Tom Pelphrey deserved better. On Tuesday, when the Emmy nominations were announced, we learned he had been snubbed after turning in the performance of the year during the third season of Ozark.
The 38-year-old actor played Ben Davis, the brother of Laura Linney's Wendy Byrde. He gave a haunting, heartbreaking performance as a man struggling in the throes of mental illness. He stole scenes left and right and, despite playing a supporting role, the season truly belonged to him. That's saying something when an actor is sharing the screen with the likes of Jason Bateman, Julia Garner and Linney.
Pelphrey was tasked with playing a man suffering with bipolar disorder. When Ben is on his medication he's goofy, kind and loving with a big personality. He can be impulsive but is generally a good guy people enjoy being around. He shows up in the Ozarks to stay with his sister's family early in Season 3 and, for the most part, he blends in, growing especially close to Wendy's son, Jonah. He becomes the love interest of Byrde associate Ruth Langmore (Garner) and the two develop a sweet relationship. At least in the beginning. That love story increasingly feels doomed as the season progresses.
A few episodes in, Ben decides stop taking his medication because it hinders his sexual performance with Ruth. After that fateful decision, he begins a descent into manic madness that can only end tragically.
All along the way, Pelphrey is note-perfect in the role. He essentially plays three characters throughout the course of the season and nails each one. He played Ben on his medication as the goofy black sheep of the family. By midseason he was playing a man slowly changing while still largely holding a grip on reality. But by the end, he put a character on screen that had no sense of up or down, who had completely lost touch with rational thought and was on a path to self-destruction. Somehow, Pelphrey was believable the entire time. The changes are subtle and develop slowly before smacking the viewer in the face. It didn't feel like he was acting, he somehow found a way to inhabit the character.
Pelphrey's incredible performance was highlighted in the penultimate episode of the season entitled Fire Pink. It opens on Ben rambling endlessly in the back of a cab. In a nearly five-minute monologue, the character's descent into mental illness is laid bare. Clearly what he's saying makes sense in his own mind but no sane human could understand his thoughts. He intensely tells anecdotes and opines on life to the silent cab driver. It was, without a doubt, the most powerful scene on television this year.
The actor somehow perfectly unmasked bipolar disorder in that five minutes. Manic episodes like that are what so many deal with on a daily basis. It was raw. It was real. It was utterly devastating. Pelphrey deserved every accolade for that scene alone, but the rest of his work during the season was equally worthy of admiration.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences missed the memo on Pelphrey's performance. Somehow it slipped under the radar of Emmy voters despite widespread acclaim. He deserved better. It was a career-defining performance and it should have been recognized, not only with a nomination, but with a statue.