6. "Homeland": "Q&A"
The explosive attraction and mistrust that fuels encounters between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) in Showtime's thriller took its place at the forefront of "Q&A," one of several game-changing episodes as the show challenged our expectatons of how much plot could be fit into a single season. Brody, trapped by his martyrdom video, was broken by Carrie and took on a role as a double agent, but only after she offers up her own vulnerability to and feelings for him in exchange, a wrenching gambit that made it obvious she wasn't faking those emotions despite her protestations to the contrary. It was manipulation and a sincere confession of love wrapped up at once, with no way to pull the two apart.
5. "Archer": "The Limited"
The pleasures of "Archer" are so consistent that sometimes it takes an episode like this, one that encapsulates the FX animated series' profane, hilarious spirit, to newly appreciate it. Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and the ISIS team are transporting a Nova Scotian separatist back to Canada to be tried as a terrorist -- but as usual, the dickish self-involvement of the characters threatens the mission. Cyril's (Chris Parnell) incompetent and Archer's drunk and more worried about retrieving Cheryl's (Judy Greer) pet ocelot Babou than the escaped target, while his mother Malory's (Jessica Walter) only fixated on getting an upgrade to her berth and a Cobb salad. Archer does finally get to pursue his dream of fighting on top of a train, but both he and his opponent agree it's not as great as it looks -- add some Mounties, some bickering and some Cheryl/Pam (Amber Nash)/Ray (Adam Reed) weirdness and it's a near-perfect installment of a series that's becoming even funnier as it expands its strange universe.
4. "Breaking Bad": "Fifty-One"
Directed by Rian Johnson ("Brick," "Looper"), "Fifty-One" brilliantly showcased how little time had passed on the show from when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) went from downtrodden high school teacher to meth manufacturer, and how much had changed for him and his family. Walt became a flat-out villian in this first half of the show's final season, and this episode took that home and showed how broken his marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) had become. Walt loves power, but also wants to keep up the pretense of being a happy family, and so "Fifty-One" portrayed a toxic domestic environment in which he bought himself and Walt Jr. new cars against Skyler's wishes, asked for a party and monologued about how blessed he's been until Skyler walked into the pool as a calculated act and also because she couldn't stand listening to him talk anymore. The conversation between the two of them afterward had a blistering air to it, as Skyler learned what it felt like to face down Heisenberg and we learned to genuinely hate Walt.
3. "Girls": "Pilot"
Lena Dunham's show about twentysomethings looking for love, careers and a direction in life landed like a bomb, its divisive, inflammatory qualities at odds with the standard nature of its subject matter. What's so impressive about the series, and so nicely laid out in its first episode, is its dedication to showing its characters' unburnished flaws -- something so rare that people attacked the show for endorsing the blithe entitlement it gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked. Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) made mistakes, got humiliated and said awful things -- like actual girls not long out of college and stumbling their way toward adulthood. And as Hannah, Dunham's taken the worst blows, including blurting out the new classic line about being "a voice of a generation," an insistence she has something to say that's only slowly getting backed up by experience.
2. "Louie": "Daddy's Girlfriend Part 2"
"Louie" had an uneven third season, but its highs were like nothing else, particularly the second half of this two-parter in which Louie (Louis C.K.) went out on a date with Liz (Parker Posey), a girl he met at a bookshop. This season showed Louie tentatively and not always whole-heartedly starting to seek out happiness, both in love and in his career, and the evening wth Liz was part of that. But Liz turned out to be a kind of undermining of the manic pixie dream girl type, genuinely unpredictable, a little scary and vividly alive, and her night with Louie was filled with as much magic as it was with red flags. She pushed him into trying on a dress, she took him to a great meal at Russ & Daughters and the pair ended up on the roof for a sequence in which she called him out on all of his fears about standing close to the edge because part of him wants to jump. Funny, moving and strange, it was an example of the show at its emotionally open best.
1. "Mad Men": "The Other Woman"
There's been plenty of casual office cruelty in "Mad Men" before, but this is the episode in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce sold its soul, and did so by pimping out Joan (Christina Hendricks) to a member of Jaguar's selection committee in order to secure the account. It was a development set up by Don's (Jon Hamm) arrogant absenting himself from the discussion, by Pete's (Vincent Kartheiser) slithery ambition and Lane's (Jared Harris) own sense of meager self-worth and financial despair. But the decision was ultimately Joan's, and it was one heartbreakingly fueled by her sense of betrayal that the partners would even ask this of her, by her feeling that she needed to seize a piece of the business for her own because no one there would look out for her. The momentous, terrible development had as its parallel Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally walking away from SCDP and from her sometimes-mentor Don, a turn that was made more powerful by the way he responded with grace rather than outraged betrayal -- that kiss on the hand was a perfect gesture to mark the end of their years together and how far she'd come.