“The Americans”: A Late-Night Drive
The pilot of “The Americans” works, in many ways, as a microcosm of the entire series itself. You’ve got slickly edited car chases, sneaky spy craft, tense interactions with FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and a whole lot of talk about marriage. In “The Americans,” Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are introduced as KGB spies living out an arranged marriage: Despite having two children and clashing over ideology and fidelity in ways comparable to any couple, they don’t quite understand their relationship — they have maintained the belief that their marriage is merely a working partnership. Writer/creator Joe Weisberg begins “The Americans” by asking what kind of intimacy naturally forms, as two people build a life and raise a family? It remains the definitive inquiry of “The Americans” three seasons in, but in Episode 1, in the back seat of their car, and set oh-so-appropriately to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” temptation gets the best of Philip and Elizabeth in a passionate love-making session. There’s a lot of sex — and many different kinds of sex — in “The Americans,” but here was the moment when Philip and Elizabeth looked into each other’s eyes and realized that, just maybe, they had fallen in love.
“Fargo”: Sorry for Accidentally Shooting You…
Our investment in the brazen intensity of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” was due in no small part to Alison Tolman’s warm performance as Molly Solverson, as she provided a hero we could get behind. The sixth episode, “Buridan’s Ass,” ends on a cliffhanger — did Molly die in that blizzard shootout? — and a hospital scene with Tolman and Colin Hanks (who plays her romantic interest Gus Grimly) in the subsequent episode “Who Shaves the Barber?”, which beautifully showcases her emotionally-penetrating work. Guilt-ridden for accidentally shooting Molly, Gus visits his bed-ridden crush, profusely apologizes and begs for forgiveness. A drowsy Tolman plays the moment in which she relieves him of any blame with understated affection, an aggressive contrast to the murders and mystery stuffing up the rest of the episode. The debut season of “Fargo” often ventured into unnervingly dark territory, but the love story that really blossomed here kept our hearts in it until the bitter end.
“Game of Thrones”: “I Am Yours, and You Are Mine”
“Game of Thrones” is hardly known for being the most sensitive to sexual or gender politics, but it was able to mine a lot of well-executed romance (and, later, tragedy) out of the tumultuous relationship between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Shae (Sebel Kekilli). Dinklage is responsible for many of “Game of Thrones”‘ most memorable character moments, and he’s never better than in “The Prince of Winterfell,” the eighth episode of the second season, in which Tyrion learns that Cersei is out to find and punish his concealed lover. He frantically races to locate Shae, his fraught and fearful nature our first indication of just how much he cares for her. When he finally finds her safe, and gasps in relief with the loving proclamation “I am yours, and you are mine,” the episode’s mood turns tender and heartfelt. “Game of Thrones” is so busy juggling dozens of characters and countless power plays that, when a moment like “I am yours” occurs, it jars in the best way. Here, the show demonstrated its beating heart better than ever before, and our investment in the Tyrion/Shae affair built exponentially – causing its tragic collapse hit us that much harder.
“The Good Wife”: A Hotel Elevator
“The Good Wife” of 2015 is a far darker show than the one we were introduced to five years ago: Its exploration of political corruption and ethical compromise intensifies by the episode. Part of this has to do with the legal drama’s natural progression in ideas and tone, but more obviously, the show turned a sharp dramatic corner after killing off Will Gardner (Josh Charles), the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic foil to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). Reminiscing about our favorite Will-and-Alicia moments feels more tragic than romantic at this point, especially since the death indirectly brought about our protagonist’s moral descent. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to get a little tingly about “Closing Arguments,” the second season finale which famously closes on Alicia and Will kissing in a hotel elevator. Characters in “The Good Wife” are masters of restraint and fakery — now more than ever — and, so, the experience of watching Alicia and Will in a moment of such unbridled passion provided essential emotional release.
“Homeland”: A Weekend of Romance (and Accusations)
The romantic centerpiece of “Homeland,” between CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) and maybe-maybe-not terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), may have seriously overstayed its welcome, but let’s not forget how things started. Initially, “Homeland” was a sweepingly romantic geopolitical drama, using its two protagonists to make fascinating arguments about our individual relationships to intimacy and security. The creative – and emotional – peak in the depiction of the affair came in “The Weekend,” a romantic episode of TV as only “Homeland” could envision and pull off. In it, Brody skips out on his wife for the weekend and meets up with Carrie in her father’s remote cabin. The quiet and the uninterrupted romance force Carrie to confront her conflated and conflicted feelings as lover and accuser: “I think you’re working for al-Qaeda,” she bluntly tells him. What ensues is a chess game of hidden truths, and the way that Carrie and Brody dance around one another showcases these characters as they were, individually and collectively: comfortably natural in the accusatory and finite nature of their love.
“House of Cards”: Back to School
Most of the “House of Cards” viewing experience consists of reveling in just how dastardly Kevin Spacey can get as the excessively-ambitious Frank Underwood. His relationship to his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), is defined by its pragmatism, and beyond that any other interactions of his are similarly strictly business. But Season 1’s “Chapter 8” is aggressively against-type for “House of Cards,” diving head-first into Underwood’s internal life and rendering him, dare I say it, a little sympathetic. Frank returns to his alma mater for a reunion, and through a drunken night he reminisces and rekindles with his college boyfriend. Gone are Spacey’s sarcastic asides and sly grins; the actor perfectly taps into the episode’s melancholy undercurrent, conveying pensive regret and hitherto-concealed depth of feeling. The way Spacey looks into his longtime crush’s eyes, and speaks to him with playful slurs, echoes throughout the rest of the show. No matter how villainous Frank gets, “Chapter 8” reminds us that there’s a heart (somewhere) in there.
