Emmy Episode Analysis: Will ‘SNL’ and ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Win Supporting Actress Again?

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Emmy season is upon us yet again! Emmy nominations were announced Thursday, July 12th, with “Game of Thrones” leading the pack at 22 nominations. As we speed toward the September 17th telecast, Awards Circuit is taking a look at all of the major categories. Each acting, writing and directing nominee must choose one episode to be judged on. The series nominees all submit six episodes. Each Friday, we will watch all the nominated episodes in a given set of categories and provide a power ranking of the nominees.

From Merritt Wever to Jean Smart, the Emmys love to throw a curveball in the Supporting Actress race. This year stands the chance to have even more upsets. Both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Saturday Night Live” have three nominees each in this category alone. This spells out support for those shows. However, could all of those women split the vote and allow someone else to claim the win? If vote splitting occurs, what lucky underdog will be the beneficiary of the win? Take a look at our analysis of the supporting actress races and let us know who you would choose.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama

Alexis Bledel as Ofglen/Emily in “The Handmaid’s Tale” – “Unwomen”

Plot: Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead.

Alexis Bledel switches spots with Samira Wiley in the “Handmaid’s Tale” acting categories. Last year the former “Gilmore Girls” star shocked many with her role as a political firebrand and won the Guest Actress Emmy. This year, her character got bumped up to Supporting as the series shifts focus to the colonies where Ofglen has been banished. She comes into contact with another woman in the colonies who was once a wife (Marisa Tomei). Ofglen poisons the woman, payback for the terrible treatment wives have given handmaids. While this paints her in a diabolical light, the episode also flashes back to her previous life as a married college professor. It’s a strong episode from a previous winner. However, with more showy performances from the other two “Handmaid’s Tale” women, it will be hard to beat them and win.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in “Stranger Things” – “Chapter Three: The Pollywog”

Plot: Dustin adopts a strange new pet, and Eleven grows increasingly impatient. A well-meaning Bob urges Will to stand up to his fears.

Millie Bobby Brown remains the only one of the “Stranger Things” kids up for an Emmy. Eleven’s impatience gives her more character personality to play off of. However, she’s less heroic than in her episode last season. She warns Dustin of his new pet and rebels against her proto-guardian Hopper. The young actress was a buzzy upstart last year as the “Stranger Things” breakout. Beating out fellow co-star Winona Ryder for the nomination, some were even predicting her to win last year. While the show maintained the same number of Primetime Emmys, it fell below last year in terms of overall nominations. This hurts her chances this year, particularly with “Game of Thrones” returning and three “Handmaid’s Tale” women crowding the field.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale” – “June”

Plot: Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead.

Last year’s surprise Emmy winner returns to make it a two-fer. Ann Dowd marches back to screens in the submitted premiere for “The Handmaid’s Tale” season two. Aunt Lydia still strikes the same level of intimidation and fear, which helped her win last year. Moreso, we get more glimpses of Lydia’s devotion towards the handmaids and her job of ushering in new children to the world. Dowd’s submission is strong and, with the help of the other episodes, could well propel her to another win. However, her fellow nominees from “The Handmaid’s Tale” could be her undoing. Alexis Bledel gets her whole episode to herself, mostly. Meanwhile, Yvonne Strahovski breaks out in all episodes and gets to play more notes.

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones” – “The Dragon and the Wolf”

Plot: Everyone meets in King’s Landing to discuss the fate of the realm. In Winterfell, Sansa confronts Arya. Sam reaches Winterfell, where he and Bran discover a shocking secret about Jon Snow.

Will this be the year Lena Headey finally wins? The villainous Cersei not only gets great scenes with other fan favorites, but receives a bit of comeuppance. She gets to meet with Jon Snow, the first of the season, as well as reunite with Tyrion for a fraught conversation. At the end of it all, she finds herself abandoned by Jamie. This marks the fourth consecutive nomination for Lena Headey. While the episode gives her a lot to play, it’s not as dynamic or active as some of her past submissions. With one more season left, voters may wait to reward Headey for the final season.

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in “The Crown” – “Beryl”

Plot: When Elizabeth and Philip throw a grand party for their 10th anniversary, both Margaret and the new Prime Minister experience romantic tribulations.

Even the Queen has a sister she doesn’t know what to do with. For most of the show, Princess Margaret has been a tragically unlucky in love figure that Queen Elizabeth can’t quite understand. However, Kirby’s submitted episode re-frames Margaret as the protagonist of her own story-line. We see Margaret broker a potentially successful marriage, only for it to fall apart. Shortly thereafter, she finds true love, albeit one with many secrets yet to be unmasked. Kirby’s emotions run the gamut. There’s great heartbreak followed by wonderfully fun scenes of her drunkenly admiring her physique at home. “The Handmaid’s Tale” women have the most Under the old tapes system, Kirby would be a great surprise winner. This plus a scene stealing role in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” could still get her that surprise.

