Monday, July 7, 2014

My Emmy Ballot: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

Anna Gunn left it all on the field in the final season of "Breaking Bad"
Supporting Actress in a Drama is not a category that has been particularly deep for me in recent years simply because a lot of the best performances are coming from shows I don’t watch – namely, The Good Wife and Parenthood.  But this year I feel like the nominations pool is stacked.  Not only did a pair of dramas make The Leap in their sophomore seasons (The Americans and Hannibal), but two Game of Thrones actresses finally submitted themselves after sitting out last year, and two other dramas with great supporting female performances made their debuts (Masters of Sex and True Detective).  While not quite as deep as the Supporting Actor pool, there are a lot of great actresses worthy of consideration here.

A couple of caveats before we start.  First, I’m working from the actual Emmy Performer Ballot, so I can’t move somebody from lead to supporting (Woody Harrelson), nor can I call True Detective a miniseries or Orange Is the New Black a drama, nor can I nominate somebody who didn’t submit themselves (like Alan Cumming in The Good Wife).  Also, I’m only including actors from shows I watch regularly, so if your favorites from House of Cards, Parenthood, The Good Wife, or Scandal aren’t here, that’s why.

My 2013 Choices:
Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter)
Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones)
Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad)
January Jones (Mad Men)
Kelly MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire)
Olivia Munn (The Newsroom)

Actual 2013 Nominees:
Morena Baccarin (Homeland)
Christine Baranski (The Good Wife)
Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones)
Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) – 2013 Emmy Winner
Christina Hendricks (Mad Men)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)

Not to spoil anything, but there will be only one actress carrying over from my 2013 nominees to this year.  It’s hard to blame the actresses, though.  For starters, four of my 2014 nominees weren’t eligible last year and would likely have taken a few spots if they were.  Secondly, several of them kind of got hosed by their shows.  Dexter took a nosedive in its final season, completely ruining all of the good things they’d done with Jennifer Carpenter’s character in season seven.  January Jones was in all of three episodes of Mad Men’s truncated season.  And Kelly MacDonald was similarly slighted by Boardwalk.  With less to do and a number of strong challengers entering the ring, there just isn’t the room for good actresses on bad shows or good actresses in nothing parts.

As for the actresses who were nominated last year, it’s difficult to see Baccarin coming back because a) she was barely in this past season and b) it was kind of terrible.  I feel like Maggie Smith has kind of run her course as the Dowager Countess and it will be interesting to see if Mad Men still has any voter affection or if people are just done with it.  Anna Gunn will return for certain and there’s no reason why Clark and Baranski wouldn’t as well.  This feels like the most wide open race, however, because with the exception of Anna Gunn, I could see a number of actresses filling the other three spots.

Hannibal was one of several dramas to take huge leaps in their second seasons this spring and a big beneficiary of that leap was Caroline Dhavernas.  She didn’t always get the best storylines (the whole Hannibal/Will/Alana pseudo-love triangle was iffy at best), but she was a strong presence throughout the season.  It’s never easy playing the dupe and the last one to know, but Dhavernas never made Alana stupid.  She was hoodwinked, yes, like everybody was by Lecter, but she was still a powerful woman capable of carrying herself among powerful men.

Speaking of powerful women, one of my favorite shows this fall was one in which the men mostly played second fiddle: Masters of Sex.  And while she wasn’t always the most powerful, Caitlin Fitzgerald’s Libby Masters was perhaps the most complex.  Playing the wife of a male lead in a drama like this can be a difficult task, as Anna Gunn, Edie Falco, and a host of other women can attest.  It’s easy for some viewers to see her as the shrill wife who is trying to prevent her hero (or anti-hero) husband from accomplishing his goals.  But Fitzgerald brings such life to Libby that it’s difficult not to root for her even when she’s not acting like the perfect wife.

Last year’s winner Anna Gunn is the front-runner to win again this year and it’s easy to see why.  In Breaking Bad’s final episodes, Skyler is finally forced to reckon with the devastation that Walter’s operation has caused and in which she, at times, was a reluctant participant.  It’s a difficult piece to watch as everything collapses and Skyler desperately tries to hold her family together, and Gunn plays it perfectly.  The character of Skyler received a great deal of criticism from certain segments of the Bad fanbase (mainly young, male viewers who just wanted to see Walter kick ass), but Gunn remained stalwart through it all.  I would be stunned to see anybody else take home the trophy this year.

It is true that True Detective didn’t care nearly as much about its female characters as it did about its male leads Rust Cohle and Marty Hart and if Michelle Monaghan had submitted herself as a lead, I don’t think she would have done enough to earn a nomination.  But as a supporting actress, she certainly left her mark on the show.  I could argue for a nomination for her solely based on the scene in which Maggie seduces Rust but throughout the series’ short run, she was phenomenal.  There’s something of a trend with the last three actresses I’ve discussed (and really one more on this list), in which they could easily be seen as the overbearing wives of their stories’ heroes.  But because these actresses are so good at what they do, they manage to bring depth and heart to what could otherwise be thankless roles.

Maisie Williams would have earned a nomination from me last year for her work as Arya Stark on Game of Thrones had she submitted herself in the first place.  Unfortunately she didn’t, but she’s in the running this year and might have an even better case for season four than she did for the third.  The symbiotic yet antagonistic relationship between Arya and The Hound as they continued to search for both her family and somebody to pay him often brought levity to an otherwise dark show.  But even beyond the humor, the relationship those two developed was one of the deepest, most thoughtful and considered on the entire show, and it was sad to see it end.  Even if we won’t have Arya and The Hound together anymore, we’ll always have Arya’s laugh at the utter absurdity of her life.

I had Natalie Dormer in this final spot for the longest time,* but ultimately realized that I was giving it to her more out of wanting to have recognized her work in the third season of Game of Thrones than for what she did this season.  So after a long deliberation I decided to go with Katheryn Winnick instead.  I nominated Winnick in the Lead Actress category last year, but she stepped down to Supporting Actress for 2014, which makes sense given her decreased screen time.  But even as her character essentially became the Betty Draper of Vikings, Winnick continued to show why Lagertha could never be a kept woman.  Constantly surrounded by men who underestimate her capabilities, Winnick imbues Lagertha with a quiet strength that always keeps her a part of the action, even when her character is sidelined from the main story for much of the season.

*Figuratively speaking, anyway.  Literally speaking, this list is alphabetical, not ordered by personal preference. 

Others meriting consideration: Betsy Brandt, Emilia Clarke, Christina Hendricks, Annet Mahendru, Ivana Milicevic, Olivia Munn, Emily Bett Rickards, Holly Taylor

Previously: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

So those are my Emmy choices.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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