One of the headlines out of last night’s Emmy awards was the number of repeat winners, from The Daily Show’s continued streak as best variety series (10 years running) to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ third trophy (this time for Veep, previously for The New Adventures of Old Christine and Seinfeld). While some of the repeat wins indicate a sclerosis of taste—I’m thinking about Modern Family, here—at least one was a glorious testament to the growth and evolution of its recipient: Claire Danes, who won last night for her performance as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland.
Danes was nominated for her first Emmy in 1995 for her performance as Angela Chase in the brilliant-but-quickly-cancelled My So-Called Life. That role was in the mold of much of Danes’ early acting work—pop culture archetypes we could relate to. Her current hot streak, though, is from tackling characters whose brains work differently than ours do.
As Temple Grandin in the titular HBO biopic, for which she won the outstanding actress in a movie or miniseries Emmy a few years back, Danes played the animal scientist whose brilliance in designing livestock holding facilities had a direct relationship to her autism. A lesser actress might have taken Grandin’s autism as a constraint, reducing the character to a series of tics and treating her as fundamentally impenetrable. Danes couldn’t rely on the normal emotional beats of a Great Woman story, so she instead created her own emotional vocabulary—and pulled it off.
In Homeland, Danes plays another woman whose genius and disease are intimately related—in some ways, Carrie Mathison is much more debilitated than Temple Grandin. Where Grandin ultimately embraced her autism, Carrie tries desperately to cover the bipolar disorder that discredits her in the eyes of her superiors at the CIA. And while Grandin was uninterested in sexual and romantic relationships, a facet of her personality that liberated that movie from so many clichés, Carrie’s romance with the man she suspects of being a terrorist is about the erotic power of recognizing your damage in someone else. She’s one of the sexiest characters on television, and one of the smartest, as well as an acknowledgement of how Sept. 11 and the “War on Terror” have unhinged something in all of us. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on a single character, but Danes has picked up that burden as an opportunity.
I’m looking forward to Homeland’s return this Sunday, and to more time spent with Carrie Mathison. But I have to admit, given how far Danes has stretched, how little she’s coasted on accumulated goodwill, I also can’t wait for her next role.