Best of 2021: Performances features spoilers for various shows. Please be advised if there’s something you don’t want to know.
Year after year, performances continue to get better and expand the world of television in a way that nothing else could. Sometimes, the performer is so good they’re the sole reason you’re sticking around. And sometimes, the performer isn’t given the proper credit they deserve because prestigious academies continue to disregard genre television. For the Best of 2021 performances, each person in this category did something unforgettable, something indescribable, and left us in awe more during more than one occasion.
For more end-of-the-year coverage, be sure to check out our Best of 2021: Ted Lasso Season 2 Special, as the shining example of what excellent TV looks like in its entirety. We also have the Best of 2021: Scene-Stealers, the Best of 2021: Characters, the Best of 2021: Found Families, the Best of 2021: Romantic Relationships, and the Best of 2021: TV Episodes.
Dominique Tipper’s performance throughout The Expanse’s fifth season is not only the number one Best of 2021 performance , but it’s the most underrated one as the Academy continues to sleep on tremendously stunning and nuanced genre television. As Naomi’s arc grew darker and lonelier in the culmination of her failed attempts to get through to Filip, Tipper brought a full range of emotions to life masterfully in every moment she was on-screen, even when she wasn’t front and center.
And in “Hard Vacuum,” especially, Tipper was revolutionary in showing the audience sides of vulnerability that we would not have seen with a less skilled actress embodying a character whose arc had been leading up to this very moment from the beginning. What we got with Naomi this season and, thus, Dominique Tipper were years of pent of emotions coming to the surface brilliantly with a determination to survive and win the fight in hand.
Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet is exquisite. She’s always been exquisite. She’ll always be exquisite. Even the 2021 Emmys would agree that her Mare of Easttown performance is deserving of accolades. (Though I know many of us were all rooting for someone else despite how much we adore Winslet.) But that isn’t to say that Winslet’s performance as Mare wasn’t deeply moving, achingly uncomfortable at times, and one of her strongest moments yet as an actress.
Winslet brought a plethora of depth and heart to Mare, and she did so without ever breaking character. The resilience, the inability to speak at times during therapy when the crushing weight of trauma would engulf her, the aching silence in which she held Lori (Julianne Nicholson) at the end of the season with—it was all done through an impeccable range.
Shadow and Bone
Amita Suman is the most impressive breakout performance of the year for everything she embodies through Inej Ghafa in Shadow and Bone’s first season. Although the series doesn’t fill the audience in on precisely what Inej has gone through, Suman makes it evident through the meticulous acting decisions that reveal the character has struggled insurmountably. Suman brings an overabundance of grace, humility, curiosity, and eons of empathy to Inej—when you look into her eyes, she is speaking even through the silence as she brings to life the truth behind every word.
What Suman emits with words, and what she shows with her physicality do a tremendous job to exhibit what is deep beneath the character. Suman not only needed to learn the acrobatic routines and how to wield the knives, but she needed to understand Inej Ghafa down to her very bones to bring to life the kind of performance that would be worthwhile. And considering I watched the series before I read the books, it was clear as day that there’s so much more to Inej’s story that Suman shows us even while the dialogue doesn’t blatantly expose it.
Jasmine Cephas Jones
Starz’s Blindspotting being one of the most underrated shows of the year, tragically means that not many people know what a remarkable performer Jasmine Cephas Jones is. Cephas Jones is so nuanced in everything she does it makes Ashley Rose that much more riveting as a character whose story demands excavation. She’s pragmatic, brilliantly subtle where need be, and so acutely bold when the scene calls for it. Cephas Jones brought Ashley’s heart to life marvelously throughout the show’s first season by allowing the audience to see that there’s much more than meets the eye, especially when she’s trying to be strong to set an example for their son, Sean. Cephas Jones is magnetic on-screen.
Blindspotting’s Ashley Rose proves that there’s nothing she can’t do and that it is essential to allow oneself the chance to be vulnerable. It’s one thing to live with the struggles of trial, and it’s another to have to explain to your son why his father likely won’t be coming home for a while. Blindspotting is Ashley’s show. It’s her journey. It’s her everyday struggles. It’s her pain and her joy and every small moment that makes her heart an admirable one, which Jasmine Cephas Jones embodies with one compelling performance after another.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Emmy nominated performance for Disney’s WandaVision is one of the strongest spectacles in acting we’ve gotten in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. Week after week, Olsen gave the audience either something entirely charming to discuss or something so haunting, we couldn’t get enough examining it. The wide range of emotions and incredibly nuanced renditions of various old-Hollywood starlets and TV shows, along with the depth of pain from her own trauma gave Wanda such colossal development it enhanced the stories that we were watching beautifully.
