Why Merritt Wever deserves Golden Globe and SAG Awards breakthrough bids for ‘Unbelievable’

Despite three Emmy nominations for “Nurse Jackie” (Best Comedy Supporting Actress, 2012-13) and “Godless” (Best Limited Series/TV Movie Supporting Actress, 2018), two of which translated into wins (“Nurse Jackie” in 2013 and “Godless”), Merritt Wever has never been nominated for a Golden Globe or an individual Screen Actors Guild Award. But she might finally get her due, thanks to her starring role in Netflix’s eight-part limited series “Unbelievable.”

The series is based on T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which was published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project. Set in Washington state in 2008, it follows 18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) after she reports being raped at knifepoint to the police. When two male officers confront her about inconsistencies in her story, she gives in to the pressure and says she made it all up, causing her to be charged with false reporting. Three years later, two Colorado detectives, Karen Duvall (Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), team up after they discover uncanny similarities between several rape cases in their state, initially unaware of a potential connection to Marie’s case in Washington.

When Wever first appears in the second episode, she commands it with her calming but magnetic presence. Her peculiar, subdued line delivery as Karen questions her first victim, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), is as comforting as it is devastating. It creates a striking polarity to that of her male counterparts, who don’t give Marie adequate patience to feel comfortable enough to recount her rape. Wever never allows Karen’s collectedness to confine her emotional range: Subtle flashes of concern and heartbreak that cross her face at the right moments manifest the degree of empathy with which Karen observes and listens to her victims. The star walks that tightrope again in the following episode, when Karen discovers that her team didn’t request a rush of the lab results from Amber’s rape kit. Watching Wever deviate from the restrained manner in which she generally plays Karen, by raising her voice and altering her entire body language as Karen pours out her trepidation, is fascinating.

SEE ‘Unbelievable’ reviews: Toni Collette and Merritt Wever could win Emmys again for timely Netflix limited series

Before the team eventually closes in on the suspect in the seventh episode, Wever delivers a beautiful three-minute monologue, in which Karen explains to Grace why she won’t be able to unwind until the perpetrator is behind bars. She recalls a domestic disturbance case in her first year, and how if she had listened to her gut, a bailed-out husband would’ve been prevented from continuing to abuse his wife. Wever’s instinctive delivery makes for a very honest, convincing portrayal of someone reflecting on a traumatic but regretful event in their life. It’s so tranquil that it takes a while for it to wash over you, but when it does, it punches you in the gut.

It would be wrong to talk about Wever’s work on the show without mentioning her chemistry with Collette. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch these two actresses play off one another, especially given that their characters have polar-opposite personalities. By the end of the series, you can’t help but notice the two performances occasionally intertwine, a result of Karen and Grace subtly adopting behavioral habits from the other.

Wever currently ranks in fifth place in both our Golden Globe and SAG Awards odds. At the Globes, she could benefit from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s tendency to reward newer shows. Since the Globes’ eligibility cycle goes by the calendar year, some contenders have already competed at the Emmys, like incumbent champ and odds-on Globes and SAG favorite Michelle Williams (“Fosse/Verdon”). And since the HFPA likes to be the very first to recognize someone, this would be its chance to put Wever on the map for “Unbelievable,” which dropped Sept. 13. Plus, unlike for “Nurse Jackie” and “Godless,” Wever won’t have to compete in the insanely crowded catch-all supporting actress category.

Even though she’s never been recognized individually by the SAG Awards, the actress has been acknowledged as part of the “Nurse Jackie” cast with a comedy ensemble nom in 2013. Although “Unbelievable’s” later premiere date would normally end up being a detriment to her chances at SAG, the group’s affinity for Netflix might outweigh that. Like at the Globes, she could have an easier path competing as a lead, even if SAG still combines lead and supporting TV performances. Wever could also bag an ensemble bid for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” in which she plays Scarlett Johansson’s sister Cassie.

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