16) Pamela Pilcher
Actor: Melissa Leo
Show: Wayward Pines
Like the show she’s in, Melissa Leo’s Nurse Pam has more layers hidden under the surface than the initially steely facade she presents to the town of Wayward Pines, and the show’s audience, in the first half of the season. She’s our litmus test of weird for the hidden-bunker-in-an-abandoned-lot sized amount of weird this show throws at you. Fake cricket noise boxes? Not as weird as Nurse Pam. Creepy cult of teenagers droning on about the oncoming “Next Generation” of the quiet town? Decidedly weirder than Nurse Pam. As played with sneering menace – and eventually quiet grace – by Leo, Pam is more than the sum of her somewhat predictable villain-y parts.
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Every time she’s on screen she dominates, chewing the eerie mountain scenery with delicious grit in the first half of season 1 and then earning the 10-episode run its most satisfying emotional payoff when she decides to betray her scheming brother, and the show’s Big Bad, David Pilcher (Toby Jones). It’s probably the out-there show’s most earth-locked arc, but it succeeds on nearly every beat because you know Pam would do anything for her brother, even when that means it’ll bring him harm. Maybe that’s Wayward Pines‘ most surprising twist: it was a show built around blindsides that found its secret weapon tucked in its most traditional construct – the redeemed villain arc.
15) Carol Pilbasian
Actor: Kristen Schaal
Show: The Last Man on Earth
There is a woman on The Last Man on Earth. Discovered by the titular dude at the pilot’s end, Kristen Schaal brought the answer to the question everyone was asking the minute the show was announced: how long can this go on for? Twenty-two minutes, it turns out.
But that’s okay, because the off-beat, oddball humor Schaal brings to the show’s world – not to mention the immediate friction between her and Will Forte – makes up for the loss of true experimentation that some tuning in might have been hoping for. Oh, dang prepositions, sorry Carol: for which some tuning in might have been hoping.
14) Donna Clark
Actor: Kerry Bishé
Show: Halt and Catch Fire
The energetic girl-power jet fuel that lit a, well, fire under Halt and Catch Fire‘s second year is totally and utterly at the hands of Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis’ partners-in-crime story, which makes up a large part of the season. But here’s the thing – Davis was a likable rebel from the get-go in season 1; she had a great arc this year but stayed the steady, stoic patron of technological revolution that she’s always been.
It was Bishé’s sudden thrust into the spotlight (she was essentially a recurring nagging head in season one) that finally felt like co-creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers had something to say about the onset of in-home computer popularity, the burgeoning bootstrap start-up culture, and the women who were seen as weird pieces of that tech field pie.
Bishé took all of this in stride, still sporting Donna’s occasionally overbearing maternal instincts but pivoting them into a laser beam focused den mother role for a house of unruly coding slobs and leaving hubby Gordon (Scoot McNairy) home to nag and flirt with infidelity. Not exactly the most revolutionary metaphor for a show about a computer revolution, but it was done with enough well-executed enthusiasm for both female characters that the show never even felt like an on-the-nose hooray-for-feminism statement. It just felt like damn good TV.
13) Jessica Jones
Actor: Krysten Ritter
Show: Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Full disclosure: I’ve only seen five episodes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. It’s more than enough to get what Ritter is doing with the role, which is the first full-female-led addition to the monolithic Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention the first with a female character’s name in the title.
Sad something like that can be seen as risky, but it was, and it more than pays off. Jones is every bit the scrappy underdog the MCU deserves, and her Hell’s Kitchen sleuthing for the way to terminate arch-nemesis Kilgrave (David Tenant) fuels a personal vendetta-filled show where even indestructible characters feel frightfully, and masterfully, fragile.