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Critic's Picks: The 15 Best Episodes of Television in 2013

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire December 11, 2013 at 4:34PM

From "American Horror Story: Asylum" to "Scandal," our TV editor offers up her picks for the 15 best single episodes from the year in television.
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Jessica Miglio/HBO Lena Dunham and Andrew Rannells in 'Girls'

Unlike films, television series exist in sometimes long stretches of installments, and they can fluctuate in quality from episode to episode as much as they can from year to year. Even great seasons have low points, and it's also definitely possible for a show to have a largely unexceptional year marked by one or two instances of greatness -- which is why I've put together this list of the 15 best episodes of 2013 to balance out my earlier one of its 10 best overall shows. I kept myself to only one episode per series, so by virtue of having more slots this list was already bound to include shows that weren't on that first one, but it also reflects the fact that some series I thought were terrific overall, like "Orange is the New Black," just didn't break easily into single standout episodes. If TV is a medium caught between the push and pull of serialized versus episodic storytelling, this is an ode to the latter, as well as a way to call out some series whose season ends dangled over from last year. Note: The blurbs below discuss plot details in the episodes.

15. "Girls": "Bad Friend"
January 27 on HBO

I couldn't stand the most talked-about episode from this year's uneven second season of "Girls" -- "One Man's Trash," in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) had a delirious weekend of sex with a handsome doctor played by Patrick Wilson. His was a character who just felt to me like a hollow construct dropped into Hannah's path specifically to give her a chance to deliver that wince-worthy monologue about being exhausted by chasing new and often rough experiences for her art. But "Bad Friend," the episode in which Hannah did cocaine in order to have material for a freelance assignment in a sort of bookend to the Wilson installment, was giddy and obnoxious in the best ways. "Girls" is so often about the misery of being young that this unfettered moment of irresponsible enjoyment felt like a gasp of relief, Hannah freed by substances to actually act silly for a second without any sense of humiliating consequences looming. The sequence in which Hannah and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) dance to Icona Pop's now inescapable "I Love It" is a total joy, and drama doesn't even immediately ensue -- it takes a few minutes. Plus, there was Marnie's (Allison Williams) hilarious seduction-by-art by the smarmy Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), in which he used the force of his will to both lure her to his bed and compel her to buy into his bullshit conceptual art, which even includes the use of Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing" as a soundtrack.

Patrick Harbron/CBS 'Elementary'

14. "Elementary": "Solve for X"
October 3 on CBS

"Elementary" will always exist in the shadow of "Sherlock," the contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptation that preceded it and that has the can-do-no-wrong Benedict Cumberbatch for its star. But CBS's quieter, American-based take has settled into a very solid show with a genuinely interesting relationship between its Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). Rather than pursue romantic tension, the show has connected its two roommates by way of their interest in starting over, Sherlock a recovering addict building a new life in New York while Joan pursues this change in career after losing a patient as a surgeon. "Solve for X" offered a particularly nice look at the pair's ever-deepening, slightly co-dependent relationship by revealing the details of the case that led Joan to quit her career in medicine and the guilt she feels by way of Joey Castoro (Jeremy Jordan), who forgave Joan for letting his dad die but who also feels comfortable playing on her sense of responsibility by hitting her up for money. How Joan and Sherlock, who naturally deduces what's going on, navigated Joan's ties to Joey and Sherlock's own ties to his partner was delicate and mature in ways unexpected for a series whose episodes are structured around fairly forgettable mysteries -- a testament to "Elementary" being, at heart, more character study than procedural.

13. "The Mindy Project": "Harry & Mindy"
February 5 on Fox

The heroine of "The Mindy Project" has a well-established obsession with romantic comedies, the joke being how little Mindy (Mindy Kaling) resembles a traditional lead in that rickety genre in looks and behavior (thank god). Mindy occasionally longs for scenarios out of a rom-com, but real life keeps proving more humiliating, strange and funny than the Meg Ryan movies she so adores. In one of the best episodes of the series to date, however, Mindy did end up in a honest-to-god rom-com storyline, just not in the role she wanted. Having met the charming Jamie (Kaling's former "Office" coworker and series executive producer B.J. Novak) in the previous installment, Mindy could only find one fault with the guy -- his extremely close but apparently platonic relationship with his best friend Lucy (Eva Amurri Martino). In "Harry & Mindy," Mindy tried to set Lucy up with Danny (Chris Messina) for a Valentine's Day double date, only to lead her own boyfriend to realize who he's really been in love with all along. "I’m like the Joan Cusack character in the romantic comedy of your life," Mindy observed as Jamie happily united with Lucy -- poignant and hilarious. Hell, Joan Cusack's always playing the person we'd want to hang out with anyway.

