After more than 25 years on television, it is hard to believe that Keri Russell earned her first-ever Emmy nomination just last year, as voters finally caught on to her critically acclaimed performance on “The Americans.” Russell plays Elizabeth Jennings on the FX drama, who poses as a travel agent in the suburbs of Washington D.C. but is really a covert KGB spy along with her husband Philip (Russell’s off-screen partner Matthew Rhys) in early 1980s America.
According to our exclusive combined Emmy odds, Russell is nipping at the heels of frontrunner Claire Foy (“The Crown”) in second place with 11/2 odds. After last year’s breakthrough career nomination, can Russell go the distance and win this year? Below, see four reasons why she’s a threat to win Best Drama Actress.
1. “The Americans” is peaking at the Emmys
According to our combined racetrack odds, “The Americans” is in third place to win Best Drama Series (behind “The Crown” and “Stranger Things”) with 6/1 odds. That kind of heat would have been unheard of even a couple of years ago, so the show is definitely on the ascendancy. “The Americans” has consistently garnered rave reviews and awards from various critics groups over the years. But for its first three seasons, the show inexplicably under-performed at the Emmys. In its first year, it scored a meager two nominations: for its main title sequence and for Best Drama Guest Actress (Margo Martindale). Martindale returned as the show’s only nominee the following year, and returned for a third go-round in its third year, surprisingly winning her category for a single scene in one episode.
The show’s third season was also honored with a Best Drama Writing nomination for the episode “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” After making little impact for its first three seasons, “The Americans” finally broke through at the Emmys last year. It scored surprise nominations in the big three categories — Best Drama Series, Best Drama Actress (Russell) and Best Drama Actor (Rhys). The show also scored a second consecutive nom for Best Drama Writing (“Persona Non Grata”) and a third consecutive bid for TV academy favorite Martindale in Drama Guest Actress, who won that category again. (For Season 5, Martindale will be jumping up to the supporting race.)
Although Emmy voters are often savvy when it comes to recognizing critical darlings, sometimes they are a little late to the party. But there is precedent for big breakthrough wins for fifth seasons. For example, NBC/DirecTV’s “Friday Night Lights” enjoyed similarly gushing reviews from critics, but only managed a paltry five nominations over its first three seasons (including one win for Best Casting in its first year) before breaking through with four noms for its penultimate fourth season (Best Drama Actor for Kyle Chandler, Best Drama Actress for Connie Britton, Best Drama Writing and Best Casting). Then for its fifth and final season, the show garnered its first Best Drama Series bid, nominations for Britton and its casting, and wins for leading man Chandler and Best Drama Writing. So Russell might therefore benefit from increased buzz for the show, much like Chandler did in 2011.
2. Multiple identities = catnip for Emmy voters
As Elizabeth, Russell uses a variety of wigs and costumes as she goes undercover to achieve various outcomes to advance the cause of mother Russia. Elizabeth is also, in a sense, playing a character herself. As a stoically devout Soviet loyalist that shows no exterior signs of that in her day to day life as a mother in the suburbs. This dynamic gives the actress many opportunities to play completely different personas in various situations, which helps as Emmy voters go crazy for actors playing multiple roles.
Two famous upsets in Emmy history can be chalked to this love of multiple roles. In 1977, Sally Field won Best Movie/Mini Actress for “Sybil” (in which her character had 16 personalities) over sure-thing Jane Alexander (“Eleanor & Franklin: The White House Years”). In that same year, Lindsay Wagner (“The Bionic Woman”) upset frontrunner Sada Thompson (“Family”) as Best Drama Actress for an episode where she played good and evil twin versions of her role.
More recently, Cynthia Nixon won Best Drama Guest Actress in 2008 for “Law & Order: SVU” and Toni Collette won Best Comedy Actress in 2009 for “United States of Tara,” both of whom played women with multiple personalities. Last year, fan favorite Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) won for playing multiple clones of the same person, with different looks, different accents and different personalities. Her performance is a true acting showcase, and the same can be said to some extent for Russell. Maslany is out of contention this year, as her show will not have aired any new episodes this Emmy cycle.
3. This season has been strong for Russell
Russell’s performance as Elizabeth is relatively understated, which might be one reason why it has taken so long for her performance to catch on with Emmy voters. But it makes sense for her to play this character in this way, as Elizabeth is hiding in plain sight as a Soviet spy, quietly undermining U.S. interests in the suburbs of D.C. Over time, Elizabeth has grown and developed, showing more of what lies underneath her steely exterior.
Last season, Elizabeth and Philip’s cover was put in jeopardy when another Soviet operative was taken into FBI custody. As Season 5 unfurls, the Jennings continue their deep-cover missions while their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) comes to terms with their true identities. This season, as Elizabeth’s KGB handlers have demanded more from her, the stakes have become much higher. Her life is a dangerous juggling act between her KBG loyalty, her marriage that teeters on thin ice, and the coming of age of her daughter Paige. There’s also been an added sense of urgency around her missions this season, as she goes from Illinois to Kansas to Mississippi on various assignments, cunningly executing the KGB’s plans while evading the FBI.
The development of her character can only help Russell in the Best Drama Actress race, as her nuanced and steely performance should resonate with the TV academy’s acting branch, against very different work of Viola Davis (“How To Get Away With Murder”), Christine Baranski (“The Good Fight”) and Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), for example.
4. Россия сейчас везде (Russia is everywhere right now)
There may not be a more timely drama series on air right now than “The Americans.” A day rarely goes by without seeing headlines about the ongoing scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. As we noted when “The Americans” premiered in March, as that real-life controversy unfolds, this series about Soviet spies “undermining the United States from within once seemed like a throwback to the conflicts of yesteryear, it now feels like an eerie prequel to our 21st century reality.”
There’s a good chance that real-life current events might bring the show even more attention and recognition this year. Do you agree that Keri Russell has a real shot to win the Emmy for Best Drama Actress? Sound off down in the comments section.