Last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards winner Julianna Margulies is AWOL this time around, bypassed to make room for three first-timers in the lead actress category: Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and Tatiana Maslany, a trio that not only adds a new wrinkle to that race but also some welcome diversity in a category that has yet to hand an Emmy to a person of color. Scandal’s Kerry Washington could have made the race even more historic but sadly did not make the nom cut this year. Nevertheless, voters really have a chance to make a difference this time around. But will it be at the expense of the ever-deserving Elisabeth Moss, so great as Peggy Olson but who, like every other actor in Mad Men, has yet to touch that Emmy? Here is how I rate her chances against everyone else’s in this category.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Claire Danes Homeland (Showtime)
With her fourth nomination in four seasons for her emotional-tightrope-walking Carrie Mathison, Danes clearly has been on an Emmy roll with wins in 2012 and 2013, plus a 2010 victory for Temple Grandin. Only Margulies prevented a three-peat for the Homeland star last year, but with Margulies sitting this one out, can Danes come back to the winner’s circle? Homeland is back competing in the Drama Series category, so there’s support, but there could be a feeling of been there/done that for Danes.
Viola Davis How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
One of only two performers nominated for a broadcast network series in either drama lead acting category this year, Davis grabbed her first Emmy nom for the complex Annalise Keating from this mystery series from Shonda Rhimes. Davis brings such depth to the character that it wouldn’t surprise me to see her take this one, even if the show itself was largely overlooked. But genre series like this don’t always bring home gold for their stars. Just ask 18-time Emmy loser Angela Lansbury.
Taraji P. Henson Empire (Fox)
This other broadcast net nom also represents the only significant Emmy recognition for TV’s biggest new hit, Empire, which was largely dissed by the TV Academy. Henson already has won the Broadcast TV Critics prize for this role and seems poised to rep Empire’s Emmy chances entirely on her own. The fact that voters dismissed the show doesn’t indicate widespread support from within the TV Academy, and that could hurt, especially if voters just perceive the series as a primetime soap.
Tatjana Maslany Orphan Black (BBC America)
After two strikeouts, a deserved nomination has landed Maslany in the big leagues. The critical darling has been touted as surefire Emmy material since day one, but I think the BBC America show just wasn’t seen by enough voters. I would say that under the old system, where Blue Ribbon panels had to watch each submitted episode, Maslany could have sailed to final victory. Now with the wider swath of voters, familiarity with the series might be a disadvantage against better-known competition.
Elisabeth Moss Mad Men (AMC)
Moss has been a frequent presence at the Emmys with six nominations, but no wins. In fact, no actor has won an Emmy for Mad Men. This is the last chance voters will have to change that dubious distinction. Jon Hamm, Moss and Christina Hendricks are carrying the flag. For that reason alone some might feel an Emmy is called for here, but Moss’ Peggy Olson also is a real standard bearer for strong female characters and has shown remarkable growth over the show’s lifespan. Why not an Emmy just for that?
Robin Wright House Of Cards (Netflix)
Like HoC co-star Kevin Spacey, Wright has been nominated all three seasons for her Claire Underwood. Although she’s won a Golden Globe for the role, Emmy has been elusive for this consistently fine actress who stands toe-to-toe with Spacey and really delivers a three-dimensional portrayal. The competition is so fierce here that I think the subtlety she brings to the character might be easy to overlook, especially against the kind of vivid and groundbreaking roles the others get to play with.
The Winner: Elisabeth Moss
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Game Of Thrones’ strongest season and Emmy nomination dominance could help Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke, though the actresses might cancel each other out. That would leave an opening in the supporting actress race for perennial Mad Men nominee Hendricks, The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski or Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba. Aduba is again up for a character that previously won her an Emmy, and she’s now gone from Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series to Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, so there’s a chance to make history here. She could prevail, but the relatively weak showing for Orange Is The New Black (just three noms) could mean it is suffering from a bit of a sophomore slump. It didn’t score nearly as well as its first season and that might deflate Aduba’s chances a bit. So who does that leave to lead the charge? Look out for Downton Abbey’s 2015 Golden Globe winner and previous two-time Emmy nominee Joanne Froggatt. Without the Emmy juggernaut, also known as her castmate Maggie Smith, to compete against, I am predicting Froggatt might finally be holding the winning hand.
The Winner: Joanne Froggatt