Thandie Newton as Mauve in “Westworld” – “Akane No Mai”

Plot: Maeve and her allies have revelations in a new world; Dolores makes a decision about Teddy; Karl discovers something sinister about the hosts.

Newton makes Mauve a total bad-ass. She defends her new allies’ honor in Shogun World. This connects to her own plight to avenge her daughter’s death. It’s an immensely appealing episode with a satisfying bloodbath that Mauve gets to participate in. However, we’ve seen action sequences rarely win actresses an Emmy (just ask the “Game of Thrones” women). Newton manages to connect everything to her character’s struggle. However, with the show down some key nominations, voters may be tiring of the show. 

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford in “The Handmaid’s Tale” – “Women’s Work”

Plot: A sick baby tests Offred and Serena; Janine finally faces Naomi.

One of the strongest submissions of the year belongs to Yvonne Strahovski. Her character, Serena Joy Waterford, was one of the most hated characters of the show last year. As a wife, she tormented Offred (Elisabeth Moss), her handmaid. The episode “Women’s Work” gives Serena a chance to work with Offred to save the life of a sick baby. Strahovski spends season two taking us through Serena’s changing and calculating moves and perspectives. This episode marks a strong turning point for her character. The arc present in the episode and other noteworthy scenes in the other two episodes could put her in the lead over her nominees. However, with both of them being strong contenders, Strahovski could vote split and doom all three of the “Handmaid’s Tale” women.

Predicted Ranking:

  1. Yvonne Strahovski – “The Handmaid’s Tale”
  2. Ann Dowd – “The Handmaid’s Tale”
  3. Vanessa Kirby – “The Crown”
  4. Thandie Newton – “Westworld”
  5. Lena Headey – “Game of Thrones”
  6. Alexis Bledel – “The Handmaid’s Tale”
  7. Millie Bobby Brown – “Stranger Things”

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Zazie Beetz as Van in “Atlanta” – “Helen”

Plot: Earn discovers just how weird white people can be when he accompanies Van to a traditional German festival she frequented as a kid.

As Earn’s girlfriend, Zazie Beetz has elevated what could’ve been a thankless role into one of the standouts of the show. Season two gave Beetz even more opportunity to flesh out her character. Van isn’t just funny as she gleefully participates in the German festival activities. The show shifts to her perspective as she tells Earn (Donald Glover) off for his judgmental behavior. We end the episode with empathy towards her, rather than Glover’s main character. “Atlanta” features the most nominations of any comedy series. This proves that voters are fans. Beetz isn’t featured in all of the “Atlanta” episodes, but has a few strong standout ones, including “Helen.” Plus, she was also seen in “Deadpool 2” this summer, which could help raise her profile. If voters love “Atlanta,” she might be pulled in to the show’s coattails.

Alex Borstein as Susie Myerson in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – “Doink!”

Plot: Midge dives into a new line of work and makes some quirky friends along the way. Susie continues her emphatic quest to keep Midge’s career moving forward, but gets hit with a couple setbacks. Both Midge and Joel experience the downsides of their new lifestyles.

Alex Borstein’s sassy, punchy performance as aspiring comedy agent Susie Myerson was a fantastic scene stealer. Unfortunately, her submitted episode showcases little of what makes her a joy. Much of the episode follows Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) as she combats bombing on stage and starting a new job. Borstein gets an affecting argument towards the end, but little else to do. The issue Borstein faces is the submission gives her little screen-time and no laughs. The winners of the supporting comedy category are almost always broader performances. Even Merritt Wever’s surprise “Nurse Jackie” win had her lovably making crazy reaction faces to hearing her bosses have sex. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” stands as the front-runner this year, which means voters are familiar with the entirety of Susie’s arc. However, for the uninitiated, this will be a hard tape to vote for.

Aidy Bryant as Various Characters in “Saturday Night Live” – “Host: Chadwick Boseman”

Plot: Chadwick Boseman hosts, Cardi B performs.

The only stand-out segment Bryant gets involves her alter ego, Aidy B. She talks like Cardi B, speaking her mind to those that come in contact with her. This builds to her actually trying to befriend Cardi B, the performer for the week. The rest of the episode gives Bryant little to do. In fact, between weekend update, Black Jeopardy and a Disney Princess sketch, this proves to be a better tape for Leslie Jones. It’s great that Bryant finally got her deserved Emmy nomination as part of the SNL crew. However, it seems that past nominees Jones and McKinnon stand the best chance at winning.

