Without wishing to engage in the tiresome “TV shows or movies, which are better?” debate (not better, just different, plenty of toys for everyone) we have noticed a distinct uptick in our TV consumption over 2013, reflected in the increased number of shows we’ve been reviewing or recapping for your pleasure, including: “American Horror Story: Coven” “Boardwalk Empire” “Veep,” “Hello Ladies,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom,” “Family Tree,” “Girls” and “House of Cards,” along with miniseries “Top of the Lake” and “Parade’s End.” But rather than simply run down our favorite shows of the year, we thought this time out we’d change it up a bit and select our favorite single episodes from this whole past year of television. It means that some of our favorite shows may go unrepresented, because we didn’t feel there was a single episode that really stuck its head above the parapet (and usually we’re looking for an entry that either fully encapsulates a show or that fundamentally changes it), and conversely some shows which we hardly ever talk about may get a mention here for having turned in an episode that we just couldn’t ignore.
It certainly seems to have been a strong year for television, with the emergence of Netflix as a force in original programming (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”), while AMC, Showtime and others (even NBC, a network!) have challenged HBO’s hegemony over quality, appointment TV too. And with the news that Amazon will also be getting into the original TV business, it seems that the new Golden Age Of TV (often delivered via the internet but whatever) is truly upon us. We may be moviegoers at heart, but a rising tide lifts all the ships, so we can’t regard this increase in quality as anything but a win/win situation. Without further ado, our hat-tip to 15 TV episodes that had us glued to our small screens in 2013.
15. “Parks and Recreation” – “The Cones of Dunshine” (Season 6, Episode 9)
Now one of the longer-running comedies on television, “Parks and Recreation” might not be hitting the near-perfection of seasons 2 and 3 anymore, but it remains perhaps the most consistently funny and warmest sitcom on the air at present. Season 6 has found new blood by thwarting its character’s ambitions—Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) losing her recall election and being kicked out of city council, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) having his business taken over—and it’s given it new creative vigor, with “The Cones of Dunshire” being a fine example of the series working at the top of its game. Jon Glaser‘s Councilman Jamm, Leslie’s nemesis across the last couple of seasons, has been a divisive figure among fans, but he’s easily put to his best use here, as Leslie and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) negotiate with the corrupt, super-douchey, Japanese-culture-loving politician, who’s given depths here that haven’t always been apparent. Meanwhile, Tom and Donna (Retta) try and help Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) sell one of his cabins, while one of the show’s best recurring gags, the accountancy firm that keep employing Leslie’s husband Ben (Adam Scott), only to be abandoned by him, returns to glorious effect. The show’s done big events (weddings, etc.) better than most, but it’s just as strong on the less earth-shaking episodes, and this is a prime example: great A, B and C stories, consistent belly-laughs, and a big heart. We’d worried that the show might dip, with co-creator Mike Schur‘s attentions now split (he’s also behind the confident, hugely promising “Brooklyn Nine Nine“), but if “Parks and Recreation” is going out (a seventh season seems unclear right now), it’s going out on a high.
14. “Hannibal” – “Coquilles” (Season 1, Episode 5)
2013 has been a good time for scary shows on TV, between the unparalleled commercial success of “The Walking Dead” (we confess that we stopped watching a little while ago), the beautifully unhinged “American Horror Story,” and countless net and cable series about witches, vampires and werewolves. But the cream of the very spooky crop has to be “Hannibal,” Bryan Fuller‘s highly stylized, deeply disturbing take on everyone’s favorite cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (this time winningly re-imagined by Mads Mikkelsen). Shockingly violent and profoundly unsettling, perhaps the greatest episode of this past season (based largely on Thomas Harris‘ “Red Dragon” novel) was “Coquilles,” which focused on a killer who turned his victims into grisly, angelic tableaus. It was the episode where we got the impression of just how nutty FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) could be (the fantasy sequences with the feathered stag are as scary as any gory murder scene) while also showing some heart by introducing a plot line in which head honcho Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) discovers that his wife (Gina Torres) has cancer. (This plot line was never resolved but will hopefully be addressed next season.) The episode, moodily directed by Guillermo Navarro (a cinematographer who has worked with Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino), is a great primer on why “Hannibal” isn’t just one of the best scary shows of the year, but one of the best shows, period. Unsettling, memorable and oddly beautiful in its gothic tones, “Coquilles” contains all the light and dark of the season at large.
