Emmy Episode Analysis: Who Will Direct an Emmy-Winning Episode?

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.

It’s time to look at the helmers. We’ve moved our sights to the directing categories for the Emmy Episode Analysis. Historically, the drama and comedy categories have favored stylistic pilots and A-list directors for the win. Meanwhile, the miniseries/made for TV directing category seems to pair well with the main category winner. Will this year prove to be more of the same or is there room for a shakeup? Read on to find out.

Best Directing in a Drama

“The Crown” – “Paterfamilias” – Directed by Stephen Daldry

Plot: Philip insists that Prince Charles attend his alma mater in Scotland and reminisces about the life-changing difficulties he experienced there.

“The Crown” is known for being Netflix’s expensive prestige content. However, every once in a while it sets aside its fussy self-importance and concentrates on telling a story. The episode “Paterfamilias” bounces between two timelines as we see Philip’s time at school in Scotland and years later his son Charles having a similar experience. These dual timelines congeal in interesting ways and do make for a cohesive and involving hour. Stephen Daldry knows how to keep things moving, dropping new bits of information and emotional touchpoints throughout the episode to keep it engaging. The episode feels cinematic, but is less expensive and lavish than “The Crown” is known for. What the show has going for it is its pomp and circumstance, which is in shorter supply here.

“Game of Thrones” – “Beyond the Wall” – Directed by Alan Taylor

Plot: Jon and his team go beyond the wall to capture a wight. Daenerys has to make a tough decision.

“Beyond the Wall” features harrowing sequences as we spend much of the episode watching Jon lead men into battle with the whitewalkers. These action focused episodes do much to attract the attention of Emmys. In fact, the episode ends with our heroes in grave peril with the whitewalkers. This packs a substantial punch. However, between the two episodes, “The Dragon and the Wolf” has attracted more Emmy attention, also getting a writing nomination. It’s the season finale after all, which puts it at an advantage. “Beyond the Wall” is a notable and worthy episode. However, it might do more harm than good if it takes votes away from “The Dragon and the Wolf.”

“Game of Thrones” – “The Dragon and the Wolf” – Directed by Jeremy Podeswa

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.

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” features some of the big set pieces that voters typically love with the show. The white walkers are on full display as they have our heroes in peril. There’s some great dragon fighting action that will really awe voters throughout. In between the set pieces, the character reunions give fans what they’ve been waiting for after many years. All in all, the episode has all the makings of the past “Game of Thrones” winners in this category. However, there were some complaints that the show tied everything up too neatly and with some logic jumps. If there are enough dissenters, “Game of Thrones” could wind up in the cold in this category.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” – “After” – Directed by Kari Skogland

Plot: An attack sends shockwaves through both Gilead and Little America; Serena makes a dangerous choice; Moira searches for someone from her past.

Last year’s winner in this category looks to defend its title with another strong episode. “The Handmaid’s Tale” submission, “After,” features a stunning attack and the traumas following. There’s a lot of great visual imagery of rebellion, which will resonate with a lot of voters. It also addresses a more recent complaint that the show is misery porn by showing the handmaids active in dismantling the establishment. What’s standing in its way of another win? “Game of Thrones” returns to the competition with its big budgets and even bigger fights. If the voters still love the Hulu series, it could pull off win #2. Yet, in this category, bigger often equals better to voters.

“Ozark” – “The Toll” – Directed by Jason Bateman

Plot: During his next sermon, Mason falters. Wendy and the kids are caught trying to flee their home. Marty brokers a deal between Jacob and Del.

The “Ozark” finale features quite a bit of shady dealings lit under moody lighting. The episode puts itself above “Ozark’s” other entry for a few key reasons. It’s a super-sized episode, running over 1 hr and 20 minutes and giving it more time to shine. Star Jason Bateman directs it and his name will appear on the ballot, giving the nomination more cache. Third, it’s genuinely the better of the two episodes. It features more exciting plot elements and a grander visual style. Since 2000, only two drama series have won Director without a Drama Series nomination – “ER” in 2009 and “Deadwood” in 2004. “Deadwood” won for its first season, so it compares to “Ozark.” Yet, the show is less buzzy than that prestige HBO entry.

“Ozark” – “Tonight We Improvise” – Directed by Daniel Sackheim

Plot: Marty hires Ruth to pull off a heist. Agent Petty forges a relationship with a member of the Langmore family. Jonah exhibits disturbing behavior.