Betty Gilpin as Debbie Eagan in “GLOW” – “Debbie Does Something”

Plot: Sam and Bash strike a deal with a local TV station and a sponsor. Meanwhile, as Debbie struggles to understand wrestling, Carmen brings her and Melrose to a local wrestling show, where Debbie discovers its similarities to soap operas.

Betty Gilpin rises above the crop of wrestlers to be the stand-out of the Netflix comedy’s first season. As Debbie, a former soap opera star and single mother, Gilpin balances the weariness of motherhood and the joy of acting. The strong parts of the episode show her discovering that wrestling is a lot like the soap opera acting she’s used to. This gives Debbie an engaging arc and allows her to have fun with wrestling. Unfortunately, it’s less of a laugh out loud performance and is less of an active episode for Debbie. She doesn’t get into Liberty Bell’s getup or have a segment in the ring. Gilpin gives a strong performance, but it’s not loud or boisterous enough to beat out the buzzy former winners.

Leslie Jones as Various Characters in “Saturday Night Live” – “Host: Donald Glover”

Plot: Donald Glover hosts, Childish Gambino performs.

Leslie Jones returns to the Supporting Actress race as a trio of SNL ladies. The comedienne comes into every sketch with an energy and vitality that few performers exhibit. This is on display primarily as she jokes along with Colin Jost on the Weekend Update segment. However, all her characters feel cut from the same cloth. There’s little differentiation between the characters Jones takes on among the three episodes. It’s a fun selection of clips that don’t add up to a whole Emmy winning performance.

Kate McKinnon as Various Characters in “Saturday Night Live” – “Host: Bill Hader”

Plot: Bill Hader hosts, Arcade Fire performs.

Kate McKinnon has won the past two consecutive years in this category. However, those wins both had McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton both right before and right after the 2016 election. This year’s episode features McKinnon memorably channeling both Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos, which earn her votes. Other highlights include her as a happily incestuous game show contestant on an Irish dating show and various impressions of celebrities auditioning for “Jurassic Park,” including Jodie Foster, Ellen DeGeneres and Lisa Kudrow. As a whole episode, McKinnon knocks it out of the park during each sketch. She performs similarly well on her other two nominee’s episodes. However, without Hillary Clinton, will she be able to defeat some of the strong contenders from past classics and current nomination front-runners?

Laurie Metcalf as Jackie Harris in “Roseanne” – “No Country for Old Women”

Plot: Roseanne and Jackie fight over who their mother will live with.

With three previous Emmy wins for this character, few have track records quite like Laurie Metcalf. She even beat Emmy favorite Julia Louis-Dreyfus all those years back for those wins. Returning to an Emmy winning role and being on the highest rated show on 2018 should make Metcalf a slam dunk. Unfortunately, “Roseanne” was cancelled following racist tweets from creator and star Roseanne Barr. This is in line with nearly a decade of quotes and such that revealed an unsavory side of Barr. The episode in question is strong, with Metcalf being the focus as she tries to deal with her overbearing mother (Oscar winner Estelle Parsons). It does well to minimize Roseanne’s involvement. Still, a black cloud hangs over this nomination and it will be hard for Metcalf to win.

Megan Mullally as Karen Walker in “Will & Grace” – “Rosario’s Quinceanera”

Plot: Karen has trouble dealing with a personal tragedy; Will, Grace, and Jack try to intervene; Will and Grace’s new business relationship begins to show signs of stress.

Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker has long been an Emmy favorite, winning twice over the show’s run. In the “Will and Grace” revival, Mullally submits the episode where Karen attends the funeral of her beloved maid, Rosario. We get to see many different shades of the iconic Karen Walker persona. She trades barbs with Minnie Driver’s Lorraine Finster and makes endless jokes about her cohorts. Yet, she gets a couple of touching scenes showing Karen genuinely mourn Rosario. Past front-runners who’ve lost (see Jane Krakowski for “30 Rock”) usually submitted hilarious episodes where they get to be true monsters. Megan Mullally has won before as the vapid lady of leisure. However, this demonstrates that, beneath the glamour and wealth, Karen does, in fact, have a heart.

Predicted Ranking

  1. Megan Mullally – “Will & Grace”
  2. Kate McKinnon – “Saturday Night Live”
  3. Alex Borstein – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
  4. Zazie Beetz – “Atlanta”
  5. Laurie Metcalf – “Roseanne”
  6. Betty Gilpin – “GLOW”
  7. Aidy Bryant – “Saturday Night Live”
  8. Leslie Jones – “Saturday Night Live”

Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Made for TV Movie

Sara Barielles as Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Plot: A live musical recounting the final days of Jesus Christ and those around him.

