Sunday, December 8, 2013

Best Episodes of 2013 - Part Two

And here's the top ten:

Note: Major spoilers for all the episodes on the list!

10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "Thanksgiving"

Had "Thanksgiving" just been Terry Crews attempting to satisfy his craving for food (and growing more and more insane as the evening wears on and he's still waiting for a substantial meal), it would have been a classic. But there's so much more. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been on fire from its very first episode, but it reached new heights of inspired lunacy here (Boyle Bingo, Andre Braugher actually using Jake's idiotic role-playing idea to help solve the case, Scully bursting into song, etc.), before delivering a surprisingly sweet—if still hilarious—conclusion around an improvised Thanksgiving dinner. As far as I'm concerned, this can stand comfortably as one of the greatest episodes centered around the holiday ever, as well as the best half-hour of TV comedy I saw this year. (Note: not the best overall episode of TV comedy, as you'll see below.)

9. Top of the Lake, "Episode 6"/"Episode 7"

Outside of maybe a certain Breaking Bad episode, I'm not sure anything left me as emotionally gutted as the Top of the Lake finale. I hesitate to call it an episode, honestly, because Campion and Lee's tremendous, visually stunning, and thematically rich miniseries is really just a long movie broken into chunks. We like to say that about HBO shows sometimes, but it's not really true to the extent it is here, where's there's pretty much zero rhyme or reason to the episode breaks. (I watched the whole thing on Netflix over a day and a half, and that's the approach I'd recommend.) That said, the last two chunks originally aired on one night, and they're the most powerful of the entire series. The sixth episode contains that incredible, horrifying visual of Jamie falling to his death: an image that has haunted my thoughts throughout the rest of the year. And the last installment brings the show's powerful examination of patriarchal social structures and the male gaze to a tremendously disturbing conclusion, while at the same time offering one more brilliant feminist subversion of both.

8. Enlightened, "All I Ever Wanted"

Enlightened is such a warm, generous show, viewing all of its main characters with such immense sympathy. Which is precisely what makes "All I Ever Wanted" such a devastating half-hour. We've rooted for Levi to get his life back together, and when he returns and asks for another chance with Amy, it's hard not to want her to give him one. And once upon a time, maybe it would have been that simple. But it's a hard truth that Levi must confront: other people's lives don't stop while you're fixing yours, and Amy's dreams don't seem to involve a future for them as romantic partners anymore. It's a heartbreaking situation, played so perfectly by Laura Dern and Luke Wilson in that wrenching (and beautifully captured by director Todd Haynes) conversation by the baseball diamond. Amy's takedown of Abaddonn may have been the narrative spine holding this perfect season together, but as with season one, Enlightened's heart and soul lies in the moments of quiet truth and profundity it finds in these phenomenally well-drawn, sympathetic characters. Good lord, I'm going to miss this show so much.

7. Spartacus, "Victory"

In a year of tremendous series finales, the best belonged not to Breaking Bad, nor to Enlightened or 30 Rock. No, as I've thought about it over the last month or so, I've come to the conclusion that this title is held by Spartacus, the perpetually underrated Starz series that turned in a final ten-episode stretch almost as gripping as the conclusion to the saga of Water White and company. Like most of the season leading up to it, "Victory" was both thrilling and brutal, with a final battle that surpassed all prior ones (which is really saying something) and saw Spartacus engineer one more brilliant tactical maneuver in an effort to overcome Rome's superior numbers. It didn't work, but wow, was it fun to watch the rebels make their final stand. At least, it was until Steven S. DeKnight's script reminded anyone who's forgotten their history what happened to the rebels—among them the beloved Gannicus—left alive after the battle. And yet their horrible sacrifice proves not in vain, as several of the show's characters are able to make it to freedom, thus fulfilling the promise of the finale's title in a small but meaningful way. Epic, exciting, sickening, and triumphant, it was the perfect ending to an all too brief 39 episode journey.

