Season 7, Episode 4, “Like Bad at Things”
- directed by Alex Graves
- written by Patrick Harbinson & Chip Johannessen
Always prescient, always urgent, “Homeland” maximizes two of its best qualities in an episode filled with notable connections to real-life problems and a tragedy reminiscent of what’s seen too often in the news. Moreover, it joins the two by tethers worth talking about. There’s a standoff between an extreme right-wing propaganda peddler, his armed constituents, and a government team led by Saul (Mandy Patinkin). The Alex Jones stand-in pushes his agenda to the breaking point, and that’s when Graves’ direction takes over. Fake news isn’t just manipulative and disgusting; it’s dangerous. Patrick Harbinson and Chip Johannessen build a bridge between cause and effect, conscience-less reporting and actionable atrocities, and then walk the main perpetrator through the wreckage. Part wish fulfillment, part nightmare, “Like Bad at Things” is exciting until it levels you, and even then it knows what it’s doing.
6. “The Terror”
Season 2, Episode 8, “The Good Twin”
- directed by Meera Menon
- written by Nick Jones & Rachel Shukert
Picking a single best episode from “GLOW” Season 2 is like…well, like picking a favorite character from “GLOW” Season 2. Impossible tasks, both of them. While previous installments in the season may have represented more foundational building blocks in what this show will continue to become (Debbie’s literal housecleaning, the hospital camaraderie, the trip to the movies that sets the rest of the season in motion), there’s no denying how most of that culminates in an unconventional episode that gives the other side to what we’ve been seeing for the past 17 chapters. A show-within-a-show premise that somehow fast-tracks genuine affection for characters and storylines that had only been abstract up until that point? Not an easy task, either. More than just a gimmicky, late-season diversion, “The Good Twin” helped answer a series-long question of what a real episode of “GLOW” would look like. In the process it delivered laughs (not sure if you’ve heard, but “Don’t Kidnap”), joyous absurdity (“The ref still thinks he’s a kitten”), and a literal dream ballet that will send your heart soaring on a trillion tiny clouds. It’s as therapeutic as anything else on TV so far this year.
4. “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Season 2, Episode 9, “Smart Power”
- directed by Jeremy Podeswa
- written by Dorothy Fortenberry
There’s always something thrilling about an episode that brings characters together that you might normally never expect to meet in person, especially when you consider the ways in which the ensemble cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been separated by various circumstances. So the fact that a trip to Canada put the Waterfords face-to-face with some of the people we know who have suffered as a result of Gilead’s regime makes “Smart Power” remarkable on that basis alone. But this installment also features some of the show’s savviest engagement yet with the realities of what it would mean for a political regime like this to engage with international forces, including a daring scene featuring the temptation of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) by what’s left of America. And Samira Wiley and O.T. Fagbenle, two deserving supporting players who have spent a fair amount of time on the sidelines this season, both get heartbreaking, brutal opportunities for confrontation. All that, and the episode delivers one of the most powerful moments of the season: “We believe the women.” Words that are so deeply satisfying to hear.
3. “The Americans”
Season 6, Episode 10, “START”
- directed by Chris Long
- written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
What an ending. For six seasons, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) danced on the edge of exposure. The Russian spies carried out missions with growing risk, until they finally reached a tipping point: fight or flight. “START” provides the visceral rush fans crave, but it’s equally focused on the metaphor that, despite the extremes, made “The Americans” so relatable. These are parents trying to raise their kids; a couple trying to hold onto their love; a family trying to survive. The sacrifices and successes amount to one whopper of an ending, but even if this was the only episode of the series you ever saw, it’s still gripping. The stakes are clear and expeditiously explored through unforgettable scenes. The train. The plane. The phone call. These few words evoke more from those who’ve seen the episode than can be succinctly described. “START” is an impeccable finale, but it’s also a damn fine episode.
Season 1, Episode 7, “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going”
- directed by Alec Berg
- written by Liz Sarnoff
There’s a proud HBO tradition of penultimate episodes bringing immense heartache and the raw emotion of tragic events that happen beyond anyone’s control. With a handful of devastating sequences, “Barry” joined that fraternity, all while bringing the sad truth of the show’s premise to its logical endpoint. After weeks of silently hoping for a clean break from his past life, Barry sees that chance evaporate as he realizes he’s left a trail of bread crumbs for would-be revenge seekers. Faced with the choice of murdering a fellow ex-Marine or letting his own survival be left to chance, Barry does the unthinkable.
Like other episodes on this list, this chapter of “Barry” is memorable in ways that highlight how inevitable it is. With all the comic potential that Bill Hader and Co. fulfill throughout the rest of this perfectly paced, genre-straddling series, imagining that its title character could safely put to rest the actions of his past was always a fool’s errand. What tips this into an elegant, tragic arc is seeing someone make the choice to take such drastic action, even when presented with increasing amounts of evidence that it will almost certainly be done in vain (something reiterated when Barry makes a similar choice in the season finale). Watching Hader work through Barry’s grief for another life he’s taken and a future he’s watching slip through his fingers is a magnetic piece of storytelling. It’s a Shakespearean display, even if the characters weren’t literally reciting “Macbeth” as it’s unfolding.
Season 2, Episode 6, “Teddy Perkins”
- directed by Hiro Murai
- written by Donald Glover
Setting everything else that makes “Teddy Perkins” a landmark half-hour of television aside, including the parallels to Michael Jackson’s real life and allusions to “Get Out” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, there’s a performative style and intimate character study worth admiration in its own right. Donald Glover plays Teddy Perkins (yup, that’s Donald Glover), a man giving away his piano (with kaleidoscopic keys) to a stranger who’s got a moving fan, a “U Mad” ball cap, and a kind ear. That willingness to listen dooms Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), or would, if not for how Teddy’s tragic life comes back to one-up him in the end. Glover is not only unrecognizable, but captivating. His elocution peaks at odd times, his movements restricted to the point of feeling imposing. Then there’s Darius, who’s so loose and free he’d be a threat to the decaying, deformed Perkins if not for Stanfield’s inherent passivity; he plays his character as an observer. The viewers worry for his safety, especially as the episode grows stranger and stranger, but they’re also eager to see it play out, just like Darius. That’s what makes the final moments land on an emotional level, as the two men’s ends — one a final note, one forever haunting — come together in striking fashion. “Teddy Perkins” works on many levels, but it’s this one that makes it timeless.