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The Best TV Episodes of 2020 — Year in Review

From time spent with literal vampires to watching the more down-to-earth bloodsuckers in the British Royal Family, we pick the standout television episodes of the year.

BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman

Courtesy of Netflix

IndieWire Best of 2020

No, a television show isn’t just a 10-hour movie — and you know what proves that? The quality of individual episodes, which can serve as bright lights unto themselves and separate from the season’s creative work as a whole.

The distinction is important, especially in the context of binge watching. It’s all too easy to let a season’s worth of a show autoplay — yes, I am still watching, Netflix, and I don’t need the judgment right now, frankly — and for each episode to fade into a miasma of small screen entertainment. These episodes broke through the haze and demanded attention.

Below, listed in alphabetical order by show, are IndieWire’s picks for the best TV episodes of 2020:

“Better Call Saul” — “Bagman”

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

It’s unlikely that many viewers expected Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) desert excursion to acquire Lalo Salamanca’s (Tony Dalton) bail money in “Bagman” to go smoothly, but that didn’t blunt the shock factor from the bloody ambush that took place in the first third of the episode. Jimmy’s subsequent journey with Mike (Jonathan Banks) back towards civilization marked a first for Jimmy — a situation he was unable to sweet talk or con his way out of — and his conversations with Mike shed new light on two characters that viewers have grown to adore since they first appeared on “Breaking Bad” over a decade ago. Though “Bagman” primarily focused on Jimmy and Mike, Kim Wexler’s (Rhea Seahorn) meeting with Salamanca was one of the season’s standout moments. Like Jimmy in the desert, Kim found herself uncharacteristically out of her depth with Lalo and forced to confront a potentially lethal situation that was outside her area of expertise. “Bagman” forced its leads to navigate terrifying and previously unknowable obstacles while putting critical pieces in play for the show’s upcoming sixth and final season. “Better Call Saul” hardly lacks for fantastic episodes, but there’s a reason that “Bagman” was immediately heralded as one of the best episodes of the series yet. —TH

“BoJack Horseman” — “The View from Halfway Down” 

BoJack Horseman

“BoJack Horseman”

Courtesy of Netflix

The second-to-last (he’d probably hate the word “penultimate”) episode of the series is nothing short of a magic trick. BoJack arrives at a purgatorial gathering of dead relatives, best friends, and past acquaintances, a place he’s been before plenty of times. It’s one of the best representations of dream logic ever put on screen: a jumbled mess of firing synapses that somehow manages to fit together into a coherent flow of its own making. For fans, it’s a parade of some of the best “BoJack” guest star voices (what a gift Stanley Tucci and Kristen Schaal were on this show). It’s far from box-ticking, though. In less than a half-hour, this episode somehow manages to encompass all the fraught relationships BoJack has with a half dozen selected figures from his real and imagined life. There’s a psychedelic musical number, a “Scrubs” star, and a nightmarish glob of sentient goo that represents….well, whatever you want it to. Like some of the most vivid dreams, it’s hard to piece together what exactly it all means. Whether you’re left with the truth that we all want the pain in our lives to have some meaning when we’re gone or whether you’re left with the phrase “I Started a Zach Which Started the Whole World Braffing,” there’s something truly indelible here. —SG

“The Crown” — “The Balmoral Test”

Picture shows: Queen Elizabeth II (OLIVIA COLMAN) and Prince Philip (TOBIAS MENZIES). Filming Location: Ardverikie Estate, Kinloch Laggan Newtonmore Inverness-shire

“The Crown”

Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix

Yes, yes, yes, “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan is a repeat offender at trafficking in stag metaphors — hey, it worked for him to get an Oscar nomination for “The Queen,” why not repeat it on TV and try to get an Emmy? That being said, his latest interpretation of the British Royal Family draining the lifeblood out of innocents is a hilarious and harrowing look at the entitlement of class structure, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) are served on a plate at the Queen’s castle in Scotland. It features perhaps the most agonizing dinner party in the history of the Commonwealth as Queen Elizabeth’s family cajoles a very unenthused Thatcher into playing drinking games, comparing amateur stag bellows, and — gasp — listening to bagpipes. On the other side of the spectrum, posh, well-born Diana eats the atmosphere up — and unknowingly sets the stage for years of misery to come. Ibble-dibble, indeed. —AD

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” — “Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry”

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 10 Larry David

Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”

John P. Johnson / HBO

A cockamamie business scheme. An unexpected new roommate. Relationship drama, principled social stands, and the MVP of all celebrity cameos make “Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry” the epitome of a perfect “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode and the best entry of Season 10. Leon (the always enlivening J.B. Smoove) and Larry try to make a buck by offering bathroom breaks to hourly workers stuck alone on long shifts, just as Jeff (Jeff Garlin) moves in with his No. 1 client during another fight with his fiery wife, Susie (Susie Essman). Meanwhile, after initially going over to his former sister-in-law’s house to ask for repayment now that she’s selling it, Larry sleeps with Becky (Kaitlin Olson), enraging the ex-wife he’s still in love with for a romance that barely lasts longer than a flight to Denver. Lucky for Larry, Cheryl’s own fling doesn’t last either. Even though she’s seeing the envy of St. Louis, Jon Hamm, the two have to split because the actor (playing himself) has been shadowing Larry a little too closely, and the eerie similarities between her new beau and ex-hubby weird out Cheryl as much as they delight the viewing audience. Hamm’s slow transformation into Larry is uncanny, and the barely restrained zeal he feels while becoming everyone’s favorite curmudgeon only makes mirroring his annoyed ardor all the more enticing. If Episode 8 featured just the Jon Hamm storyline, it would still be an iconic “Curb” entry, but “Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry” also ties together so many other hilarious plots with the grace and timing of David in his prime. Don’t miss it. —BT

“Devs” — “Episode 5”

DEVS

“Devs”

Miya Mizuno / FX

Flashback episodes are a dime a dozen in television, but the fifth episode of Alex Garland’s acclaimed “Devs” made apt use of its titular predictive computer to create one of the best episodes of the type in recent memory. The Devs computer serves as a stellar narrative device to expand on each character’s backstory while playing into the show’s idea of a multiverse. The opening scene of various versions of Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) makes for a clever visual scene, while Devs’ projections of Forest (Nick Offerman) watching his family die is utterly heart-wrenching. All of its mind-bending visuals and philosophical debates aside, Episode 5 also thrived off of its stellar and grounded performances. Kenton’s (Zach Grenier) brutal torture of Jaime (Jin Ha) early in the episode, especially the former’s sinister monologue about crushing “dissidents,” made for a scene that was equal parts grueling and magnetic. Offerman’s tragic performance in the aforementioned car crash scene was a particular standout — Forest might not have died that day, but his desperation and utter horror shed a new light on the character and further separated him from the stereotypical emotionless tech CEOs from most other sci-fi shows. —TH

“How To with John Wilson” — “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” 

How to with John Wilson Camera HBO

“How To with John Wilson”

HBO

Even if the season finale of this delightfully genre-melding comedy series only stuck to the topic in the episode title, it would be an oddly appropriate encapsulation of this year. A simple desire to repay his landlord leads Wilson across his neighborhood to pick up all the necessary ingredients, only to endure a series of frustrating attempts to actually make the notoriously attention-draining dish. But, like the other great chapters in this show, it’s never just about that. As Wilson also details his attempts to kick a smoking habit (and stumbles into a perfect metaphor for personal vs. collective responsibility along the way), the realities of 2020 start to encroach on a season that had, to that point, felt like a transmission from a different era. Seeing everyone slowly grapple with what it means to take care of themselves and each other in the early days of a rapidly changing world makes this not just an expertly told story, but an accidental visual time capsule for a week few will soon forget.  —SG