Whatever era they were in, whatever emotion the scene demanded from her, Olsen embodied Wanda Maximoff so dazzlingly it made for an immersive, indescribable experience for those watching. You could feel the crushing weight of her exhaustion, the painfully consuming grief, the deep, indescribable adoration, and even the pangs of uncertainties as she moves on towards what’ll be next. Olsen gave us the right amount of everything—never missing a beat to showcase what proper embodiment looks like in the face of a complex woman.
The Morning Show
Jennifer Aniston’s performances were great in The Morning Show’s first season, but she is something else entirely in season two. Aniston is remarkably fascinating—she’s bolder, braver, and so much more vulnerable as she fills Alex Levy’s difficult shoes with the type of harrowing manifestation that’s almost difficult to watch at times. In the first few episodes, she’s brilliantly absurd as only Alex Levy can be, but in the last three, Aniston is a marvel.
When her character contracts Covid-19, Aniston brings physical torture to life with such palpable performances it was actually challenging to watch. And then, when she finally stands her ground to defend the person she is, Aniston does something even more extraordinary. She shows the audience every ounce of the crumbling woman who’s trying desperately to become a better person even while she doesn’t know how to.
Law and Order: SVU
For 23-years, Mariska Hargitay has continued to outdo herself. Whether you’re a longtime, devoted fan of Law & Order: SVU or you watch episodes here and there, it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by Hargitay’s embodiment of the one woman who’s become the epitome of trust. We might not be able to trust every character in the world, but we can always trust Olivia Benson, and we can trust her because Hargitay brings indescribable warmth to her character episode after episode.
And in the 500th episode—she did something even more brilliant, something even more indescribable, as our Shana Lieberman put it in her Most Noteworthy Performance: “The living legend in question was given no dialogue, no scene partner—save for whatever empathy the actress was able to feel for so the many Olivia Bensons of the world, forced to reckon with the painful reality of their own locked-away memories—to play off of. Here was the spotlight, on one person and one person alone, and it illuminated something special indeed. There is a beauty in watching Olivia Benson’s journey in Law & Order: SVU 500, not because there’s anything beautiful in suffering but because the person portraying the character does so with so much detail and care.”
The Morning Show
In the same way that Jennifer Aniston came back bolder and braver and more layered for season two of The Morning Show, Reese Witherspoon does the same (and through the kind of performances we aren’t talking enough about). While I’d typically opt-out of having two people from the same show, it’s impossible not to include both when the performances have been masterful in showcasing a plethora of growth coupled with deep-seated trauma.
Witherspoon got to do something different with Bradley Jackson this season—she got the opportunity to give her moments of joy amidst the treacherous slopes she crossed, and she did so gorgeously with the kind of range that’s undoubtedly admirable. Witherspoon brought to life a softer, more loving side to Bradley along with the scared, broken little girl who’s unsure of how to heal herself. The vulnerability and the confidence as she continues to evolve at TMS allowed Witherspoon to dig deep into the character’s hollow corridors to deliver the type of embodiment that would hit every time, no matter the emotion she presented. We could take hours solely to discuss both her reaction to Hal’s actions in “Confirmations” and how she carries the interview with Maggie Brener in “Testimony,” plus every little moment in-between.
Anya Chalotra was great during The Witcher‘s first season, but more settled into the role, and having found her footing through the character’s journey in Season 2, she is magic personified. Yennefer of Vengerberg is a complicated character that demands a skilled actress to understand the weight of agency and heartaches to bring parts to her on the surface that words can’t necessarily say.
Where Yennefer loses her powers, Chalotra gains the ability to dig deeper into the sides of the character that acutely touches on her strength alone as a woman and precisely what that entails in a world where it seems everything is ripping her from all sides. Anya Chalotra’s performance is now significantly more promising than what was already great, making it clear that she can brilliantly hold her own against anyone. And more importantly, the fact that as an actress, she’s certainly going places.
