Getting nominated for an Emmy is a crapshoot, but winning is even more random and strange, since you only get to submit one episode to showcase all your skills. Emmy voters will be sitting down and watching screeners to help decide their votes. We replicated the process, watching each category's submitted episodes, in no particular order, to see what tickled our fancy.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Episode Title: "Ozymandias"
Episode Description: Walt's world finally unravels for good as the Nazis steal his money, Hank meets his fate, and his family rejects his "efforts" to whisk them away into a new life, probably because he's been revealed as a total monster.
In a normal year, this would be an unbeatable submission, no matter how many Emmys Bryan Cranston had on his trophy shelf (it's three, if you need reminding). He runs the full gamut of emotions here—lunatic shock after Hank's death (his twisted, silent scream is hard to forget), shellshock as he is rejected by his family, poisonous villainy as he curses out Skyler on the phone to the cops (really a sympathetic ruse to protect her). It's the culmination not just of Walt's web of lies over this season, but over the whole series, and it's incredible to watch. Let's not forget him kidnapping that baby.
Still, Cranston has three Emmys and he hasn't won since Breaking Bad's third season. He lost to Damian Lewis, then Jeff Daniels, perhaps reflecting a feeling from the Academy that he's had his time in the sun. "Ozymandias" is a stunning episode, but Cranston's competition is the fiercest it's ever been this year.
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom
Episode Title: "Election Night, Part 2"
Episode Description: Will anchors his network's election night coverage as he waits for a decision on his resignation, which he submitted to the higher-ups, over the Genoa scandal. Also he realizes he's in love with Mac (Emily Mortimer) and proposes to her, and she accepts.
Jeff Daniels won an Emmy last year, to the shock of everyone including Jeff Daniels, for this highly mediocre soapbox of a show, which did show some signs of life in its second season. Note: The Newsroom wasn't exactly good, but it was a little less prickly and only occasionally preachy. But I'd wage dollars to donuts the preachiness is what got Daniels the trophy last year. It's just like James Spader's multiple wins for Boston Legal—he'd always cannily submit some episode where he had some epic monologue, usually a rant on left-leaning issues, that played right to Emmy voters.
Will ranted about the Tea Party last time. This season, he's mean and tense for much of the episode, but then goes on an on-air rant about the Republican party's flaws, which is exactly the kind of catnip voters want. Will has a fairly compelling arc through the episode—he thinks he'll get fired, then it turns out he won't, and then he proposes to Mac, and he's super-triumphant. This show is ridiculously tiresome, but hey, he won last year! I'd still be shocked if he repeated, though.
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Episode Title: "The Strategy"
Episode Description: Don and Peggy brainstorm on a Burger Chef campaign after Pete presses to put Don in charge of the pitch and Peggy's confidence wavers. Don's new, settled approach helps Peggy along as he defers to her and watches her struggle through the same creative process that has gripped him for so many years.
Jon Hamm does not have the kind of barnstorming Emmy tape he's had in past years. Season four's "The Suitcase" seemed like his best shot at an Emmy, and he lost to Kyle Chandler. Last year, he submitted Don's breakdown at the pitch meeting where he talked about his upbringing, and he lost to Jeff Daniels. Given all that, there's no way Hamm is taking home a trophy this year, no matter how sympathetic Draper comes across in "The Strategy."
This is really Elisabeth Moss' episode, driving home what a crying shame it was that she didn't get a nomination this year. Hamm is doing the kind of understated, involving character work he's done throughout his tenure on Mad Men, and it's great to watch him brainstorm and dance in the office with Peggy, but in a year this stacked, he should be happy to get the nomination and hope next year's finale gives him something killer to submit.
Woody Harrelson, True Detective
Episode Title: "The Locked Room"
Episode Description: Rust and Marty investigate a revival tent and argue over Rust's disdain for religion; Marty struggles to re-connect with his wife and kids at home, before getting in a drunken fight with his former mistress and her new boyfriend. The episode is mostly set in 1995, although 2012 Marty's narration provides some ironic winks as he varnishes the past.
Woody Harrelson might have a shot to win if he submitted in the supporting category, but he went the honorable route and now he's up against his buddy Matthew McConaughey, who has to be the favorite here. Harrelson does incredible work in "The Locked Room"—the dichotomy between his 1995 self and 2012 self, coupled with the inescapable similarities, are so well done. But Marty is pretty unsympathetic in this hour, struggling to understand his wife's need for intimacy as he attacks his ex-girlfriend's new date in a fit of rage.
The other problem is that McConaughey is so compelling in this episode, you can't help but pay more attention to him when he's on-screen, particularly since this is an episode where Rust goes on a lot of fantastic rants (in both the past and present). In that way, "The Locked Room" is also a great submission for McConaughey, since it gives voters an even wider spectrum of his work on this show.
Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
Episode Title: "Form and Void"
Episode Description: In the season finale, present-day Rust and Marty finally discover the secret of Carcosa and take down the monstrous presence they discover inside, both surviving a bloody battle. As they recuperate in the hospital, Rust admits that maybe there is some good in the world.
Like I said, McConaughey has a huge advantage here—voters will watch two episodes and within them get the total Rust Cohle experience. Rust actually doesn't have a lot of big acting to do for most of this episode (although he does say "L'chaim, fatass" very nicely) but his starlit conversation with Marty at the end of the episode is pretty wonderful.
The other thing going for McConaughey—he's a movie star who just won an Oscar, and he's not going to be on True Detective next year. Emmy has a chance to award him right now, at the height of his success, and get a loopy speech and toothy grin and all that jazz. They're almost certainly going to do that.
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Episode Title: "Chapter 26"
Episode Description: Vice President Frank Underwood becomes the President after lots of machinations and stuff. Imagine! Kevin Spacey as the president!
Now, I have to admit, I have never understood House of Cards' appeal. Even this episode, which essentially sees Frank mounting a coup d'état to become the President (he was just a Congressman two seasons ago!), struck me as painfully boring and stilted. The stately compositions, the monologues to camera, I just don't get it. But Emmy voters like this show, and Kevin Spacey is definitely a major quantity, so can he bring it home this year?
Frank definitely has a lot to do in this episode, and he has an especially cool voice-over monologue in a letter he writes to the sitting president. Goofy accent aside, Spacey is doing very restrained work on this show and it's impressive. You feel it when he thumps the table proudly in the Oval Office to close the season. But still, Spacey was the big star last year. If voters couldn't get excited then, will they now?
As usual, this is one of the strongest categories Emmy has to offer, and that's when you take into account a slightly subdued year for Jon Hamm. If True Detective is winning anywhere, it's here. McConaughey is having too big a year for anyone to bet against him, and if he loses to anyone but Cranston, I'd be especially surprised.