13. “Masters of Sex” – “Catherine” (Season 1, Episode 5)
The first half of “Catherine” is filled with such humor that it’s a particularly brutal gut punch when it ends the way it does. Between the struggling-to-conceive couple who don’t understand that sleeping together means more than, well, sleeping together and Dr. Langham’s exasperated “Why won’t my dick work?!” the series’ fifth episode isn’t afraid to get a little silly. However, those moments of levity lead to much darker scenes in the second half of the show, adding up to one of the most devastating hours of television we’ve seen recently, and in an entirely different way than juggernauts like “Ozymandias” from “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” highlight “The Rains of Castamere.” Those brilliant episodes are (hopefully) very far from our everyday experiences, while the tragedy of “Catherine” can—and does—happen all the time. While at an anniversary party for the provost (Beau Bridges) and his wife (the always welcome Allison Janney in her first appearance here), Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) miscarries, causing her pristine white dress to bloom with blood. That’s only the beginning, with Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) delivering his own stillborn daughter (given the name Catherine) and breaking down in front of secretary Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). In its first four episodes, the biggest issue with “Masters of Sex” was its central character, a brilliant but cold doctor. “Catherine” goes a fair way toward redressing this issue by developing the character while deepening his connection with Virginia, and the audience.
12. “Justified” – “Decoy” (Season 4, Episode 11)
For a show that could have just been a rote police procedural, “Justified” has done a remarkable job at frequently reinventing itself. Having dealt with yearly big-bads in the shape of Margo Martindale and Neal McDonough across season 2 or 3, the show changed tack a little to become a mystery, with Timothy Olyphant spending much of season four searching for Drew Thompson, a criminal once associated with his dad who faked his own death after shooting Detroit crime boss Theo Tonin. It was an involving and twisty tale, but it was only once it was revealed that the local sheriff (Jim Beaver) was Thompson himself that the show kicked into gear, with “Decoy” marking perhaps the high watermark of the series to date. Thompson is in custody, awaiting transfer, but Tonin’s henchman Nick Augustine (a colorfully nasty performance from “Glee” star Mike O’Malley) isn’t going to let that happen, enlisting a semi-reluctant Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, exemplary as ever) to kill the former sheriff. The result is an impossibly taut episode that moves like an top-notch Walter Hill action/western, despite there only being one real action sequence of note (and that one features Patton Oswalt as the hero). It’s fat-free, nail-biting stuff, but still finds time for the characterful and textured dialogue that’s made the show one of the finest-ever adaptations of the work of the late Elmore Leonard, who passed this year (the exchange between Marshall Tim and Ron Eldard‘s Colt is a piece of writing so good that is should be taught in screenwriting courses). Every character gets a key moment, from a worthy goodbye for Jim Beaver’s fine performance to the unlikely heroics of Oswalt’s Constable Bob, and the only problem is that the following two episodes couldn’t help but feel like an anti-climax as a result. Dutch would be proud.
11. “Veep”- “Helsinki” (Season 2, Episode 5)
“Veep” is just such a fantastically great show that it’s extremely difficult to pick just one episode as a standout, but “Helsinki” is an example of how when this show is firing on all cylinders, it is unstoppable. When the Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) goes on a trip to Helsinki for some sort of “agreement,” she also ends up having to do damage control after a mildly offensive song about Europe that she sings at a private dinner is posted online (thanks, Jonah). “Helsinki” demonstrates perfectly what “Veep” does best: melding the serious and the absurd. The Veep ends up having to deal not only with the awkwardness of Finnish humor—guest star Sally Phillips is spot on as the Finnish Prime Minister—but she also receives word that POTUS knew one of the hostages from an earlier crisis in Uzbekistan was a spy, putting Selina in a tough place, as she’s already been on record saying the opposite. To top it off, the Finnish Prime Minister’s husband, portrayed impeccably by Dave Foley (he “looks like a Disney villain,” Selina’s bag man Gary hisses), gropes her breast during a smoke break at a state reception. As Gary (Tony Hale) describes it, it’s a “sexual 9/11… or at least a sexual Cuban Missile Crisis.” Every performer hits it out of the park, in even the smallest of appearances, from secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) working from her bed, on Helsinki time, to Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) showing up to hurl a few of his patented insults (“Laurel and Retardy”). But the episode basically wins Louis-Dreyfus and Hale their Emmys, as they are the MVPs, landing every tossed-off line, side-eye and gesture with laser accuracy. When Selina complains to chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) about the “axis of DICK,” it’s funny, but it’s also a moment of Selina showing her true feelings about being a high powered woman in government. The groping is played for silly laughs, but this moment shows the reality of sexual harassment in this particular workplace, especially when they decide they can’t say anything about it for fear for her legacy. You can be the most powerful woman in the world, but some creep can still remind you of your status as a woman. It’s an important message embedded in one of the funniest episodes of TV of the year, and that’s what “Veep” does best.
