As we attempt to pick our favorites for the major Emmy 2012 categories, we find ourselves hitting a brick wall every time we look at the list of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama nominees. We're sorry, we're supposed to choose only one? The mind boggles.
For those who haven't yet memorized the list of nominees, here's who made the cut:
Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring), Breaking Bad
Brendan Coyle (John Bates), Downton Abbey
Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Game of Thrones
Jared Harris (Lane Pryce), Mad Men
Not only are we clueless as to whom the Academy will pick, but we barely know who we want them to pick. There are at least four nominees who have more than earned the trophy.
In fact, while we have whittled our choice down to one, we can't possibly bring ourselves to talk about just our top pick. So to give credit where credit is due in an impossibly strong field, here are our quick thoughts on what every nominee brings to the table, in the reverse order that we would like to see them win.
The Downton men: We're not dissing Downton Abbey here. Both nominees turned in memorable performances this year, with Jim Carter continuing to lend Carson an understated dignity and strength, and Brendan Coyle capturing Bates's resigned horror as the twists and turns of fate (and the machinations of his evil ex-wife) destroyed the happiness he was just starting to feel. However, these men just weren't given as much to do as everyone else on the ballot, and the material they were working with was not as strong. The Academy seems to love Downton — it got 16 noms — but we'd be surprised, and a bit disappointed, to see a Downton servant win.
Jared Harris: It pains us to put Jared Harris so low on this list. We've always been fans of his, and his quiet performance as Lane on Season 5 of Mad Men was the perfect picture of a dignified, prideful man refusing to shout for help even as he drowned in his problems. The fact that he's not our first pick as winner speaks to the strength of this field, not a weakness in his performance. We certainly won't throw anything at the TV if he wins.
A side note: If the Emmys took an actor's range within a given TV season into account, Jared would be the surefire winner — while he was breaking our hearts on Mad Men, he was simultaneously giving us chills as David Robert Jones on Fringe. You'd never know it watching him as Lane, but the man makes an amazing villain.
Peter Dinklage: This is where things start to get really tricky. If anything, last year's winner surpassed himself during Season 2, easily adding "political subterfuge" and "epic speeches" to his bag of tricks, alongside biting wit and a love of the, ahem, finer things in life. In turns charming, sarcastic, loving, brave, and terrified, Tyrion continues to be one of the most compelling characters in what is arguably the most expansive and talented casts on TV. If Peter walks away with a second win, we'll cheer as wildly as any Lannister bannerman.
And yet he's only our third favorite here. Why?
Aaron Paul: In the end, no show gives its actors a platform to display their skills in quite the way Breaking Bad does. Aaron Paul won this category in 2010 — Breaking Bad wasn't eligible in 2011 — and, honestly, we're having a hard time saying he shouldn't win again this year. In fact, if this was about performance alone, we might give it to him.
For several years, Aaron Paul has been matching three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston emotional-blow by emotional-blow on Breaking Bad, and in Season 4 he was superb as he embodied Jesse’s growing resignation and depression, culminating in one of the greatest monologues in TV history. Oh, and let’s not forget the scene where Jesse almost killed Walter. From wrenching anger to deepening doubt, Aaron turned in an outstanding performance throughout the entire season.
So why isn't he our top pick? Mostly for the pragmatic reason that he's already won, and has two more years to pick up another trophy or two — and based on his performance so far in Season 5, he'll be a strong contender in 2013.
Giancarlo Esposito: Gus Fring, on the other hand, is definitely dead, and it would be a shame for one of the best villains in recent memory to go unrewarded. In Breaking Bad Season 4, Giancarlo transformed Gus from cold-blooded killer to … well, still a cold blooded killer, but one with an underlying humanity that peeked through the throat-slitting and "I will kill your infant daughter" threats.
It also helps that Giancarlo had a clear standout submission episode, "Hermanos," in which we finally learn Gus's backstory. We're shown a whole new side of the always-in-control mastermind in a riveting flashback to Gus as a determined young man completely out of his depth in the drug game. His heartbreaking breakdown when his partner is shot to death in front of him is a scene we'll never forget.
So that's why we're throwing our hypothetical vote to Giancarlo — but really, it's almost impossible to go wrong here.