Pop star Sara Barielles takes her voice to the stage in “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene. Barielles’ voice is amazing in this live production. She carries her solo numbers with ample vocal strength. Her charisma is there, but pales in comparison to some of the more trained theater actors or John Legend. Voters may be impressed by the vocal prowess it takes to mount a live production. However, they are more likely to reward the other acting nominees from “Jesus Christ Superstar” for this, particularly Brandon Victor Dixon.

Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” – “Ascent”

Plot: Andrew Cunanan leaves behind a troubled family life, while Donatella struggles to find her role within the Versace empire.

The Emmys have a history of going with the Academy Award winning movie actress in this category for the win. For four straight years (2011 – 2014), Maggie Smith, Jessica Lange, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Bates all won this category. Penelope Cruz could very well be the next in line for her transformative role as Donatella Versace. The actress nails Donatella’s look and voice in memorable fashion. The episode gives her really strong scenes as she seeks to take over the fashion house from her ailing brother, Gianni (Edgar Ramirez). It’s a great reminder of how even the most powerful of women have to assert themselves more than men to lay claim to an empire. Cruz’s performance is high profile, but it’s not as meaty as fellow nominee Judith Light’s performance. Still, as the most recognizable name on the ballot with the most iconic role, Cruz stands tall as the frontrunner.

Judith Light as Marilyn Miglin in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” – “A Random Killing”

Plot: Chicago real estate tycoon Lee Miglin is murdered in what police describe as a random killing.

Everyone watched “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” thinking Cruz would be the standout. No one was prepared for Judith Light to show up in the third episode, “A Random Killing,” and steal the entire show. Light commands the entire episode, as her character faces her husband’s murder at the hand of his male escort. It’s a stunningly controlled performance where, even under duress, Light’s Marilyn maintains control and composure over her emotions. She’s not in the entire series much more. However, her powerhouse performance as one of the leads in this episode looms tall. Under the old voting system, she’d be a slam dunk. Unfortunately, she must go up against Academy Award Winner Penelope Cruz for the same show. Still, Light could prevail on the strength of the material and the Emmys’ fondness for her. Or she might just split votes and leave room for another surprise winner.

Adina Porter as Beverly Hope in “American Horror Story: Cult” – “11/9”

Plot: Kai begins recruiting members for his cult; Beverly struggles to stay ahead of a young reporter willing to do anything to become anchor.

“American Horror Story: Cult” was all over the place this season, and the submitted episode was no different. However, Adina Porter proves to be compelling and galvanizing every moment she appears on screen. As a reporter with ulterior motives, Porter gives us lots of opportunity to guess her next move and follow her character’s thought process. It’s a very strong piece of work from an underrated actress. Unfortunately, being low profile and a part of one of the less well received seasons of “American Horror Story” will prevent her from winning. Still, the nomination is a welcome surprise from an actress who always shows up doing her best work.

Merritt Wever as Mary Agnes in “Godless” – “The Ladies of La Belle”

Plot: La Belle wrestles with an all-or-nothing offer. Bill seeks new and dangerous ways to prove himself, and Frank shares a story with a captive audience.

Everyone’s favorite surprise Emmy winner is back. Guess what? Merritt Wever could just as well surprise again. Her performance towers over the ensemble as Mary Agnes takes the death of everyone’s husbands as an excuse for women to rule the town as they see fit. She goes toe to toe with other town heads as they underestimate the women during a meeting. Yet, while she’s the hardened town “muscle” and radicalized leader, we see the soft, beating heart behind Mary Agnes as well. If the two “Assassination of Gianni Versace” women split the vote, Merritt Wever stands the best chance of winning.

Leticia Wright as Nish in “Black Mirror” – “Black Museum”

Plot: A woman enters the Black Museum, where the proprietor tells his stories relating to the artefacts.

“Black Mirror” has finally broken into the acting categories this year. That’s great news for Leticia Wright, who possesses an interesting energy throughout “Black Museum.” Unfortunately, there’s nothing much to the performance until the final twist. Even then, it’s too little too late. Wright has spent 80% of this “Black Mirror” episode listening to this man telling stories based on his gruesome exhibits. Much of it, we don’t even see her. Voters may feel compelled to choose her based off her breakout turn in “Black Panther” earlier this year. One can’t underestimate the blockbuster factor (see Melissa McCarthy). Still, it’s going to take a more substantial performance for Wright to contend with the other women in this category.

Predicted Ranking

  1. Penelope Cruz – “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
  2. Merritt Wever – “Godless”
  3. Judith Light – “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
  4. Sara Barielles – “Jesus Christ Superstar”
  5. Leticia Wright – “Black Mirror: Black Museum”
  6. Adina Porter – “American Horror Story: Cult”

Who do you think will win the Supporting Actress races at the Emmys? Make your predictions in the Circuit Center and compare with our predictions.