12. "The Americans": "Pilot"
January 30 on FX

Helmed by "Warrior" director Gavin O'Connor, the first episode of FX's Cold War spy drama walked a careful line between serious drama and indulgent one. Which was just as it should be -- the premise, that two Soviet sleeper agents had managed to blend seamlessly into suburbia as your average born-and-bred American couple, required a giant pinch of salt. The pilot established "The Americans" as substantive pop art, straddling spy tropes, like the cocktail bar pickup that starts the episode, alongside real angst, like the trust issues between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) in their arranged marriage. The flashbacks ably laid out the unusual start and even more unusual present of the pair's relationship, culminating in that sex scene in the car, post body-disposal, to one of Phil Collins' biggest era-appropriate hits -- at once ridiculous and deeply moving, the follow-up to a bloody but sincerely felt romantic gesture that's way more interesting than gifts of jewelry or flowers.

Eric McCandless/ABC 'Scandal'

11. "Scandal": "Everything's Coming Up Mellie"
November 14 on ABC

It's not fair to say the revelation in this episode that Mellie was raped by her father-in-law made the character, played by Bellamy Young, more sympathetic. The word's a silly one to apply to any of the show's characters, who can turn into betrayers and back again on a dime, and who include an adorable professional torturer and a protagonist who's romantically involved with the married President of the United States -- and anyway, knowing an awful thing happened to Mellie in the past doesn't change who she is in the present, just deepens our understanding of it. What "Everything's Coming Up Mellie" made bracingly clear is the steeliness of Mellie's spine and how much she has sacrificed for her husband's career. She's the show's most complicated figure, smart, calculating and stuck in a largely ornamental supporting role as the First Lady, having set aside her own ambitions to support those of Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), despite their relationship at this point being just for show. The episode was a piercing reminder that all the people around the President are far more formidable than he is -- and that from Mellie's perspective, "Scandal" is a tragedy and a tale of endurance.

Fox 'New Girl'

10. "New Girl": "Cooler"
January 29 on Fox

"New Girl" has been shaky in navigating the now-actual relationship between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson), who despite being very sweet together have almost anti-romantic chemistry. But then there's a long tradition of TV series finding it more difficult to portray two characters being together than remaining in a phase of almost-but-not-quite-getting-there for years. Still, the episode in which the pair kissed for the first time was enough to make any viewer squeal with delight, particularly after first teasing an embrace and then moving away. Jess, scared to have the loft by herself after the boys try to have a night at the bar without her vibe-killing powers, summoned her roommates and the girls they'd picked up back home. And after a rowdy session of the show's incomprehensible but fun-looking drinking game "True American," Jess and Nick ended up barricaded in a room together until they smooched, forcing them to almost acknowledge the feelings they had for one another, an almost unheard-of development in a show all about its characters' arrested development and conflict avoidance. They almost did it, and then they didn't, and then Nick almost died in his effort to not have to give Jess a meaningless peck, and it seemed like the show would leave it and its central unresolved romance at that. And then, right at the end as the two were bidding each other good night in the hallway, Nick laid a real classic movie-worthy kiss on Jess -- surprising and thrilling and finally bringing some urgency to the question of what would become of the pair.

9. "30 Rock": "Florida"
January 17 on NBC

In one of its last episodes, "30 Rock" tackled a fundamental question that comes up in almost any series that pairs a male and female character -- why didn't its two leads get together? The series used to tease this possibility more in its earlier days -- at the end of the first season, Jack's (Alec Baldwin) mother Colleen (Elaine Stritch) approvingly mistook Liz (Tina Fey) for his new fiancée. But their relationship long ago evolved into a more comfortable, more unusual friendship in which Jack mentored Liz through her various personal and career mishaps and she provided support he didn't realize he needed. And that is, essentially, what he told her when they're forced to share a bed on a trip to Florida and she demands to know why nothing ever happened between them. Both their lives were marked by romances that, for the most part, didn't last. What they had together was more lasting and -- Jack's right -- more interesting, one of the funnier, more unexpected rapports on network TV. And it was a nice capper to this long-in-coming conversation that Colleen, the endlessly critical parent who constantly found imperfections in her son, had apparently ended up in a lesbian relationship in her 80s, both proving to Liz that people are always capable of change and setting Jack on his final path toward considering what it means to be happy.

