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Buzzsaw | matthew Gilbert

Quietly, Elisabeth Moss has emerged as one of TV’s greats

Elisabeth Moss in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”George Kraychyk/Hulu via AP

In the back wing of my mind, right beside the Library of Grudges and the Portrait Gallery of Exes, I maintain a secret TV Acting Hall of Fame. It’s for actors and actresses who’ve been essential players on more than one series, and who are ultimately best known for their small-screen performances. Those already voted into the immortal chamber by the executive committee of one include Edie Falco, Michael C. Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bryan Cranston, Timothy Olyphant, and Mary Tyler Moore.

Today I’m making room for a brand new inductee. Drumroll: Elisabeth Moss. Watching Moss in her early years as the president’s daughter on “The West Wing,” with her sweet, high voice, I never sensed the potential for future greatness on a number of TV shows, most recently “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She blended into the first family well, and had a few dramatic and comic moments, but she paled next to the many more mature and vibrant actors around her. But since then, I’ve found that her ordinariness, her somewhat unremarkable demeanor, is part of her gift. She has at her disposal the everywoman quality that evades many actresses with more distinctive features and more buoyant onscreen personalities.


Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet in “The West Wing” with Martin Sheen as her father, the president.NBC

Thanks to her recessive presence, Moss was perfectly cast in “Mad Men.” Her Peggy Olson was a parallel lead on the drama, the character who, alongside Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, remained central over the years. Her journey through the 1960s was as significant as Don’s, as she recognized and then owned her own power in a world of oppressive sexism. She began as a mouse so out of touch with herself that she didn’t realize she was pregnant; she ended as a thick-skinned woman ascending the corporate and creative ladder without compromising her personal life. Moss carried one of the show’s biggest themes — women and their roles and rights — on her unassuming shoulders. She offered viewers a relatable point of view into the drama, while Hamm’s Don dodged and darted his way into and out of mysteriousness.


On “Mad Men,” Moss revealed one of her acting strengths: the ability to show a character in transition, moving through an arc step by step, evolving radically but incrementally. When you contrast Peggy in season one with Peggy in season six, the difference is incredible. The two Peggys are connected by Moss’s consistencies, but they are quite different, too — one with her eyes closed, the other with her eyes open. Along the way, Moss never projected Peggy’s fate in her performance, never tacitly communicated to viewers that Peggy would or would not ultimately prevail.

The reason for Moss’s induction isn’t just “Mad Men,” though her work on that series won her six deserved Emmy nominations. During the run of “Mad Men,” Moss also starred in a memorable six-episode drama in 2013 called “Top of the Lake” that was driven by her fearless turn as a New Zealand detective looking into the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old while dealing with her dying mother and her own history of sexual abuse. Again, Moss’s character changed across the series, as her pent-up anger and her buried realizations emerged. Moss carried some of the same denial she brought to the younger Peggy, but she also evoked a rawness and terror that is haunting. The bleak series returns for a second round in September on the Sundance Channel, with Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie as Moss’s costars.


Moss in “Top of the Lake.”

But her work in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of the year’s finest, and grimmest, series, is what has cemented her induction. It’s hard to imagine any other actress at the center of the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian story of a misogynistic, shrinking America that requires fertile women be enslaved, raped, and used for breeding. Moss gives a perfectly modulated turn as Offred, a mild, free-spirited woman ripped from her husband and child and forced to live in the home of a “barren” couple and be impregnated by the husband, played by Joseph Fiennes. On the inside, Offred is sick with grief and fear; on the outside, she tries to play by the rules and mask her feelings. Moss’s two-tiered performance is miraculous, as she toggles back and forth effortlessly between the levels.

Her opportunities to speak frankly are few, but her eyes, usually wide open, communicate tons of meaning. She brings us into the heart of a woman hiding her true self from everyone. Not that Moss strains to show us Offred’s hidden trains of thought and feeling; she lets them surface naturally, with small eye movements and hints of tears. But we always know that Offred is resisting the new normal, that she is just killing time until she can break out. Through her glances and downcast glares, her eye rolls and cold stares, she tells the whole story. She signals humanity in a creepily portrayed world where compassion has died.


So I’m swinging open the doors of the Hall of Fame once again, gladly. A critical piece of three extraordinary TV series, Moss is a slam-dunk.

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in “Mad Men.”Michael Yarish/AMC/AMC

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.