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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  1. Avatar
    Robin Write 7 years ago

    Great stuff.

    Tatiana Maslany is a mirage to Emmys.

  2. Avatar
    Philip H. 7 years ago

    I love Viola Davis, and if any actress is granted the title of being the first black actress to win (no matter how late the Emmys are/television is), she is a very deserving candidate. Such a formidable actress. But…her show is so bad. Horrendous. I couldn’t watch more than an episode to be quite honest.

    I’d much prefer for Taraji P. Henson to win, who’s also doing very strong work, but is on a much better show. They’re both soap-y shows, but Empire has a much stronger cast of actors–whereas HTGAWM has Viola Davis anchoring it, but weak CW-level talent surrounding her. The writing for Empire also much stronger. It’s just a stronger show in general, so as unlikely as it is, I’m rooting for Taraji. A nomination should be guaranteed at this point, though.

  3. Avatar
    Dragon 7 years ago

    No mention of Keri Russell…

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 7 years ago

      Excellent point. I don’t know why, but that show struggles with Emmy recognition. There are hopes that this will be its breakthrough year, but Keri Russell just doesn’t ever seem to factor in the conversation. She’s well deserved, but Matthew Rhys gets most of the attention when performances are mentioned. Still, I should have included it as a deserving candidate. Good catch.

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    caleb roth 7 years ago

    Taraji can’t lose, forget it.

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    phantom 7 years ago

    I was mixed on the season as a whole but if she submits the Cicely Tyson episode, then I would say Viola Davis really can’t lose. While watching that episode I kept thinking how the ridiculous aspects of the show are all forgiven for this piece of work that should secure Davis an Emmy…then it should be brought to Broadway with the title “Uncle Clyde” as a two-woman play so both could also win Tonys…and then adapted into film for the Oscars. Clearly I’m exaggarating, my point is that that episode and those two performances were by far the very best part of an otherwise flawed and somewhat forgettable freshman run.

  6. Avatar
    Mego 7 years ago

    I will eat my hat if Taraji doesn’t get nominated.

  7. Avatar
    Joey Moser 7 years ago

    Good acting is good acting no matter that kind of show. HTGAWM and Empire are both soapy, yes, but Henson and Davis are both deserving of nominations.

  8. Avatar
    Nick 7 years ago

    Either Davis or Henson will win. Dark horse will be Wilson. To me, Empire is much more enjoyable and a stronger cast. I would pick Taraji but I won’t be mad if Viola wins. But I will be upset if Empire doesn’t get any major nominations, which I doubt it won’t because it is way too popular to ignore.

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    Vincent 7 years ago

    God, I hope the Emmy’s don’t make this about race. Viola Davis is great in anything (like Meryl Streep in a sense), but HTGAWM is nothing more than frothy soap-opera manipulation. Is it fun to watch? Sure. Emmy-Award Winning? No. In fact, I don’t think this is Davis’ best work by a long shot.

    The actors of color on “Grey’s Anatomy” are better, in my opinion. Let us not forget Kerry Washington. Hensen is doing a fun caricature, but nothing more.

    Danes and Margulies are the strongest in that line-up, followed closely by Wright. Don’t forget about Vera Farmiga for “Bates Motel.” She’s doing some great work.

    Television has really grown into a competitive arena for great female actors and I love it! Also, do the new rules (60 minute show is automatically drama, 30 automatically comedy) apply to the acting nominees? If so, there’s a lot happening on “Orange is the New Black,” too.

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 7 years ago

      UGH. Vera Farmiga is doing FANTASTIC work on Bates Motel. HOW could I forget that? You get the gold star for today. I’m going to update the piece later today. THANKS!

      We do think Davis’s work is strong in HTGAWM even if the show isn’t. It’s not her best work, but it’s indicative of her best work.

      The new rules do apply, but most everyone is campaigning in the supporting races with the exception of Taylor Schilling. None of us thought her work in OITNB S2 was strong enough to go against these ladies.

    2. Avatar
      phantom 7 years ago

      I would also like to add Eva Green to the conversation because apparently her work in the first season of Penny Dreadful wasn’t eligible last year but it is this time around and her performance was nothing short of extraordinary, her commitment was outstanding. The science scene alone should secure her the very least the nomination but I would argue that she should be a major threat for the win, as well. Emmy voters don’t go for genre performances so clearly this is just a pipe dream of mine but still, she deserves to be mentioned as a worthy contender.

      1. Avatar
        phantom 7 years ago

        “sceance” scene (stupid autocorrect)

      2. Avatar
        Clarence Moye 7 years ago

        Totally agree, but I thought they were campaigning that as a limited series. Turns out it’s in the drama category. It’s all madness. If it’s drama, then Penny Dreadful will be buried except in the crafts.

  10. Avatar
    Vincent 7 years ago

    I’m also sad Katherine Heigl’s new show didn’t get enough buzz. I really enjoy her work as well.

    What about Tea Leoni?

