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2018 Emmys: The Lead Actress in a Drama Series Race

(From top left) Caitriona Balfe (Outlander), Keri Russell (The Americans), Sandra Oh (Killing Eve), Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder), Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Claire Foy (The Crown) are all vying for a spot in this year’s Lead Actress in a Drama Series race.

This year’s Lead Actress in a Drama Series race is shaping up to be a true battle royale. Packed with previous Emmy winners and nominees plus a handful looking for their first, this might be the toughest race of the year.

Let’s take a look at the strongest contenders.

The Returning Champ

After seven Emmy nominations and no wins (six of them from Mad Men), Elisabeth Moss came through last year winning this category plus Drama Series as a producer of The Handmaid’s Tale. A nomination is certainly not in question (but a win might be…) as she and the show aren’t seeing a sophomore slump in season two. She’s lock #1.

The Heavy Hitters

Keri Russell (The Americans) finally broke through at the Emmys in 2016 and was nominated again last year. For her show’s final season, all eyes (and much of the storyline) are focused on her. She’s lock #2.

Claire Foy (The Crown) is also on her last season, even if her show isn’t. Next year will see a time jump and her Queen Elizabeth will be played for two seasons by Olivia Colman. So, as with Russell, this is Foy’s last chance for a nomination for this role. Earlier this year, news broke that Foy had been paid less than co-star Matt Smith, which caused quite a social media stir. She’s already a two-time SAG winner for it so she’s lock #3.

Next in Line

Here’s where it starts to get tricky. If we’re locking in those three spots we have three spots left. Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) has been nominated for three Emmys in supporting actress but this year makes a bid for Lead. It’s a bit risky but GoT‘s shortened 7th season she was a main player. Someone who could stand in her way is Westworld‘s Evan Rachel Wood. With Game of Thrones missing out on last year’s eligibility, the Emmy baton was passed onto Westworld, which picked up a huge 22 nominations including Lead Actress for Wood. She’s not featured quite as heavily as she was in season one and that may hobble her chances a bit. Laura Linney (Ozark) is an Emmy darling. She’s won four times, all for different projects. She was SAG nominated earlier this year for this role. Could the taint of Jason Bateman after that horrific Arrested Development cast interview hurt her? Possibly, but I doubt it. I think Maggie Gyllenhaal figures in here but does anyone even care about The Deuce? Last year, This Is Us earned an incredible seven acting nominations, including three for its topline cast – but not Mandy Moore. Despite strong reviews the competition was stiff (or maybe they just didn’t take the singer-turned-actress seriously) and this year is even tougher. Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) has been nominated three years in a row (2016-2018) at the Golden Globes but so far the Emmys haven’t bitten. Could she be a slow burn like Tatiana Maslany was for Orphan Black?

Previous Winners

Speaking of Maslany, she won in 2016 but missed last year due to the window of eligibility. Season 5 was Orphan Black‘s last season so this is her last shot at another nomination here. It feels like a far reach for that to happen. Claire Danes (Homeland) won here two years in a row (2012 and 2013) and finally missed last year after five nominations in a row. Despite the 7th season being hailed as a return to form for the show (and for Danes) it’s not easy to return to the fold after the Emmys decide you’re no longer relevant. Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder won in 2015, for her show’s freshman year and remains the only African-American winner ever in this category. She was nominated the next two years (and won an Oscar in between those) so she should still be a major player even if her show is clinging to ratings life.  Davis also represents the only black actress even close to realistic contention; Kerry Washington (Scandal) was only nominated twice, in 2013 and 2014, and Taraji P. Henson (Empire) missed out last year after two nominations in a row and her show is in a ratings freefall. It’s a sad state of affairs (and harks right back to Davis’s Emmy speech about lack of opportunities) but one that could propel Davis to a nomination.

The Oh Factor

Sandra Oh was nominated five years in a row for Grey’s Anatomy (2005-2009), all in supporting actress but never won. This year, she makes a bid for Lead Actress in one of the midseason’s most buzzed about shows, Killing Eve. Oh has received universal acclaim for her performance in Killing Eve (which was just renewed for a second season) playing the titular role. She landed a spot on the Hollywood Reporter’s drama actress roundtable and represents a very underrepresented section in film and television – Asian-American actresses. Were she to be nominated here, she would be the first ever in this category. It greatly depends on if her show is seen. It’s produced for BBC America, which also has Orphan Black. For Maslany, it took two years for the Emmys to notice her. Will Oh have to wait that long?

Here’s how I see the Lead Actress in a Drama Series race right now.

1. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
2. Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)
3. Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)
4. Sandra Oh, Killing Eve (BBC America)
5. Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones (HBO)
6. Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)
OTHER CONTENDERS (alphabetical)
Caitriona Balfe, Outlander (Starz)
Claire Danes, Homeland (Showtime)
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce (HBO)
Laura Linney, Ozark (Netflix)
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black (BBC America)
Mandy Moore, This Is Us (NBC)
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld (HBO)
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About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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