Note: This post is the latest in an on-going series of pieces exploring the major categories at the 2015 Emmy awards. We will cover actors, actresses, and series – Comedy and Drama – through the end of the voting period on August 28. See something you like or a performance you’d like to single out? Share the posts and create some Twitter buzz! We’ll see you at the Emmys.
The following is an analysis of the six actresses voted into the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy race for the 2014-15 broadcast season. Television is the place to be for female actors. There were arguably enough talents in this field to fill three six-nominee lineups. Even the incumbent winner Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife did not receive enough votes to get back into the race. It’s a cutthroat year for the win and the competition is beginning to bloom.
Performer: Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
Episode: “From A to B and Back Again” (Season 4, Episode 6)
Highlights: Carrie fakes her own kidnapping to prompt Aayan to lead the CIA to the season’s “big bad,” Haqqani. She also lashes out at several co-workers who disagree with her tactics in the mission. Then, Carrie witnesses Aayan’s death by his uncle’s hands, which ignites some traumatic emotions for her since she extracted information from Aayan using her sexuality.
Why she could win: Danes is an Emmy champ having won this category for this role twice and likely came in second place last year. The Emmys love what she brings to the table, and now they have a reinvigorated love for the show; Homeland made a comeback this year and reclaimed its Drama Series nomination, along with being shortlisted for directing. Leaving the Drama Series race for season three and managing to maneuver its way back in for season four is an indication that voters may have watched the all twelve episodes and saw everything Danes created within the role this past season. Her submission has few effective moments, like when she verbally reprimands a subordinate and when she recklessly reacts to Ayan’s death.
Why could she lose: After three years of picking flawless Emmy submissions for Homeland, Danes didn’t pick a winning tape this year, and she had one a monster of a submission in “Redux,” which could have wounded the strongest episodes from the likes of Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. Danes’ performance isn’t the main attraction in “From A to B and Back Again”, and even if it were, it’s hard for viewers to root for Carrie’s actions in this episode specifically: she uses a younger man sexually, chastises the most sympathetic character in the fourth season, and gives a command that could have killed her most trusted friend.
Performer: Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder
Episode: “Freakin’ Whack-a-Mole” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Highlights: Annalise defends a man’s death row appeal, visits her client in prison, reassuring him of her confidence in his case and goes before the Supreme Court to cross-examine a senator about his involvement in the original trial. The episode concludes with a scene between Annalise and her husband where she exposes her vulnerability and tells him how much she relies on him in spite of the problems in their marriage.
Why she could win: Having a “money moment,” where an actor completely obliterates a scene with huge emotions like hysterical breakdowns or heady speeches, is the safest way to secure an Emmy trophy. In “Freakin’ Whack-a-Mole, Davis gets a long-winded tirade in court and has several scenes where she cries. Some of the material she is asked to play cheesy, but Davis teases out mammoth emotions from even the most subtly written scenes. It almost creates this bulldozing effect as the episode continues and she continues to bury the viewer with her acting, which only gets more and more intense. She’s one of the most respected actresses out of any medium—television, theater, or film. The tone of Davis’s acting is in keeping with the Emmy’s past preferences, despite her show sliding off the rails into cheaper, MTV-like territory.
Why could she lose: Unless there’s a secret uprising of support for Robin Wright or Taraji P. Henson within the Academy, the path is clear for Davis to win with this rock-solid submission. “Freakin’ Whack-a-Mole” is a very safe tape despite her having bigger moments in episodes like “Let’s Get Scooping” and “Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me.” Several actors from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy have also won Emmys by way of being a Shonda Rhimes creation, so even if they aren’t enamored by the show itself, the Academy has proven they respond to the type of acting in Rhimes’ shows.
Performer: Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire
Episode: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Highlights: Cookie is released from jail and reaches out to her estranged sons after years of incarceration. She also demands her fair share of the company her ex-husband began using her money, the money which earned her a lengthy prison sentence. The episode contains flashbacks informing the viewers of crucial moments in the family’s past, all of which chiefly feature Cookie.
Why she could win: Empire was a sensational hit with the general public in its first season, attaining the biggest popularity and buzz for a broadcast show since cable began to surge years ago. Henson, an Oscar-nominated actress, is arguably the exclusive component to that success. She’s an icon in pop culture now thanks to her work as Cookie, and Henson’s wave of popularity could help her win the Outstanding Actress Emmy. Not only is she the trending star of the year, but she also submitted a dynamite episode to the Emmy judges. Henson is in the spotlight for the majority of Empire’s pilot; the whole episode revolves around her release from jail and how that creates a ripple effect in awakening the first season’s storylines. Her gregarious work is hilarious, naughty, and emotionally compelling. It’s going to be hard for voters to miss her name after the huge comedic and shocking dramatic impact Henson leaves behind.
Why could she lose: Cookie is unrefined, gaudy, and tacky. The Emmy’s typically select winners with more snob appeal in the Drama Lead Actress category (like Julianna Margulies, Claire Danes, and Glenn Close), not performances that shed soapy flavors. Empire was widely seen as a likely candidate for Drama Series because of its cultural effect and commercial influence, and voters have already proven the personality of the show is not to their liking by snubbing it in every category except Costume Design and Lead Actress.
