Sep. 20, 2013 at 4:47 AM ET
The competition this year in the Emmy drama series category is fierce, but the real battle is being fought by just two contenders: AMC's "Breaking Bad" and Showtime's "Homeland." (OK, sure. Officially, "Downton Abbey," "Game of Thrones," "House of Cards" and "Mad Men" are also in the running.)
"Homeland" is the defending champ after dominating last year's awards; "Breaking Bad" has been nominated three times in the category but has yet to win.
What are the chances that the meth-fueled drama will dethrone the terrorist thriller and take home the top prize? Here's our matchup of the two rivals, broken down by their "chemical elements."
This is the toughest call, because the leads and their ensemble casts are terrific on both shows and have the Emmys to prove it. As Jesse Pinkman, the former innocent destroyed by his mentor, Aaron Paul is the psychological manifestation of Walter White's "Picture of Dorian Gray" on "Breaking Bad." Heisenberg is remorseless, while Jesse collapses under the weight of his guilt for the murders of Gale, Drew Sharp, Mike and all of his associates. And Bryan Cranston is a master of subtlety and restraint, absolutely terrifying in his quiet menace ("Say my name"), while still managing to elicit viewers' sympathy with his twisted family devotion and the frantic moments when events spiral out of his control.
"Homeland's" Damian Lewis, meanwhile, masterfully embodies elements of both Jesse and Walt in his portrayal of Nick Brody, a wildly conflicted traitor. Claire Danes, on the other hand, has been accused of overacting. Her trembling chin is starting to make viewers cringe because it signals yet another flood of hysterical tears.
To Paul and Lewis' credit, both shows had a change of heart about killing off their major characters: Jesse and Brody — because of his mad chemistry with Carrie — were originally destined to die in their first seasons. We can't imagine "Bad" without "Magnets, b----," but many believe Brody survived long beyond his expiration date. Point: "Breaking Bad"
"Homeland" is an adaptation of the Israeli hit psychodrama "Prisoners of War," but "Breaking Bad" was conceived by showrunner Vince Gilligan's very dark, twisted and brilliant mind.
That said, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon deserve all the credit for creating the complex, tormented and undeniably sympathetic characters of Brody and Carrie. "Homeland" has produced a number of shocking twists — Saul finding Brody's taped confession, for instance — but we're docking the series for daughter Dana's dull, derivative hit-and-run story line in season two. "Breaking Bad" has never had a single misstep. Point: "Breaking Bad"
The violence depicted in both shows is more intense and powerful than other series, including "Game of Thrones" and "Sons of Anarchy," because it is so unexpected with the backdrop of suburban tranquility.
While "Bad" often tempers its bloodshed with dark humor (Lydia wobbling around a massacre in Louboutins and a blindfold; Todd politely telling Walt, "I'm sorry for your loss" after his uncle murdered Hank and stole most of his former boss' fortune), "Homeland" takes no pains to alleviate the horror and pulse-racing tension (Gettysburg, the CIA attack, even the mere threat of Brody's suicide bombing).
Yet "Bad" isn't afraid to be merciless either. For example, that box cutter, the plane crash, Jane's death, Gale's murder and of course the shooting of a young boy. Point: "Breaking Bad"
Saul Berenson and Saul Goodman are as opposite as two people can be. Carrie's mentor is "Homeland's" moral compass, while Goodman's ethical compass is pointing straight to hell. But who would you rather chat with at a cocktail party? Yep, there's a reason the shady, euphemism-lovin' lawyer earned himself a spin-off: He's lively, hilarious and multidimensional — somewhere beneath his shady exterior and awful suits is a good heart. The new CIA chief is not only a wet blanket, he's downright soggy. You better call Saul ... using the 505 area code. Point: "Breaking Bad"
"Breaking Bad's" Skyler White has transformed into an unrepentant Lady Macbeth, essentially commanding her husband to kill Jesse in order to protect their family. Her sister is no shrinking violet (ba-dum-bump) either, determined as she is to punish the wicked Whites and take (rescue?) their children. And Lydia, twitchy as she is, is one of the most powerful forces in the international drug trade.
But the women of "Homeland" not only have more lines and screen time, they are the fuel that drives the show. Carrie is so zealous in her quest for justice that she's verged on destroying herself; Jessica Brody is ambitious, loyal, protective and unafraid of her own sexuality; her daughter, Dana, is independent, outspoken and refuses to be swayed by peer pressure. "Homeland" even had a female terrorist in its lineup: Roya Hammad, Abu Nazir's agent, who did an excellent job bossing around the reluctant Brody. When it comes to strong women characters, the terrorist thriller has a clear edge. Point: "Homeland"
Ding ding ding! Tio says based on these considerations, we have a winner: "Breaking Bad" by a long shot. If Gilligan's masterpiece doesn't walk away with the trophy for outstanding drama series, we'll eat Badger's hat.