The Emmy race for Best Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie was one of the most competitive of the year, especially as it narrowed down to five slots. Understandably, on nomination morning there were some heartbreaking omissions, namely Unbelievable stars Kaitlyn Dever and Merritt Wever. The chosen five to earn nominations: Cate Blanchett for Mrs. America, Shira Haas for Unorthodox, Regina King for Watchmen, Octavia Spencer for Self Made, and Kerry Washington for Little Fires Everywhere.
This lineup includes many of the classic archetypes of acting categories, including the Emmy veteran (King), the newcomer (Haas), the TV biopic performances (Blanchett, Spencer) and the overdue contender (Washington). Each of these types has won the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie in the past and there is a plausible path for just about all of them. So who will it be? Let’s break down each nominee’s chances.
Cate Blanchett – Mrs. America
Blanchett’s first series regular role on American television was an undeniably juicy one worthy of the two-time Academy Award winner. As anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, Blanchett committed herself fully to one of the more divisive figures in American history, nailing her voice, mannerisms and superiority complex. Mrs. America allows us to glimpse the human being underneath Schlafly’s hateful rhetoric, for better or for worse, and that is largely thanks to Blanchett’s showy yet subtle performance.
On paper, Blanchett is the type of winner we would typically see in the 2010s, with movie stars like Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore coming to TV and adding an “E” to their EGOT hunt. She is still very much in this race, but Mrs. America slightly underperformed in nominations, especially in comparison to the dominant Watchmen and the underdog success of Unorthodox. Blanchett is also playing one of the more despised people in contemporary political history, and if the Los Angeles Times piece by Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal is any indication, there could be enough Mrs. America opposers in the TV Academy that could tip the scales enough for Blanchett to lose.
Shira Haas – Unorthodox
Unorthodox was arguably one of the beneficiaries of Emmy voters being quarantined in 2020, allowing them to branch out and discover shows they might not have watched otherwise. The four-part Netflix miniseries received widespread critical acclaim especially for Haas’s central performance as Esty Shapiro, a young Jewish woman who runs away from her Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Haas’s riveting and raw performance thoroughly carries the series as we gradually see Etsy come out of her shell and emerge a liberated and more confident woman.
It is a big deal that Unorthodox managed to break into Best Limited Series over traditional prestige series like Hollywood, Defending Jacob, I Know This Much Is True, and The Plot Against America. Considering the series is entirely centered around Haas, this is a huge indication of support for her performance overall. There is a discovery factor to Haas that separates her from her award-winning competition, and if anyone could pull off an upset over my predicted winner, it is Haas.
Regina King – Watchmen
Viewers got the thrill of seeing King be a kick-ass action hero as Angela Abar, a police officer who moonlights as the vigilante Sister Night in Watchmen. It was yet another complex character for King’s career, following her award-winning turns in If Beale Street Could Talk, Seven Seconds, and American Crime. With Watchmen earning 26 Emmy nominations, the most of any program this year, King may well just add another trophy to her collection.
King is the only actress in this lineup to already go through Golden Globes/SAG/Critics’ Choice season thanks to Watchmen coming out in late 2019. Possibly due to Watchmen competing as a drama series, the actress only got nominated for (and won) the Critics’ Choice Award. While we don’t have the benefit of precursor love, it is difficult to go against King here because of her past success at the Emmys and the overwhelming love shown to Watchmen. The only factor against her is her three semi-recent Emmy wins, while the other four actresses in this category have zero.
Octavia Spencer – Self Made
Spencer’s nomination was a bit of a surprise to some awards predictors, due to the sheer competitiveness of the category. Self Made also didn’t exactly have the most widespread critical acclaim for some of the choices made in its telling of the story of Madame C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in American history. Nonetheless, Spencer displayed her winning charisma in the role, authentically charting out Walker’s rags to riches journey.
While Spencer is an Academy Award winner who has flourished in both film and TV, jumping successfully between lead and supporting performances, Self Made is unlikely to be her first Emmy win. She is the sole nominee for Self Made despite its impressive technical craft while Blanchett, Haas, King and Washington are all in Best Limited Series nominees. It is not impossible for Spencer to win, as demonstrated by King herself as the sole representation for Seven Seconds just two years ago, but it will be an uphill battle.
Kerry Washington – Little Fires Everywhere
Washington doubled her Emmy nomination total in the course of this cycle alone, going from four to eight. Two are for producing and starring in Little Fires Everywhere, where she plays Mia Warren, a single mother who finds herself intertwined with the wealthy Richardson family. The role allowed her to go toe to toe with Reese Witherspoon and portray the complexities of motherhood.
It speaks to the strength of Washington within the TV Academy that she made it into a field of five even without her Oscar-winning costar. It is possible that Emmy voters will see all the work she put into this past TV season between Best Limited Series nominee Little Fires Everywhere, Best TV Movie nominee American Son, and Best Variety Special (Live) nominee Live in Front of a Studio Audience.
My winner prediction ranking for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie:
- Regina King – Watchmen
- Shira Haas – Unorthodox
- Cate Blanchett – Mrs. America
- Kerry Washington – Little Fires Everywhere
- Octavia Spencer – Self Made