10. “Orange Is the New Black” – “Lesbian Request Denied” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Aside from being a potential game-changer in terms of its delivery system, “Orange Is the New Black” feels positively revolutionary when it comes to the stories it’s telling. The show might center on an upper-middle-class WASP woman, but creator Jenji Kohan has been upfront that she’s using Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as a gateway to tell stories about people otherwise ignored on television: poor women, African-American women, gay women, Latino women, old women, forgotten women. It does so with wit, warmth and compassion, and perhaps does it most effectively in the third episode of the series, “Lesbian Request Denied.” About the point at which the show really starts to hit its stride (and directed, interestingly enough, by Jodie Foster, which is almost enough to make up for her performance in “Elysium” this year), it sees Chapman trying to fend off the attentions of her admirer, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), while focusing its flashbacks on Laverne Cox‘s Sophia, the prison hairdresser who was once a male firefighter, who committed credit card fraud in order to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. It’s almost impossible to think of a TV series giving this prominent a role to a transgender character (let alone one played by an actual trans actor), but Sophia isn’t simply a symbol: she’s a flawed, selfish person who, nevertheless, is hugely sympathetic. We wish the show made better use of her later in the season, but here’s hoping she’s more present in season two, because “Lesbian Request Denied” is certainly a highpoint of an excellent show so far.
9. “House Of Cards” – “Chapter 8” (Season 1, Episode 8)
We’ve been TV binge-watchers for quite some time now, but the concept of gorging oneself on an entire season’s television in one or two sittings really made it into the public consciousness at large with “House of Cards,” the first original program from streaming-service-turned-content-provider Netflix. And since it’s a show that was seemingly devised with binging in mind (note the absence of top-of-the-hour recaps), and largely consumed that way, it seems more difficult to select an individually great episode—what, you mean it wasn’t all part of a single, seamless continuum? But for us, the episode that really changed up what was already a deliciously dark, sinuous story of greed and corruption and power, was the eighth, in which actually almost all the trappings of the traditional TV show format are jettisoned in favor of exploring a dual-character background that doesn’t do much to further any of the many season arcs in play, but does, in one fell swoop, give us a gargantuan dose of context, for Spacey’s Frank Underwood especially.
Frank journeys to his alma mater to attend a ceremony for the opening of a library in his name, and is therefore outside his natural, poisonous element—Washington D.C. And this time the scene is not even of a triumph of his conniving ways outside of those support structures (like, say the Giant Peach episode had been), no, here the revelations are internal to Frank’s psychology and feel as instantly, retroactively truthful as they are unexpected. And it’s a mark of the sophistication of the script and performances that the most surprising element is not that Frank had a homosexual relationship, it’s that he is capable of loving anyone, of pining for anyone at all. Elsewhere Peter Russo (2013 breakout Corey Stoll) returns to the constituency he sold out to try and shill for support and we see him too, in a new light; he’s the Cowardly Lion gaining some nerve while Frank’s Tin Man reveals that he once had a heart. Within the framework of a tightly-plotted show of twists and turns and malleable loyalties, “Chapter 8” might feel like a digression, and we’re certain that were we watching the show week-to-week it would have felt minor. But in this newly forged context it’s in fact a terrific example of what elevates “House of Cards” above its traditional TV show brethren: we’re not just caught up in what is going to happen to these men; we are encouraged to consider what made them the way they are.