NBC 'Parks and Recreation'

8. "Parks and Recreation": "Jerry's Retirement"
April 18 on NBC

That not even Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), that consummate planner of thoughtful gifts and unexpected anniversaries, had any idea that Jerry (Jim O'Heir) was set to retire has everything to do with the latter's abuse-magnet qualities. Over the years, Jerry's been ignored, mocked, forgotten and maligned, and has maintained a constant cheer throughout. "Jerry's Retirement," which was directed by Nicole Holofcener, raised the possibility that Jerry would be allowed to leave without ceremony, then, thankfully, remedied it without getting treacly. The episode gets some wonderful mileage out of Leslie's failures to do something special for Jerry, who's seemingly commemoration-proof -- he's done nothing noteworthy in his career worth saluting, she's not allowed to bring him into the Executive Dining Room and the man he'd longed to meet back when he started working for the city is dead. And through it all Jerry is never upset, bringing the episode to the pleasantly pointed reveal -- that work has just been something Jerry's done to support a perfect, happy home life, surely much of the reason that all the derision he faces in the office just rolls of him. Jerry, for once, is appreciated by Leslie -- and by Tom (Aziz Ansari), who realized that without Jerry, he'd be the go-to target.

7. "Game of Thrones": "The Rains of Castamere"
June 2 on HBO

Fantasy stories tend to follow uncomplicated rules of good and evil -- you have your heroes, straightforward or roguish, and you have your wicked types, who usually aren't shy about making their alignments clear. And though sometimes it comes at great cost, the world is usually saved by the sound of heart. But "Game of Thrones" has never been that type of story, despite its trappings, a fact that the show made clear at the end of its first season when gallant, naive Ned Stark died because of his lack of understanding of court machinations. But "The Rains of Castamere" did something even more shocking than once again offing the closest thing the series had to a champion -- it wiped out most of the apparent forces of order right as they were seemingly on the road to setting things right. The slaughter didn't happen on a battlefield according the rules of war, but under the roof of a host taking in guests for a strategic alliance, and it wasn't just the fighters who died, but the women traveling along with them -- including, brutally, the pregnant Talisa (Oona Chaplin). The episode marked "Game of Thrones" as one of the most narratively ferocious on television in its refusal to be the story of a hero or to even settle on a protagonist, its scope more wide-ranging and grim, a portrayal of all the factions of humanity grappling for power as darker forces in the north gather and seem poised to wipe everyone out.

ABC Family 'Bunheads'

6. "Bunheads": "Next!"
February 25 on ABC Family

This episode served as a de facto series as well as first season finale for Amy Sherman-Palladino's steathily great dramedy -- and even unplanned, it's an almost perfectly bittersweet mix that left its heroine Michelle (Sutton Foster) a little more balanced but just as unsure of what's next as when she began. After a season's worth of panic dreams about auditioning, Michelle actually got herself out to a giant cattle call of one in Los Angeles, a sequence that demonstrated both her bone fides as a performer and how demoralizing showbiz can be. It provided no magical answer to Michelle's feelings of restlessness, no career resurgence after some time out of the game -- whatever you choose to imagine happening to the character next, it likely won't include new and long-awaited success on Broadway. And in her new role as a wobbly mentor to a group of teenage girls, Michelle received another challenge, one that the show handled with the honesty that made it such a rare commodity in its portrayal of high school life, by having Ginny (Bailey Buntain) admit to having lost her virginity to a boy who totally bewildered her, and who might want nothing more to do with her. Both storylines offered up a truth that hardly ever comes up in television and certainly not in ones technically aimed at younger audiences, because it's tough to acknowledge -- that sometimes you just have to take your knocks. At least "Bunheads" had its dance numbers to escape to.

Jordin Althaus/AMC Jon Hamm in 'Mad Men'

5. "Mad Men": "The Crash"
May 19 on AMC

This is, I'll admit, the second drug episode on this list, but it's one of my favorite episodes of "Mad Men" ever, and right in the middle of a season otherwise centered on ennui and even more death imagery than usual. Sterling Cooper & Partners was under pressure to come up with a campaign for Chevy after having seven rejected, and with half the team off at Frank Gleason's funeral Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) had everyone else given "vitamin" shots full of uppers. The high allowed Don (Jon Hamm) one of his most revealing moments in the series -- first, by acknowledging out loud the manipulation that goes into his presentations ("I don't know whether I'll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh") and secondly, by having him certain he'd stumbled onto the ultimate pitch, the tactic he could use to open all door and win all arguments, even lure back his former mistress. In the midst of hilarious chaos in the office, with Ken (Aaron Staton) tap dancing out his role as performing monkey for the Detroit executives and Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) throwing an X-Acto knife at a willing Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), Don's revelation was piercing, cutting to the heart of the show, that its protagonist in the business of selling things to people to fill needs that can never be met by new cars or lipstick. There's a gaping hole where his heart should be, and he can only express it in the language of commodification and merchandise to sell.