“I May Destroy You” — “Ego Death”

Programme Name: I May Destroy You - TX: 08/06/2020 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Arabella (MICHAELA COEL) - (C) Val Productions - Photographer: Natalie Seery

“I May Destroy You”

BBC/Val Productions/Natalie Seery

After a full season in which creator and star Michaela Coel celebrated complications at every opportunity, “I May Destroy You” ended its run on HBO with a finale that saw Coel as lead Arabella returning to the “scene of the crime,”  imagining what would happen if she finally confronted her rapist. She envisioned multiple sequences of events: she savagely and maybe satisfyingly beats him up after drugging him with the same drugs he used on her; he is arrested after they have a chat that kind of humanizes him; and they have consensual sex. But maybe that’s part of the genius of Coel’s exceptional HBO series, which asks more questions than it provides answers about dating and consent. Ultimately, what the episode does is allow Arabella the opportunity to find ways to heal on her own terms, and live with the agony that has prevented her from moving on with her life. It’s a tragedy that she will carry on with her forever, because it was a life-changing trauma. However, she was not “destroyed,” as the title states, and that is an appealing transcript to close the series on. —TO

“Mrs. America” — “Houston” 

MRS. AMERICA -- "Houston" --Episode 8 (Airs May 20) Pictured: Sarah Paulson as “Alice”. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

“Mrs. America”

Sabrina Lantos / FX

“Mrs. America” had its share of standout episodes, but “Houston” takes the cake by not just showing how someone can be influenced by a movement, but how awesome Sarah Paulson is (as if that was in question). Focusing on Paulson’s fictional conservative housewife Alice, we see the straight-laced woman immerse herself fully in the different ways the 1970s women’s movement manifests itself, whether that’s emphasizing nuns as just as sacred as priests or being in awe of Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne). More importantly, it opens up Alice’s mind to different ideas and allows her to follow her own identity, and of course that means getting high. Find me a better one-liner than Paulson’s Alice saying, “I know you! ‘State the case!’” to Ari Graynor’s Brenda. —KL

“Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” — “Quarantine”

Rob McElhenney

“Mythic Quest: Quarantine”

Apple TV+

If there’s a specific genius to “Mythic Quest’s” quarantine episode, it was in the audacity to attempt a long-form narrative during a pandemic in the first place. “Quarantine” arrived on May 22, just a few months after shelter-in-place living had become the norm (at least in California). And hey, sometimes being first is enough. Outside of a few underwhelming episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and every late night host figuring out which corner of their home was best to shoot in, no long-form narrative had yet attempted to film while under the stay-at-home order. Being first allowed the writers of “Quarantine” — Megan Ganz, David Hronsby, and Rob McElhenney — to simultaneously make and immediately discard all the Zoom jokes that shows are still making today as productions try to incorporate COVID-19 into their storylines. Additionally, “Mythic Quest” was the first show to appropriately deal with the isolation those without built-in support systems were now victims of, a narrative trope that actually tied into the show’s MMORPG setting. Much has been made about the technical heft that Apple threw behind the special, primarily sending out 40 iPhones and 20 sets of AirPods to cast and crew, but the true hero of this episode was its insistence that connection, whether digital or physical, was more important than ever. Additionally, any show that ends with F. Murray Abraham exclaiming, “Fuck you, coronavirus” deserves a spot on this list.—LG

“The New Pope” — “Episode 7”

Set of "The New Pope" by Paolo Sorrentino. 01/02/2019 sc.618 - ep 6 in the picture Jude Law. Photo by Gianni Fiorito This photograph is for editorial use only, the copyright is of the film company and the photographer assigned by the film production company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the film. The mention of the author-photographer is mandatory: Gianni Fiorito. Set della serie Tv "The New Pope" di Paolo Sorrentino. Nella foto Jude Law. Foto di Gianni Fiorito Questa fotografia è solo per uso editoriale, il diritto d'autore è della società cinematografica e del fotografo assegnato dalla società di produzione del film e può essere riprodotto solo da pubblicazioni in concomitanza con la promozione del film. E’ obbligatoria la menzione dell’autore- fotografo: Gianni Fiorito.

