December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

1 Game of Thrones “Blackwater”
May 27, HBO
Season’s 2 climactic Battle of the Blackwater wins because HBO allowed producers the time and cash to stage a massive land-and-sea confrontation. Thus, this was an episode of rousing heroism, chilling cowardice, gory action, and one giant green explosion that went “FOOOOOM!” The most ingenious part? It made us care about the warriors on both sides. Staging that battle in viewers’ hearts was the episode’s most successful wartime victory of all.—James Hibberd

2. Homeland “New Car Smell”
Oct. 21, Showtime
No one thought it would happen so early, just four episodes into the season. The seductive opening line Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) used to target Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) certainly gave no hint of the game changer that was to come. “You and me in bars…” Carrie began, just before Brody responded, “…always ends up in an interesting way.” Interesting? More like what the eff just happened??? awesome: Brody, busted, with a black bag over his head. —Jessica Shaw

3. Girls “All Adventurous Women Do”
April 29, HBO
Hannah (Lena Dunham) found out she has an STD and confronted her college boyfriend, who was in a new relationship…with a guy. Free-spirited Jessa (Jemima Kirke) started a new job as the city’s unlikeliest babysitter. Prim gallerina Marnie (Allison Williams) edged toward the fire with a bad-boy artist. And virginal Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) introduced us to the joys of the game show Baggage. Even though our four anti-heroines shared very little screen time, this was the half hour — with its tight writing and repeatable dialogue (“Your dad is gay!”) — where the ensemble finally clicked. By the time Hannah and Marnie were rocking out to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” all adventurous viewers were too. —Meeta Agrawal

4. Sherlock “A Scandal in Belgravia”
May 6, PBS
Yeah, we already knew that Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) can spot a fake Vermeer or translate Hangzhou numerals faster than Google. But as Watson (Martin Freeman) once told his boss: “People like to know that you’re human.” This was the episode that displayed the beating heart beneath that sweater-vest. His saucy one-upping situation with dominatrix Irene Adler (guest Lara Pulver) was the sexiest game of table-turning ever. Was it love? Maybe not. But we got to see Sherlock naked, wrapped in nothing more than a bedsheet. Which solved one mystery — yep, he’s definitely human — and made him that much more likable than he already was. —Melissa Maerz

5. Downton Abbey “Christmas at Downton Abbey”
Feb. 19, PBS
After nearly two seasons with Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) fighting their attraction, the Downton Abbey Christmas special wrapped up the year with the ultimate gift for fans: Matthew proposing to Mary as picturesque snowflakes drifted down around them. Sure, there were many other terrific moments — the dramatic conclusion to Bates’ (Brendan Coyle) trial, the grandeur of the servants’ ball — but it was the culmination of the show’s central romance that truly made the holiday season bright. —Nuzhat Naoreen

6. Louie “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2”
July 26, FX
In this melancholy ode to the joy of life, Louie (Louis C.K.) went on a long date with a probably alcoholic, possibly suicidal bookstore clerk (a fascinatingly off-kilter Parker Posey), ending with a moving rooftop scene that was unlike anything ever shown on a sitcom. Cross-dressing, smoked fish, a mentally ill homeless man, the phrase “chemo vomit,” and Posey’s endlessly expressive face all figured prominently. —Rob Brunner

7. New Girl “See Ya”
May 8, Fox
All season we were told that these crazy mismatched kids were good friends — but the season finale showed us how true that is. When Nick (Jake Johnson) packed up to move out, the group assembled, Avengers-style, to remind him — and us — why this gang’s cohesion is still worth fighting for. The ensuing desert sleepover had gags aplenty: Jess (Zooey Deschanel) “meep-meep”-ing at a coyote, Schmidt (Max Greenfield) “White Fanging” Cece (Hannah Simone). Lupine laughs aside, the episode even shone in the quieter scenes, like the one that found five pals with an old mixtape and some beer, hanging out the way friends do. —Ray Rahman

8. Smash “Pilot”
Feb. 6, NBC
After we watched the subsequent 14 episodes of Smash with a mixture of fascination and dismay (seriously, did Debra Messing’s Julia wear a men’s pajama top to meet her lover?), it was difficult to recall that the pilot was positively magical. But it was. In fact, that episode-ending performance of “Let Me Be Your Star” (featuring dueling divas Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee) was among TV’s most watchable and gleeful three minutes of the year. Rare is the series whose high-water mark is its pilot, and Smash is a shining example. —Tanner Stransky