8. “The Good Wife” – “Hitting The Fan” (Season 5, Episode 5)
“The Good Wife” has always been consistently entertaining, well-written and beautifully acted, but has sometimes felt a little disposable, and as a CBS legal procedural, never really stood a chance at attracting plaudits from hipper critics. But in the last year, the show has upped its game enormously, becoming un-ignorably good, and this season’s “Hitting The Fan” in particular, can compete with anything that premium cable has to offer. The episode sees a long-simmering storyline erupt, as lead Alicia (Julianna Margulies, who’s had real fun with making her character less obviously sympathetic of late) and younger partner Cary (Matt Czuchry) are revealed to have been plotting to leave the firm run by Will (Josh Charles) and Diane (Christine Baranski). The Lockhart/Gardner partners didn’t know it was coming, but the audience did, though to be honest, probably expected it at the end of a season, not five episodes in—a measure of how much the show is not dicking around. Their scheme exposed, Alicia and Cary scramble to get the new firm established (taking as many of their old bosses’ clients as they can), while Will and Diane, who were barely on speaking terms before, team up for vengeance. It’s all magnified because Will and Alicia are former lovers, and their confrontation was positively electric. It takes real confidence in a show to blow up the status quo like this, in a way that, potentially, can never be rectified, but “The Good Wife” has been quietly stacking up confidence in spades, and so we end up with something that demonstrates why this is the best show that you probably haven’t been watching.
7. “Boardwalk Empire” – “White Horse Pike” (Season 4, Episode 10)
The mantra of “Boardwalk Empire” in season 4 might have been to defy expectations. Sure, the fourth go-round started predictably slowly, but in the course of its slow constricting coil it suddenly snapped to attention later in the season. Those paying attention to the show’s rhythms know the penultimate episode is where all the action happens, but the most dramatic and intense episode “White Horse Pike” was actually the slowly-simmering and the electric antepenultimate episode (in a season that demonstrated its first cliffhanger ending too). All season, black mobster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) has been at loggerheads with the new man in town, Dr. Valentine Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the educated, erudite African American, who constantly prods at Chalky for being nothing more than a house n*gga for Atlantic City mob boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). The episode features several twists, turns and layers; the Florida crew led by Vincenzo Petrucelli (Vincenzo Amato) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) trying to double cross Nucky’s bootlegging deals; Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) twisting the screws tighter on Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to rat; the Chicago Southside crew lead by Al Capone (Stephen Graham) almost being gunned down in an assassination attempt; and Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald) making deals with her estranged husband’s rival Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). All of this mind you, elegantly composed, never stuffed and happening amidst the blood feud between Chalky and Narcisse hitting its fever pitch. Everyone is getting tested and squeezed. Nucky spares Lansky’s life for the betrayal and during his big meeting with New York Italian boss Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), as he demands reparations for his loss, the ace in the hole drops: Narcisse is in cahoots with the other side. Not only does this mean Nucky’s hand has no play, a wounded Chalky White seemingly on his way out of town is a sitting dead duck. How he survives is one of the most intense and nervewracking episodes of the show ever, a true testament to the fact that when this show hits all the high marks, it’s unstoppable.
6. “30 Rock” – “Hogcock!/Last Lunch” (Season 7, Episode 12/13)
Tina Fey‘s hall-of-fame sitcom “30 Rock” only aired a handful of episodes in 2013—most of its stellar final season aired at the tail-end of last year. But luckily, there were a handful, including double-length series wrap-up “Hogcock!” and “Last Lunch,” which might be among the finest achievements of the show. Set after show-within-the-show “TGS” has been cancelled, it sees Fey’s Liz Lemon stewing as a stay-at-home mom, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) trying to find new satisfaction after reaching his dream job, and immortal redneck page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) settling into his new gig as the head of NBC. It’s easy for a series finale, especially one for a show as long-running as this one, to turn out something self-indulgent and self-satisfied. There’s certainly a ton of callbacks here, everything from Kenneth’s magical qualities to Jenna’s long running affair with Mickey Rourke, but they’re not just references, they’re subversions or additions to long-running gags, rather than just mere fan service. It retains the elements that made the show so beloved—sharp satire, nibbles at the hand that feeds them, A-list cameos (Julianne Moore! Ice-T!), pop culture references (there’s always time for a Temple Grandin joke) bonkers, surreal riffs, and Alec Baldwin saying things like “Ass attack.” But sensibly, it also grounds its second half in the friendship between Liz and Jack, the long-running spine of the show, leading to a genuinely emotional conclusion. And when that emotional conclusion is scored to an incomprehensible song from the Broadway adaptation of “The Rural Juror,” you know you’re witnessing TV greatness.
