With last year’s lead actress winner Tatiana Maslany out of the running, a new woman is set to take the gold in the drama category. Will it be previous winner Viola Davis, or frequently nominated actresses Robin Wright, Keri Russell or Elisabeth Moss (though the latter is nommed this year for a new series)? Or can a newcomer — Claire Foy or Evan Rachel Wood — walk away with the statue?
“How to Get Away With Murder” (ABC)
Though the Shondaland staple has been a vehicle for Davis since its inception, she got a chance to peel back even more layers of force-to-be-reckoned-with Annalise Keating in the third season finale, “Wes.” Here Davis shined once again as she played a variety of points on the emotional spectrum as Annalise pieced together the truth about the twisted murder of her surrogate son and beloved student — a murder for which she was framed.
“The Crown” (Netflix)
Foy took both the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for her role as Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year, which was not surprising to those who watched her expertly flit back and forth between a conflicted young woman not quite ready for the power about to bestowed upon her and a regal outward image she felt she had to exude. The duality Foy masters is greatly on display in “Assassins,” an episode that sees her Elizabeth choosing which moments to avoid conflict and which to express royal relationship concerns.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)
Every episode of the dystopian drama showcases Moss and her titular Handmaid character Offred. But the episode that ended up as the official submission to the Academy was the season finale, “Night,” in which she finally, officially takes a stand against one of the more barbaric parts of Gilead’s regime and refuses to stone a fellow handmaid. The decision didn’t come easily, and you can see the wheels of Offred’s brain working behind Moss’ eyes, proving there really are no small moments for an actress of this caliber.
“The Americans” (FX)
Russell often has to play a role on top of a role on this Soviet spy drama. After all, her character Elizabeth Jennings is constantly putting on a disguise and becoming someone else to get her job done. Gradually as time has gone on, some of her harder personas have started to infiltrate Elizabeth more fully. This is evidenced strongly in the 11th episode (“Dyatkovo”) of this fifth season, in which Elizabeth has to step up and kill an elderly former Nazi when her husband can’t.
Although Wood’s character Dolores is an android, she infused her performance with such nuanced humanity, audiences couldn’t help but root for her. In the season finale (“The Bicameral Mind”), Wood played Dolores’ realization that the hated Man in Black was actually an older version of her love William with the perfect combination of conviction, confusion, and despair. Even if some of the audience felt prepared for the plot reveal, it was impossible not to be moved by the performance.
“House of Cards” (Netflix)
What better episode to submit than the season finale, “Chapter 65,” in which Claire Underwood finally takes the presidency and truly gets to step out of Frank’s shadow? Wright embraces Claire’s cold, steely resolve as she makes the ultimate power move: breaking the fourth wall.
“Better Things” (FX)
Much of the freshman season of this series focused on the difficulties of Adlon’s Sam being a single parent. But the episode “Future Fever” diverged from that path, featuring some sweet, but never maudlin, moments between Sam and her daughter Max. We all know Adlon can be sharp and cutting, but it was a pleasure to see her maternal side, too.
“Grace and Frankie” (Netflix)
On this Netflix comedy, Fonda gets to play straight (wo)man to Lily Tomlin, but this season, she gets to be funnier and more vulnerable than ever before. In “The Pot,” she sort-of bonds with her two daughters over a couple of joints and allows Grace’s facade to crack. But Fonda’s performance also infuses Grace with an undertone of earned wisdom and an overtone of emotion.
Everyone knows Allison Janney can do comedy and drama — she’s won Emmys for both, once in the same year! — and “Mom” always gives her a showcase for both, which is perhaps never evidenced greater than in “Tush Push and Some Radishes,” when her recovering addict Bonnie learns of the death of her mother. Janney deftly turns between comedic moments and unexpected melancholy as Bonnie works to resolve maternal issues posthumously.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Kemper is the main reason the offbeat premise of the show works; her Kimmy may be relentlessly sunny, but she’s never annoying. In “Kimmy Goes to College,” the titular character signs up for TaskRabbit, doing all sorts of jobs that allow Kemper to show off both her optimism and physical abilities. This episode also shows the dichotomy between Kemper’s Kimmy and her constant foils Jacqueline and Xan. Though Kimmy can be broad, Kemper plays her with such genuine enthusiasm and naivete, she is always grounded.