The second “Ozark” submission that made it in this year is the show’s fourth episode of its inaugural season. The episode highlights a lot of what makes the show gorgeous and mysterious. There’s a contrast between the idyllic blue lake Marty (Jason Bateman) conducts dealings by and the seedy strip club he looks to use as a front for money laundering. The final sequence really pulls the episode together nicely. However, much of the show is shot in such darkness that it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s going on. The episode rises to some highs and becomes incomprehensible from a visual standpoint very quickly thereafter. It’s an odd choice for the directing category. However, it’s unlikely to siphon votes away from the finale.

“Stranger Things” – “Chapter Nine: The Gate” – Directed by The Duffer Brothers

Plot: Eleven makes plans to finish what she started while the survivors turn up the heat on the monstrous force that’s holding Will hostage.

The “Stranger Things” universe has found a way to make the old seem new again. This involves placing a certain gloss around the type of gross out fun that made “The Goonies” so iconic. The Upside Down remains a novel location that feels threatening and interesting. However, the design of the monsters feels reminiscent of something the “Cloverfield” series has already done. This excess of CGI takes some of the novelty out of the nostalgia piece. Last year, “Stranger Things” had a stronger chance of winning as it had a fresh, new sheen about it. This year, the nomination count has gone down and the buzz has waned. It contends in the main categories, but falls further down on the rankings.

Predicted Ranking:

  1. “Game of Thrones” – “The Dragon and the Wolf”
  2. “The Handmaid’s Tale” – “After”
  3. “The Crown” – “Paterfamilias”
  4. “Game of Thrones” – “Beyond the Wall”
  5. “Stranger Things” – “Chapter Nine: The Gate”
  6. “Ozark” – “The Toll”
  7. “Ozark” – “Tonight We Improvise”

Best Directing in a Comedy Series

“Atlanta” – “FUBU” – Directed by Donald Glover

Plot: A flashback to Earn and Al’s adolescence, where the authenticity of Earn’s shirt is embarrassingly called into question at school.

Flashback episodes can sometimes win in Directing (see “Transparent” winning for “Man on the Land,” which had some flashback components). The texture of the episode transports one to the 90s, where it is set. “Atlanta” could not be hotter right now, as it increased its nomination total to sixteen. This includes two nominees in both the writing and directing categories. However, between the two “Atlanta” episodes, “Teddy Perkins” possesses more buzz and is the better chance at a win. The unexpected downbeat ending could possibly hurt this submission in the end.

“Atlanta” – “Teddy Perkins” – Directed by Hiro Murai

Plot: When Darius goes to pick up a piano, he meets Teddy Perkins, a strange, eccentric man who makes him feel uneasy.

One of the most talked about episodes of “Atlanta” was this perilous bottle episode. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself in peril at the hands of a creepy rich white man (played by Donald Glover in full Michael Jackson makeup). It’s a strange episode with lots of interesting visual gags throughout Teddy Perkins’ mansion. While funny, it remains thoroughly frightening up through its insane conclusion. Among the crop of six nominees, it stands out thanks to its tone. This interesting experiment in tone and format paid off last year with “Atlanta” winning this category. If voters are still enamored with the show, it could win a second year in a row.

“Barry” – “Chapter One: Make Your Mark” – Directed by Bill Hader

Plot: A disillusioned hit man wants to start a new life after following his quarry to an acting class.

“Barry’s” pilot does a great job of highlighting Barry’s wide-eyed naivete as he transitions from hit man to actor. The acting class scenes feature great timing. Much like Bateman in Ozark, voters may feel compelled to vote for Hader in the directing category, especially if they aren’t voting for him in acting. “Barry’s” level of love around the Emmys was surprising, yet heartening. With it being the show’s freshman year, it’s hard to gauge how popular it will be with the Emmys. Since 2000, ten freshman shows have won this award, seven of them winning for their pilot episode. With three pilots, it may come down to whichever the Emmys fawn over most.

“The Big Bang Theory” – “The Bow Tie Asymmetry” – Directed by Mark Cendowski

Plot: When Amy’s parents and Sheldon’s family arrive, everybody is focused to make sure all wedding arrangements go according to plan – everyone except the bride and groom.

It’s a major surprise the CBS sitcom received its first directing nomination in its eleventh season. The show has seen some Emmy success in the past, but mostly for Jim Parson’s performance. Since the episode centers around Sheldon (Parsons) and Amy’s (Mayim Bialik) wedding, there are a lot of heartstrings being pulled. For a multicam, the episode exhibits a lot of dexterity between the large cast of characters in town. If enough voters are passionate “Big Bang Theory” fans (and with its ratings, that’s not impossible to fathom), they may vote for it among all the other prestige picks. However, it’s more of a novelty nominee than anything else.