You don’t even need to watch New Amsterdam in its entirety to notice the exceptional performances Freema Agyeman consistently brings to the screen. (It’s something she’s always been a shining example of.) You can look at silent gifs and see the full range of performances every small look brings to life. You can watch fan videos and lose yourself entirely in the look in her eyes that tells us the character holds mountains of emotions and that she has been through plenty.
And as someone who watches only the Sharpwin scenes outside of the series’ medical bits, Agyeman consistently brings something so incomparable to those scenes. Whether it’s the moment where she realizes she needs to go to London, how fervently she tries to hold everything together, or hearing Luna call her “mum” for the first time, Agyeman’s expressions tell the kind of stories worthy of pages and pages of analysis.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
From the moment Anthony Mackie came onto our screens as Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he brought to the table a kind of sincerity that hadn’t been as strong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The more Mackie got screen time, the more he would excel, and that was especially true in Disney’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, where the actor was given ample opportunities to take us deeper into Sam’s heart and mind.
And in the journey that it took for Sam not only to feel comfortable with taking the shield but vocalizing his understandable reservations as a Black man in America, Mackie brought to light the very heartaches that have left haunting tears in the world around us. He Mackie was brilliantly noteworthy through every conversation, quip, and action sequence. He continues to prove that he was always perfect for the role, and more importantly.
Scenes from a Marriage
If HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage starred anyone but Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, it would’ve been entirely unwatchable. (To a degree it still was.) With both characters being deeply unlikable and the screenplay failing to build something engaging, the most riveting part of the show was the performances.
From the moment Oscar Isaac stepped into the scene, he became Jonathan Levy, and he did so with the kind of acute embodiment that’s hard to look away from. More times than not, I wanted to turn the show off and walk away but averting my gaze from Isaac’s astounding performances felt like a crime. There was not a single emotion Isaac didn’t bring to life masterfully—every moment better than the one before, complexities ran deep in Jonathan, and Isaac understood every inch of those emotions to the tee.
Tom Hiddleston uncovered his foundation as Loki from day one, but the work he brought to the equation in the Disney+ series remains his best performance as the character to date. Hiddleston took the chaotic God of mischief we all adored and brought in beautiful, haunting vulnerability in the form of a crushed man grappling with what he thought he wanted and what he truly needed.
Hiddleston took Loki on a tremendous journey of self-discovery, and if it were any other performer, the show would’ve faltered in what it attempted to achieve. But through every move, Hiddleston made us believe in Loki’s pain and darkness—he made us believe in the detail that he’s trying to find something substantial to hold onto even as every force of time and energy is fighting against him.
Tom Wambsgams has been climbing to the top of the ladder this year, and so has Matthew Macfadyen. We are often used to the obtuse and pushover Tom in the series, but we’ve seen him shed that image and become a ruthless opportunist throughout the season. It’s a layered performance that is stripped bit by bit each episode, which is done incredibly by Macfadyen. Within his role as Tom Wambsgams, Macfadyen has crafted the perfect look of uncomfortable realization that he’s looked upon pathetically by the woman he loves.
We can usually rely on Tom for some witty and memorable one-liners, which he still delivers (“I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat”). However, this season, we are gifted with a more multifaceted version of Tom–alone, downcast, unhinged, renewed, caring, and increasingly self-aware. And Macfadyen has nailed every single moment of it. We’ve slowly seen Tom become a master strategist who has finally put himself first and proven the Roys and co. that he should not be underestimated. Given the material provided how well he’s done with his performance, Macfadyen should have been a serious contender for the Golden Globes. We shall see how the rest of the awards season thinks so. –Alice S.
Henry Cavill is great in The Witcher‘s first season, but he’s almost close to flawless in the second. As Cavill grounds the characters through emotions and more conversations, he brings to light so much of what’s inside him and then some. Mixing the gruffness with softer edges in an attempt to visibly showcase what’s within, Cavill succeeds in delivering to us entirely what’s within. In Season 2, Episode 6, “Dear Friend…” Cavill is exceptionally brilliant as he makes it clear that he’s trying desperately to control where he wants to let go.
There is plenty of compassion in Geralt of Rivia, and this year, there’s a limited amount left to the imagination as much is out in the open for us to bear witness to. And for someone acting with colored contacts in that could make it more difficult for us to see through the real emotions, Cavill manages to give us so much of what is necessary, plus the glimmering of drops through his physicality. Confident in battle and broken within, Cavill embodies Geralt so exquisitely his every move says something we should pay attention to.
