And now we've come to the end of our trip through this year's Emmy nominations ballot. Actual ballots were due last Thursday, but the point of this exercise isn't about trying to influence the vote, but simply talking about whom Dan expects to be nominated (ranking potential nominees from most likely to least), and whom I would pick if I had a ballot. And, as always, we are working off of the actual Emmy ballot, so we can't consider shows that didn't submit themselves, nor can we reassign one to a more suitable or easier category.

Our last category is Outstanding Drama Series. Dan's predictions are here, and my picks are coming right up...

As with the comedy series category, this is a deep enough field that if we removed all six of the shows below and went with any six of my seven runners-up as the field, I'd find them deserving. But I also feel that most of my six are a clear cut above what I didn't have room to include, and I'll get to the one narrow miss/hit at the end.

"Mad Men" is going to be nominated again. It's going to win again. It is, as I say year after year, the perfect Emmy storm: nostalgic enough for older voters to latch onto, cool enough for the younger ones, great enough for both. The only thing that prevents the show from running this category for its entire lifespan is if it has an outright stinker of a season, which season 5 decidedly was not. (Though if the Academy en masse really really really really hates Megan, all bets are off.) There were some things in this season I took issue with, but I admired the experimental nature of it, was wowed by episodes like "Mystery Date" and "Far Away Places," and by individual moments like Don and Joan at the bar or Don kissing Peggy's hand. Whether or not it's the best drama on TV, it's one of the best two. Even though I'd like to see the next show on this list win this category at some point, "Mad Men" won't be the least bit undeserving if it wins again.



That said, if you put a gun to my head and asked me whether "Mad Men" season 5 was better than "Breaking Bad" season 4, I might be inclined to go with Walter White over Don Draper. That show's third season was one of the best I'd ever seen, and yet somehow Vince Gilligan and company managed to match it with the unbearably tense season-long battle of wits and will between Walt and Gus Fring, with Jesse and Mike as wild cards throughout. Ding. Ding. Ding. DING.



I spent a lot of the first season of "Homeland" trying to reconcile two simultaneous thoughts: 1)"This is really terrific so far," and 2)"So how are they going to screw it up by the end?" It just seemed like such a high-wire act that Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were trying to pull off, and one where so many similar shows had ultimately fallen down, that I kept fearing the worst. And though I know some people disliked the finale, I loved it and felt that it played fair with what had come before — and therefore allowed me to go on loving the work of Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and company, to enjoy both the riveting thriller material but also the uncomfortable, honest character beats, and to not look back on what had come before with any regret. Great first season.


 
Was "Justified" season 3 as powerful as the one that came before it? Probably not, no. But, boy, was it fun. What this year lacked in depth with the loss of Mags Bennett it made up for in the breadth of the supporting ensemble, and in the chance to see so many colorful characters, played by actors at the top of their game, bouncing off of one another. And after all the business with hog carcasses and meat cleavers and sleeve guns was done with, "Justified" reminded us that it could still go deep and dark and sad in those final scenes about Raylan and Arlo.



With "Luck," it's easy to focus on what might have been. In many ways, Milch and Mann were just getting warmed up when the second horse died and HBO decided enough was enough and canceled the second season in mid-production. Ace's revenge story hadn't gone anywhere major yet. Heck, Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte had yet to exchange words in a scene. But what was there in those nine episodes — while uneven and sometimes digressive in that very David Milch way — was also often brilliant in the way it built up this world of the track, and the characters addicted to it, and their minor triumphs and major tragedies. If nothing else, I'm grateful to have gotten nine hours with Jerry, Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie as they rode their improbable hot streak yet remained very much the small-timers they always were. And I'd have a hard time excluding a show that could give me a sequence as electric and moving and simply beautiful as the first official race with Gettin' Up Morning:



Those five were fairly easy for me. The last call was a tough one, between a pair of shows that were both on last year's list: "Boardwalk Empire" and "Game of Thrones." Each had its respective sophomore growing pains, but each also gave me some incredible moments and episodes (Richard Harrow in the woods, or the entirety of the Battle of Blackwater). Ultimately, though, what split this particular hair was my feeling that this "Game of Thrones" season not only had more overall pacing issues, but felt incomplete as a story, rather than just a narrative bridge from where everyone was at the end of season 1 and where they'll be in season 3. Whatever odd hiccups "Boardwalk Empire" season 2 had, the war between Jimmy and Nucky and the way it was resolved felt satisfying to me as a season of television in a way that "Game of Thrones didn't, even as I enjoyed so many component parts of it. Your mileage will obviously vary, but I had seven shows for six slots, and that's how I decided.



Others considered: "Game of Thrones," "Men of a Certain Age," "Awake," "Parenthood," "The Good Wife," "Shameless" and "Southland."

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com