Warning: This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who season 9.
Maisie Williams just snagged a much-deserved Emmy nomination for her work as Arya Stark on the sixth season of Game of Thrones.The acting nomination was one of 23 for the HBO fantasy series, which finished the announcement as the most-nominated TV show of the year.
This isn’t such a surprise. Game of Throneshas been nominated for (and has won) many, many Emmys in the past. Its fantasy pedigree — historically an underrepresented category at both the Emmys and the Golden Globes — is offset by its status as “prestige television,” airing on one of the most-lauded networks of the contempory TV era.
That being said, if there were any TV justice, Williams would have been nominated for her turn as Ashildr/Me on the ninth season of Doctor Who, too (or perhaps even instead). Beggars really shouldn’t be choosers. After all, Williams got one Emmy nomination — which was one more than I expected for the phenomenally-talented young actress.
However, when it comes to Doctor Who,I tend to get aspirational and, not only was the 12-episode ninth season arguable the best season of NuWho yet — it was one of the best seasons of television this past year, full stop. Maisie Williams was a big part of that…
The many reasons why Williams deserved it.
Williams’ performance as Viking girl turned 17th-century highwayman turned alien refugee camp mayor turned “impossibly ancient” immortal Ashildr/Me evolved immensely over just four episodes, showcasing Williams’ incredible range as an actress. In the handy Doctor Whofeaturette above, actor Peter Capaldi speaks about Williams’ performance on the show, saying…
She is fantastic. She’s such a gifted actress. And the reason why I’m saying that with awe is because she’s so young. She turned 18 when she was working with us. And she came in, and she did a performance that I thought was so mature. So clever. I was really, really impressed by it.
Over the course of “The Girl Who Died,” “The Woman Who Lived,” “Face the Raven,” and “Hell Bent,” Williams was asked to play a myriad of incarnations of the same character. Though the Doctor and Clara see Ashildr/Me over a relatively short period of their lives (barring the complication of the Doctor’s jaunt in the confession dial), Ashildr/Me lived thousands of years over the course of that same time, and Williams was asked to convey that evolution.
You think Arya has changed a lot over the course of six seasons of Game of Thrones?Try depicting an even more complicated character evolution over the course of only four episodes of television. We’ll wait…
When we first meet Ashildr, she is a young, caring member of a Viking village in 9th-century Europe. She is a storyteller amongst warriors, and she believes wholeheartedly in her community and justice — which is to say the ideals of the best kinds of stories.
Over the course of the character’s four-episode arc, this changes… somewhat. Ashildr is forced to live a life of immortality in which she must watch everyone she loves die. Soon, adventure, love, and community — the things that once meant so much to her as a little girl — cease to have any meaning. She hates the Doctor for abandoning her and she hates herself a little bit, too.
This is the version of Ashildr, now Lady Me, we get in “The Woman Who Lived.” She comes up with a terrible plan to sacrifice her servant for the chance to go on adventures across the universe. Ultimately, she is double-crossed, almost letting the alien and his kin attack the Earth. It is only when the terrible consequences of her selfish, albeit understandable actions come home to roost that we see a flash of that young, caring Viking girl. Lady Me is appalled at what she has done. She asks the Doctor for help.
From there, we meet up with Me again in 21st-century London in “Face the Raven,” where she is now the mayor of a hidden waystation for alien refugees on Earth. Again, Me is an enigmatic character, portrayed with heartbreaking, mature depth by Williams. Me obviously cares — after all, she has dedicated her life to helping others — but she is no longer willing to ask for help from the Doctor.
When Mayor Me is given an ultimatum by the Time Lords — set a trap for the Doctor or lose the sanctuary of your camp — she takes the practical way out. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. When Clara must die in the effort, Me seems genuinely sorry. She also seems world-weary — or should we say time-weary? She is no stranger to death. In fact, she has made a pact with it.
We next come upon Me at the end of the universe in “Hell Bent.” She is waiting for the Doctor there, arguably no longer his equal so much as his superior. There is literally no one else like Me in the universe at this point in her evolution. She has lived for thousands and thousands of years and she has come out on the other side of her years of darkness and depression with a new — dare I say, fond? — perspective on existence.
In the scene below, Williams holds her own against Peter Capaldi’s the Doctor in what is one of the climactic moments of the episode and entire season. She is young and she is impossibly old. She is bitter, yet she still finds humor in the universe. She is kind and she is unforgettably dangerous. Ashildr/Me isn’t the season’s Big Bad, as earlier episodes teasingly implied — rather, it is the inevitability of death and, therefore, Time itself, if you need someone to point the finger at — but neither is she simply a supporting character. She has far too much power in the narrative for that.
Williams’ portrays the cognitive dissonances of Ashildr/Me in this scene at the age of 18 the way most actors are not able to do in the entirety of their careers. And, sure, some of it is down to phenomenal writing and direction. But a lot of it is down to Williams.
Later in the episode, we see Clara and Me careen off into the universe together on a TARDIS. In this moment, Williams portrays Me with an air of youthful enthusiasm that doesn’t displace the cautious judgment that this might not be a good idea. But the latter reaction is easy enough to ignore. After all, Me isn’t the one getting left behind this time. She’s finally getting her adventure with companion and that perfect resolution for Ashildr/Me’s character is all over Williams’ expressive face.
The many reasons why it didn’t happen.
So why didn’t Williams get a nomination for Doctor Who?On a purely logistical level, Williams’ turn on Doctor Who was not even submitted for consideration by BBC America (if you’re interested, Doctor Who did submit, for the first time ever, in the categories of lead actor, writing, and directing), Furthermore, her liminal status somewhere between guest actor and supporting character would have made any attemped submission difficult to categorize.
Past that, and I probably don’t have to spell this out for you, but Doctor Whoisn’t really the type of show that gets Emmy nominations — especially for high-profile categories like acting. The show has far too much history as campy science fiction for that.
I’m not here to hate on the Emmys. It serves a purpose. As an avid genre TV fan — the kind of TV watcher who will probably prioritize Agents of SHIELD, Killjoys, and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generationover any of the latest “prestige TV” — I have long ago determined that, for the most part, the Emmys are not for me. There are other award ceremonies out there that better align with my interests and values.
However, the Emmys do provide a helpful vehicle for having discussions about the different kinds of TV shows and TV watchers out there, as well as a magnifying glass for the examination of which kinds of stories our culture judges worthy of gold statuettes.
I am here to encourage you, if you are a Maisie Williams fan who hasn’t checked out her turn on Doctor Who,to give it a chance. The ninth season is relatively self-contained (as much as any season of Doctor Whois self-contained) and — even if you just watch the four episodes Williams appears in, then it will be more than worth your while. The final two in particular are two of the best episodes in the history of NuWho. Come for the Maisie Williams, stay for the all of it.