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 7 years ago

      The buzz on Madame Secretary is next to nothing, and the critical reaction (mixed-to-good) isn’t going to help carry it through to the end. Again, this category is just stuffed with great performances, so it’ll be hard for Leoni to overcome all of these obstacles.

  11. Avatar
    Joey 7 years ago

    I don’t know…those senior citizens might rally their walkers around Leoni…

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    André 7 years ago

    Elisabeth Moss had two brilliant, beautiful feminist monologues on last week’s “Mad Men” that really made me root for her and that episode’s writers to win in their categories this year.

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    RodinClase 7 years ago

    This is why I don’t pay much attention to awards. Vera Farmiga and Tatiana Maslany are given the best performance on television right now and both are so underrated, no one is even paying attention to them. Farmiga’s performance in Bates Motel Episode 6 Norma Louise is the best work I’ve seen on television this year.

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 7 years ago

      I couldn’t agree more. Particularly in that episode.

      1. Avatar
        RodinClase 7 years ago

        Yes, I don’t understand how Michelle Dockery, Taylor Schilling and Elisabeth Moss have a better chance for a nomination, it’s insane.

        1. Avatar
          Clarence Moye 7 years ago

          I don’t think Taylor Schilling is in this at all personally. Elisabeth Moss will probably go supporting.

  14. Avatar
    Henry 7 years ago

    I think Viola Davis is unstoppable, if they nominate the right people and the most deserving. I think they should drop Claire Danes and Julianne Margulies because they’ve been winning in this category the last five years, it’s time to move on, there’s so many deserving actresses doing great work who deserve a little bit of spotlight. I’m not a fan of Bates Motel but I saw “Norma Louise”, and it’s Vera Farmiga’s acting masterpiece, if she doesn’t get nominated it will be a tragedy.

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 7 years ago

      We have the best readers. Let’s start the crusade now for Vera Farmiga.

      1. Avatar
        RodinClase 7 years ago

        We should write an article about her.

        1. Avatar
          Clarence Moye 7 years ago

          She was on my list to write up closer to the nomination window.

  15. Avatar
    Henry 7 years ago

    LOL Let’s do it, it will be nice to give her some momentum.

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    Devil's Advocate 7 years ago

    Viola Davis’ massive talent is indisputable. She should be handed awards for anything and everything she chooses to appear in. Should she win an Emmy for HTGAWM…a most deserved one at that…I will be among the many cheering.

    Yes. I’m that big of an admirer of hers.

    Lead Actress in a Drama Series is going to be over-crowded this year and with with very worthy candidates, but, like Lead Actor at the Oscars this year, some will undeservingly be left out.

    That said, there are two other performances that I feel are both equally deserving of, not only a nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama, but also of a Win: Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful.

    For me, Maslany continually makes me forget that she is playing multiple characters especially when those characters are in the same scene, which is regularly. What’s truly astonishing about her multiple performances is that, not only are they fully-realized independent performances, but they all seem so effortless. I can’t imagine anyone else in those multiple roles. It’s unfortunate that the success of Orphan Black as well as the (shamefully underwhelming) recognition of Maslany continues to be relegated to the cult of “those in the know” or so it seems.

    In the case of Eva Green…well…I can not think of another female lead (or any lead for that matter) whose pendulum of their character’s emotional life swings wider than that of her Vanessa Ives. What impresses me most with what Green brings to Vanessa is this: it doesn’t matter if she’s embodying her cool confidence; is unapologetically embracing her sexuality; or is consumed with raw, feral terror because, ultimately, she endows every single experience of Vanessa’s with a single unifying element: a deep-rooted honesty. Green makes us believe everything she is feeling. It’s a towering performance and yet Eva Green’s name is never part of the dialogue when awards are being discussed. Frankly, I was quite surprised that the HFPA didn’t recognize her performance as they admirably had done with Maslany the year before because they have an admirable tendency to think outside of the box (this year with Gina Rodriguez in Jane The Virgin).

    I feel that a big part of the difficulty in getting the television academy to recognize these performances is that they reside in the perceived slums of cult genres. (God forbid they deign to stoop that low!!)

    Here’s my Emmy wish list for Lead Actress in a Drama:

    Viola Davis – HTGAWM
    Eva Green – Penny Dreadful
    Taraji P Henson – Empire
    Tatiana Maslany – Orphan Black
    Ruth Wilson – The Affair
    Robin Wright – House of Cards

    Claire Danes (a great season for Homeland!), Julianna Margulies and Kerry Washington will be vying for the two spots that the television academy will not be giving to Green or Maslany. Sadly.

    An unrelated aside: I would LOVE to see Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) get recognized for GoT in Supporting.

  17. Avatar
    Guest 7 years ago

    I admit that HTGAWM isn’t a strong show, Empire is much better, but when it comes to lead actresses Davis is far more superior. Taraji P Henson created one of the most memorable characters in the history of television but so did Davis and if we look at the performances of the individuals alone then I’m sure that most of you will agree that Davis is more deserving of the Emmy.

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