Due to a tie in voting, there are seven—count 'em, seven—actors up for the Emmy Award in the lead actress in a drama category. Each nominee gets to submit one episode from the season for Emmy judges to help determine who to vote for. We look at what episode each actor submitted, and how it might affect their odds.
Connie Britton ("Nashville") - "Pilot"
In the pilot episode, veteran singer Rayna James is asked to pair with a new upstart. Britton is always a warm, engaging presence, and the first episode of her new show really stacks the deck in her favor. Her career is declining and her family life isn’t much better. But when her rival Juliette (Hayden Panettierre) makes a veiled barb about her age, Rayna doesn’t miss a beat. “Nashville” may be an overheated soap opera at times, but Rayna is always a class act, not unlike the actor who plays her.
Claire Danes ("Homeland") - "Q&A"
Carrie interrogates Brody in a long overdue confrontation. It’s no surprise that this is the same episode Danes’ co-star Damian Lewis submitted—it’s essentially a two-hander, and both are fantastic. Danes downplays the victory of Carrie finally getting to tell everyone she’s been right all along. And she finally beats Brody at his own game. Convincing him to give up the front and join their side, her argument is tinged with compassion, logic, and—to her detriment—love.
Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") - "Episode 3.01"
It’s Matthew and Mary’s wedding day, though the pair aren’t getting along. Nothing has ever gone smoothly for Matthew and Mary, but they remain a team. Though the pair disagree about whether or not Matthew should take an inheritance, Mary keeps her frustrations in check and reasons with him. They also both make a point of showing support for her brother-in-law Tom, who gets a chilly reception from the rest of the family. Mary is tough, loving, and determined, and Dockery plays all her shades without ever breaking a sweat.
Vera Farmiga ("Bates Motel") - "First You Dream, Then You Die (Pilot)"
The first episode of the show, where Norma Bates moves her youngest son to Oregon to manage a rundown hotel. It can’t be easy taking on a role as iconic as Norman Bates’ mother—even though no other actor has played her before, we all have an idea of the woman who raised a monster burned in our minds. That Farmiga manages to live up to expectations as the chilly, domineering matriarch is one thing. That she creates a fully-fledged human being is quite another.
Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men") - "The Better Half"
Peggy finds herself tired of her apartment…and her man. Though Peggy’s interest in revolutionary boyfriend Abe has waned over the season—she’s more or less moved on to her boss Ted—Abe choosing to leave her crumbles her world. If nothing else, he was her safety net, and losing her Plan B terrifies Peggy. In true “Mad Men” fashion, Moss doesn’t become hysterical, but subtly underplays Peggy’s world falling apart. For the first time in years, Moss warrants her position in the “lead” category, as the season seems to become increasingly about her.
Kerry Washington ("Scandal") - "Happy Birthday, Mr. President"
When the President is shot, Olivia is affected professionally and personally. This episode picks up after the President has been shot, and the image of Olivia striding into the ER still in her gala gown pretty much sums up the soapy fun of this show. She takes control of the situation, as we learn in flashbacks how her relationship with the POTUS first blossomed. It’s a great episode for Washington, who gets to show toughness and vulnerability, often in the same scene.
Robin Wright ("House of Cards") - "Chapter 10"
Frank learns Claire is the one responsible for messing up the vote count. This is the episode where it suddenly became apparent why Wright took this role. Up to this point, Claire has been tough to read, seemingly the loyal wife by her man’s side. This is where she really gets to cut loose, letting fly years of pent-up rage and resentment. And Wright makes the most of her showcase, delivering a performance that goes from Stepford Wife to Lady Macbeth.
Final thoughts: The most difficult cateogry to call, not just because there are seven amazing women up for the prize. It would be easy to call this one for Danes—she's consistently excellent and won last year. There is also a groundswell for Farmiga, whose role is so unlike anyone else in the category. And everyone loves the great Connie Britton, who has never won despite nominations for "Friday Night Lights" and "American Horror Story." But instinct tells me it's actually a race between D.C. ladies Washington and Wright. Wright submitted a fabulous episode, but I'm inclined to think Washington has the edge. Whereas "House of Cards" takes itself deadly seriously, "Scandal" is silly fun—but Washington plays it with a straight face and gets to show a wide range of emotions and talents every week. Remember when Patricia Arquette unexpectedly won for being serious in the often silly "Medium"? I'm thinking voters will appreciate Washington's total commitment to building the world of "Scandal."