5. “Girls” – “One Man’s Trash” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Even more so than the first, the second season of “Girls” was a bit of a mixed bag. But unlike its debut season which always snapped back to the core foursome, this sophomore outing became a much darker show that tested its audience who had tuned into a series about female friendships and got one about girls (mostly separately) in crisis. That audacious strategy found creator Lena Dunham exploring the boundaries of what the show could be and may have resulted in some storylines we could’ve done without (visiting Jessa’s Dad for one) but also yielded some of the series’ best installments. Standouts included the flat-out funniest episode of the series thus far, “Bad Friend” a.k.a. The One Where They Do Coke, “On All Fours” a.k.a. The One Where Adam Um, Does That Thing To His Girlfriend, and “One Man’s Trash” a.k.a. The Patrick Wilson episode. Probably the most divisive episode of appointment television this year, “One Man’s Trash” was (sorry haters), also one of the best. When the dust settled, it was clear that there was a growing divide between the two very different audiences watching the show. Former “Sex And The City” addicts wondering where all the other girls went felt that this bottle episode tested their patience with the increasingly dark series but those willing to let Dunham chase down her muse found one of the most unique half-hours of scripted television in quite some time.
The setup is simple: Dunham’s Hannah meets Joshua (Wilson), a handsome recently divorced doctor and the two impulsively hook up and spend an incredibly intimate weekend together. Expertly directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador,” “Dom Hemingway”), “One Man’s Trash” plays more like a short film, sidelining all of the supporting characters to focus on the inner life of Hannah, a character we’ve seen talk a lot about what she says she wants. But over the course of their brief time together, Hannah drops her defenses and admits that she just wants a normal (read: boring) life too, just like everyone else. Many were repelled by Hannah’s selfishness, (after she confesses her secrets to Joshua, he tries to return the favor only to be ignored), but Dunham never intended to endorse her onscreen persona’s actions, only to create an interesting character, which has resulted in some extremely polarizing reactions from viewers. One of the best things Judd Apatow did when he came on board as producer was actually not to teach the former indie filmmaker too much about the medium and because Dunham isn’t saddled with the rules of how TV is supposed to work, she’s free to break them. Never has that freedom been put to better use than on this unforgettable episode. While we’re hoping that Season 3 is a little more consistent, when the highs are this high, who can complain?
4. “Enlightened” – “Higher Power” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Mike White‘s “Enlightened,” while sadly cut down in its prime, was one of the major TV treats of 2013, and picking out a single episode is almost impossible. But such is the quality of “Higher Power” that, despite it being wildly different from the rest of the series and barely featuring Laura Dern‘s Amy (one of the great TV creations of the last few years), it ultimately became the natural choice. Breaking away from the main storyline, it follows Levi (Luke Wilson), Amy’s ex-husband, as he goes to the Hawaiian rehab center that changed her life in a bid to overcome his own substance-abuse issues. Like a 30-minute mini-movie, related mostly in voiceover via letters from Levi, it sees him go from skeptical and irritable to someone who, while he hasn’t been “enlightened” like his ex, is going to try his damnedest to make a genuine recovery. He nearly doesn’t get there, escaping the center with new friends Dani and Travis (Ashley Hinshaw from “Chronicle,” and former “Girls” star Christopher Abbott, both doing killer work), and drinking and snorting their way into oblivion. But when he wakes up the next morning, he sees the light in a way that his younger friends can’t. It’s one of the more moving and truthful depictions of addiction and recovery we’ve seen on television, aided by top-class writing and direction from creator White. And perhaps more than anything, it marks the return of Luke Wilson, whose star has dimmed in recent years after a series of questionable choices, but reminds everyone here that he’s more than worthy of a comeback.