Another season of Succession, another captivating performance by Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy. However he does it, Strong is able to present an authentic vulnerability to his character. The brilliance of his work comes from his ability to switch so effectively to a manner of diverse personalities in a matter of seconds. One minute Kendall Roy appears to be the loud, self-absorbed wealthy douchebag, and in another, he’s a lost puppy that wants to be loved. There’s nuance and subtlety to his facial expressions and body language that is unmatched.
Strong’s performance this year was even more astounding, considering how little screen-time he shared with his fellow cast members. For the few interactions we did see between Kendall and his family members, Strong made sure they were ones we would not forget. For every scene Kendall had with his siblings or father, you could see the internal struggle of someone who resents his family’s abandonment and isolation while simultaneously yearning for their love and comfort. Of course, no one, and I mean no one, is able to convey how much they’ve hit rock bottom like Jeremy Strong (please allow me to direct you to episodes “Too Much Birthday” and “All the Bells Say”). He can take a complicated character and portray a sense of humility that makes a viewer not help but root for him.
Lucifer’s Season 5B and Season 6 were the most significant seasons yet for the titular character, and through every beat, Tom Ellis needed to bring his best to the year, which he does so unquestionably. Where the character’s charm is never displaced, grappling through the uncertainties of Rory’s abandonment, dealing with his father, the cold hard decisions, and even the animated episode that relied on voice acting, 2021 authenticated the fact that Tom Ellis is one of the most underrated actors of our time.
He is a performer who’ll continue to outdo himself with every project by fully immersing himself in the character he is playing to bring something truly special to life. And that goes for the singing as well. While not everyone’s favorite, Ellis’ version of “Wicked Game” broke me in a way no song in any musical managed to this season. Mind, body, heart, and soul—Ellis brought his A-game so meticulously, there are no words.
Shadow and Bone
Much like his frequent scene-partner Amita Suman, the majority of Shadow and Bone‘s first season demanded the actors show the audience what words on the page aren’t yet ready to do. And thus, so much of the little things exhibited on-screen are entirely a testament to Freddy Carter’s astute understanding of the character’s sensibilities.
Kaz Brekker‘s backstory depended on Carter’s performance, and with so few words, we were given plenty. Many of his mannerisms match what we see in the books, bringing to our screens moments that scream in quiet displays of complexity. Carter’s performance makes you question so much of the character and why he operates the way he does. But more importantly, it’s the impressive range in a series that doesn’t feel as mature as the performances do. The same goes for Suman, as not only are their arcs better represented outside of the genre, but the performances are genuinely worth noting as somewhat of a rarity.
With every new project, Paul Bettany continues to bring some of his best work to the surface through the kind of skill sets that always leave lasting impressions. And in WandaVision especially, he brings the most preeminent interpretations of Vision to life as a “man,” a lover, a father, and everything in-between.
Bettany’s work throughout WandaVision has been a splendor to watch for both the warmth and immeasurable sadness he conveys. As an astonishing and downright perfect scene-partner to Olsen, you could feel every ounce of his love for Wanda, the deep frustrations, the haunting guilt, and even the piercing uncertainties throughout the beginning. Bettany took a character we knew very little about outside of the comics and gave him the kind of extraordinary growth that’s not only been one of the best performances of 2021, but ever in Marvel’s history.
Shadow and Bone
Ben Barnes never fails to understand the assignment, and that’s especially the case with Shadow and Bone‘s General Kirigan/The Darkling. As someone who’s now read the books, it’s hard to believe that any other actor could have made the character as compelling as Barnes does.
The nuances he brings to the villain’s backstory, the undeniable heart that is still somewhere deep within, and the masterful transformations through subtle facial expressions are Barnes’ specialty. The decision to immerse himself into every role is a remarkable feat, but more than that, it’s the fact that Barnes chooses to look deep into understanding precisely why a character behaves how he does, and by virtue of, it makes the on-screen performances that much more riveting to dissect. A villain’s performance can often be overdone, but that’s certainly not the case with Barnes, as the range he exhibits every moment is both captivating and entertaining.
Honorable Mentions: Evan Peters (Mare of Easttown), Freya Allan (The Witcher), Jane Levy (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), Skylar Astin (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), Tracy Spiridako (Chicago P.D.)
Who are your favorite performances of 2021? Let us know in the comments below.