Emmy episode analysis: Allison Janney shows her versatility with third nomination for ‘Masters of Sex’

Despite being a guest actress on the show and appearing in only two episodes in its third season, Allison Janney has become the face of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” at least where the Emmy Awards are concerned. In the show’s first season, Janney was one of three acting nominees and the only winner. The following year she was one of two acting nominees, but failed to take home the award. This year she’s back for a third consecutive nomination in the role of Margaret Scully and is the show’s only acting contender.

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In “Matters of Gravity,” Margaret and boyfriend Graham (Tate Donovan) wrestle with whether or not to disclose their new polyamorous relationship. While Graham is open to the idea of discussing it at the couple’s sex therapy sessions, Margaret is not, choosing instead to keep the information from her longtime friend and therapist, Bill (Michael Sheen). Signs that Margaret might not be as okay with the arrangement as we thought surface when she overhears Graham having sex with Jo (Julie Ann Emery).

Later in the episode when Jo confesses her own jealousy after overhearing Margaret and Graham testing a new position they learned at therapy, Margaret admits she’s no longer comfortable in the relationship and that perhaps she only entered into the agreement in the hopes that it would fix Graham and he’d return to wanting their monogamy back. Janney sinks her teeth into this great dramatic moment, echoed shortly thereafter by a heartwarming reunion scene with her ex-husband Barton (Beau Bridges) that shows the depth of Janney’s abilities as both a comedic and dramatic actress. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Janney’s bid in this guest actress race:

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For voters, what works about Janney’s guest role on “Masters of Sex” is that her character begins and ends huge story arcs within a very short amount of time. In just this episode, Margaret goes from willing participant in an open relationship to wanting out of it and then connecting again (albeit as friends) with her ex-husband. The amount of growth she gets to exhibit in just one episode is nothing if not impressive.

A win here would be an eighth for Janney, tying her with Cloris Leachman for the most overall by a performer. If she then pulls off another win for Comedy Supporting Actress for “Mom” she’ll pass Leachman. The history-making opportunity could be too hard to pass up for Emmy voters.

This is the third year in a row that Janney is up for awards in both drama (“Masters of Sex”) and comedy (“Mom”). The dramatic scenes in this episode offer voters a direct point of comparison to her comedy work, which gives her a leg up on the competition in terms of variety and versatility.

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When Janney won for this role in 2014 it was due in part because of the unexpectedness of seeing her explore the story of a woman experiencing her first orgasm late in life. And while this year her episode includes a three-person relationship and a sex scene where she’s physically dominant, the excitement of seeing Janney manage the sexual material may have dissipated.

As much as it helps Janney that she’s won so many awards, it could also hurt her if voters are in the mood to spread the wealth to other talented actors.

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