‘Succession’ power struggle in guest actress: Will Cherry Jones and Harriet Walter’s matriarchs split the vote?

In quintessential Logan Roy fashion, the HBO series “Succession” absolutely dominated Emmy nominations in terms of acting recognition. After an across-the-board snub by the acting branch last year, the Roy family came roaring back with an impressive nine acting bids, over-performing our own high expectations. In addition to the blindside of Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) sneaking into the competitive Supporting Actor category, “Succession” also picked up an unexpected nomination for Harriet Walter, who only 222 of our users correctly predicted––this author included.

Though Walter’s nomination indicates just how much the acting branch loved and paid close attention to the second season of the series, her surprise appearance in the category could potentially stymie a “Succession” victory in the Guest Actress category, where two-time Emmy-winner Cherry Jones also competes for her “Succession” turn as media mogul Nan Pierce. Might the surprise, second nomination in this category actually cost “Succession” some Emmy gold?

SEE Actors solidified ‘Succession’ as Emmy front-runner, but craftspeople could carry ‘Ozark’ to Best Drama Series win

Surprisingly, the Guest Actress category has very often had two or more contenders from the same series compete against one another in the past two decades. Based on precedent, Jones and Walter have some reason to fear an impending loss, though at first glance, the numbers lean in their favor: in 11 of the past 20 years there have been two or more nominees for the same series in the category, and in eight of those cases, one of the two actresses prevailed.

The details of these races reveal murkier odds, though. In three of the last 10 years, a pair of costars has been nominated together––Ellen Burstyn and Molly Parker for “House of Cards” in 2016, Randee Heller and Cara Buono for “Mad Men” in 2011, and Mary Kay Place and Sissy Spacek for “Big Love” in 2010––but none of those actresses took home the trophy. Further back, Amanda Plummer and Angela Lansbury competed against each other in 2005 for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Plummer won, but Lansbury was a double-nominee that year for “SVU” and “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” which likely divided her support.

SEE Cherry Jones could pull off an über-rare Emmy feat if she succeeds herself for ‘Succession’

Two sets of double nominees have also happened frequently in this category in the past 20 years, but with much better results. Most recently, Leslie Caron won for “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 over fellow “Grey’s” nominee Marcia Gay Harden and “Law & Order: SVU” pair Kate Burton and Elizabeth Reaser. The previous year, Patricia Clarkson (“Six Feet Under”) prevailed over Joanna Cassidy from the show as well as “Grey’s” duo Kate Burton and Christina Ricci. In 2004, Sharon Stone (“The Practice”) beat out the show’s other nominee Betty White as well as “SVU” nominees Marlee Matlin and Mare Winningham, while back in 2000 Beah Richards (“The Practice”) took the prize over other “Practice” nominee Matlin as well as “SVU” guests Tracy Pollan and Jane Alexander; Alexander had a second nomination for “Law & Order” that year, too.

While a lot of these instances could be chalked up to pure vote-splitting––where the pool of supporters of a series are evenly divided between two candidates and neither gets a majority to beat the other contenders––that doesn’t explain why some actresses win this category when there have been three nominees from a single show. Just two years ago, Samira Wiley won for “The Handmaid’s Tale” over Kelly Jenrette and Cherry Jones. The same scenario played out in 2009, when Ellen Burstyn triumphed for “SVU” over Brenda Blethyn and Carol Burnett, and in 2002, when Patricia Clarkson won for “Six Feet Under” over Illeana Douglas and Lili Taylor. In these cases, a consensus about the preferred nominee must have been clear, or the support for the series was strong enough for one of the nominees to pull off the win regardless.

SEE State of the 2020 Emmy race: Who’s up (‘Watchmen,’ ‘Schitt’s Creek’), who’s down (‘Handmaid’s’) after nominations?

Though the raw numbers might not shake out in favor of a “Succession” victory given past history and the makeup of the category, Jones and Walter do have other advantages that could tip the scales in either of their directions. The tremendous amount of love the acting branch showered on the “Succession” cast indicates that the sheer number of voters who favor the series could outflank the support of the other contenders and nullify potential vote-splitting. Almost all of the other series represented in the category have significantly less support from the branch: Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) and Cicely Tyson (“How to Get Away with Murder”) are the only nominees for those series this season, while Phylicia Rashad‘s series “This Is Us” and Alexis Bledel‘s show “The Handmaid’s Tale” both slipped in acting branch support this year.

Jones and Walter both have unique advantages over each other, too. Jones not only has a terrific arc and showcase episode, but she’s the defending champion in this category for her work on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Walter also has an episode that spotlights her character, plus she’s had a lot of visibility this season, appearing not only on “Succession” but also “Killing Eve” and “Belgravia,” so she might attract votes from fans of her work outside of “Succession.” Jones currently has a huge lead over Walter according to our combined odds––though she trails Tyson––but Walter could pull enough votes from “Succession” fans to pave the way for one of the other nominees to pull off the win, or even deliver a truly shocking victory herself.

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