9. The Walking Dead “Made to Suffer”
Dec. 2, AMC
Season 3 of the zombie drama has been all about less chatter and more splatter, and the action was never more frenzied than in the show’s midseason finale. It featured the introduction of comic-book fave Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), the return of Jon Bernthal’s Shane (in hallucination form, at least), and the eye-popping and zombie daughter-offing confrontation between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the Governor (David Morrissey). Plus, it served up the much-anticipated reunion between brothers Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker). In a word, killer. —Dalton Ross

10. American Horror Story: Asylum “I am Anne Frank Pt.2”
Nov. 14, FX
It could have been a disaster, crafting a story line around a mental patient claiming to be Anne Frank. Adding subplots about an alien abduction, a legless syphilitic abomination, and a serial killer whose living room had a candy dish fashioned out of a human skull could have elevated “disaster” into “laughably unwatchable hogwash.” Instead, the beautifully directed fifth episode of AHS was riveting and terrifying, with a last-minute reveal that was a thrilling punch to the solar plexus. And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Lange’s Emmy-worthy monologue about the dead squirrel. — Kristen Baldwin

EW AWARDS
Best Accessory: Olivia Pope’s trench coat on Scandal
Best New Theme Song: The Mindy Project
Best Old Theme Song: Dallas
The Lipstick Jungle Memorial Canceled-Too-Soon Award: Political Animals
Wait, That Was Still On This Year?: Gossip Girl; One Tree Hill
Best Terrible Beards (19th-Century Edition): Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton in History’s Hatfields & McCoys
Best Terrible Beard (Present-Day Edition): Mandy Patinkin on Homeland
Best Comeback (’80s Edition): Survivor‘s Lisa Whelchel
Best Comeback (’90s Edition): Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23‘s James Van Der Beek
Sweetest Kiss-Off: Kristen Wiig’s dance-filled goodbye on Saturday Night Live
Best Set Dressing: The ginormous portrait of Siobhan (Sarah Michelle Gellar) on Ringer
All-Time Best Emmy Speech Catchphrase: “Mandy Patinkin, holla!”
Most Disturbing TV Trend: Amputations (American Horror Story: Asylum, Grey’s Anatomy, The Walking Dead)
Best Reality-Show Pig: Glitzy, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
Worst Reality-Show Pig: The feral swine on American Hoggers
Best Use of Adam Levine: His season-opening sex scene in American Horror Story: Asylum
Best Reason to Watch Real Housewives Reunions: Andy Cohen
The WORST EPISODES OF THE YEAR
1. True Blood “Sunset”
Aug. 19, HBO
True Blood has sold many improbable things. But nothing felt more ridiculous — or painful — than hearing Sookie (Anna Paquin) yammer on about Ke$ha and Boyz II Men in a magical burlesque club. If only it were all just a vampire-blood-induced hallucination. —Tim Stack

2. The Newsroom “5/1”
Aug. 5, HBO
What aging hippie wrote this episode? See: Jeff Daniels’ stoner newsman Will playing “Sunshine” on his guitar; Kelen Coleman’s Lisa trying to make “It’s a gas!” happen; and Alison Pill’s Maggie quipping, “Do not take a tone with me, American Gigolo!” But seriously: “It’s a gas!”? Never gonna happen. —Melissa Maerz

3. How I Met Your Mother “The Autumn of Break-Ups”
Nov. 5, CBS
The ultimatum Victoria (Ashley Williams) gave Ted (Josh Radnor) was ripped straight from Friends: Drop Rachel — sorry, Robin (Cobie Smulders) — or else. The belabored journey toward the mother is getting exhausting. Are we there yet? —Erin Strecker

4. Liz & Dick
Nov. 25, Lifetime
While it may not technically be an episode, we can’t ignore Lindsay Lohan’s not-even-community-theater-level performance as Elizabeth Taylor in Lifetime’s TV movie. She was believable at waving cigarettes around and swilling prop vodka, but Lohan — poor girl — managed to succeed at little else. —Tim Stack

5. New Girl “Models”
Oct. 23, FOX
Also known as “The One With the Ford Fusion.” In a halting scene, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) — or “Gigglebangs Riceball,” if you prefer — takes a modeling gig while a Ford flack rattles on like a human Carfax report. Modeling may be hard, but successful “product integration” is even harder. —Ray Rahman

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