EmmyWatch: Is Viola Davis Unstoppable?

When ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder premiered last September, audiences immediately gravitated toward the formidable Shonda Rhimes’s newest production thanks, in part, to lead actress Viola Davis’s dominating performance as Annalise Keating. It’s not just that the performance was great (it was and continues to be indicative of the fantastic Davis’s best work), but it’s that she was so far above anything else in the show. Davis tears through the show’s soapy, high concept roots and brings an emotional truth to the role – all the more astonishing given the plastic 90210-level actors that surround her.

Most attention grabbing was the decision – more importantly, Davis’s decision – to show the character in her natural beauty on the October 16 episode. After receiving some devastating news linking her dead husband to a murdered sorority girl, Davis’s Keating steps away from the drama and seeks internal solace. The episode culminates with Davis taking off her makeup, her false eyelashes, her wig – all symbols of acceptable (re: white) beauty – and opening herself up to the world in her natural African American beauty. Across the internet, television sites and blogs made the moment a true hot button, water cooler moment.

The honesty and frankness of Davis’s performance, not to mention the brilliant way she whips the often turgid dialogue into shape, made her an instant frontrunner for an Emmy nomination for Lead Actress Drama. It also tipped her as the lead to win the race. She would be the first African American woman in Emmy history to win the award. Debbie Allen. Regina Taylor. Alfre Woodard. Cicely Tyson. Kerry Washington. Those are all of the African American actresses nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Zero wins. Even the Oscars rectified that thirteen years ago with Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball.

Is Viola Davis the woman to break into the winner’s circle? Will Emmy 2015 make history? It certainly would seem so right now since Davis received the 2015 Screen Actors Guild award for Dramatic Actress. Of course, there are obstacles to making history.

First, How to Get Away with Murder had an odd flow of a freshman season. The series ran through the fall to substantial ratings and critical praise. After its “winter break” (an awkward interruption to the flow of longer format network television seasons), Murder returned with a limp mini-season before offering its season finale in late February – some five months before the end of the traditional Emmy window. What’s worse is that it aired during the raging inferno that was FOX’s Empire, stealing much of the buzz earned by Murder in the fall.

Also adding to the race’s complexity is the presence of wild card Taraji P. Henson of the buzz-stealing Empire. Even if Davis received the critical acclaim, Henson dominated early 2015 pop culture with her sizzling portrayal of Cookie Lyon on FOX’s smash show – a show that achieved the rarest of feats by featuring a predominantly African American cast and building upon its early ratings success week after week. Rather than achieving big ratings out of the gate and petering off as most shows tend to do, Empire started strong and used its enviable word of mouth and strong Twitter following to expand its audience. Henson rode the crest of that wave with a towering performance that, in some circles, is also tipped for an Emmy nomination. It remains to be seen how far the Emmys will embrace the soapy drama, but Henson does appear to be a strong bet for a nomination.

The 2015 Golden Globe awards had the opportunity to solidify Davis’s position as frontrunner, but, as they often do, they chose to go their own way and honored Ruth Wilson for her complex dual performance in Showtime’s The Affair. Ironically, Wilson’s Affair trajectory strongly resembles that of Halle Berry’s Monster’s Ball character arc. Both characters are mothers grieving over the heartbreaking loss of their child who seek to bury their pain in a heated sexual relationship. Wilson one-ups most actresses this year by having the opportunity to play two female archetypes within the same series: the “mother” and the “whore.” It’s most likely the latter that helped gain the attention of the Hollywood Foreign Press, not meaning to take anything away from her performance of course. Wilson has yet to show this much range, and her recent Tony nomination for Constellations proves she’s an awards-friendly and accomplished actress. Even though the show received no recognition from the SAG Awards, Wilson is, in my opinion, the dark horse to win in the race. Provided she gets nominated.

Filling out the incredibly crowded race for Lead Actress (how many times have you heard that in Oscar talk?) are last year’s winner Julianna Marguiles for The Good Wife, Lizzy Caplan turning in another great performance in the middling Showtime drama Masters of SexHomeland‘s Claire Danes for its forth season resurgence in quality, the perennially undeserving Michelle Dockery for Downton AbbeyScandal‘s Kerry Washington who is most likely to be pushed aside by Davis or Henson (or both), or Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss provided she campaigns as Lead Actress this year. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black offers up Taylor Schilling as it is forced to compete in the Drama category this year. It’s a nomination that would be significantly undeserved as the series focused less on Schilling’s character and embraced broader storytelling (the rest of the Orange actresses are campaigning in the less crowded Supporting Actress category). Perhaps this could be the year that the Academy overlooks its sci-fi bias and recognizes the high degree of difficulty in the central Orphan Black performance by recent SAG nominee Tatiana Maslany.

And finally, Robin Wright manages continue achieving the impossible by topping last year’s amazing performance in Netflix’s House of Cards. The streaming series’s third season offered an enviably complex dramatic arc typically reserved for male actors. Wright’s Claire Underwood strived for independence and notability outside of her marriage to President Frank Underwood but was shot down by the person she relied on most – her husband. Claire’s near mental breakdown and eventual walk-out on Frank was clearly the highlight of the third season and is most likely one of the strongest season finale shockers weighing heavily on the minds of Emmy voters.

So, right now, the most likely six nominees look something like this:

  • Claire Danes, Homeland
  • Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
  • Taraji P. Henson, Empire
  • Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
  • Ruth Wilson, The Affair
  • Robin Wright, House of Cards

Unfortunately, the two major precursors in the Emmy race have resulted in a split decision between Davis and Wilson without the benefit of Henson in the race or Wright’s gut-wrenching performance in Cards‘s new season. How will these variables shift the race? It’s hard to tell. My gut tells me that it’s still Davis’s to lose because of the immense good will built up after the crushing Best Actress Oscar loss from The Help. Her case would be airtight had Murder continued its run into the end of the traditional television season. Yet, I can’t help wonder if there is some bizarre Emmy scenario where Davis and Henson somehow split the vote simply based on the color of their skin, allowing Wilson or Wright or even Margulies to sneak in for the win. I know, it’s a horrible thought. These things should be judged simply on the performance alone, but they seldom are.

I’m not saying that will happen, though. I’m still hoping the Emmys make the right call and award the best performance. It’s just icing on the cake that they would, in turn, make Emmy history. And that’s the kind of excitement you look for in awards shows.

UPDATE: Thanks to some very sharp readers for pointing out two richly deserving actresses I’ve omitted from my evaluation: Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) and Keri Russell (The Americans). Farmiga received an Emmy nomination in this category for the first season of Bates Motel but missed out last year. She stands a slightly better chance this year due to a number of factors: the expanded category formally allows for 6 nominees, she’s a known quantity who is delivering routinely stellar performances week after week, and the overall quality of the show has increased now that the focus is driving toward some kind of end point. Still, it’s going to be difficult for Farmiga to overcome the six to ten actresses ahead of her.

Russell’s chances, stellar reviews for the third season of The Americans aside, have never been strong. When people talk about the show, Matthew Rhys is the one that most frequently comes up, not Russell. On a recent podcast, ADTV’s Megan McLachlan hypothesized that the show stretches credibility as a native Russian. Maybe it’s the character’s likability issues. For whatever reason, Russell (and The Americans itself) have always been bridesmaids at the Emmy altar. Despite the widespread raves over Season Three, I don’t see that changing this year.

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