If this list is any indication, 2014 was the year of the “bubble” episode. Pressing pause on the narrative arc allowed certain series (“Girls”) to breathe and others (“Orphan Black,” “Bates Motel”) to crystallize, but more broadly, the best episodes of the year reduced accomplished seasons (“Homeland,” “Review”) and entire series (“Mad Men,” “Masters of Sex”) to startling miniatures: a reminder that the form by which we define the medium can be a potent work of art.
10. Game of Thrones, “The Mountain and the Viper”: Crisscrossing Westeros as the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” lunges toward its conclusion, “The Mountain and the Viper” shoehorns an abundance of new developments into a series of relentlessly efficient scenes. As Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) emerges the wily partner to Peter Baelish (Aiden Gillen), descending the stairs at the Eyrie in that stunning black dress, or as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) relates his memory of smashed cockroaches to brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the senselessness at the heart of the series’ brutal politics reaches fever pitch. By the time the final twist arrives, in the form of the titular death match between Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) and Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), it’s clear that “Game of Thrones,” at its operatic finest, will simply knock you flat.
9. Orphan Black, “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things”: The best performance on television receives the star treatment in this corker episode of BBC America’s sci-fi thriller, which features Tatiana Maslany as a bunch of clones pursued by nefarious scientists and religious extremists. As Family Day at the New Path Wellness Center unfolds, the episode assumes the focused brilliance of a controlled experiment. The climactic sequence, which involves therapeutic role-playing at the aforementioned rehab clinic, witnesses Maslany playing Sarah (a streetwise con artist), who’s pretending to be Alison (a straitlaced soccer mom), who’s supposed to be imitating her husband — a delirious flight of fancy that also perfectly expresses the series’ credo. “Now who are you being?”
8. Girls, “Flo”: Lena Dunham’s portrait of four young women in present-day New York occasionally struggles to transcend the particulars of its time and place, which may explain why the series’ best episodes (“The Return,” “Boys,” “Beach House”) so often take place on unfamiliar terrain. “Flo,” in which Hannah (Dunham) leaves the city to visit her dying grandmother (June Squibb) in the hospital and ends up confronting her family’s mess of simmering resentments, frees “Girls” to set aside its urbane irony for a spell, and the result is funny, sincere, and ultimately quite sad. Depicting women at three stages of adulthood — beginning, middle, and end — “Flo” reconstructs the bonds of kinship that give us so much grief when they seem to tie us down, and cause us so much grief when they inevitably dissolve.
7. Bates Motel, “Presumed Innocent”: The second season of A&E’s “Psycho” prequel emerges here as an unhinged homage to Hitchcock, “Twin Peaks,” and Freudian horror. Increasingly willing to dispense with extraneous material to examine every toxic angle of the relationship between adolescent Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his overbearing mother, Norma (the endlessly entertaining Vera Farmiga), “Bates Motel” counts among the year’s most improved series — and “Presumed Innocent” is the perfect example of its transformation from distracted teen melodrama to gleefully pulpy two-hander. As the local sheriff interrogates Norman about the suspicious death of his girlfriend’s father and Norma paces in the precinct’s corridors, the claustrophobic setting reflects the psychological vise that threatens to crush the Bates family once and for all.
6. Review, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”: Comedy Central’s freshman series resists description, in part because “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” thoroughly disrupts the droll premise — in the first two episodes, intrepid critic Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) reviews life experiences like hunting and attending prom — in the service of an unexpected black comedy. Combining gross-out humor with existential dread, the episode finds “Review” evolving from collection of loosely connected sketches into an eccentric, misanthropic serial: a hilarious portrait of one man’s foolhardy endeavor, to quote Forrest, as “an unendurable hellscape of excruciating sadness.”
5. Looking, “Looking for the Future”: A lovely slip of an episode, “Looking for the Future” ambles along toward the sea as Patrick (Jonathan Groff) discovers a newfound attachment to Richie (Raul Castillo). In the process, “Looking” unearths a future of its own, mining the easy rhythms of a stroll along the beach — San Francisco has scarcely seemed more beautiful — for the halting, hopeful tone that defines the season’s excellent second half. It’s as unassuming and winsome as writer/director Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” teeming with the possibility of an ending still unwritten.
4. The Leftovers, “Guest”: In the rather desolate universe of HBO’s bracing new drama, “Guest” sketches life in the aftermath of the Sudden Departure — the unexplained disappearance of two percent of the world’s population — with a multi-layered emotional palette. There’s humor (“Oh, fuck your daughter!”), romance (a stolen kiss), rage (a barroom tirade), and finally sorrow (a tearful embrace), unstable elements in a kaleidoscopic portrait of grief. As suburban wife and mother Nora Durst, Carrie Coon is simply astounding, evolving before our eyes from a supporting character into the stricken emblem of the series’ title. In the course of a single hour, she conveys every shade of what it means to lose what we hold dear.
3. Homeland, “There’s Something Else Going On”: The espionage drama’s long road back into critics’ good graces culminates in this tense, stripped-down hour, which returns the focus to the relationship that’s been at the heart of the series all along. As the fourth season’s deftly constructed long game comes into focus, and the rabbit hole of the American “War on Terror” devours the final shreds of their idealism, CIA veteran Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and protégé Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) travel through the looking glass to confront a prospect more terrifying than any conspiracy: that we have met the enemy, and he is us.
2. Masters of Sex, “Fight”: “Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying; one masturbatory act; role playing throughout.” Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) thus describes an evening with scientific and romantic partner Bill Masters (Michael Sheen), summarizing the terrifically sexy “Fight” in the process. Featuring remarkable performances from the series’ stars, cloistered in an anonymous hotel room as the titular boxing match proceeds on television, the episode fulfills the erotic potential of Showtime’s period drama by returning to the notion that’s structured the series from the start. Even the most intimate of human acts is complicated by the roles society asks us to play (“masculine,” “feminine,” “normal,” “deviant”), and “Fight” depicts this battle of sex and the sexes beautifully.
1. Mad Men, “The Strategy”: As this spring’s truncated season of “Mad Men” unspooled, glimpses of the series’ genius failed to prepare me for the breathtaking simplicity of “The Strategy.” Bob Benson (James Wolk) offers Joan (Christina Hendricks) an indecent proposal and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) argues with Trudy (Alison Brie) over their failed marriage, but the episode’s heart resides in a pair of gorgeous compositions focused on connections strengthened, not severed. As Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Don (Jon Hamm) sway along to Sinatra’s elegiac “My Way,” or chuckle with Pete under the Burger Chef roof, the series lands once more on the line between nostalgia and regret. Indeed, as “Mad Men” closes the circle on its ambitious portrait of midcentury America, Peggy’s description of her eponymous strategy — finding family in this “clean, well-lighted place” — reminded me of nothing so much as Don’s, and the series’, defining moment. “It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” Don says in “The Wheel.” “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine… It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.” In other words, I’ll miss “Mad Men” terribly when it concludes next year, but I’ll always have “The Strategy.”