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Which Top Emmy Contenders Will Be Left Out of the Best Actress in a Drama Nominations?

The Succession steamroll won't come until September. For now, enjoy the all-out scrum in what's already the most competitive category.
  • Keri Russell in The Diplomat, Imelda Staunton in The Crown, Helen Mirren in 1923 (Photos: Netflix, Paramount)
    Keri Russell in The Diplomat, Imelda Staunton in The Crown, Helen Mirren in 1923 (Photos: Netflix, Paramount)

    For obvious reasons, the run-up to Emmy nominations has become a wild scrum of contenders in recent years. In reaction to the sheer volume of television shows produced in a given year, the Emmys have recently expanded the number of nominees in a given category to six, seven, or even eight nominees. In most of the major acting categories, that makes room for all of the top contenders. In the Lead Actor in a Drama category, for instance, you've got three Succession leads, a Bob Odenkirk, a Pedro Pascal, and whomever is currently playing Prince Charles on The Crown. Give or take a Harrison Ford and you're all set.

    That is very much not the case when it comes to Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, which, from a pre-nominations standpoint, appears to be the most competitive category on the ballot. The only real lock, unsurprisingly, comes from Succession. After that, it's looking like up to a dozen serious contenders will be scrambling for the five remaining slots.

    Predicting this year's Best Drama Actress field is uniquely difficult because we're dealing with a near-clean slate. The easiest path to predicting who will get nominated for this year's Emmys is to look back at who was nominated for last year's Emmys. Emmy voters are creatures of habit, and repeat nominations are more the rule than the exception. But this year, nearly all of last year's Actress in a Drama nominees are ineligible, for one reason or another. Two-time winner Zendaya won't be nominated this year… and maybe not next year, since season 3 of Euphoria is rumored to premiere in 2025. Killing Eve and Ozark have ended, taking Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh, and Laura Linney off of the board. Another surprise nod for Reese Witherspoon won't be possible until next year, after The Morning Show airs its third season.

    Of last year's field, only Yellowjackets' Melanie Lynskey is eligible to be nominated again. Some contenders, like Succession's Sarah Snook, are moving up from supporting to lead, while others, like The Handmaid's Tale's Elisabeth Moss, have been nominated in the past but were either ineligible or passed over in 2022. The predictive math gets even more complicated when it comes to The Crown, a consistent Emmy player that changes casts every two seasons. Will voters latch on to this third iteration of royals the same way they did for the first two?

    Taking into account the relative popularity of shows, Emmy voters' historical tendencies, and the ever-ephemeral buzz, here's our best guess at where things stand for the 12 actresses throwing elbows (metaphorically!) to get one of the six available nominations.

    At the top of the heap is Succession's Sarah Snook, who is leveling up from the supporting actress race for her show's final season. The timing is right, with Shiv Roy's emotional rollercoaster of a storyline this season providing Snook with plenty of opportunities to impress voters. Her work in "Connor's Wedding," the episode in which Logan Roy (Brian Cox) dies and Shiv is helpless on the far end of a phone call, is probably what will win her the Emmy Award in September, though everything from Shiv’s scheduled grieving time to her explosive Election Eve fight with Tom to her final showdown with Kendall all contribute to a winning portfolio for the Australian actress. There is no safer bet than Snook nabbing a nomination, and likely the win.

    Unlike the rest of her castmates, Snook won't see any competition from within her own show in this category, nor will she get any from her network's other awards jewel either, since The White Lotus is once again campaigning its entire cast in Supporting categories. But HBO is nothing if not loaded up with awards contenders, and The Last of Us' Bella Ramsey should be a strong rival. With Succession as the network's critical darling, The Last of Us was the ratings juggernaut, with the highest viewership for an HBO show since the final season of Game of Thrones. Popularity doesn't always bring prestige with it, but HBO has usually been able to thread that needle, and the reviews for Ramsey's performance were certainly strong enough to warrant consideration.

    At 19 years old, Ramsey would be the youngest nominee in this category since a 16-year-old Claire Danes was nominated for My So-Called Life in 1995. Ramsey, who identifies as nonbinary, is choosing to compete in the Actress category for lack of a non-gendered option, though they say they are "uncomfortable" with this imperfect solution.

    House of the Dragon's Emma D'Arcy is another nonbinary performer submitting in Lead Actress, though their chances for a nomination aren't quite as strong as Ramsey's. That’s no commentary on the quality of D'Arcy's performance, which was formidable in the second half of House of the Dragon’s debut season. But the Game of Thrones prequel premiered last summer, and while it gathered steam and appreciation as the season went on, critical reactions were somewhat mixed, and the fact that The Last of Us bested it in viewership tends to mute what had been the show's best case for awards attention: its Game of Thrones pedigree.

    Melanie Lynskey from Yellowjackets is the only 2022 nominee from this category to be eligible again, which puts her in a very strong position for a nomination this year, even as Yellowjackets' second season was something of a letdown from its thrilling debut. Emmy voters like what they like, and they're often unfazed when shows get marginally worse season-to-season. There was talk last year that multiple Yellowjackets actresses might land nominations in Lead Actress, particularly Sophie Nélisse as the younger version of Lynskey's character, Shauna, but it didn't happen.