“Glow” – “Pilot” – Directed by Jesse Peretz

Plot: Desperate to jump-start her career, struggling actress Ruth Wilder heads to a casting call at an LA gym — and quickly realizes it’s not a typical audition.

While “Stranger Things” takes a rosy colored look at 80s nostalgia in the drama category, “GLOW” actually goes deeper into the period, while still having some laughs. The heightened drama isn’t just in the ring, as aspiring actress Ruth (Alison Brie) ends up on the same show as Debbie (Betty Gilpin), Ruth’s former friend. Ruth had slept with Debbie’s husband and Debbie found out. The pilot concentrates more on Ruth (Alison Brie) and less on Debbie (Betty Gilpin), to its detriment. Still, it introduces us to one of the strongest ensembles streaming. While doing so, it also creates a visual language that informs the rest of the season. This could’ve made a strong run for the prize, had it not also been up against the pilots for the more nominated “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (which also does period) and “Barry” (which also does LA showbiz).

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – “Pilot” – Directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino

Plot: Midge Maisel has the perfect life. She is supportive of her husband’s dream of becoming a stand up comic until he bombs on stage and blames her, leading Midge back to the comedy club and an act that might change her life.

Amy Sherman-Palladino successfully blends her fast talking humor with the 60s period setting of her latest show, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The pilot excels on craft levels, humor levels, but most of all, structural levels. The hour long episode (the only one of the bunch) moves swiftly and with great energy. It’s insatiably entertaining and uses drama and stakes to highlight its comedy and the tour de force performance by Rachel Brosnahan in the center. Its world building also puts it a step above the other nominees. As stated before, the Emmys love pilots. Of the three pilots in the running this year, “Maisel” features the longest and highest production value. By Drama Directing rules, this usually puts it out in front. Will Comedy Directing voters be just as taken by the spectacle and the humor in equal measures?

“Silicon Valley” – “Initial Coin Offering” – Directed by Mike Judge

Plot: Pied Piper inches towards securing their Series B funding. Gilfoyle suggest a risky proposition. Dinesh gets competitive with a co-worker. Richard receives unsettling news.

As a director, Judge consistently does a great job of loading the frame with visual gags. He knows how to skewer the tech industry and makes the Pied Piper office a source of great hilarity, giving Kumail Nanjiani much to do as Dinesh. However, the stakes of being at the precipice of failure is the same in every episode of the sitcom. Much like in writing, “Silicon Valley” always gets nominated in this category and always falls short of a win. Against three pilots, two buzzy episodes from an Emmy darling and a much anticipated network wedding, “Silicon Valley” seems poised to lose again.

Predicted Ranking

  1. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – “Pilot”
  2. “Atlanta” – “Teddy Perkins”
  3. “Barry” – “Chapter One: Make Your Mark”
  4. “Glow” – “Pilot”
  5. “Atlanta” – “FUBU”
  6. “The Big Bang Theory” – “The Bow-Tie Assymetry”
  7. “Silicon Valley” – “Fifty-One Percent”

Best Directing in a Limited Series or Made for TV Movie

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” – “The Man Who Would Be Vogue” – Directed by Ryan Murphy

Plot: The murder of Gianni Versace turns the eyes of the world onto Miami Beach.

Ryan Murphy certainly accentuates the lush locale and circumstances of the titular murder. The inaugural episode of the miniseries launches with grand, salacious detail as a horrifying crime happens before us. Murphy knows how to draw us in using bright, poppy visual imagery that has their own energy. The acclaimed series enters as the frontrunner, and this category tends to go to the frontrunner. However, surprises usually happen when Ryan Murphy is involved. In fact, his shows have never won a directing category in the Miniseries or TV movie vertical. Even “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” had all three of its submissions lose out to “The Night Manager.” If voters are once again looking for a Ryan Murphy alternative, what other option might they go for?

“Godless” – Directed by Scott Frank

Plot: In the 1880s American West murderous outlaw gang leader Frank Griffin hunts for ex-protegé Roy Goode. Frank’s chase leads him to La Belle, New Mexico – a town inhabited, after a mining disaster, almost entirely by women.