3. “Mad Men” – “In Care Of” (Season 6, Episode 13)
Because people are crazy, and because “Breaking Bad” took most of the limelight this year, there’s seems to be a view among fans that “Mad Men” didn’t have a particularly memorable season. As usual, the show took a slow-burn approach to storytelling, but that’s one of the reasons we love it, and when a slow-burn can build up to an explosion like the one in season finale “In Care Of,” we don’t mind one iota. Season 6 was about the implosion of Don Draper, a thirteen-episode slide that saw the style icon that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with, complete his transformation into a rather pathetic, pleading alcoholic. And it’s here that he reaches rock bottom (we hope—we’ll see where the show’s final season takes him): having looked like he might turn around his decline with a new life in L.A., he goes into a meeting with Hershey and self-destructs, finally revealing his dark past to his co-workers. He’s left, essentially fired from Sterling Cooper Draper Price (who are presumably going to be dropping the D), and with his marriage very much on the rocks. And yet, it might mean that he’s finally coming to terms with his past, taking his children to see the whorehouse in which he grew up. No one has a great time in the finale—Pete’s mother dies, falling overboard on a cruise ship, and the mysterious Bob Benson screws him over, partly in self-defense, while Peggy’s career is on the up, but her lover Ted is moving to the other coast rather than staying to be with her. It’s the show at its richest and most novelistic, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Bring on season 7.
2. “Game of Thrones” – “The Rains of Castamere” (Season 3, Episode 9)
We couldn’t have seen it coming. (Well, in fairness, there’s an obvious way we could, but we’re enjoying this show so much we only allow ourselves to read the George R.R. Martin books up to the point that we’ve already seen.) The “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones,” because that’s what it’s called in our seared brains, despite it being hidden behind the spoiler-free official title of “The Rains of Castamere,” was simply one of the most dramatic, unexpected and traumatic viewing experiences of the year, as one by one, characters that every storytelling instinct we had had lulled us into thinking were going to be around for a while, were offed in an orgy of throat-slittings, stabbings and perfidious betrayals. But in retrospect, we suppose the signs were there: Robb Stark (Richard Madden), despite being King in the North, was one of the less interesting characters now that his personal conflict over Talisa (Oona Chaplin) had been resolved; Talisa herself had no bearing on the wider plots bar her relationship with Robb, though her pregnancy was an extra, literal, twist of the knife; and with so much of the series dealing with parentage, bastardy, ancestor worship and family names, perhaps Catelyn’s (Michelle Fairley) days had always been numbered as a way to make the Stark children and Jon Snow even more self-reliant. But it would be disingenuous to say that this last death, especially, came as anything but a total shock. Even the rhythm of the scene is played in such a way to make you think that you’re going to be given some space, and maybe a cut away to action elsewhere to absorb this new Robb-less, Talisa-less world, and that Catelyn’s awful torture is actually to live on, knowing it was largely at her bidding that Robb, his bride and unborn child were lured to their deaths. But no, and bravo to everyone involved for squeezing one more shock, and probably the biggest, into a series of shocks, yet still making it feel totally unexpected, even capped with the death of Catelyn’s “goodness” as she pointlessly murders Walder Frey’s young wife in retribution. What’s also impressive about this particular installment, is that despite being eclipsed completely by the splatter and horror of that grisly wedding (apparently Martin was inspired by a 15th Century historical event called the “Black Dinner” in Scotland), the rest of the episode is pretty great too, with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) revealing his true Crow colors and leaving Ygritte (Rose Leslie); Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) discovering that his Warg powers allow him to enter other minds; Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) now controlling an entire city; and our beloved Arya (Maisie Williams) coming so heartbreakingly close to a reunion with her family, while her relationship with the Hound grows ever more thornily ambivalent. All that would easily have made for an above-par episode anyway, but then to round it out with this gloriously gory operatic moment…
It’s said that the scene was the reason that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss sought the rights to the books in the first place, and that Martin himself referred to it as the hardest thing he’s ever written, even joking that he’d move “to a country with no television” when the episode aired. Yet despite massive pressure, therefore, not to fuck this one scene up, and even despite the huge following that the books have, so that many viewers would already have an inkling of what’s in store, “The Rains of Castamere” is an extraordinary piece of television that eclipses even the series’ own death of Ned Stark in terms of surprise, and, as all great TV episodes should, fundamentally changes and reinvigorates the way we think of the show.
