Dancy’s stunning Season 2 turn began with his addled profiler Will Graham behind bars (for a murder he didn’t commit), continued via his return to “therapy” with Dr. Lecter (to explore the potential sociopath within) and culminated in his eventual murder and mutilation of a human “monster” (who’d been sicced on him by Hannibal). If it all sounds over-the-top and showy, think again. Dancy’s expertly crafted dance with the devil was so hauntingly internal, that you could never be entirely sure if he was still trying to bring down the titular cannibal or had fallen under his influence. As Will’s moral conflict hurtled toward a shockingly bloody conclusion, Dancy resisted the urge to go big — and instead, went quietly breathtaking.
Woody Harrelson, True Detective
We know what you’re thinking: “Woody Harrelson? Everyone knows Matthew McConaughey is the obvious Lead Actor pick from True Detective!” And we don’t disagree; for his portrayal of oddball loner Rust Cohle, McConaughey deserves every accolade tossed his way. But we argue that Woody Harrelson’s performance as flawed family man Marty Hart, though not as showy, merits equal praise. Harrelson’s quietly crumbling detective proved as much an enigma as his standoffish partner: Was Marty a doting father? Lecherous adulterer? Shrewd policeman? Good ol’ boy jerk? In Harrelson’s capable hands, we were never quite sure… but we definitely wanted to stick around to find out.
Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy
We've long considered Jax Teller to be one of TV's most conflicted characters, and Season 6 of Sons of Anarchy only increased our protagonist's inner turmoil. As Jax attempted to balance the demands of SAMCRO alongside his complicated relationships with Tara and Gemma, Hunnam turned in a superb performance that put Jax's season-long uncertainty on display. And if those breathtaking moments after Jax discovered Tara's body don't earn Hunnam an Emmy nod, we're not sure what will.
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Rhys was transfixing as his covert Russian spy found himself facing an emotional crisis, the toll of killing intersecting with his rage over daughter Paige’s newfound interest in the church. The actor unleashed a fury rarely glimpsed before in the typically internalized Philip while also delivering one of the most quietly powerful performances on TV.
Michael Sheen, Masters of Sex
So many times during Masters of Sex’s first season, we wanted to reach into our TV sets and shake the repressed Bill Masters; that’s how desperate we were to see the 1950s-era sexuality researcher let loose some of the passion we knew bubbled beneath his bow-tied surface. As the pioneering OB-GYN, Sheen often hinted at Masters’ deeply held feelings — failure as a husband unable to impregnate his wife, lust for his whip-smart assistant – but strapped them down with lockjaw determination. And when Bill’s rage (or sorrow, or fear) did get the best of him, we got the catharsis we so craved. Sheen played the outbursts with abandon; we’re still not able to erase the image of him, crumpled and crying at his desk after Libby’s miscarriage, from our heads.
James Spader, The Blacklist
When NBC brought in veteran actor Spader to headline its freshman drama, we knew his inherent charisma would serve as the show’s foundation. But we couldn't have anticipated the stunning journey Spader would take us on throughout the course of 22 episodes, as he transformed wanted fugitive Ray Reddington into a fascinating, complex, and sometimes quite funny antihero. For one hour a week, we watched in awe as Spader took a dishonest, smooth-talking criminal and crafted a misguided, vulnerable character who constantly kept us guessing.