|Can Uzo Aduba and Samira Wiley break into an already crowded field?|
The Emmy nominations are less than one week away and this year’s competition is looking especially heated. The overall increase in the amount of television and rules changes limiting actors’ ability to submit as guest performers has ballooned the performers ballot by a whopping forty percent. As I’ve done each of the last two years, I’ll take a look at the past year in performances and give my thoughts on the actors, actresses, and shows I thought were best.
Two notes before we begin. First, I'm working from the actual Emmy performer ballot, so I won't make any changes like putting Keegan Michael-Key or Jordan Peele in lead actor categories or move Orange Is the New Black into the comedy category, where it was last year. Second, I'm only going to nominate people and shows that I've seen a good chunk of this past year. For the purposes of this category, that means no Scandal or The Good Wife actors, among a few others.
Previously, we looked at the drama Supporting Actor nominees and today it’s the drama Supporting Actresses. This could be a year of huge change for this category, not necessarily because of the returning nominees – all of whom, except last year’s winner Anna Gunn, are still eligible – but because of two big changes to the Emmys. This past year, the academy changed how shows are submitted into drama and comedy categories. Previously, it was up to the show to decide which category it wanted to submit in. This year, the academy declared that all hour-long shows would automatically be considered dramas while all half-hour-long series would be considered comedies. Shows would then have to petition to have their statuses changed, which would be decided by a committee.
The second change is that the Academy put strict episode limits in place to determine who could submit as a guest actor and who could submit as a supporting actor. In recent years, actors and actresses have been winning (and nominated for) guest Emmys despite appearing in every (or nearly every) episode of a season. This year, an actor who appears in more than fifty percent of a show’s episodes must submit as a supporting actor, not a guest.
The practical effect of these rules is that Orange Is the New Black, which last year submitted as a comedy and took up three Guest Actress nominee spots (including winner Uzo Aduba), was forcefully switched to the drama category and is bringing four 2014 Emmy nominees along: Aduba, Laverne Cox, Natasha Lyonne, and Kate Mulgrew. That means a whopping nine 2014 nominees are eligible in this category, with only six spots to fill.
All of this doesn’t even include newcomers like The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire which, while they aren’t what would necessarily be considered “traditional” Emmy shows, had several fantastic supporting actress performances.
I doubt we’ll see a ton of change in this category in 2015; it’s just not the Emmy way. Lena Headey is almost a shoo-in to return after her long walk in the Game of Thrones season finale. And Christine Baranski, Christina Hendricks, Joanna Froggatt, and Maggie Smith haven’t done anything in the last year to indicate they’re in danger of losing their perennial spots (the quartet has received seven of eight possible nominations in the two years since Downton Abbey came over to the drama category). The biggest question is whether OITNB can snag a second spot or if their actors will get shut out in the transition to comedy.
I didn’t see any The Good Wife episodes this year and my fondness for Downton Abbey waned sometime during season four, so I have the luxury of picking two Orange Is the New Black stars and I’m going with Uzo Aduba, last year’s Guest Actress Emmy winner, and Samira Wiley. Honestly, I probably could have filled this entire category with OITNB actresses and walked away happy. Lorraine Toussaint is the obvious choice, as the villain of the season, but I didn’t particularly care for her character. I was absolutely devastated by Morello’s (Yael Stone) episode, and easily could have put her in here. Kate Mulgrew and Laverne Cox were nominated last year, so they would have been easy inclusions. And Danielle Brooks had probably the most overtly comic character in a show I still consider to be largely a comedy, so I could have used that as a protest vote to the category change.
But, in the end, it was these two performances I kept coming back to. Aduba’s Crazy Eyes, I mean “Suzanne,” finally found direction inside the prison, but it unfortunately came at the direction of Vee’s insane attempts at control. That balance between focus and insanity is where Aduba excels and it’s where Suzanne sat for pretty much the entirety of season two. Samira Wiley, meanwhile, had a much less significant role, but managed to bring the drama and comedy anyway. I struggled mightily to choose between her and Yael Stone, but I felt that most of my love for Stone came from her focus episode, while Wiley excelled even beyond her fantastic solo piece.
Game of Thrones is constantly filled with actresses who could seemingly receive an Emmy nomination and, indeed, I could easily fill this spot with Lena Headey or Maisie Williams but, this year at least, it’s Emilia Clarke. Game of Thrones is almost always better when characters are coming together rather than moving apart and this was a season that saw Clarke moving closer to other characters, even as her power in the east seemed to wane. The return of Jorah, and with him Tyrion Lannister, energized the Essos storyline, giving viewers a reason to finally care again. And the final two episodes, with Drogon and Dany flying away from Meereen were utterly beautiful. It’s difficult to say that Clarke had a great deal to do in season five of GoT, but she made what she had work.
Carrie Coon had both the single best scene and the single best submission episode of any other Supporting Actress nominee this year. Her work in The Leftovers was unparalleled for about 45 minutes. Her only obstacle is that that 45 minutes represented much of her output for the entire season. Coon’s Nora Durst was largely a background entity during the first half of the freshman season of The Leftovers, but when she had the focus, she was magnetic. You couldn’t look away from her. This feels like one of those situations where, if Coon can corral a nomination, she should be a shoo-in, but she feels very unlikely to earn that nomination, given the specificity and the oddity of her role.
I very nearly nominated a quartet of actors from AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire but, ultimately, it was only Mackenzie Davis who could find her way on to my final ballot. That’s not to say anything negative about Toby Huss, Scoot McNairy, or Kerry Bishé. They all did fine work. But the standout of the up-and-down drama’s freshman season was, by far, Davis’s Cameron, as the coding prodigy brought in to seemingly do all of the men’s hard work. It’s easy to look at the strangest looking actor and declare them the biggest character, but Davis was placed in the most vulnerable position of the show and asked to control so many scenes and constantly stand up for herself. She handled it all brilliantly.
My final Supporting Actress choice is Katheryn Winnick of Vikings. I have to say, while I had no apprehension nominating her as a leading actress two years ago, I was very reluctant to bring her in to the supporting actress category last year, largely because it felt like her character took a huge step backward in the show: moving from the confident, assertive wife of a warrior to the passive, if plotting, single woman looking for an Earl.
In season three, Winnick’s Lagertha is a woman on her own, looking for glory and victory in her own battles, leading men to both victory and defeat. At this point in the history of Vikings it’s clear that, as much as he could wish otherwise, Ragnar Lothbrok’s fate is as entwined with his wife Lagertha as it is with anybody else.
Also Considered: Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire), Amy Brenneman (The Leftovers), Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), Joelle Carter (Justified), Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), Caitlin Fitzgerald (Masters of Sex), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Annet Mahendru (The Americans), Ivana Milicevic (Banshee), Kate Mulgrew (Orange Is the New Black), Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), Franka Potente (The Bridge), Yael Stone (Orange Is the New Black), Mary Steenburgen (Justified), Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones)
Those are my Emmy choices. It will be an interesting year for the category, with so many previously nominated actresses converging at the same time. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV. Next time we’ll look at the drama supporting actresses.
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.