“The New Pope”

Gianni Fiorito / HBO

“The New Pope.” “The Young Pope.” “The Hot Pope.” The Godly Pope? Paolo Sorrentino’s ornate examination of the Catholic faith’s innate duality has proven in two brilliant seasons that nothing is off the table. The (fictionalized) Vatican clergy is corrupt. The priests and cardinals are all power-hungry. There are scandals looming in every corner of the Church, and its benevolent, infallible leader might demand a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast before threatening to excommunicate all homosexuals after lunch. Teasing sacrilege, if not flat-out flaunting it, is just part of the game, but “The New Pope” takes its followers to new heights in Episode 7. After laying dormant in a coma for months, Pope Lenny (Jude Law) rises — not quite from the dead, but certainly against the odds laid out by his doctors. Despite claiming he’s not the Second Coming, Lenny is immediately forced to put his holy powers to the test, as “The New Pope” asks: Is Lenny Belardo actually Jesus Christ? But the best part of “Episode 7” isn’t how insane that question may sound; it’s how sincerely you’re forced to take it. You watch Lenny struggle with his own grounded, conservative belief system as a suffering child turns to him for help from above, and you feel as torn as Lenny does: Realistically, there’s no way he’s Jesus; there’s no way he can help this dying kid. But faith has a funny way of rubbing off, and Lenny, bolstered by his believers as well as his own inexplicable rise from the near-dead, gives it a go. So… is he Jesus? Watch for yourself and find out. —BT

“PEN15” — “Three” 

PEN15 -- "Play" - Episode 206 -- The school play has been cast. Maya has the opportunity to get her actual first kiss. Anna struggles to find herself. Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine), shown. (Photo by: Lara Solanki/Hulu)

“Pen15”

Lara Solanki / Hulu

“Pen15” has always been a show teenage girls can relate to, but with the Season 2 episode “Three,” that relatability took a turn and became one of the darker episodes in the lighthearted teen series. Anna and Maya’s new friend Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) instantly seems cool; her best friend is allegedly a teenage doctor in Arizona and Maura has no compunction with calling her mother the C-word. The problem is that Maura’s penchant for dominance ends up trickling down to Maya and Anna who, during a mother/daughter bonding trip to the mall, berate their mothers in public. It’s one thing to remember the time you called your parents a bad name, but it’s another to see the look of sadness in Anna’s mother’s eyes as she realizes her daughter doesn’t respect her. The quest for the pair to come together anchors the rest of the season, with Anna coming to the realization that her mother is stronger than Anna ever thought possible.  —KL

“The Queen’s Gambit” — “Middle Game” 

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) MARCIN DOROCINSKI as VASILY BORGOV and ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON in episode 104 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

“The Queen’s Gambit”

Phil Bray / Netflix

Some may point to the Netflix limited series’ bookends as its strength, showing the origins of prodigy Beth Harmon’s talents or her eventual attempt to shock the chess world. But it’s in this episode, marking the show’s literal midpoint, that assembles all the show’s best elements. Beth and Alma travel to Mexico City for a tournament, where they find far more than a series of matches held in a hotel lobby (although that late-’50s design aesthetic is gorgeous and could sustain an entire hour on its own). Away from the competition, Alma comes alive in the company of a new love and experiences the dreams she’s been suppressing for most of her life. Paired with a greater understanding of how Beth’s unwillingness to accept anything but victory is both a boost and a hindrance, this is an episode that brings the show’s two most compelling characters into sharp focus. Their closing moments together, finally comfortable in the mother-daughter relationship neither of them could quite crack before then, is a beautiful example of two performers in sync with a sharply crafted script and each other. It may end in sadness, but there’s a richness in the tiny glimpses of happiness that come before. —SG

