For years, we waited for Caplan to land the leading role for which she was clearly destined, one that made the best use of her comedic timing, her every-girl approachableness and her ability to smolder at a moment’s notice. Thanks be to Ulysses, Masters of Sex’s Virginia Johnson is that role, and the Party Down alum excels at playing a single mom with a natural talent for investigating human sexuality. Whether she’s making controversial choices about which man should share her bed or getting a (pardon the pun) rise out of her emotionally repressed boss, Caplan is electric onscreen.
Claire Danes, Homeland
Season 3 saw Danes finding new emotional depths in Carrie’s erratic behavior — and delivering a complex performance within a performance. While her unbalanced FBI agent began the season with a wild-eyed display of rage that got her committed to a mental institution, we later learned it was all part of an undercover mission to convince the enemy that she was vulnerable to becoming a turncoat. (That revelation, of course, didn’t make Carrie’s fear and isolation in the psych ward any less heartbreaking.) Later, while undercover in Iran, she desperately tried to save Brody’s life, only to watch her lover being hung. In those final, harrowing moments, Danes made us hold our collective breath, and also reminded us how she’d held together a largely uneven season for Showtime’s twisty thriller.
Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel
The Emmys would be nuts not to give a second nod to Farmiga for her no-holds-barred work in the Psycho prequel's sophomore season. As Norma Bates was dragged back into her painful past (by the brother who fathered her firstborn) and thrust into a frightening future (via an accidental alliance with a drug lord), the actress vividly painted her alter ego as the hottest kind of mess — part hellcat, part underdog, part something else entirely. No wonder, by the finale, Norman couldn't get his mother out of his head. Farmiga's fearless portrayal of a woman on the verge is still on our minds, too.
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
It was a season of extremes for Margulies, one that began with Alicia’s delicious, frequently vicious split from Lockhart-Gardner — a power play that saw Margulies shedding the last vestiges of her character’s old naiveté. After Episode 15, however, in which Alicia’s former boss and lover Will Gardner was killed in a senseless act of gun violence, Margulies took us on a journey of a woman reeling from a complicated loss. We felt her numbness as she tried to make sense of Will’s death; her rage and grief as she accepted what-might-have-been was now what-could-never-be; and the rudderlessness that took hold in her as the loss made her question her personal and professional alliances. It was a dazzling collection of 22 episodes for Margulies — ones that absolutely must return her to the race from which she was omitted last year.
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
If the Emmys recognized actors for quantity alone, Maslany — who plays everyone from grifter mom Sarah to uptight suburbanite Alison to emotionless Rachel to transclone Tony and then some — would be rolling in statuettes. But the actress does more than just rest on sheer spectacle, taking what could be a gimmicky idea and completely transforming herself, inside and out, into a one-person ensemble of fully realized women (oh, and a man).
Keri Russell, The Americans
After Season 1, we knew Russell’s Elizabeth was a fierce spy, and she continued to prove it in the show’s sophomore outing, standing strong in her life beliefs. But as her marriage to fellow agent Philip became increasingly real and her daughter Paige found God, Russell let glimpses of a softer, even doubtful Elizabeth, shine through.