Emmy spotlight: Don’t underestimate Janet McTeer after her spine-chilling turn on ‘Ozark’

As Helen Pierce, the ruthless attorney for Mexico’s Navarro drug cartel, Janet McTeer made a lasting impression with her blood-curdling performance in the third season of “Ozark.” The actress missed out on a Best Drama Supporting Actress Emmy nomination last year, but don’t be surprised if she makes the cut this year. Here’s why I’m predicting her and why you ought to do the same.

After five nominations for its debut season, “Ozark’s’ sophomore run produced nine bids, including Best Drama Series and acting citations for its core cast, leads Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, and scene-stealer Julia Garner. Its support didn’t, however, extend to other (smaller) supporting players like Lisa Emery, Peter Mullan and McTeer, who appeared in too many episodes to be considered as a guest actress despite her collective screen time resembling that of one. The show ended up scoring two victories for Bateman in directing and Garner in supporting actress, the former of whom overcame three spectacle-heavy efforts from Best Drama Series champ “Game of Thrones” with a rather understated season opener.

Premiering to series-best scores on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and viewed by 29 million Netflix subscribers within the first four weeks of its March 27 release, the third season improved markedly over the first two outings in terms of both critical reception and viewership. It has the benefit of having premiered during the heart of Emmy season (whereas the first two seasons dropped nearly a year before voting in their respective cycles), which unintentionally collided with stay-at-home orders prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. The show is in second place in our odds for Best Drama Series, which is shaping up to be a three-horse race between “Ozark,” No. 1 “Succession” and No. 3 “The Crown.”

SEE ‘Ozark’s’ Janet McTeer: ‘It’s not fun to be tortured’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

With this boost in popularity and acclaim, the show is likely to enjoy a considerable uptick in Emmy nominations, which could bring McTeer along for the ride. Helen’s role is also noticeably enlarged in the third season as she returns to the Ozarks to oversee Wendy’s (Linney) plan to expand the cartel into legitimate businesses. Woven into her storyline are her uber-complicated, contentious relationships with her daughter Erin (Madison Thompson), who joins her for the summer, and her ex-husband Gene (Douglas Dickerman). In her opening scene of the season, she is subjected to waterboarding interrogation by members of the cartel who question her about her ex-husband’s knowledge of their dirty business, which the actress described as being one of the most challenging but exhilarating scenes to have filmed.

Because McTeer has always peeled back some, but never too many, of Helen’s layers, the dynamic with her daughter gives viewers much-needed insight into her personal life. As Helen treads the line between job and family, the actress effortlessly switches back and forth between the two contrasting personas she plays: the caring mother who longs to abate the emotional distance between her and her daughter (who is in the blue about her mother’s criminal occupation), and the cold, tough-as-nails cartel enforcer.

The two parts of her life for which she’s gone to great lengths to keep apart begin to calamitously collide in the eighth episode, when Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey) crashes a fundraising event to confront his sister about the circumstances surrounding Ruth’s (Julia Garner) father’s death. McTeer captures Helen’s instant (hair-raising) reaction with wide-eyed wariness, as the homicide is linked directly to the cartel. Matters turn worse when Ben ambushes Helen and Erin at their residence and outs the former’s criminality to her daughter. McTeer’s brain-piercing delivery of “Enough! Get Out!”, coupled with flashes of wrath that sweep over her face, leave you fearful of what’s to follow.

After Wendy realizes that her bipolar brother is a liability to the well-being of her own family, she divulges his whereabouts, allowing Helen’s henchman Nelson (Nelson Bonilla) to kill him. This unfortunate event doesn’t sit well with Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), who, bearing a shotgun, confronts Helen at her house about Ben’s death. Glimpses of fear shine through as Helen tries to manipulate Jonah into putting the gun down, but McTeer keeps these within limits since Helen subtly takes control of the situation by admitting to having Ben killed, but pointing to Wendy as the authorizer — which is yet another, albeit unpremeditated, step she takes to dismantle and eliminate the Byrdes. She goes unharmed, but upon arrival in Mexico — where she is to attend Navarro’s (Felix Solis) second son’s baptism alongside Marty and Wendy — is abruptly shot in the head by her own henchman.

SEE ‘Ozark’s’ Laura Linney on the twists and turns of Season 3: ‘We’re off for another adventure together’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Helen’s jaw-dropping sudden demise is one of the reasons why “Ozark” has been able to sustain its buzz. As Emmy voters begin marking off their nominating ballots later this week, they’ll presumably keep in mind that it’s their only chance to acknowledge McTeer for this role. A Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actress Emmy nominee for her turn as Clementine Churchill in HBO’s 2009 TV movie “Into the Storm” and two-time Academy Award nominee for “Tumbleweeds” (1999) in Best Actress and “Albert Nobbs” (2011) in Best Supporting Actress, the English actress is already familiar to the industry. Her name will appear twice on the Emmy ballot as she also contends for Facebook Watch’s “Sorry For Your Loss” in the drama supporting actress category.

In light of the TV academy’s new ruling stipulating that acting category slots at the Emmys will scale up or down depending on the number of submissions, the drama supporting actress category is likely to cross the threshold (240+ submissions) that would constitute eight slots. As of this writing, McTeer sits in seventh place in our odds, trailing Helena Bonham Carter (“The Crown”), Garner, Meryl Streep (“Big Little Lies”), Laura Dern (“Big Little Lies”), Thandie Newton (“Westworld”) and Sarah Snook (“Succession”); Rhea Seehorn (“Better Call Saul”) sits in eighth.

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