“Ramy” — “They”

Ramy -- "they" - Episode 206 -- pray two rakat for Ruther Bader Ginsburg. Maysa (Hiam Abbass), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

“Ramy”

Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu

Has there ever been a more loving rendition of an imperfect mother than Maysa Hassan? If Ramy Youssef’s mother is disappointed he isn’t a doctor, hopefully she can rejoice that her son loves her so much he created a fictional version of her that is one of the most honest and respectful portrayals of any mother on TV. (And you thought gay men were obsessed with their mothers.) In “They,” Maysa, played by the hilarious Hiam Abbass, is on track to ace her citizenship test, even invoking the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her interview. However, when she receives a negative Lyft rating and is suspended from working, she must retrace her steps to figure out which of her Millennial passengers was put off by her familiarity. The bad reviewer becomes apparent when Maysa tells her daughter Dena (May Calamawy) about a “man dressed like a woman,” misgendering them and muddling their pronouns in the process. Maysa embarks on an apology mission, which ends in a sweet if not a bit awkward reconciliation. Abbass imbues Maysa with such an earnest curiosity about trans identities and they/them pronouns, which is understandably confusing for a non-native English speaker, creating a messy and realistic example of a cis person trying their best and still failing horribly. Executive producer Cherien Dabis directs her second episode of the season with her characteristic humanity and humor, centering Maysa’s perspective while never letting her off the hook. Youssef and his co-writer Ryan Welch handle the subject with nuance and self-reflection, proving it’s very possible to write other perspectives when you center your characters’ dignity. —JD

“The Third Day” — “Autumn” (Live Episode)

Jude Law

“The Third Day”

HBO/Screenshot

Can an episode that’s twice as long as the limited series it’s part of also be the show’s best episode? In the case of “The Third Day,” absolutely. HBO’s latest collaboration with Sky Studios started as a mixed media experience, where fans of the show could win a trip to a live festival experience populated by actors. Working with Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk, the immersive theater company behind Sleep No More, creator Dennis Kelly built his limited series with two halves: Three episodes are set in “Summer,” following Jude Law as he gets lost on a strange little island called Osea, and the last three episodes make up “Winter,” which stars Naomi Harris as a mother of two on a holiday gone wrong. But in between is “Autumn,” a 12-hour live episode that bridges the gap between “Summer” and “Winter,” and an absolutely wild adventure for the courageous Law. Via Facebook, audiences get to watch the Oscar-nominated performer drag a boat across dry land, don a crown of thorns, be stripped nearly naked, lead a fiery victory parade, and jump off a podium in the middle of the ocean — all live, all without a stunt double or even much of a break. The traditional, six-hour, pre-recorded series stands up on its own, but fans would be foolish to miss the third part of “The Third Day” — there was nothing else like it on TV, or off, this year. —BT

“What We Do in the Shadows” — “Colin’s Promotion”

"What We Do in the Shadows"

“What We Do in the Shadows”

FX

As we’ve previously mentioned, there is a bit of a kerfuffle among the IW TV Team as to which episode of “What We Do in the Shadows” is the best this season; basically, I’m the boss, so I picked this one. Yes, this is ironic, because “Colin’s Promotion” is the perfect encapsulation of the absurdity of the show and the absurdity of modern work life. Energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) — despite being useless and technically not actually employed by his company — receives a promotion at his job. His newfound middle management power leads to … newfound powers … and upsets the balance of his home life with his Staten Island housemates Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). It’s the most ridiculous interpretation of a strange bedfellows sitcom trope, and it is funny in both the preposterous context of the show and as a lunatic standalone episode. You know, it’s like the old adage: Co-workers die. Vampire roommates, they’re forever. —AD

Ann Donahue, Jude Dry, Leonardo Adrian Garcia, Tyler Hersko, Kristen Lopez, and Tambay Obenson also contributed to this piece.

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