    This year, there's buzz for Juliette Lewis, whose performance in the season finale would make for a strong Emmy narrative. After getting an Oscar nomination at age 18 for Cape Fear, Lewis has only received one other major acting nomination in her entire career (for the 2003 HBO movie Hysterical Blindness). She has as many Razzie nominations as she has Emmy nominations. This feels karmically wrong. Are Emmy voters in the business of putting karmic balance back into the universe? Not really. But it would be nice if they did.

    Another former nominee who could likely wind up back in this category for the first time since 2021 is Elisabeth Moss for The Handmaid's Tale. Moss won this award in 2017 off of Handmaid's' breakthrough first season and has been nominated twice since. The show's irregular scheduling meant she wasn't eligible to be nominated last year, but it would be foolish to underestimate Emmy voters' affinity for Elisabeth Moss. The actress was nominated six times for her work on Mad Men, in addition to three nods for The Handmaid's Tale and one for Top of the Lake.

    Somehow, Moss' 10 career nominations don't even make her the most Emmy-beloved actress in contention for Lead Actress in a Drama this year. That honor goes to Dame Helen Mirren, who has been nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award 11 times, winning four. She's a contender for her role in the Yellowstone prequel series 1923, which paired her and Harrison Ford as Dutton family elders trying to survive in Montana during the Depression. The Emmys — and the TV industry in general — have worked hard to crawl out from under the reputation as the film industry's less impressive little sibling, but there's still a draw for Emmy voters to honor the performance of an Oscar winner like Mirren when they grace TV screens with their presence (ask Jessica Chastain, who's looking to follow up her Oscar win with an Emmy for George and Tammy in the Limited Series category).

    Mirren's counterpart in the Taylor Sheridan Television Universe is Yellowstone star Kelly Reilly, who keeps getting Emmy buzz year after year, as we all wait to see if Emmy voters will deliver a nomination haul commensurate with Yellowstone's big ratings. It's getting into "don't hold your breath" territory, especially as Yellowstone begins winding down to its final episodes and even Reilly seems like she's ready to be done with it.

    Netflix surely won't be sitting out of the Lead Actress in a Drama category this year, and they have a pair of strong contenders to bring to the table. Keri Russell was a three-time Emmy nominee for The Americans, and her return to political intrigue in The Diplomat was a welcome one. Even critics who didn't care for the show seemed to appreciate the actress' unfussy approach to the character. As with Bella Ramsey and The Last of Us, Russell's chances are buoyed by the fact that The Diplomat has strong viewership numbers.

    The elephant in the room in this category seems to be Imelda Staunton, who is eligible for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth season of The Crown. While there is no doubt that The Crown has lost some steam over the course of its run on Netflix, the fact remains that both of Staunton's predecessors in the role of Elizabeth — Claire Foy and Olivia Colman — were nominated every year they were eligible, and they each took home at least one Emmy trophy. It would be a surprise if Staunton, a highly respected, Oscar-nominated, Olivier-winning actress were to snap that streak.

    More of a long shot is Sharon Horgan for her performance in the dark Irish dramedy Bad Sisters. While her co-star Anne Marie Duff has gotten the lion's share of accolades for this show in the supporting categories (deservedly so), Horgan's role as co-creator and writer on the series could give voters occasion to give her even more credit for her already praised performance, where she buttresses her razor-sharp comedic instincts with some of the heaviest scenes of her career, as her character revisits a past trauma. Bad Sisters aired in the late summer and early fall of last year, which might take it too far out of sight for Emmy voters. But it's notable that Apple TV+ scored six nominations in the drama categories last year (i.e. aside from the major success of Ted Lasso in comedy), so they know how to play this game.

    Looking at the big picture here, Sarah Snook has the momentum of a likely Succession going for her. Bella Ramsey has the popular vote, due to their show's big viewership. Imelda Staunton and Elisabeth Moss will be the reminders that Emmy love dies hard. Melanie Lynskey will weather the Yellowjackets sophomore slump. If I'm placing a bet, I say it's Keri Russell edging out Juliette Lewis and Helen Mirren for that very competitive sixth slot.

    But the competition is so intense, things could shake out any number of ways. Is this the year Emmy voters finally recognize The Good Fight and Christine Baranski's performance after years of the cold shoulder? Will India Amarteifio bring the Bridgerton universe back to the Emmy fold? Doubtful. But possible! With so many major contenders getting serious campaign consideration, the vote totals can lead to some strange things. One thing’s certain — a handful of actress who gave great, buzzy performances that seemed like shoo-ins for Emmy nods are going to get left out.

    The 2023 Primetime Emmy nominations will be revealed on Tuesday, July 12 at 11:30 AM ET / 8:30 AM PT, streaming live on Emmys.com.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Primetime Emmy Awards, 1923, 2023 Primetime Emmy Awards, The Crown, The Diplomat, The Handmaid's Tale, The Last of Us, Succession, Yellowjackets, Yellowstone, Bella Ramsey, Elisabeth Moss, Helen Mirren, Imelda Staunton, Juliette Lewis, Kelly Reilly, Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Sarah Snook, Sophie Nélisse