The most exciting category to watch at this year’s Emmys belongs to the women. The Lead Actress in a Drama field is full of Oscar-winners, Golden Globe nominees, and TV veterans with a long list of critically-acclaimed hits. There’s Viola Davis stripping down for the role of Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder, Claire Foy who shouldered an enormous burden playing a beloved monarch on The Crown, Keri Russell bringing grit and steel to her spy drama The Americans, Robin Wright’s cutthroat ambition in House of Cards, and Evan Rachel Wood tapping into the depths of humanity in Westworld.
It feels essential, this need to remind you of the depth of talent this year, because I’m now going to make an overreaching, exaggerated statement: no one deserves to win an Emmy more than Elisabeth Moss.
Look, I get it. Wrinkled old white dudes who long for the days of Masterpiece Theater gravitate towards British period dramas. It seems like a safe bet that Claire Foy, who is a powerhouse in the role of Queen Victoria by the way, would be a top contender to take home the award this year. But I’d like to pose a different scenario, one in which Moss, who’s been putting in solid work since her time on The West Wing and who was frequently undervalued on Mad Men, finally gets her due through a decidedly feminist vehicle that’s been plowing through the real-world patriarchy all year.
Moss has long been an actress who flies under the radar mostly because she’s always been in a supporting role surrounded by famous men. On The West Wing, her character was kidnapped, traumatized, and abused as she grappled with her journey into adulthood as the daughter of the leader of the free world. Zoey Bartlet might not have been a main political player but her arc seemed just as important – a young woman peeking out from the shadow of her influential father to discover her own path in life.
The same could be said for Peggy Olson, a role with considerably more heft that earned Moss a bigger share of the spotlight despite the fact that the show often centered on a womanizing ad executive’s descent from glory. I can recognize Mad Men for the technically brilliant show that it was and Jon Hamm can where the hell out of a suit but what was truly compelling about that series was how it quietly elevated a secondary character, giving her a seasons-long arc that, in many ways, was even more gripping and memorable than that of its leading man.
Peggy began Mad Men as a mousy secretary, timid and unsure of herself, constrained by her Catholic upbringing, swallowed whole by her frumpy office wear, and utterly intimidated by the powerful men of Sterling Cooper. She was every woman who’s ever started a new career path with intentions of climbing the corporate ladder and achieving success only to encounter peacocks in suits, strutting around their Fifth Avenue offices, screwing assistants while chain smoking and chugging glasses of scotch like water.
Peggy was sexually harassed at work; verbally abused by her boss, Don Draper; and emotionally used by men like Pete Campbell. She was ogled, groped, and looked over in favor of male colleagues with less potential and talent. Still, over the course of seven seasons she was able to mature in her professional and personal life. She made peace with giving her baby up for adoption after an unplanned pregnancy, she rose in the ranks at various ad agencies, eventually inhabiting a senior position at the firm and, in an ironic twist, becoming Don Draper’s boss. Her wardrobe changed, her hairstyles changed, and her aspirations for her career and personal life manifested. Peggy stopped giving a fuck what the men in her life thought and started living for herself, pursuing her wants and desires relentlessly and Moss was able to slowly unveil that drive and badass attitude as the show progressed.
It’s a shame that the Emmys never rewarded the actress for that subtle, satisfying evolution or Moss’ dark turn as a detective investigating the sexual assault of a young teen in Top of the Lake, but they have a chance to make things right now and Moss has made their atonement easier by handing in another gut-wrenching performance, this one even more noteworthy because of its context and commentary.