actress Roundtable perfectly encapsulates the impossible decisions Emmy voters have to make. Last year’s winner Elizabeth Moss is still at the height of her career but she’s surrounded by an insane group of undeniable talent including a rising movie star in her last season of a prestige drama, a beloved legend who has yet to win a major award in a career that spans four decades, and a fan favorite in a new spy sensation. The roundtable didn’t even have room for a handful of performances that have a shot at upsetting the frontrunners including a former pop star in the biggest drama on broadcast and a teen drama star from the 90s at the critical height of her career.

So how will Emmy voters make their decisions? With no less than five previously winning performances and 12 former nominees, there is bound to be plenty of surprises.

(Photo: The Hollywood Reporter)
The Frontrunners

Elisabeth Moss’s first Emmy came last year as the result of a perfect combination of performance, career, and politics. With the second season heading into an uncharted direction without the guidance of Margaret Atwood’s novel fans were curious where the show would take June’s story. So far we’ve seen June explore unseen aspects of Gilead and the reception from audiences and critics has been mostly positive. With the show still growing in popularity, Moss is still the favorite heading into Emmy season especially with a potential second nomination for Top of the Lake.

Heading into Emmy season Claire Foy has the unique advantage of simultaneously coming across as the star of a relatively new show and the urgency of a respected performance in its final season. Now that Claire Foy is moving on after two seasons so that a different actress can portray an older Queen Elizabeth this is the last chance voters have to reward a performance that has already won a Golden Globe and two SAG awards. Her performance in the second season perfectly balanced British politics with her complicated and tragic personal relationships. On top of her rising star power from the show, Foy is also getting a lot of attention for her film work including the recent Unsane and a couple of upcoming high-profile projects including the role of Lisbeth Salander.

Kerri Russell has had a rollercoaster of a final season so far on The Americans. Fans have been universally praising her performance week after week and Twitter has relentlessly tried to predict Elizabeth’s fate heading into the finale. As the momentum for Russell’s performance rolls into the final episodes it will be interesting to see if it will be strong enough to turn her into a frontrunner to win the first Emmy of her career. Emmy voters have been apprehensive to award The Americans in a major way but if the season ends in a bang that excitement could be channeled into a win for Russell.

So far actors have embraced the This Is Us cast in a big way but last year Emmy voters left out Mandy Moore in the highly competitive lead actress race. This year the second season has proven that Rebecca is the true heart of the Pearson family. Moore is the only actor that appears in every time period represented on the show spanning from the 70s to the current day. The biggest episode of the season was essentially a showcase of Moore’s talent that is so emotional that it is bound to turn her into the dark horse of the race.

(Photo: BBC America)
First Season Standouts

Sandra Oh has been long overdue for her first major leading role in Hollywood ever since she left Grey’s Anatomy in 2010. Four years later the five-time Emmy nominee has finally been offered a starring vehicle worthy of her talents as an obsessive MI5 operative in Killing Eve. The role is perfectly suited for the underrated actress and fans have been obsessed with the show breaking ratings records and becoming the only new drama this year to actually gain viewers week after week. Oh is obviously having a moment if Killing Eve was on a bigger network she would be an obvious frontrunner. If BBC America is able to stand out against the likes of HBO and Netflix and push Oh towards her first lead actress nomination she might become the dark horse of the race and actually win a much deserved Emmy.

Laura Linney has won four of her five Emmy bids over the years making her an undeniable threat in the Emmy race whenever she works in television. This year she might be entering the drama categories for the first time for her work on Netflix’s Ozark. The crime drama became a sleeper hit for the streaming network and Linney even earned a surprise SAG nomination for her work on the show which almost always translates to a corresponding Emmy nomination. In such a crowded category it will be interesting to see if she has enough screentime to stand out against actresses fronting their own shows. Linney arguably gives a leading performance in Ozark but often times her character takes a backseat to her husband in a borderline Walter White and Skylar situation.

There was a lot of buzz last fall for Maggie Gyllenhaal in HBO’s The Deuce. The Oscar-nominated actress earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as an NYC prostitute and initially seemed like a strong contender. Since then The Deuce has failed to find a larger audience and David Simon projects have always had a difficult time connecting to Emmy voters but HBO does know how to connect voters to their projects and they are beginning a strong campaign for Gyllenhaal.

(Photo: BBC America)
A Genre Takeover

Tatiana Maslany pulled off one of the biggest surprises in recent memory at the Emmys when she won a much-deserved award for her work on Orphan Black effortlessly playing off of herself portraying an endless amount of clones. Her win was one of the few examples of critics and fans championing an unlikely show to amazing results. After Maslany finally won there seems to be a lack of urgent momentum propelling her to another nomination and since the sci-fi drama ended last summer it might be harder for her to stand out with so many high-profile performances standing out in the final stretch of the TV season.

The second season of Westworld has been off to a complicated start and the development of Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores is proving to be as complex as last season’s finale promised her to be. In the second season, Wood has fully portrayed Dolores full grasp of her past memories as the antihero channels that rage into revenge.

For the first time at the Emmys, HBO is submitting Emilia Clarke as the lead actress of the Game of Thrones ensemble after three supporting nominations over the years. Across the seventh season, Daenerys has proven to be critical to the endgame of the series. Clarke may be becoming the lead actress of the massive ensemble but in such a shortened season she might have enough screen time to make a major impact with voters. Game of Thrones is still one of the most popular dramas of all time at the Emmys and even though she hasn’t shown much range this season she was given a couple of memorable moments that fans will remember including a battle involving her dragons and a cringe inducing sex scene.

After Stranger Things became a pop culture phenomenon and her SAG nomination 2017 was supposed to be the comeback year for Winona Ryder until she was surprisingly left out of the supporting actress lineup. This year Netflix is considering submitting the Oscar nominee in the lead actress race so that she isn’t at least competing against her costars but she is moving from one crowded category to an even more competitive one.

Old Favorites

Even though Emmy voters skipped over Claire Danes for the first time last year she should never be counted out. The television academy has always had a soft spot for the award-winning CIA drama and just last year Mandy Patinkin made a comeback in the supporting actor race after being left out for multiple years in a row. Ratings have been consistent throughout the seventh season and Carrie Mathison went head-to-head with a corrupt President in an attempt to free 200 imprisoned members of the intelligence community.

Nothing has changed about Viola Davis’s performance as Annalise Keating since she won her history-making Emmy three years ago. The beloved actress is still giving bombastic booze fueled monologues that in any other decade would be winning award after award. The Emmys have changed drastically since How to Get Away With Murder first premiered and this year Davis is up against actresses in massively popular shows. Besides recognizing Davis and Cicely Tyson voters have never really shown a larger love for HTGAWM and without a deeper show of support for the show as a whole this might be the year Davis is left out of the lineup.

Scandal ended earlier this year and even though the Shondaland sensation isn’t the must-see TV it used to be a small pocket of loyal fans within the Academy might want to send Kerry Washington off with a farewell nomination. The consensus on the final season was not good however and it is much more likely that Kerry Washington and Viola Davis end up in the guest actress race for their crossover episodes.

(Photo: Fx)

Current Predictions 


Elizabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale

Claire Foy, The Crown

Mandy Moore, This Is Us

Kerri Russell, The Americans

Strong Contenders

Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld

Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder

Sandra Oh, Killing Eve

Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones

Laura Linney, Ozark


Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

Claire Danes, Homeland

Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce

Winona Ryder, Stranger Things

Christine Baranski, The Good Fight 

Readers, who are you rooting for heading into the 2018 Emmys? Without a clear alternative is Elizabeth Moss on her way to a second Emmy?