The competition in the drama lead actor and actress races is notable for how little it has changed since last year and, yet, how much it has changed. In each of the categories, four of the six nominees are returning to do battle. On the male side, we have Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey and last year’s winner Jeff Daniels duking it out again, while on the female side Michelle Dockery, Kerry Washington, Robin Wright and Claire Danes—the back-to-back winner in 2012 and 2013—are back in the race. The interesting thing in both contests is that the contenders who weren’t in the race last year have frontrunner status. The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies is back after inexplicably being passed over for a nomination last year. Most pundits agree that the 10-time nominee and past winner delivered her best work ever, and expect her to make a trip to the winner’s circle. Both Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey created waves when HBO decided that their eight-episode runs on True Detective constituted entry into the drama series acting race, rather than miniseries/movie, where everyone originally thought they would land. Their inclusion has been a big upset, especially because they both are vying for lead honors. Potential nominees such as The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, Master of Sex’s Michael Sheen and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, among others, were shunted aside to make room for the HBO carpetbaggers. With wins in most of the precursor races, McConaughey is widely considered the favorite. It’s been an interesting turn of events for these categories, and here’s how they stack up.
Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, AMC
Although he won the Emmy in this category for the first three seasons of the landmark series, and picked up another as a producer last year, Cranston has sentiment on his side, with the chance that voters might reward his stunning work in the final season with yet another acting statuette. The only thing standing in his way is McConaughey.
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom, HBO
Daniels long has been an underappreciated and under-awarded actor. That’s why it was such a bona fide shocker last year when he won in this category on his first ever nomination, and against stiff competition. Due to the tough stakes again this year, many thought he wouldn’t even get a nomination for the show’s second season. Here he is, but again as a longshot.
Jon Hamm, Mad Men, AMC
This is Hamm’s seventh nomination for his signature role as Don Draper. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be his seventh loss. Perhaps Hamm’s brilliant performance, week in and week out, is too subtle for voters. Next year, which will mark Mad Men’s series end, might be Hamm’s time in the sun, especially since Cranston and McConaughey won’t be factors.
Woody Harrelson, True Detective, HBO
Harrelson is an Emmy favorite and this is his 8th nomination overall, with one win in 1989 for Cheers. He is way overdue for more serious recognition, especially considering he brilliantly went toe-to-toe against McConaughey in True Detective. But even Harrelson seems to think he knows who is going to win—and it isn’t him.
Matthew McConaughey, True Detective, HBO
After winning the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club in March, McConaughey is poised to become the first male actor to win both an Oscar and Emmy in the same year since George C. Scott did in 1971. The only drawback is that he was only in eight episodes of this show, making for a one-time arc that voters might feel isn’t as deserving of an award as a regular series star.
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards, Netflix
I was convinced Spacey was going to win last year for his first time out for this breakthrough Netflix series, so the loss to Daniels was unexpected. Sophomore familiarity and a lack of the same level of heat means Spacey has a bigger mountain to climb this time. He probably won’t be scaling the peak in 2014.
The Winner: Matthew McConaughey
Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex, Showtime
Truly unforgettable in a new Showtime series full of promise, Caplan has been gaining quite a following in her first season opposite veteran actor Michael Sheen who, sadly, didn’t get an Emmy nom. As an unknown factor in this race and a newcomer to the Emmy competition, Caplan could be a dark horse; her work on the show is that good.
Claire Danes, Homeland, Showtime
For a while, it seemed as if Danes just couldn’t lose. After all, she was a winner in this category for Homeland’s first two seasons (the second of which was subpar at best), as well as a 2010 winner in the mini/movie category for Temple Grandin. But TV Academy members might be growing weary of Miss Danes and want to look elsewhere for their votes.
Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey, PBS
This is Dockery’s third consecutive nomination for her role in Downton; only Maggie Smith has been recognized more for the British drama. Many thought this was a down season for Downton, so it seems unlikely that Dockery has the amount of heat needed to crush this year’s competition.
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife, CBS
When Margulies latches onto a series role voters like, she’s usually showered with Emmy love. She won her first Emmy in 1995 for ER and followed it with five more nods. This is her fourth nomination for The Good Wife to go with a win in 2011. Strangely, she missed the nomination cut last season but has come roaring back with her most talked about year ever.
Kerry Washington, Scandal, ABC
There are very few shows hotter on network television than ABC’s Scandal. With her second consecutive acting nomination, Washington is looking to make history in as diverse a lineup of acting nominees as the Emmys have seen in a while. Look for her to upset Margulies and take the prize if voters tend to agree with the show’s many fans.
Robin Wright, House of Cards, Netflix
Wright has been gaining lots of steam since her first nomination in this category last year. She even won a Golden Globe for her role in this political thriller and could be ripe to outshine costar Kevin Spacey at the Emmys, too, since her character’s arc has been getting juicier and juicier. I would not be shocked to see Wright triumph on August 25.
The Winner: Julianna Margulies
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey (PBS)
A well-deserved third nomination for one of Downton’s most reliably interesting characters is probably all Carter will get in the category this year.
Josh Charles, The Good Wife (CBS)
In one of the TV season’s most shocking moments, Charles’ Will Gardner was killed off, as was the actor’s run on the show, although he still is directing episodes. Dying in this case was a good thing, because Emmy voters took notice. With his second nom, Charles could pull an upset.
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (HBO)
Dinklage—with his fourth nomination and previous win for this role—seems to have a lock on Emmy voters’ hearts. It doesn’t seem likely, though, that he will have trophy bookends any time soon.
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland (Showtime)
Patinkin is one of those rare actors who is good in everything—he is a key reason to keep watching Homeland—but this is not his year.
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad (AMC)
Five nominations and two wins just are not enough to honor the singular creation that is Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. The actor’s perf in the final season was dazzling, intense and positively operatic in its scope.
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Voight already has won a Golden Globe for his first season on this show, and an Emmy could follow for this actor’s actor.
The Winner: Aaron Paul
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife (CBS)
The actors branch loves her and has showered Baranski with 12 nominations over the years, but only one win, and for this show. Anything is possible, just not likely this time around.
Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey (PBS)
Emmy voters love their Brits, so it’s no surprise Froggatt is back for a second nomination. She likely will find herself cancelled out with Smith for the win.
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad (AMC)
Gunn finally broke Maggie Smith’s stranglehold in the category when she won for the first time last year, and justice was served. But Bad’s prior season was nothing compared to the histrionics and human drama of the series’ final eight episodes. No one else comes close here.
Lena Headey, Game of Thrones (HBO)
If anyone could upset Gunn it is Headey, earning her first nomination as Cersei Lannister and making every moment count on this large-scale drama.
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (AMC)
In seven seasons, not a single actor has won an Emmy for Mad Men. Shame on you, TV Academy. Hendricks’ performances always are deserving, but the actress probably has given up hoping for a win. There’s always next year to give Hendricks a big sendoff into TV history.
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey (PBS)
The Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the hands of this great Dame, is a formidable character, but Smith, a three-time Emmy-winner, didn’t have the kind of material that makes Gunn so strong this year.
The Winner: Anna Gunn