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Emmy Analysis: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Always an exciting, often very unpredictable race, the year’s Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series has taken a weightier turn with the recent passing of Michael K. Williams, nominated for his role in the first (and only) season of Lovecraft Country. Williams was already the frontrunner in a year that only sees the return of one of 2020’s eight nominees in the category, that being Bradley Whitford in The Handmaid’s Tale

Last year saw a trio of Succession players vying for the gold, ultimately usurped by scene-stealer Billy Crudup from The Morning Show, who was nominated alongside his co-star Mark Duplass. Also contending were Giancarlo Esposito for Better Call Saul, and Jeffrey Wright for Westworld. All of these series were forced to skip the ceremony this year due to their new seasons not making the eligibility wire, opening up the field for plenty of new contenders. Yet the Emmys did what they do best, by sticking with the names they recognized. 

Giancarlo Esposito as Moff Gideon / The Mandalorian / Disney+ 

Episode Submission: “Chapter 16: The Rescue” 

Nominated in this category for the second year in a row, but for a different series, Esposito continues to stake his claim as one of the most formidable villains in modern television. He received a second nomination last year for this same role, that time in the Outstanding Guest Actor category. A long cry from his eccentric roles in Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch films, Esposito’s quiet, stern precision makes Moff Gideon a man you aren’t likely to mess around with. In a series loaded with impressive talents like Rosario Dawson and Werner Herzog, it’s no surprise that Esposito stood out enough to earn the nomination. That being said, it would feel wrong for him to win his first Emmy for this series when there’s still one more season left of him playing Gustavo Fring on Better Call Saul

O.T. Fagbenle as Luke Bankole / The Handmaid’s Tale / Hulu 

Episode Submission: “Home”

It’s been a big year for O.T. Fagbenle. The star earned his first Emmy nomination, after being with The Handmaid’s Tale from the very beginning, and also had a supporting part in Marvel’s blockbuster Black Widow, playing Natasha Romanoff’s asset provider Mason. While he may not have had the key Taskmaster role that theories had been pinning him as early on, showing up in one of the biggest movies of the year certainly is a benefit for anyone’s career. Next year, he’ll be playing Barack Obama himself, opposite none other than Viola Davis as Michelle, in the Showtime anthology series The First Lady. This isn’t Fagbenle’s year, but perhaps we’ll be seeing plenty more of him in the years to come. 

John Lithgow as E.B. Jonathan / Perry Mason / HBO 

Episode Submission: “Chapter 4”

If you’ve seen an Emmy ceremony in the last 40 years, you’ve likely seen John Lithgow nominated for something. The beloved veteran is now on his 13th nomination, with 6 wins in his pocket. His previous win was in this exact category, taking the crown in 2017 for his role in… well, The Crown, as Winston Churchill. His Perry Mason role is the kind of catnip Emmy voters love to award for aging veterans like Lithgow, but the series never quite popped the way that most expected. Having missed out on nominations at both the Golden Globes and the SAGs, Lithgow’s nomination is as far as he’s getting this time around. 

Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip / The Crown / Netflix

Episode Submission: “Gold Stick”

A veteran of popular series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, Tobias Menzies is the sole representative for The Crown in the Supporting Actor category. While the Netflix series is likely to dominate the Drama categories on Emmy night, Menzies isn’t likely to ride that wave to a win. Instead, he can enjoy his first career nomination, awarded for his role as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. 

Max Minghella as Commander Nick Blaine / The Handmaid’s Tale / Hulu

Episode Submission: “The Crossing”

As is the case with O.T. Fagbenle, Max Minghella is a Handmaid’s Tale veteran who has been around since the beginning, receiving the first Emmy nomination for the series this year, and also the first for his career. Likely a benefit of this year seeing major contenders like the Succession crew sitting out, Minghella also capitalized on The Handmaid’s Tale having a critical resurgence, garnering the best reviews since its first breakout season. If anyone from the team stands a chance of taking Michael K. Williams on for the win, it’s former Emmy winner Bradley Whitford, who has previously been awarded here for his Handmaid’s Tale role, but Minghella is no slouch either. 

Chris Sullivan as Toby Damon / This Is Us / NBC 

Episode Submission: “In the Room” 

This Is Us bursted strong out of the gate at the Emmys, earning massive nomination hauls early on for a litany of its acting talents, along with three Outstanding Drama Series nods before this year. After sitting out the big race last year, the series finds itself competing there again for the fourth time now – again, likely the result of a thinner playing field this year. Each year the series, perhaps the last remaining fighter for broadcast television in the drama categories at the Emmys, sees its haul getting lower and lower, with Lead Actor nominee Sterling K. Brown the only sure bet to continue getting nominated. Chris Sullivan got the rare return this year, though, marking a case where an actor was nominated one year, not nominated the next, and then came back to be nominated again. It’s not something that happens often, but given the strong season for Sullivan, and the Emmys’ usual favorites sitting out this year, he was in prime position to hear his name again. Check out our recent interview with the Emmy nominee here

Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence / The Handmaid’s Tale / Hulu

Episode Submission: “Testimony” 

Alongside Lithgow, Bradley Whitford is the old dog in this race, the guy who has been around the block and knows a thing or two about showing up to Emmys ceremonies. An 8-time nominee, Whitford has wins for three different series – a Supporting Actor win for The West Wing, Guest Actor in a Comedy for Transparent, and Guest Actor in a Drama for The Handmaid’s Tale three years ago. He saw his role as Commander Joseph Lawrence increased last year, landing him a nomination for Supporting Actor, and he follows that through again this year. If anyone can put up some resistance to the Michael K. Williams win, it’s going to be Whitford, but one does wonder if having two other Handmaid’s Tale co-stars in the same category could potentially hurt his chances. 

Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman / Lovecraft Country / HBO 

Episode Submission: “Rewind 1921” 

Voting for this year’s Emmy winners was completed long before Michael K. Williams tragically passed away on September 6th, just under two weeks before the ceremony takes place. Williams was already deservedly seen as the frontrunner, and it’s a shame that he won’t be able to receive the recognition that was long overdue for him from his peers. An absolute icon of film and television, responsible for two of the most memorable characters in television history, in The Wire’s Omar Little and Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White, Williams was somehow never nominated for either of those roles. As the Emmys sometimes do, they finally began to catch up with their mistake in recent years, nominating the actor in the Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie category for Bessie, The Night Of, and When They See Us. His nomination this year for Lovecraft Country is somehow his only nomination for Supporting Actor in a Drama, and his win is sure to be the most emotional moment of the night. 

Prediction: Michael K. Williams

Preference: Michael K. Williams

Sleeper: Bradley Whitford

Predicted ranking:

Michael K. Williams
Bradley Whitford
Tobias Menzies
John Lithgow
Giancarlo Esposito
Chris Sullivan
O.T. Fagbenle
Max Minghella 


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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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