4. "Enlightened": "All I Ever Wanted"
February 17 on HBO

What would Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) do with everything going her way? This episode managed to be the most devastating of the too-short run of Mike White's HBO series by offering its main character options. Two, really -- Jeff (Dermot Mulroney), the LA Times reporter who worked with Amy on the Abbadon story and who celebrated by taking her to bed, and Levi (Luke Wilson), the ex-husband who came back from the rehab that proved so transformative for her, ready to try again. Mulroney is amusingly, alarmingly self-involved and Wilson heartbreakingly patient, but this episode owes everything to Dern's stretched-to-breaking performance, the dual possibilities of the future causing her intense distress. Amy is a character whose general yearning for change is attached to a fundamental sense that she won't be able to affect any, and this episode presented her with the reality that she in fact had shaken things up, that Abbadon would be seriously impacted by her actions, that Levi had cleaned up with her help and wanted to try to be the man she needed. All of this in an episode helmed, beautifully, by Todd Haynes in his guest directing debut, catching warm afternoon sunlight at its most melancholy.

FX 'American Horror Story: Asylum'

3. "American Horror Story: Asylum": "Madness Ends"
January 23 on FX

The second season of "American Horror Story" began with Adam Levine getting laid and then getting his arm pulled off, and never slowed down from there, weaving in aliens, demons, Nazis, mutants, serial killers and an angel of death. The show turned Chloë Sevigny into an amputee and brought in Franka Potente to play a woman convinced she's the surviving Anne Frank, and yet by "Madness Ends," the finale, all that wildness had been drained away, and what was left was something astonishingly tender and of curious weight. "Asylum," more than the other two seasons of Ryan Murphy's outrageous drama, plays like a funhouse reflection of our dark history, Briarcliff's residents representing an array of oppressed groups who didn't fit with the social mores of the era -- Sarah Paulson's lesbian journalist, Evan Peters's man in an interracial marriage, Sevigny's promiscuous discarded spouse. Even Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who ruled the asylum with an iron fist, was acutely aware of her secondary nature next to the patriarchy at which she sneered. And yet, by the end, all the delirious supernatural qualities had faded, and what was left was a story of trauma and its aftermath, how some distanced themselves from it and others found the capacity for forgiveness. Suddenly, you were aware of how much you actually cared for these characters -- they weren't cutouts to be torn up by whatever horrifying force Murphy and his writers came up with next, they were survivors of a terrible time, limping back out toward the sunlight.

2. "Black Mirror": "The Entire History of You"
November 26 on DirecTV's Audience Network

Charlie Brooker's "Twilight Zone" for the tech age is a truly stunning creation, and the only reason I didn't include it on my 10 best programs list is that, as an anthology series, it didn't seem quite like it belonged alongside other serialized shows. Its installments are all standalone creations that nudge at how technology shapes our lives in overwhelmingly intelligent, unsparing ways, peering into the future -- but not far, offering a forebodingly believable vision of where we might end up in a decade or less. "The Entire History of You" is the best of the six very strong installments, and it's not hard to understand why Robert Downey, Jr. optioned the rights to it for a potential film remake. It's a razor sharp look at a marriage disintegrating over one wretched night, as Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker, from "Broadchurch") attend a dinner party at which he meets Jonas ("Weekend" star Tom Cullen), who seems to share some kind of past with his wife. The trick of the episode is that it's set in a world in which everyone has a "grain," a device embedded behind their ear that records every moment so they can play it back, either to themselves or by throwing it up on screen for everyone to see. Suddenly unreliable memories are a thing of the past, with everything available in painfully crystal sharp detail for instant recall. It's a clever idea, but what makes this episode so very good are the ways in which the characters use and are shaped by it, especially Liam, whose insecurity leads him to look back, again and again, scrutinizing every phrase and expression for nuance until he loses his grasp on the present.

AMC 'Breaking Bad'

1. "Breaking Bad": "Ozymandias"
September 15 on AMC

I don't think that "Breaking Bad" should have ended with "Ozymandias," but by the time the credits rolled it seemed clear there was no way the show was going to top it (not for nothing is it still running at a perfect 10/10 on IMDb). Written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson, it was the episode in which all of Walt's (Bryan Cranston) bills came due at once, in which he was forced to face how little control he actually had over his situation and how much he'd messed up. Walt was always ready to play the hero, to die having left his family a nest egg, but he was never prepared to actually face the fact that he'd become the toxic force he is in this installment, getting Hank (Dean Norris) unceremoniously murdered out in the desert, ending up in a knife fight with Skyler (Anna Gunn) after she refused to flee with him, having his son (RJ Mitte) finally see him as he really is, running off with their baby while his wife howled and chased after him. The episode's named for the Shelley poem in which the broken statue of a fallen king overlooks an empire that is no more, but for Walt that loss of kingdom, as small as it was, meant everything. Walt lived a life in which the ends justified the means, and "Ozymandias" stripped all of those illicit accomplishments away, offering him up at his most breathtaking worst with nothing to show for it. All of the complexity of Walt as an antihero was contained in that phone call he made to Skyler, meant to save her from blame for his crimes from the police, yet filled with all the sincerely meant bile in his heart, a man who'd just destroyed everything demanding he be followed to the dark end.

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