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Shining Girls’ Elisabeth Moss’ best TV roles

Few actors have had a better decade on TV than Elisabeth Moss. Starting with her work on Mad Men, Moss became a name that everyone knew, and she’s followed that project up by cementing her legacy as one of the great TV actresses of all time. Even before Mad Men, though, Moss was already a standout on several other acclaimed series.

Whenever you were first introduced to her, Moss certainly made an impression, and it’s one that she continues to reaffirm with each new project she’s involved in. Now, as we prepare for her starring role in Apple’s Shining Girls, let’s take a look back at the roles that have defined the actress’s career.

Cynthia Parks, Picket Fences

A young Elisabeth Moss is checked by a doctor in Picket Fences.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When she was just 10 years old, Moss had already landed a role in her first acclaimed drama series. She appeared in seven episodes of Picket Fences, a show that ran for four seasons beginning in the early 1990s. The show followed the inhabitants of the small town of Rome, Wisconsin, and Moss played a precocious preteen who proves to be wise beyond her years.

Moss’srole in the project was not enormous, but it set the stage for much of what she would eventually do on TV. She knows how to play smart people who do their jobs well, even as they deal with other baggage.

Zoey Bartlet, The West Wing

Elisabeth MOss and Martin Sheen in The West Wing.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Moss found an even more substantial role on The West Wing while she was still a teenager, playing Zoey Bartlet, the president’s daughter. Zoey wasn’t a regular on the show, but she did get several prominent story arcs over the course of the series, including one in which she was kidnapped.

It was on The West Wing that Moss first began to prove what she was capable of. She was still playing a very young adult, but she more than held her own with all the experienced actors on the show’s roster. She stood out even then.

Peggy Olson, Mad Men

Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men.

More than any other role, Moss’ Peggy is the one that defined her career, and ultimately launched her to stardom. Her character’s journey from secretary to veteran copywriter is at the heart of the show, and she quickly emerges as the show’s co-lead.

Moss is extraordinary in the role, aware of what it takes to succeed in a sexist workplace and capable of earning the respect of everyone she interacts with. Peggy is an iconic character, and it’s no insult to say that Moss may never see another role that good for the rest of her career.

Robin Griffin, Top of the Lake

Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake.

Taking on an extraordinarily convincing New Zealand accent is challenging enough, but it’s not the only difficult aspect of Moss’ role in Top of the Lake. Moss plays a detective who investigates two separates murders of young girls, and those investigations ultimately unearth a lot of trauma that she’s been attempting to keep buried.

Moss is terrific in the role in part because she’s so good at playing someone who is wounded, but totally unwilling to let other people see that she’s vulnerable.

June Osbourne, The Handmaid’s Tale

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale.

Few actresses are capable of carrying a show the way that Moss carries The Handmaid’s Tale. Playing a woman who has been transformed into a sexual slave, Moss lets her characters’ torment and trauma bubble under the surface, with the exception of a few crucial moments when she lets it explode.

Although the show has not been uniformly excellent over the course of its run, it has remained worth watching for Moss’ performance. She’s the kind of TV star that comes around just once in a generation, capable of elevating anything she touches through her presence alone.

Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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