Episode: “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Highlights: Alison has seemingly got the juices flowing in her marriage to Donnie. Cosima is shacking up with Shay, to the jealousy of scorned Delphine. Helena is on the run again, and eats her scorpion. Sarah is still captive and seeing visions of her daughter. Rachel is feeling the wrath of Felix.
Why she could win: Another trait in an episode submission that helps an actor win an Emmy is for voters to see them play more than one character/more than one version of the character, showing range. Maslany has this attribute in spades with her performance in Orphan Black. Every character she plays is uniquely sketched out and definitively her own, which is likely to impress, along with the raw emotions and baity character situations she is assigned to play in “Certain Agony of the Battlefield.” Voters have finally given Maslany a shot after two seasons of snubbing her critically lauded work on the thriller series, and receiving your first nomination in your third season after the novelty wears off (for a genre show, no less!) is not the type of recognition to discount. The Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Awards rallied behind her in the first two seasons, so the question becomes how welcoming will the television Academy be?
Why could she lose: Unfortunately, the nomination is probably the reward for Maslany. Overcoming the very much real genre bias and the prestige of being nominated is likely as far as the Academy will go for a couple reasons. One, I’d wager most Academy members are not watching Orphan Black religiously – not like they watch Downton Abbey or Mad Men – so when they see her tape, voters will likely have no idea what’s actually going on in the massively complicated story. Two, her performance is fascinating but because the show is so different in spirit and structure than what they’re used to, it’s likely they won’t feel the emotional weight of the episode more than they will watching Davis’s, Henson’s, or Wright’s performances in more traditional Emmy shows that are easier to swallow for non-viewers.
Performer: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men
Episode: “Person to Person” (Season 7, Episode 14)
Highlights: In Mad Men’s series finale, Peggy adjusts to the new workplace environment, while pondering an offer from Joan to start a new business together. She also speaks to Don on the phone, who has been missing for several weeks, and tries to console him as he trembles over the edge of an emotional precipice. Meanwhile, she and her longtime co-worker and trusted friend, Stan, admit their unrealized feelings to one another.
Why she could win: The Mad Men nostalgia is alive and Moss’s nomination is proof of that. She was invited back into the club after being snubbed last year when she had a larger role invested in the plot. In the episode she chose, “Person to Person,” Peggy has a good deal of screentime; it’s probably the most she is featured in any of the last seven episodes. Her sappy union with Stan as the conclusion to her story is something tangible for voters to latch onto.
Why could she lose: As much as we love Peggy Olson, Moss’s nomination surprising to begin with since Peggy had so little to do this year. (Moss was oddly absent from most pundit predictions before nominations were announced.) If anything, Christina Hendricks was the most important actress of the past season and is correctly competing in the supporting actress category, while Moss—who is secondary to her this year—is a ‘lead’ actress? Anyway, “Person to Person” is not what Peggy will be remembered for from the second half of season seven, not more than her epic walk down the hallway in “Lost Horizon,” or the confession about her giving up Pete’s child for adoption in “Time and Life.” Moss has been nominated six times over Mad Men’s run, so if it voters have not felt the urge to reward her yet, chances are this is not the year either, especially when the other nominees turned in titanic artistic works for consideration.
Highlights: Since the episode she submitted has not be disclosed, Wright would have been wise to pick one of the following: “Chapter 32,” where Claire commiserates with a gay man being held in a Russian prison and makes a bold political move against President Petrov; “Chapter 39,” which studies the emotional buildup to Claire’s decision to leave Frank; or “Chapter 28,” where Claire faces drawback from government and the media while perusing a career as an ambassador.
Why she could win: After years of sitting on the sidelines, Wright finally got her turn to shine in the third season of House of Cards. In the years prior, Claire was more of a supporting role than a leading one, but all of that changed this year. Creator Beau Willimon let her drive the smooth, logical arc of the season, even more than Frank in some ways. Wright bit into the full-length material she was given. There was something she did in every episode that was memorable, even in shows that were lighter on Claire’s storyline. Wright’s performance is maybe the one thing the supporters and detractors of House of Cards Season Three can agree upon. Having the leaner screen time was always what that held this role back from blossoming into its full potential, and episodes like “Chapter 28,” “Chapter 32,” and “Chapter 39” show Claire Underwood at her full potential. (If Wright did in fact submit “Chapter 32,” it’s anyone’s guess who wins between Davis, Henson, and her because that episode is tailor made for an Outstanding Actress Emmy win.)
Why could she lose: It all comes down to her episode selection. Many pundits last year thought Wright could beat Margulies and Danes had she submitted “Chapter 17,” but she didn’t and instead betted on winning with the Season Two finale where Claire had minimal screen time. If she went with a less inclusive episode again, it could immediately take her out of the running again. Also, Wright unfortunately had her best season ever in the same year Davis and Henson entered the race, and they both have more momentum behind them for the win.