“Godless” doesn’t fully bring back the western genre. However, it offers a fresh new take on that’s both beautiful and exciting. The show features many showstopping western showcases. One of the strongest involves rancher Alice (Michelle Dockery) teaching outlaw Roy (Jack O’Connell) how to ride a horse. There’s character growth and tension throughout the high stakes training scene. As a whole, the show knows how to keep one interested, even if it is more interested in the threatening men than the town full of women. The scope of it makes it a dark horse here. The show has fewer nominations than “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” but also less baggage than Ryan Murphy. This could very well be the show to upset the frontrunner.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” – Directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski

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

It’s not easy putting a live musical together. Directors Leveaux and Rudzinski do an admirable job with “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The actors move about the sets in interesting ways and the show knows how to keep things engaging. It’s tough to make live theater dynamic on television, but the swooping camera motions give it a cinematic quality that enhances the proceedings. This is the first of the live musicals to contend in the directing category. The last true musicals to be nominated in this category were music biopic “Bessie” (more of the HBO biopic mold) and “High School Musical” back in 2006. This puts “Jesus Christ Superstar” at a disadvantage. However, it could open the way for future live musicals to break in, and even win, the category.

“The Looming Tower” – “9/11” – Directed by Craig Zisk

Plot: It is September 11, 2001 and no one can get a hold of O’Neill. Soufan’s evacuation from Yemen stops short as the CIA station chief gives him all the answers he has been asking from the CIA for months. Schmidt is reinstated into Alec Station. Soufan finally interrogates Abu Jandal.

9/11 has been a tricky event to depict. Paul Greengrass won raves for “United 93,” but few others have managed to tackle the subject and receive praise. The finale of “The Looming Tower” is plenty dramatic, as it takes place during one of the most harrowing days of American history. However, it adds little new to the subject. In fact, it bores rather than elicit the considerable emotions most Americans feel around that day. Since 2000, no show has won the directing Emmy for a miniseries or made for TV movie without a nomination in the top category. “The Looming Tower,” specifically, seems tailor made to clean house with nominations. Though it received other acting nods, it disappointed overall. While the subject matter is very triggering and “important,” there doesn’t seem to be enough support for the miniseries for it to win here for the finale.

“Paterno” – Directed by Barry Levinson

Plot: The film centers on Joe Paterno, who after becoming the most successful coach in college football history, is embroiled in Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, challenging his legacy and forcing him to face questions of institutional failure regarding the victims.

Barry Levinson’s direction rises above serviceable only intermittently. He throws crowds and lots of hoopla at the controversial titular figure. However, he seems uninterested in exploring Paterno’s reaction and relationship to the central scandal. In the end, the film feels like a series of talking heads giving their take on the crime. Yet, it offers no new perspective for Levinson to dramatize. Still, HBO is a predictable powerhouse. “Paterno” is in the TV Movie category, which gives it a slight chance. Yet, if Levinson couldn’t win for the substantially better “Wizard of Lies,” he’s most likely out of luck here.

“Patrick Melrose” – Directed by Edward Berger

Plot: Patrick learns of his father’s passing and must travel to New York to collect his remains, whilst struggling with drug withdrawals.

Director Edward Berger knows how to marry decadence and exhaustion throughout “Patrick Melrose.” The miniseries speeds forth as we watch Patrick self destruct from his internal demons and struggle to repair what’s left. Berger employs lots of narrative tricks and gimmicks to zoom through multiple timelines. It’s a wild ride, and one that Emmy voters might take notice of. In fact, “Patrick Melrose” could be the surprise winner. “Gianni Versace,” “Godless” and “Patrick Melrose” are the only three nominees that are nominated for Miniseries, directing, writing and acting.

“Twin Peaks” – Directed by David Lynch

Plot: Picks up 25 years after the inhabitants of a quaint northwestern town are stunned when their homecoming queen is murdered.

Many entered the “Twin Peaks” reboot with high expectations. A lot fewer were left by the end, but those that stayed seemed to really love it. Those people don’t seem to be Emmy voters. David Lynch’s buzzed about return to the series doesn’t seem to have clicked with the Emmys like people expected. Lynch got into writing and directing, but the show didn’t register elsewhere. Even though the show is a former hit by an Oscar nominated director, it doesn’t seem like it will be the first show to win Directing for a Miniseries without a Best Miniseries nomination. It’s a very singular vision that inspires passion. Still, the prestige level does put it ahead of fellow nominees “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Looming Tower.”

Predicted Ranking

  1. “Godless”
  2. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” – “The Man Who Would Be Vogue”
  3. “Patrick Melrose”
  4. “Paterno”
  5. “Twin Peaks”
  6. “Jesus Christ Superstar”
  7. “The Looming Tower” – “9/11”

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

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman

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