“The Leftovers”: Let’s Go on a Date
When it comes to “The Leftovers,” we’ll take any non-despairing moment we can get. Considering that Damon Lindelof’s grief-ridden drama is principally about the struggle to move on from tragedy, the pairing of Nora (Carrie Coon) – whose entire family disappeared in the “Departure” events of three years earlier – with the seemingly-unaffected Kevin (Justin Theroux) was an inspired choice. The terrific episode “Guest” focuses wholly on Nora’s current day-to-day, bearing witness to a person’s unwillingness to let go of her pain: it’s all she has left of her family, and there’s that irrational guilt she can’t quite escape. Throughout “Guest,” Nora punishes herself even as she’s trying to pick herself up, but though a devastating hour of television, the episode ends with a glimmer of hope: Nora agrees to go on a date with Kevin. On the surface it’s a small and innocuous moment, even if irresistibly sweet. But on a deeper level, Nora’s change of heart speaks volumes about our ability to press on in the pursuit of happiness and love, even in the wake of the bleakest of tragedies.
“Mad Men”: “I Did It My Way”
The real true love story in “Mad Men” is between Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). And it’s a direct reflection of the big themes in Matthew Weiner’s period drama, which constantly posits old against new, change against stoicism, traditionalism against radicalism. For Don, of the fading old, and Peggy, of the rising new, the first half of “Mad Men”‘s final season provides opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices made, in order to achieve personal and professional independence. It’s long been their binding factor, not to mention their greatest source of conflict – Don holding Peggy’s shameful secret, or Peggy struggling to convince Don to treat her as a true equal.
But in the episode “The Strategy,” every piece of their history filters into a silent sway to Sinatra’s “My Way.” As the song attests, there’s both a personal satisfaction and crippling loneliness that comes with the knowledge that you did it on your own. As Don and Peggy dance with their eyes welled, all-too-rare sensations in “Mad Men” seep to the surface: mutualism, affection, a feeling of something shared. For those of us that have been deeply invested in “Mad Men” for the past seven years, it’s damn near impossible not to sob right along with them.
“Masters of Sex”: Confessions, Confessions
Michelle Ashford’s “Masters of Sex” seeks to determine how the roles of sex and forms of intimacy differ across various types of people. And for Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), sex is easy. The two begin an affair as the second season begins, secretly meeting up in hotel rooms – but the show progresses without us having any idea as to what exactly is going on behind closed doors. That is, until “Fight,” the season’s third episode, which takes place almost entirely in their hotel room and allows us to peer into this couple’s complicated dynamics.
What’s revealed is a delicate dance, as Bill and Virginia struggle to even acknowledge the troubling reality of their relationship (He’s married; she’s a single mother of two). Throughout, they maintain a distance by weaving in and out of the identities of their pseudonym (used to check into the hotel undetected) – but a mutual longing to genuinely connect is palpable.
Thus, the breakthrough is reached when they finally bare down and confide in one another. Bill tells Virginia about his abusive father; Virginia about an affair with a solider that has kept her romantically-distant and sex-positive. In “Fight,” these characters reveal their deeper selves to us for the first time, but more importantly they do so with each other: simply talking is the hardest thing for Bill and Virginia, precisely why their confessions feel so richly romantic.
“Scandal”: How It All Began
Shonda Rhimes’ operatic political drama has never been short on romance; it’s the way that “Scandal” so subversively depicts male/female attraction that holds our attention. And the series’ second season episode “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” is absolutely “Scandal” at its best: edgy, sexy, pulse-pounding soap. It takes place in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), with his present-day recovery framed around flashbacks of Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Fitz as they meet, and fall in love, and start an affair, and finally watch it all fall apart. It’s only a sliver of their unstable dynamic, which provides the foundation for “Scandal” in its entirety, and yet Rhimes’ script takes a clever approach. We see that Olivia is not introduced as a flirty subordinate – an angle most others would no doubt eat up – but equally the authoritative, crafty, fast-talking woman we’ve come to know for two seasons. We learn in “Happy Birthday” that their attraction stems from a mutual enthrallment with power and politics. This is Rhimes’ enduring quality as a romantic storyteller: she documents how Olivia and Fitz turn each other on, what makes them tick, why they find each other so damn irresistible. It’s a gloriously melodramatic foray into TV’s most wishy-washy couple.
“True Detective”: Brothers Bonding in the Light
Romance happens in the brooding, esoteric, hyper-masculine “True Detective,” you say? Well, yes – sort of. “True Detective” ends with Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey) alone, in the dark, gazing up at the stars. That the first cycle of “True Detective” was so intently and exclusively focused on these two characters, with literally everyone else in the periphery, was a primary point of both praise and criticism from viewers. Writer Nic Pizzolatto flirted with a delightful odd-couple dynamic – Harrelson managed to elicit humor out Marty’s repeated “What the hell are you talking about?” response to Rust’s cryptic ramblings with impressive consistency – and also dug into the despairing, hopeless realities of both men.
Fittingly, the finale, “The Secret Fate of All Things,” leaves them only with each other. And they finally, deeply bond. Rust’s now-infamous monologue about the darkness and the stars is as affecting as it is not because of the content – no, we’ve heard about a dozen versions of it by now – but because, for the first time, Marty is listening, asking questions, telling his own stories. McConaughey and Harrelson are beautifully connective in this final scene, and it ends with an emotional (and romantic?) wallop: Rust keeps his head tilted towards stars and, with a slight grin, admits that, yes, the light is winning at last.