Emmy nominee profile: Can Melanie Lynskey finally win first statuette for sinister ‘The Last of Us’ performance?

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Kathleen Coghlan may have met her demise in the first season of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” but the woman who plays her, Melanie Lynskey, is stronger than ever at the Emmys. After landing her long-overdue first nomination last year, for her lead performance on the Showtime hit “Yellowjackets,” the New Zealander added not one, but two bids to her tally this past July, including one for her sinister guest turn on “The Last of Us.”

As Kathleen, the ruthless leader of a resistance group that freed Kansas City from military rule, Lynskey appears in the fourth and fifth episodes of the post-apocalyptic drama, of which the latter, “Endure and Survive,” serves as her Emmy submission. After it’s made clear that Kathleen will stop at nothing to hunt down and execute the man (Best Drama Guest Actor nominee Lamar Johnson) who ratted out her resistance leader brother, she gets a full-on origin story moment in which she explains that forgiving one’s enemies is pointless because her sibling did so to no avail. Though she eventually comes face to face with her target, her plan of retribution goes awry when she hesitates to pull the trigger and is mauled by an infected child.

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Even though Lynskey appears in just a handful of scenes in her submission, she makes a lasting impression with her layered portrayal of a woman who is thrust into a position in which she, for some of the worst reasons imaginable, ultimately finds herself thriving. But will her layered work on the series be what finally earns her an Emmy statuette?

SEE 2023 Emmys: Best Drama Guest Actress episode submissions for all 6 nominees

Her competition in the race for Best Drama Guest Actress is strong and includes two of her “Last of Us” castmates, Storm Reid and Anna Torv, both of whom are first-time nominees. Also shortlisted for the first time in her career is “Succession” scene-stealer Hiam Abbass, who rounds out the lineup alongside her co-stars Cherry Jones and Harriet Walter.

With five nominations and three wins on her resume, Jones — who has prevailed for “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2019) and “Succession” (2020) in this category, and once for “24” (2009) in Best Drama Supporting Actress — is the most rewarded actor in this derby, whereas Walter, with the same number of bids but zero victories, is arguably the most overdue. This is the third time Walter is up for playing Roy matriarch Lady Caroline Collingwood on “Succession” and the second year in a row in which she also enjoys a corresponding nom in Best Comedy Guest Actress for embodying another mother on “Ted Lasso.”

The biggest selling point for Lynskey, though, is that she is undeniably having a career-high moment. Not only did she scare up a second bid this year, for “Yellowjackets” in the Best Drama Actress category, but she did so as that show’s lone acting representative. Clearly, there is a lot of love for her in the TV academy that could plausibly materialize somewhere this year. The question is where.

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Oftentimes double nominees are recognized for the project in which they’re more prominently featured (see: Ann Dowd winning for “The Handmaid’s Tale” in supporting instead of for “The Leftovers” in guest in 2017), which would naturally be “Yellowjackets” in Lynskey’s case. But “Yellowjackets” took a hit in nominations in it second year, dropped from several categories despite returning to the Best Drama lineup. “The Last of Us,” on the other hand, exceeded expectations with a total of 24 citations, including a whopping nine for acting. So if members of the acting branch are longing to bestow a statuette on Lynskey this year, they may choose to do it for the show they liked more.

Her biggest hurdle, you could argue, is that she has to get past two people from her own show who play much more sympathetic characters. But perhaps it’s the darkness of Kathleen that makes her, and by extension Lynskey’s performance, so enticing to voters. And while Kathleen has few redeeming qualities, Lynskey avoids playing her as one-note. The actress taps into her vulnerability, like when Kathleen talks about growing up with her beloved brother. The crack in Lynskey’s voice when she says, “As long as we were together, in our perfect box, we would be safe,” evinces the deep-seated pain that drives many of Kathleen’s merciless actions and thus adds much-needed dimension to the character.

This article is a part of Gold Derby’s “Emmy nominee profile” series spotlighting the 2023 acting contenders.

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