Emmy cliffhanger: Could Vera Farmiga scare up Best Drama Actress for ‘Bates Motel’?

According to our racetrack odds, Claire Danes is the strong favorite to win her second Best Drama Actress Emmy for her role as a bipolar CIA analyst on Showtime’s “Homeland.” Eight out of 13 experts, 20 out of 24 top users, and 69% of all users place her out front.

But could there be an upset in the works? After watching the episodes submitted to Emmy judges by the seven Best Drama Actress nominees, three Gold Derby editorsTom O’Neil, Chris Beachum, and I – are currently betting on Vera Farmiga to win for playing Norma Bates, the mother of future serial killer Norman Bates, on A&E’s freshman drama “Bates Motel.”

Farmiga submitted the pilot episode, which opens with the sudden death of Norma’s husband. Afterwards, she moves her son to a small community to rehabilitate a run-down motel only to be threatened and later raped by the property’s former owner. After killing her attacker in a vengeful rage, she and her son cover up the crime and dump the body.

Says Beachum of the episode, “I had no expectations at all for ‘Bates Motel’ … Farmiga is outstanding in the pilot episode, with a full range (covering anger, fear, humor, and motherly love), impact, and empathy. That surprise element won me over, and I suspect a few Emmy voters might put her at the top as well.”

Though Norma can be overbearing, we sympathize with her attempt to start a new life, which is so quickly thwarted by her vicious assault. And there are two key moments of impact: her rape, which appears both physically and emotionally grueling; and later dumping the body with young Norman, to whom she apologizes for being a bad mother.

“Bates Motel” airs on the A&E network, which has yet to prove itself at the Emmys for series television, and it competes against shows with far greater buzz and media attention, but the same could have been said for Bryan Cranston when he won his first Emmy for AMC’s “Breaking Bad” in 2008. That year, he also submitted an emotionally dynamic pilot episode, and he was up against three-time Emmy-winner James Spader (“Boston Legal”) arguing before the Supreme Court, as well as a pair of overdue actors (“Dexter‘s” Michael C. Hall and “House‘s” Hugh Laurie), and fellow AMC star Jon Hamm (“Mad Men“) whose series at the time had more attention from critics and Emmy voters (and would win the first of four Best Drama prizes that night). In that case, the Emmy submissions proved to be the great equalizer.

Does it hurt that “Bates Motel” is a genre series? Possibly: Emmy voters have never been especially fond of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. But often the hardest part of winning an Emmy is first securing a nomination, after which the right episode submission can level the playing field, as it did for previous Drama Actress winners like Lindsay Wagner (“The Bionic Woman”), Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”), and Patricia Arquette (“Medium”).

It’s possible Claire Danes is still the safer bet, however. She submitted the “Q&A” episode of “Homeland,” which also earned nominations for writing and directing. Though the episode is largely focused on Damian Lewis, who submitted it for consideration for Best Drama Actor, it’s Danes who does most of the talking as she’s forced to confess her own feelings to draw out a confession from the man she now knows to be a terrorist.

“She has a very long, intense, emotional interrogation scene … It could certainly bring her a second straight Emmy for this role,” says Beachum of Danes’s performance. “But Farmiga has the advantage of being the underdog bringing an unexpected challenge to the TV drama queen.”

Can Farmiga pull off an upset? In recent weeks she has risen in our racetrack odds from a distant 33/1 to her current 11/2, which places her third behind frontrunner Danes (8/11) and Washington (7/2). Watch our Drama Actress slugfest below, as well as our recent interview with Farmiga, who spoke to Gold Derby to before nominations were announced.

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