The Greatest TV Actors and Performances of the Past Decade

Part 3 of An Ongoing Series

Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito

Take A Bad Role And Made it Better

I may be technically violating my own rules by highlighting three actors who played the same characters in two different series. But one only has to watch them in Better Call Saul to see the textual layers that made up so much of their work in Breaking Bad.

Anyone remotely familiar with the Vince Gilligan knows just how brilliantly these three great actors managed to transform three indelible characters in what can be called the Bad-verse. We should begin by paying tribute to Bob Odenkirk, who’s tweaking of his comic persona was so elegantly done that it inspired Better Call Saul in the first place. But the closer the events in Breaking Bad moved towards their climax, the more you could see that Saul Goodman was actually the voice of reason — and Walter White’s arrogance caused him to ignore it, until his destruction led to Saul having to disappear himself. This makes much of the action in Better Call Saul more tragic as Odenkirk portrays Jimmy McGill, a low-level con artist turned attorney who spends much of the first three seasons trying to embrace his inner goodness — until his own brother tells him otherwise, and he embraces his destiny. When Jimmy officially ‘becomes’ Saul at the end of Season 4, we see the sadness that Bryan Cranston could never quite convince us of.

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Banks and Esposito have each done extraordinary work as well, and it’s a measure of Gilligan and his writing staff that watching Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut — who as we all know had two of the greatest death scenes in the history of the medium — can play younger versions of themselves, and makes us realize that there were even more depths to them than was hinted at in Bad. This is particularly true of Mike, where we learned just what brought him to New Mexico in the first place, and see that the steely-eyed enforcer does have a heart, even for the people he has to kill. Esposito is just as good, and that’s an even better trick considering he was basically the Breaking Bad equivalent of Lex Luthor, as well as just how deep his feud with the Salmanaca clan really was, and how far he’s willing to go to get his revenge.

These three performances are so good they do something remarkable — make you forget that they will all, in their own way, be victims of Heisenberg. I’m not sure how much further Gilligan will take his characters — we keep getting hints of Jimmy’s fate every season — but I have trust in him, and in these great performers. Now if only the Emmys would show them some live.

Margo Martindale

The Character Actress’ Character Actress

It’s not that Martindale was unknown even outside television before this decade began — she had a memorable stint as Camilla, Dexter’s only real maternal figure in the early seasons of Showtime’s first blockbuster. But this decade has truly demonstrated just how gifted she is — until she can play herself on BoJack Horseman and be justifiably called ‘Emmy winning character actress Margo Martindale’

Her incredible streak started on the second season of Justified. Her role as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a Harlan County crime family, who dealt in her apple drink just as well as weed was the greatest single performance on a series that had a lot of them. She — well, there’s no other way to put it — justifiably took a Supporting Actress Emmy.

Two years later, she created another matriarchal figure as Claudia, the Jennings’ handler on The Americans. A maternal figure who exuded love and brutality in the same sentence, she seemed perfectly equipped to handle Philip and Elizabeth — and in the final season, Paige. The longer the series went on, and the closer the Soviet Union came to ruin, you wondered how she kept going. But in her last memorable scene — when Elizabeth betrayed her — her simple final remarks made you see that this was a woman who could easily whisper into Putin’s ear. She deservedly won two Emmys for her work, tying her for the most one by any actress during the decade.

Throw in a memorable stint as a sitcom mom on The Millers and a DNC powerbroker in The Good Wife and The Good Fight, and you have one of the most versatile actresses in a field that’s full of them. She’s already had two roles of a lifetime, but I don’t think for a second the career of ‘Emmy-winning character actress Margo Martindale’ is anywhere near over.

Walton Goggins

No One Does Drama Better… Or Comedy

Goggins could easily have rested on his laurels for his work as Shane, the most tragic villain at the center of The Shield, a groundbreaking series that more than any other series than The Sopranos , was critical to the revolution. But Goggins hasn’t even come close to slowing down, and has managed to make that performance just seem like a warmup for his work in the 2010s.

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His most memorable stint came as the central villain on Justified. Boyd Crowder was originally just supposed to be there for one season, but clearly the writers saw the electricity between him and Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan, and said: “We need to keep this guy around for awhile.” The epic battle to bring him down lasted the length of the series, and through the entire match up, Goggins kept surprising you. I was sure the only right fate for him was landing in a body bag. Boy, was I wrong. And it was so great to watch Goggins hasn’t ruled out doing one more season even though the series is over.

Of course, that would require he slow down, and he gives no indication of doing that. While still appearing on Justified, he did a memorable stint as Venus Von Dam on Sons of Anarchy. Since then, he seems to have decided to deal with lighter work, and has developed a flair for comedy by working with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, first as Lee Miller, the metrosexual on Vice Principals and Rip Freemann on The Righteous Gemstones. In between he played a Navy Seal on Six and a shadowy figure on Deep State. And yet for all his brilliant character work, it still took television nearly two decades to let him play the lead on a series — a widowed dad on The Unicorn. Even if it isn’t a success, I seriously doubt it will slow Goggins down for a second.

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After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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