The case: It was a rough year for Bonneville’s Lord Grantham. First, he makes a huge investment that goes bust, leaving the estate near bankruptcy, and then he follows poor medical advice that may have been responsible for his daughter’s death. The storylines presented fresh challenges for Bonneville as the elegant patriarch of the family.
Trivia: Bonneville’s professional acting debut in 1986 was as an understudy to Ralph Fiennes in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Emmy history: Fifth nom, with three past wins (2008-10), plus three more noms outside this category
The case: Figuring the only thing left in life was building his drug empire, Cranston’s Walter White turned much more ruthless – if that was even possible. One piece of evidence was having 10 guys whacked in a prison-murder montage. But Cranston is skillful about adding nuance to his portrayal, and that came through during Walter’s fatal confrontation with a business partner, Mike Ehrmantraut. After shooting him, Walter offers the gravely injured Mike a self-serving apology.
Trivia: Cranston made his acting debut at the age of 8 in a United Way commercial.
“The Newsroom” (HBO)
Emmy history: First nom
The case: In his first leading role in a television series, Daniels plays cantankerous cable-news anchorman Will McAvoy — a character who’s in full command behind the desk on the air, even amid the chaos of covering breaking news, but often fumbles when it comes to his personal life. Daniels captures the character’s complexity, which especially comes through in his complicated relationship with MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer), an ex-girlfriend who is now his executive producer.
Trivia: Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mich., the town where he grew up. It was named after “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the 1985 Woody Allen pic that starred Daniels and Mia Farrow.
“Mad Men” (AMC)
Emmy history: Sixth nom, plus three others outside this category
The case: It was a season-long slide for Hamm’s Don Draper. Was the low point when his daughter caught him cheating with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini)? When he got into a fistfight with a minister? When he was fired on Thanksgiving Day? Tough to say, but by the end of the season Hamm had Don on a new track – telling the truth. In a powerful scene that concludes the season finale, Hamm’s Draper stands with his children in front of a dilapidated former brothel, and he says, “This is where I grew up.”
Trivia: Hamm attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and after graduating from the U. of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in English, he returned to JBS to teach drama.
“House of Cards” (Netflix)
Emmy history: First nom, plus one other outside this category
The case: Known for playing memorable villains, Spacey’s latest is a ruthless congressman gunning for a high-level Cabinet post. After he’s passed over for the job, the power-hungry politician masterfully plots his revenge and schemes to get what he wants — at one point, baiting a teachers’ union boss into punching him. The assault brings a protracted strike to a quick end.
Trivia: Spacey auditioned for “The Gong Show” in 1976, doing an impression of Johnny Carson, but was rejected.
Emmy history: Second nom; with one past win (2012)
The case: After winning the Emmy for his work on the freshman season of the taut psychological drama, Lewis didn’t let up during its return. His character, Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, doubled down on living a double life – getting elected to Congress, then at another point helping to kill the vice president. The complicated alliances take an obvious toll on Brody, who in the “I’ll Fly Away” episode finds himself succumbing to the pressure.
Trivia: Lewis grew up in St. John’s Wood, North London, a five-minute walk from the Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded their classic albums.