6. Parks and Recreation, "London"

The greatest four minutes of television comedy this year (heck, probably of this decade so far) belong to Parks and Rec's sixth-season premiere, which saw Diane and Ron take a predictably no-nonsense approach to their nuptials, heading straight to the fourth floor while Leslie—for whom this rapid turn of events represents a "nightmare of happiness"—follows frantically behind. The actual ceremony is gloriously and appropriately concise, with Rob cutting Leslie off at the ten-second mark of her speaking and telling her "I could tell where you were going with that, and it was going to be beautiful." Awesome. Amazing. Perfect. As was pretty much everything that followed, which saw many of our beloved characters visit London. Between Andy hitting it off with a wealthy lord (as usual, Adam Scott's face during these scenes is priceless), Ann and Chris's ultrasound being interrupted by Tom's confrontation with Dr. Saperstein, April sharing her letter with Leslie, and of course Ron reading that darn poem, "London" is as packed with comic and emotional highlights as any episode Parks and Rec has ever done.

5. Enlightened, "The Ghost is Seen"

"Kindness prevails." Those words from "Esme"—one of Joanna Newsom's most extraordinary songs, and the tune that plays over the final scenes of "The Ghost is Seen"—are just a beautiful summation of exactly what made this series so special. If Breaking Bad's final season largely presented a scorched-Earth vision of transformation, then Enlightened represents the opposite end of the spectrum: a testament to individual triumph and to change as a positive. This Tyler-centered half-hour (one of several during the show's run to shift the focus away from Amy and onto one of the supporting characters) finds Mike White's "ghost" of a character tentatively emerging from his largely anonymous, lonely life and forming a bond with Molly Shannon's Eileen, and it's quite simply one of the most affecting things I saw on TV all year. The quiet chemistry between the two characters is remarkable, and White's performance effortlessly sympathetic and relatable. In a season that saw many characters change either their lives or the world around them for the better, Tyler's shift in outlook—in the closing minutes he now mourns all his time spent as a ghost—is to me the most magical.

4. Justified, "Outlaw"

The first half of Justified's fourth season was fine: excellent in fact, and a definite return to form after the enjoyable but muddled mess of season three. But it's the second half that vaulted it into the ranks of the all-time greats, beginning with this instant classic. Just how packed is "Outlaw" with major developments? Well, the prison stabbing of Arlo Givens—arguably the most purely shocking TV moment of the year—happens in the opening scene. The whole episode just flat-out flies by, with a rapidity and fluidity that's staggering even for a series that's been maybe the most purely entertaining drama on television for the past several years. Case in point: Raylan bursts in, assesses a particular situation, and (before you can even stop to savor the tension) shoots Tonin's assassin as the man attempts to draw on him. "I hope I got that right," he says. (He did). Add in Boyd's "outlaw" speech to the folks from Clover Hill—a thrilling and perfectly delivered piece of dialogue that ranks with the very best monologues in the history of this series—and you have the finest episode Justified has delivered to date, and an hour of TV that for much of the year I thought would not be topped.

3. The Good Wife, "Hitting the Fan"

But a few things happened between February and the end of the year. One is that I caught up on The Good Wife, which just finished a fall run that ranks among its strongest stretches to date. I still might rank the investigation of Will in season three as the show's high point, simply because it had a similar sense of narrative momentum while not containing any questionable storylines (*cough* Will's girlfriend and Kalinda vs. Damian Boyle *cough*). On the other hand, it also didn't have "Hitting the Fan". We've known Alicia and Cary's departure was coming since the last scene of season four, of course, but that didn't make it any less riveting to watch their exit occur a bit ahead of schedule (and with considerably more stress than they probably hoped for). And much like "Outlaw", those series-changing events—captured by the show's usual kinetic cinematography, which has arguably never been as thrilling as it was here—were merely the opening act to an episode of dual restraining orders, shattered relationships, and probably the most romantic abuse of political power you'll ever see. (If you're interested, I wrote more about the episode here.)