How many Emmys does Louis-Dreyfus have again? In season six of “Veep,” she once again shows us why she’s been so decorated with new chances to show a deeper humanity to her ambitious, profane, and narcissistic Selina Meyer. In “Groundbreaking,” she chooses her profession over her personal life and ends a romantic relationship, effectively breaking her own heart in the process.
Ross has managed to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional sitcom wife, playing a doctor and mother who screws up as much as she succeeds. In the episode “Being Bow-Racial,” she dives deeper into her own history and universal questions of identity when her son brings home a white girlfriend.
“Grace and Frankie” (Netflix)
The hippie-dippie half of TV’s female odd couple, Tomlin keeps her Frankie from becoming completely exasperating with expert comic timing, line reading and underlying empathy. That kind of commitment to the character is hard to resist, and in “The Burglary,” she goes all-in to showcase some unexpected fears that pop up and drive Frankie’s behavior. Tomlin is absolutely essential to playing the free-flowing counterpart to Fonda’s straight-laced Grace.
The talent lining this category is the stiffest in years, with four Oscar winners in the mix, but they’re all competing against co-stars. Could that clear the way for a victory for previous winner Felicity Huffman? Or possibly newcomer Carrie Coon, the standout of “Fargo?”
Coon is enjoying a strong year, with both the final season of HBO’s “The Leftovers” and this FX anthology series. She was overlooked for her work on the HBO drama, but the Academy still has a chance to reward her courageous and always committed work. Here Coon infuses her “good cop” Gloria Burgle with the perfect blend of practicality, passion, and doggedness that makes her a force with which to be reckoned.
“American Crime” (ABC)
Huffman is already an Emmy winner for “Desperate Housewives” and has been nominated for three years in a row for this ABC anthology series that has seen her playing wildly different characters each year. This time around, Huffman was on a journey for justice after her Jeanette Hesby learns some dark family secrets. The power of Huffman’s performance didn’t just come from when she was trying to stand up for what’s right, though, but also when she was reluctantly giving in to her place in the family.
“Big Little Lies” (HBO)
The Oscar-winning actress is coming off a fantastic year with the indie hit “Lion” and a heartbreaking performance here as Celeste, a mother of two who hides deep abuse behind a picture-perfect public image. Kidman personifies the sensitivity and delicate balance of a woman who lives in fear of setting off her abusive husband while also demonstrating why it can be so hard for some women, even the ones who have wealth and education, to walk away. Her vulnerability and ability to fully “go there” is her greatest strength.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (FX)
On screen Joan Crawford exuded steely elegance, but Lange didn’t stop at the real life legend’s public image when portraying her in reel life. Spending moments alone with Lange’s Joan exposed a much more complicated, human, and vulnerable side. You see the pain on her face when she realizes her co-star and rival is sleeping with their director, and you hear the scream of anguish when she’s passed over for an Oscar nomination. Her character may lose the prize, but Lange’s performance makes her a winner.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (FX)
Sarandon is a natural as Bette Davis, mixing pure class with a bawdy sensibility. Even when she’s at her worst, putting down her daughter or conspiring against her co-star, Sarandon brings an inherent likability to the icon. She also walks away with some of the snappiest one-liners which makes the performance even more memorable.
“Big Little Lies” (HBO)
As the Type A Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Witherspoon found a role perfectly suited to her toughness and intelligence. But she doesn’t stop there, as Witherspoon got to show off a tenderness to this character, as well, when she protectively takes new mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) under her wing and spends time with her husband (Adam Scott). On display in Witherspoon’s performance are the many layers of any woman striving to be taken seriously while still holding onto her warmth.