Christine Baranski (‘The Gilded Age’): Next Julian Fellowes grande dame to win over Emmys?

Christine Baranski has long admired the career of legendary actress Maggie Smith, who like Baranski has won Tony and Emmy Awards for her work on the stage and small screen. It is only fitting, then, that in Julian Fellowes’ new HBO series “The Gilded Age,” Baranski has assumed a role most similar to Smith’s Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey,” as both are fan-favorite characters with rapier wit. Smith’s performance netted the actress two Emmys from five nominations. Could Baranski follow in her hallowed footsteps?

On “The Gilded Age,” Baranski plays Agnes van Rhijn, an intractable and moneyed widow from old New York who ferociously protects her values and world order from the invasion of the nouveau riche. From the start, Agnes must confront two seismic changes, though: obscenely wealthy robber barons George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon) move into their palatial home across the street from Agnes’ brownstone, and Agnes’ naïve niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) moves in with her aunt after the death of Agnes’ profligate brother. In the first six episodes of the season, Agnes chides Marian’s every move and quips deliciously about her disdain for the Russells, but with each passing hour she proves herself increasingly insightful.

SEE ‘The Gilded Age’ reviews: ‘Ambitious,’ ‘frothy’ period drama boasts an ‘impeccable’ Christine Baranski, ‘ferocious’ Carrie Coon

In the sixth episode “Heads Have Rolled For Less,” in particular, Baranski commands the screen as she doles out advice before ultimately breaking her own. For the umpteenth time, Agnes warns Marian against her courtship with a lawyer whom she deeply distrusts for acting like “an adventurer.” And for a character so deeply rooted in the past, Agnes at least seems progressive on issues of race in postbellum America, harshly warning her servant Armstrong (Debra Monk) to reform her clear prejudice against Agnes’ Black secretary Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). When Agnes later discovers that Bertha Russell has bribed Agnes’ British butler to serve for her at an important luncheon, Agnes impulsively storms out of the parlor of her home — take my word, an exciting rarity on the series thus far — to furiously march across the street and interrupt the proceedings. From her indecorous behavior to her humiliation by the episode’s end, Baranski finally had the opportunity to tap into the emotional depths of this delightfully snarky character, drawing out a pathos and gravitas not often displayed in this usually frothy show.

At this very early moment in the Emmy Awards contest, Baranski has cracked our top 15 contenders in our combined odds for Best Drama Supporting Actress. Although the category is overstuffed with returning and new contenders — Sarah Snook (“Succession”) and Julia Garner (“Ozark”) lead our odds in a rematch of their 2020 showdown, with new entrants like recent SAG Award winner Jung Ho-yeon (“Squid Game”) looking incredibly strong — Baranski has a number of strengths in her favor. For an unconventional Monday night time slot on HBO, “The Gilded Age” has performed exceedingly well as the best premiere in that slot since the Emmy-winning “Chernobyl,” also outpacing the numbers for smash limited series “The White Lotus.” With its lavish period production values and its endearingly low stakes, the series will most likely appeal strongly to the largest demographics of Emmy voters too. Its predecessor series “Downton” scored an impressive 69 Emmy noms over its run, winning 15 times. While the television landscape has changed a lot since that series aired, “Gilded” could draw similar support from “Downton” fans.

SEE Christine Baranski will put up a ‘Good Fight’ at Critics Choice Awards

If these factors bode well for the series, certainly below the line, Baranski also has a leg up on the rest of the cast. Although the ensemble of “The Gilded Age” is a true embarrassment of riches — its series regulars and recurring and guest stars boast a dumbfounding 64 Tony nominations and 23 trophies amongst them — Baranski has emerged as the de facto face of the series, promoting the show in countless articles in the trades and in television appearances. Had she campaigned in lead, she would’ve faced the tough path to a nomination with likely only six slots, battling her co-star Coon and even herself for her other series “The Good Fight.” In supporting, she looks competitive for one of the eight slots and returns to a category she used to dominate for her work on “The Good Wife,” earning six nominations out of the seven seasons of the show.

And while a victory will prove difficult — Snook, Garner and Jung all star in juggernaut series with much more exposure and acclaim — it is Baranski’s parallels with Smith that could prove fortuitous for the nomination. Smith won in her first and last at-bats for “Downton Abbey,” proving that even with the passage of time that type of role in a period piece retained its appeal to voters. Given the opportunity to coronate a new grande dame in Baranski, they just might.

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