2. Breaking Bad, "To'hajiilee"

The other thing that happened, of course, is the masterful stretch run of Breaking Bad, which produced arguably the two best back-to-back hours of TV I've ever witnessed. Among other things, "To'hajiilee" was director Michelle MacLaren's last episode, and it proved to be a send-off for the ages: possibly her most virtuoso performance of the entire series. The hour initially proceeds as a thrilling chess match, with Hank and Jesse setting their eyes on Walt's money as the key to bringing him down, while Walt makes a deal with Jack and attempts to flush out Jesse. Then it all explodes, courtesy of a brilliant bit of strategy by Hank. The last twenty minutes are as tense as Breaking Bad has ever been, as Walt races out into the desert while talking to Jesse on the phone, only to discover too late that he's been tricked by his former partner. And against a gorgeously photographed desert landscape—an appropriate setting for both MacLaren's final bow and for the cataclysmic events about to take place—Walter White finally surrenders.

But we don't start breathing normally again, because Walt—before realizing that Hank's involved—has called Jack and given him their location. And while he calls them off after figuring it out, the flash-forwards that opened each half of the season tell us that Walt probably makes it out of this (as having him escape police custody in the next episode isn't really this show's style). So as the blissfully unaware Hank takes his sweet time, pausing for a few fateful minutes to call Marie, we're screaming at him to hurry up and get out of there. But he doesn't. Not in time, and Jack and his crew—Walt's distracted attempts to tell them not to come having gone unheeded—arrive. Commence brilliantly staged, harrowing, Western-style concluding shootout: a scene to rival "One Minute's" parking lot showdown and Gus's poisoning of the cartel in "Salud" as MacLaren's finest and most tense action setpiece of the series. What a way for her to go out.

1. Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias"

All of that, however, pales in comparison to what "Ozymandias" had in store for us. After a relatively tranquil cold open (albeit one with a definite sense of foreboding, with the prominent positioning of the knife in the shots of Skyler talking on the phone), it proceeds to deploy a series of emotionally gutting payoffs that we've been anticipating/dreading for years. Hank's long, slow, and futile crawl towards the gun is just devastating to witness, as is the extended attempt by Walt to save his brother-in-law's life, and finally the inevitable gunshot that ends the life of Hank Schrader. Walt then recovers well enough to point out Jesse to Jack and his crew, turning him over for torture and death. But before they take his former partner away, Walt has one thing to say to him: "I watched Jane die". By this point in the episode a state of numbness had set in for me, but that moment was still a shock. Breaking Bad abhors loose ends, but I expected that to be one of the few they didn't end up addressing again, as there didn't seem to be any logical way for that one to be brought back. I was wrong.

Meanwhile, Hank's phone call to Marie has triggered another series of events: one that eventually leads to Walter Jr. finally learning the truth. I've frequently had trouble viewing the guy sympathetically, and have often had to remind myself that he doesn't know everything we do. For much of this time, he's seen a loving father who's been through hell, only to be kicked to the curb by Skyler for no apparent reason. This doesn't excuse much of his behavior towards his mother, of course, but he is at heart a fundamentally decent person. And here, he proves it: stepping in between Walt and Skyler and phoning the police on his father, after blood is finally spilled—after years and years of foreshadowing—in the White residence when Skyler pulls the knife in self-defense. (I'm sure pretty much everyone watched that fight with the same sense of terror that I did, fully expecting the weapon to accidentally kill someone.) The scene leading up to this moment is even more stunning: an extraordinary acting showcase for all involved, but especially Anna Gunn, whose repetition of "where's Hank?" is accompanied by a haunting mixture of fear and grief.

And it's not even her finest scene in the episode. No, that comes a few minutes later, in a phone call featuring both Gunn and Bryan Cranston at the height of their powers, and that features a huge amount of emotional subtext. Cranston's Walt plays the part of the monster, but his virtuoso performance is fueled by just what a monster he has become on the inside. And Gunn's subtle (so subtle it's easy to miss, as I in fact did the first time through) look of recognition—and the way it adds additional layers of meaning to the conversation—is equally powerful. It's the final emotional blow of this draining masterpiece, which ranks not only as Breaking Bad's finest, but as quite possibly the greatest episode of dramatic television I've ever watched.

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