Whether a series spins its story out over 13 episodes or 24 (or somewhere in between), the arc it describes always has that pivotal moment on which the rest of the season turns. Here's what several show runners told us about the beating heart of their latest Emmy-eligible season, and the results were surprising, moving and funny — and always memorable.
Alex Gansa ('Homeland')
The setup: Carrie (Claire Danes) decides to take out the kidnappers of her CIA mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) with a drone strike, knowing Saul is in the crosshairs. (Her order is countermanded.)
The effect: "It really demonstrated to everyone, including Carrie, just how far she'd gotten away from her humanity," says Gansa. "It pointed out what toll this has all exacted on her. It shows how far she's fallen."
Dan Goor ('Brooklyn Nine-Nine')
The setup: Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher) and Officer Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) reestablish boundaries in a fraught conversation after she starts a relationship with his nephew.
The effect: "The way the two actors play it is hilarious," says Goor. "They're each playing their part, but the subtext of them wanting to flee the room is palpable. Holt says, 'As your captain, we don't have to address this, and as your friend, you left your brassiere at my house.' It's a fun, perfect little moment."
Alec Berg ('Silicon Valley')
The setup: Quirky billionaire investor Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) has died, and the memorial to his character serves as a memorial to the real-life actor.
The effect: "We didn't want to seem like we were mining Chris' death for crass jokes, so we created a memorial that was patterned off Steve Jobs' memorial service and got a series of tech luminaries to say nice things about Peter. People kept saying nicer and nicer things, and it became about who can take a dump on the people who are saying nice things."
Gale Anne Hurd ('The Walking Dead')
The setup: Onetime sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) rips the virtual bandages from the eyes of the leader of a utopian community safely sealed away from the zombie apocalypse. After a sudden, vicious slaying — of her husband — Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) tells Rick to dispense justice.
The effect: "So many of our survivors are suffering from the equivalent of PTSD," says Hurd. "Deanna has always said, 'We don't kill people here, we exile them.' But in this scene, it's become personal to her: She loses her husband to one of her own, and she's the one to say to Rick, 'Kill him.' They can't hide their heads in the sand."
Graham Yost ('Justified')
The setup: When outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) finds lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) alone with his fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter), it's hard to tell whether Boyd is aware that Ava is a criminal informant.
The effect: "At that point, Boyd doesn't know, but Raylan wants to make sure that Ava is OK," says Yost. "The whole season was about bringing it back down to those three characters. The stakes are pretty clear, and there's echoes of the pilot — so that was part of our goal."
Thomas Schnauz ('Better Call Saul')
The setup: Years ago, Chuck (Michael McKean) prevented his brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) from getting a job at his law firm and does it again on a huge case that Jimmy brings to the firm. The betrayal finally comes out.
The effect: "Chuck cracks and says, 'You're not a real lawyer.' We know that Chuck is absolutely right — his fear is that Jimmy is going to really hurt some people at some point," Schnauz says. "Even though what Chuck does is despicable, he's also right because we've seen what Jimmy has done."
Michelle Ashford ('Masters of Sex')
The setup: William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) have been lovers for science, but when romance creeps into the equation, Masters reveals more than he means to, and he has to do a quick turnaround.
The effect: "You watch and wonder, how are these two ever going to come together in a way that's open and honest?" says Ashford. "They bring so much baggage to the relationship. It's the start of a full-out affair, but the terms are so murky and guarded, it's going to be, 'Let's see how this plays out.'"
Julian Fellowes ('Downton Abbey')
The setup: During a dinner meant to bond Lord Merton's (Douglas Reith) late-in-life intended, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), with his grown children, one son makes a speech that lashes out at her and the Granthams.
The effect: "It's an eccentric family," says Fellowes. "It was like someone jumping in and smacking them around. It was meant as a reminder that things weren't really as cozy as all that. It was nice to let that sour wind into the room, and everyone was playing different arcs in that scene."
Courtney Kemp Agboh ('Power')
The setup: Given new information, nightclub owner Ghost (Omari Hardwick) reluctantly decides he must kill his friend Rolla (Darrell Britt-Gibson).
The effect: "The stakes are so high," says Agboh. "The audience knows Ghost is wrong, but he doesn't, and it's a beautiful scene because of it. The act of murdering Rolla changes the trajectory of his character all the way through the next season. One bad decision begets another."
Ronald Moore ('Outlander')
The setup: Trapped in a room with Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), Claire (Caitriona Balfe) listens to him tell the story behind his flogging of Jamie.
The effect: "In the book, Jamie tells the story, so to see it from Jack's point of view was a riskier approach, but it meant we were doing a stage play, just two characters at a table talking," says Moore. "I felt like if we could pull that off we'd have the confidence to do whatever we wanted in the show. And it worked."
FULL COVERAGE: Emmys 2015