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In Emmy Best Actress Race, Lead Women Lean Toward Anti-Heroines

Move over, Walter White.

Men aren’t the only ones who are asked to play morally ambiguous characters anymore.

This year’s list of Emmy contenders feature female antiheroes making rash, sometimes cringe-worthy decisions and pushing the boundaries of audiences’ likeability and sympathy. Both Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on Fox’s “Empire” and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards” play wives scheming with steely determination to reclaim the legacies previously denied to them by their husbands’ actions. And Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison continues her often reckless pursuit of justice in Showtime’s “Homeland,” sending away her daughter and risking the safety of herself and those who care about her in the process. Questionable parenting choices also color the actions of Vera Farmiga’s Norma Bates in A&E’s “Bates Motel” and Keri Russell’s KGB mega spy Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s “The Americans.”

New to the field this season is Krysten Ritter, an alumna of Emmy favorite “Breaking Bad,” now playing the title character in the Netflix’s Marvel series “Jessica Jones.” As a female private eye who uses whiskey as a sleep aid, curses, and is prone to violent acts of aggression, Jessica and her motorcycle boots strive to rid New York of her dangerous, manipulative ex-boyfriend (played by David Tennant).

“Jessica was never approached as gender first,” says Ritter. “I also dug that Melissa [Rosenberg, the showrunner and series creator] never put me in high heels or I’m never using my sexuality to get what I want — these old tropes that you really only see in television. That’s what I love about Jessica. I love that she was the one really driving the scenes. I love that she was so unapologetic. She makes bad decisions and she doesn’t really give a sh– what you think about her.”

Ritter added that all of these aforementioned roles “couldn’t be more different. These characters are coming in all different kinds of personalities and forms; that’s really exciting that you’re not just seeing one thing.”

But like Jessica Jones, many of these women come with a strong belief in “necessary” solutions, even if the audience doesn’t see them the same way. This was evident when Shiri Appleby used her downtime from playing the just-can’t-be-good reality TV producer Rachel Goldberg on Lifetime’s “UnReal” to play Carla Niven, a pregnant woman dying of cancer on CBS’ “Code Black.” The character chooses the life of her child over her own.

“When you’re really convinced about something, you throw everything into it.”
SHIRI APPLEBY

“She was so sure of her convictions; when you’re really convinced about something, you throw everything into it, especially when what was at stake was actually life and death,” says Appleby. “I was actually pregnant while filming this; they were really playing on my emotions because I was having a parallel experience.”

These roles are also coming at a time when the staffing of women and minorities in Hollywood has been under a microscope in social media and beyond. “Bates Motel,” “UnReal,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Empire” join “Jessica Jones” on the list of series with women at the helm.

Melissa James Gibson was recently named co-showrunner for the upcoming season of “House of Cards,” a series on which Wright has directed several episodes. Appleby spoke for this report while on a tech scout for the second season of “UnReal,” for which she will be directing her first episode.

Director Lesli Linka Glatter has served as an executive producer of “Homeland” for three seasons and says she’s “thrilled that there are more women directors. There need to be more; there need to be enough that this is no longer an issue [because] at this point in 2016, it really shouldn’t be.”

She has similar feelings about the growing number of multi-layered female characters in serialized TV. “The characters who interest me are always complicated, deep human beings,” Linka Glatter says. “Those are the ones, whether they’re male or female, that I want to be spending time with. Now we have these amazing female characters that are as complicated as male characters. I don’t think before there were uninteresting women characters, but I think now it’s OK to be multifaceted. You can be multileveled. Their behavior shows us something about the human condition.”

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