WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Oh Rachel, you had us at “This is what a feminist looks like.” From the very first moment Appleby debuted as too-weary-for-her-years reality-show producer Rachel Goldberg, we were hooked on her every eye-roll and deadpan line reading. But there’s more to Rachel than a walkie-talkie and a snarky comeback, and Appleby spent the Lifetime drama’s first season building a character whose inner sadness and distrust served her well professionally yet ravaged her emotionally. That scene in the confessional, in which Rachel used her heartbreak over Adam and her humiliation over Jeremy to build the perfect Everlasting finale? Appleby has never been better — and we can’t wait to see what angst she’ll endure (and cause!) in Season 2.
CAITRIONA BALFE, OUTLANDER
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Even though Jamie’s nearly unbearable traumas at the end of Season 1 grabbed headlines, Outlander is, at heart, Claire’s story. And Balfe has never made that more apparent than in her portrayal of her character’s achingly realistic stillbirth in Season 2. (We’re still not over her heartbroken lullaby while cradling her daughter’s tiny body.) We’d seen Claire flinty, feisty and funny before, but we’d never seen her so unflinchingly raw — and Balfe deserves all the credit for taking Madame Fraser deep into a very bleak place and slowly bringing her back out again.
GEMMA CHAN, HUMANS
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: As synthetic servant Anita, Chan spent the first half of Humans‘ freshman season creeping out mistress of the house Laura — and the AMC drama’s audience — with her chipper dedication to housework and ability to lurk around every corner. As we learned Anita had been “born” a sentient being named Mia — and tampered with to make her override her impulses — Chan pulled off the impossible: Transforming her character from a household appliance to a fully realized individual capable of humor, fear and a longing to reconnect with her under-siege synth family.
CARRIE COON, THE LEFTOVERS
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: We could simply answer that question with “Lens,” the episode in which Coon’s Nora made the mistake of going through the Department of Sudden Departures’ questionnaire with Erika (the formidable Regina King). By the time the neighbors’ conversation-turned-confrontation was over, Coon had taken her character from certain that she could prove she hadn’t wished away her husband and kids to more frightened than ever that she had. However, “Lens” was but one of the HBO drama’s many sophomore-season showcases for the actress’ subtlety and skill. And, whether Nora was optimistically moving her new family to a town that had suffered no departures or panicking that her lover Kevin had vanished, Coon’s commitment to her role made her work less a series of brilliant performances than a series of unforgettable experiences.
VIOLA DAVIS, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: “I have to go handle a bitch,” hissed hard-charging attorney Annalise Keating, midway through the show’s foot-on-the-accelerator second season. That zinger seemed to serve as a mantra of sorts to her portrayer, Viola Davis, who adroitly played everything from seductive to seething, from devious to devastated as Annalise and her students got wrapped up in a high-profile murder case with deadly side-effects. Whether Annalise was commanding her underlings to shoot her — the better to obfuscate an incriminating crime scene — or flashing back to the devastation of losing her unborn baby in a car accident, Davis proved so undeniably electrifying, it felt like not even a power outage could stop her performance from pulsating through the screen every Thursday night.
VERA FARMIGA, BATES MOTEL
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Even if the fourth season of A&E’s artful Psycho prequel hadn’t killed off Norma, we still would have said that Farmiga’s work was to die for. In any given episode, sometimes in a single scene, the 2013 Emmy nominee managed to play enough seemingly contradictory emotions — rage and sorrow, hopefulness and resignation, happiness and fear — to flesh out a dozen characters. And the fact that she was not only able to make sense of the mess that is Norman’s mother, but make us care deeply for her to boot is an even greater testament to her jaw-dropping talent. So, if you ask us, there’s really only one word to describe an Emmy voter who would overlook her monumental accomplishment: crazy.
EVA GREEN, PENNY DREADFUL
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Season 3 of Showtime’s supremely poetic monster mash began with Vanessa left behind by both soulmate Ethan and father figure Sir Malcolm — in other words, at her lowest. Then the series dragged her down even further by having her relive the horrors that she’d experienced in her padded room at the Banning Clinic. But, besides make us wonder whether creator John Logan has a sadistic streak, what the stretch of despair did was afford Green arguably her greatest opportunity yet to display her breathtaking range for Emmy voters. As she brought Miss Ives out of the darkness, we marveled at not only the strength with which she scared the hell out of both Lucifer and Dracula, but also the light that radiated from every hard-won smile.