1. “Breaking Bad” – “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Episode 14)
There are many who would argue that this episode of “Breaking Bad” and not the series finale is where the show really ended. Everything came together: the episode began with a flashback to right after Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walter (Bryan Cranston) first cooked meth, with Walter calling his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and telling what would become the first lie in a whole laundry list of deceptions. In the present, in the same spot, Gomez (Michael Quezada) is dead after the desert shootout, with Hank (Dean Norris) being held at gunpoint by the psychotic neo-Nazis led by Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen). It’s Hank’s death, and Walter’s absolute devastation that follows, that might have been the single most poignant moment of the last handful of episodes. But “Ozymandias,” dazzlingly directed by “Looper” filmmaker Rian Johnson and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, is the type of episode littered with searing moments just like this: Walter confessing to Jesse that he was present for Jane’s death; Jesse’s imprisonment; the confrontation at home between Walt, Walt Jr. and Skyler; and Walt abducting Holly, a moment that’s almost as shocking as Hank’s execution at the start of the episode. There’s a palpable level of sadness that hovers over every scene, oftentimes threatening to choke it.
Thankfully, there’s a slight hint of optimism to even the darkest moments. When Walt makes the rage-filled, confessional phone call to Skyler, he’s trying to set her free even though he knows he’s permanently damned her (and the entire family). It’s a moment where Walt tries to do what’s best for his family, which was his supposed reason for building his meth empire in the first place, although he accomplishes it through incredibly selfish actions (again: a constant). Walt doesn’t stick around and try to sort things out with the authorities in an attempt to get his wife and family off the hook. No. He looks out for himself. As described at the show’s outset, it was designed to be the journey of how Mr. Chips turned into Scarface. What “Ozymandias” made very clear was that Walter was always Scarface. The closing moments of the episode, with Walt getting into Saul’s fixer’s van, are as quietly haunting as anything the show has ever delivered, and in some ways act as a more fitting resolution than the final episode we received, with Walt’s comic book assassination of the neo-Nazis and Jesse tearfully driving to freedom. It’s a testament to the episode’s power that Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator and writer/director of the series finale, called “Ozymandias” and not his episode, the very best in the show’s history. Quite frankly, it’s hard to argue.
The last two episodes of “Arrested Development” season 4 were the most satisfying, but its hard to tell if they’re stand-alone good or if we were just relieved the show had gotten good after a disappointing run prior; “New Girl” has won a surprising number of us over despite the potential detestability of its premise—and whatever about Nick and Jess, for this writer’s money, any episode that shows thin Schmidt battling his inner fat Schmidt is a winner; “Doctor Who” had a strong episode with “Hide” but the season hasn’t reached the heights of some previous seasons; “Bob’s Burgers” is maturing nicely into one of the funniest, oddest shows on TV (and “They’re gonna say ‘Aw, Topsy’ at your autopsy” is probably the best TV song of the year); the premiere and finale of “Rectify” were both strong; episode one of “Broadchurch” has its fans (and, agreed, it’s before the show goes a bit silly later on); “The Mindy Project” entry “Weiner Night” and “Christmas Party Sex Trap” episode got a few votes; “American Horror Story” was mentioned though how we’d pick one simmering gumbo of an episode over another is kind of beyond us; while A Certain Contributor will never forgive us if we fail to shout out the Season 3 premiere of “Scandal,“ which, to be fair, is a guilty pleasure for many of us.
Elsewhere “Archer,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Gravity Falls,” “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” “Comedy Bang Bang,” “Getting On” and “Eastbound & Down” had their cases made but more perhaps as shows than individual episodes, while even we were a little surprised by the lack of showing for “The Killing,” “Homeland” and “The Walking Dead.” Let us know what you think, about our choices and your year in TV, below. — Oli Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers, Cory Everett