Yet again, Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series is one of the most competitive categories at the 2021 Emmys. Following last year’s history-making Zendaya victory that left awards pundits stunned, we are now faced with another Drama Actress category where the presumed frontrunners are not as safe as you think.
This year’s Lead Actress in a Drama Series race includes Uzo Aduba for In Treatment, Olivia Colman and Emma Corrin for The Crown, Elisabeth Moss for The Handmaid’s Tale, Mj Rodriguez for Pose, and Jurnee Smollett for Lovecraft Country. Colman and Moss are the only returning nominees from this lineup, with the latter coming back after being shockingly snubbed last year. Aduba is now a five-time Emmy nominee with three wins under her belt while Corrin, Rodriguez, and Smollett are each celebrating their first Emmy nominations. So who has the edge in this category? Let’s break down each of the Lead Actress nominees individually.
Uzo Aduba (In Treatment) – “Brooke – Week 5” (HBO)
Aduba’s power with the Emmys simply cannot be ignored, having now won three Emmys from her first four nominations. In Treatment, where she plays Dr. Brooke Taylor, is her first nomination as a lead actress and she is also the only representative for the HBO drama at this year’s Emmys. Aduba’s episode submission is “Brooke – Week 5,” arguably the showiest acting display of any submission this year. In the episode, Brooke has a therapy session with a manifestation of a therapist — also played by Aduba. Not only is she playing dual roles but a vast majority of the episode is centered around this conversation with herself, with Brooke gradually unraveling as she vocalizes her family trauma.
It is tempting to count out Aduba considering she is the sole nomination for her show in a category full of performances in far more nominated series. Yet, the actress is beloved by the Television Academy, previously winning twice for Orange Is the New Black and last year for Mrs. America. If voters are just now catching up with In Treatment and see her episode submission, there may be enough voters who are affected by her work that she leapfrogs over the expected frontrunners and adds another Emmy to her collection.
Olivia Colman (The Crown) – “48:1” (Netflix)
Colman is the only holdover from last year’s Drama Actress lineup, collecting her second nomination for playing Queen Elizabeth II at middle age. Season 4 of The Crown takes place from 1979-90 and concerns Elizabeth grappling with Margaret Thatcher and her reign as prime minister as well as Princess Diana’s strained integration into the royal family. Colman submitted the episode “48:1” for Emmy consideration, where the Queen quarrels with Thatcher about sanctions for South Africa. Colman properly juggles Elizabeth’s growing impatience with Thatcher with her need to portray herself as apolitical in the press.
What will likely prevent Colman from winning is the excessive restraint needed to play Queen Elizabeth at this time in her life. Quite frankly, subtle performances like this tend to lose Emmys more than win them. Still, Colman is an Oscar winner and playing the figurehead of the show most likely to win Best Drama Series, so it’s possible that she could be swept up in a massive Emmy haul for The Crown.
Emma Corrin (The Crown) – “Fairytale” (Netflix)
Corrin established herself as an actress to watch with her tender performance as Princess Diana in Season 4 of The Crown. Her impact on the season was such that Netflix campaigned her in lead right alongside Colman, which resulted in wins at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards on top of a SAG Ensemble prize. For her submission, Corrin naturally chose “Fairytale,” in which Diana moves to Buckingham Palace only to discover that palace life is far from a dream come true. We see Diana left alone by Prince Charles, realize his love for Camila, receive a chilly reception from the Queen, and crumble under her increasing isolation.
Going into the Emmys, Corrin is the presumptive frontrunner considering her precursor wins and The Crown’s increased popularity. Season 4 was largely centered on Diana and Charles, and Corrin was given so much material to work with that she cannot be counted out. The only question will be whether The Crown can revive its momentum from the winter awards and not be overshadowed by nominees that came out more recently.
Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) – “Home” (Hulu)
The Handmaid’s Tale made a huge Emmy comeback for its recently-concluded fourth season, and star Elisabeth Moss was naturally part of this resurgence. After being overlooked for Season 3 last year, she’s back with a vengeance and a claim to win her second Emmy. This season of The Handmaid’s Tale saw Moss’s June Osborne finally escaping Gilead and trying to integrate back into free society again, while also thirsting for vengeance against her former oppressors. In her episode submission, “Home,” we see just that as June spends her first few days in Canada reuniting with loved ones and berating Serena Joy. The episode allows Moss to subtly convey her changing moods during her readjustment process while also externalizing the rage she’s built up from years of abuse.
Given the over-performance of The Handmaid’s Tale, scoring 21 Emmy nominations, 10 of which are for acting, it is evident that voters are still watching and loving the Hulu drama. Moss’s lack of a nomination last year may be a mark against her, but it didn’t stop Julianna Margulies from winning again in 2015 after being snubbed the previous year. This has arguably been Moss’s strongest season of The Handmaid’s Tale yet, so she should be very competitive for the win.
Mj Rodriguez (Pose) – “Series Finale” (FX)
One of the most celebrated Emmy nominations of the year was Rodriguez breaking ground in Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Not only is she the first transgender actress from the Pose ensemble to earn an Emmy nomination but the first transgender performer of any show to earn Emmy recognition in a lead acting category. Rodriguez submitted the two-hour series finale to Emmy voters, a deeply emotional conclusion in which her character, Blanca, grieves over a dear friend’s passing and gets to celebrate receiving her proper due in the ballroom, all the while operating as a mother figure to her chosen family.
Rodriguez is less established than her competition (sans Corrin), which could make a win more of a struggle. But the rapturous response to her nomination and her trailblazing personal narrative may indicate stronger support. Passion is becoming more and more important in the acting categories, as shown by last year’s surprise winner, Zendaya. While Pose does not have the nomination haul of The Crown or The Handmaid’s Tale, it did break into directing and writing for the first time and earned another nomination in Best Drama Series. If this support carries over to wins, it’s easy to imagine Rodriguez receiving a standing ovation like her costar, Billy Porter, did two years ago.
Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country) – “Holy Ghost” (HBO)
Smollett’s Emmy nomination was far from guaranteed, having missed out on individual bids from the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. With new shows, it is always difficult to assess how they are going to play with Emmy voters, but the industry responded very positively to Lovecraft Country, with 18 nominations in total. In the series, Smollett plays Leti, a young photographer who finds herself confronting demons both natural and supernatural alongside friend-turned-lover Atticus (Jonathan Majors). Smollett chose the episode “Holy Ghost” as her submission, in which Leti buys a new property for Black tenants in an all-white neighborhood. She shows tenacity while dealing with racist neighbors and casting out spirits trapped in the building’s basement.
Like Corrin and Rodriguez, this is Smollett’s first Emmy nomination but she’s had a lengthy career in the industry dating back to her breakthrough performance in Eve’s Bayou in 1997. This may give her a leg-up in voting, though HBO canceling Lovecraft Country after one season could persuade some of the more unsentimental voters of the TV Academy to place their votes elsewhere.
Emmy winner voting begins August 19 and goes until August 30. The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards will be on September 19.
Here are my ranked predictions for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
- Mj Rodriguez (Pose) – “Series Finale” (FX)
- Emma Corrin (The Crown) – “Fairytale” (Netflix)
- Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) – “Home” (Hulu)
- Uzo Aduba (In Treatment) – “Brooke – Week 5” (HBO)
- Olivia Colman (The Crown) – “48:1” (Netflix)
- Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country) – “Holy Ghost” (HBO)