WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: It would be easy to cite the end of Murder‘s fourth episode — in which Davis boldly removed her makeup and wig on camera — as the sole reason she deserves an Emmy nomination this year. But the truth is, that vulnerable scene was just one in a series of moments that found Davis exploring Annalise Keating’s inner turmoil and ever-changing moral compass. Throughout the ABC drama’s first season, Annalise was revealed to be deeply flawed and scarred — and while it was exhilarating to watch her command a classroom or courtroom, Davis captivated us even more with her exquisite portrayal of a broken woman.
VERA FARMIGA, BATES MOTEL
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: So raw and so real is Farmiga’s work as the mother of budding psycho Norman that you don’t so much watch her performances as experience them. No matter how upsetting the situation in which Norma finds herself — from being forced to make peace with the brother who raped her to realizing that, even when she’s holding all the cards, she’s still been dealt a losing hand — her portrayer puts you in the scrappy single mom’s shoes. As a result, we don’t just root for the character to catch the break that’s forever eluding her, we also hope that, after passing over Farmiga last year, the Emmys will reenter the 2013 nominee in this year’s race.
TARAJI P. HENSON, EMPIRE
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Right from Empire‘s pilot episode, Henson has been the white-hot molten core fueling the Fox’s cultural and ratings juggernaut. In a single season, the Person of Interest vet created one of TV’s all-time iconic characters, fueled by a wicked sense of humor (“You want Cookie’s nookie? Ditch the bitch!”) and a penchant for stunning brutality (tossing a drink in rival Anika’s face before knocking her flat on the floor). And while Henson excels brilliantly in such outré moments, when she’s showing us Cookie’s ferocious maternal love and her palpable passion for the music business, she makes whole a character who — in the hands of a lesser actress — might be dismissed as mere camp.
HAYLEY ATWELL, MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: As Peggy Carter, Atwell needed to sell us on a plucky secret agent who respected authority yet knew when to seize it, and to bring to life a 1940s woman who was almost amused with — and never knocked down by — the predispositions of the era. What’s more, we had to believe that she was just as convincing letting rip with an automatic weapon as she was bidding a tearful goodbye to a last reminder of the super man she loved, and lost. As part of a universe that would one day wield a mighty S.H.I.E.L.D. and assemble a team of empowered Avengers, Atwell compellingly brought to life a hero who was all too easy to root for.
EVA GREEN, PENNY DREADFUL
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: If Emmy voters see nothing but last season’s “Séance” episode — and Green’s indelible portrayal of a woman literally possessed — they’ll have no choice but to agree that she deserves a nomination. (And, for good measure, the name of a good chiropractor, too.) Then again, if they catch that performance, they’re sure to end up so mesmerized by the actress that they stick around to watch how she takes her Victorian-era alter ego, the elegant but tortured Vanessa Ives, from the grip of debauchery (in the bed chamber of Dorian Gray) to the depths of despair (at being invited by the devil to be “the mother of evil”). And if they see all that and still don’t give Green a nod, there will be… well, hell to pay.
CAITRIONA BALFE, OUTLANDER
WHY SHE DESERVES A NOD: Being a modern British 1940s woman who is transported to Scotland circa 1743 is not an easy reality for Outlander’s Claire to absorb, and Balfe has brought that struggle to life with poise and determination. Rather than allowing her character to become a poor, lost-in-time-and-place damsel, the actress brings such steely strength and resolve to Claire — even under the most dire of circumstances — that we believe she will always find her way.