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.
The Handmaid’s Tale, a book by Margaret Atwood that imagines a theocracy in which men strip women of their rights and turn them into baby-making machines, is often labeled dystopian. But when Hulu’s interpretation began streaming earlier this year, its horrors and hypotheticals were starting to look anything but imaginary. Gilead, the fictional society on the show, might have been the patriarchy on crack but the example it gave of a world where women were subjugated, denied basic civil liberties, slut-shamed, stereotyped, and enslaved felt eerily similar to the one the rest of us were already living in.
But as vital as the series has become in our current zeitgeist, the weight of its message and the reach of its impact depended solely on Moss. Maybe it’s a coincidence that an actress who has built a body of work playing mistreated women who rise up to take control of their narratives landed the role of Offred, a handmaid forced to reconcile her new life as a sex slave in a male dominated society, but watching Moss deftly navigate through her characters myriad of emotions with ease feels like witnessing an actress operating comfortably in her element and finally coming into her prime.
Moss has been able to take a character bogged down by exposition and internal monologues on the page and elevate her journey beyond the kind of numbing voiceovers that could have easily plagued a show like this. Most of the work Moss does on the series is physical – a slight drop of the eyes, a tense of the jaw, a suggestive bite of the lip. Handmaids aren’t given a voice in the world of Gilead but Moss doesn’t need one to convey her pain, her loss, her frustrations, and, eventually, her rebellion. She can do that with a sly smile over a game of Scrabble in her Commander’s office or a frantic glance across a crowded brothel. When she does speak, it’s in emotive fragments, disjointed sentences that feel chaotic and confused as she tries to remember her old life and make sense of how she ended up a slave. Even the more narrative moments, when Moss gives necessary exposition, feel electric and tangible, as if the actress were performing her lines in the studio the same way she would in front of the camera. There’s a dedication in Moss’ performance, a fearless commitment to risk and, at the same time, a sense of control, as if Offred could open her mouth at any point and release a raging firestorm but instead checks that impulse with a smirk.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Moss’ performance in it are the very definition of dark horses. Sure, critics might praise the series and laud the actress’ work but Emmy voters are finicky traditionalists whose votes don’t always match public opinion. The story about a woman forced into sexual slavery by an imaginary society dominated by weak men with fragile egos and overtly sexist beliefs probably isn’t on everyone’s appointment viewing schedule — but it is a necessary watch, no matter your usual entertainment preferences and Moss’ contribution to the show and to this age of Peak TV that we seem to be living in, doesn’t need a statue to be validated and appreciated, but it does deserve one.