And welcome to another end of year best episodes list! As always, I prefer to focus on episodes at the end of the year, while leaving the best shows list for June. If you were here for last year's list, you know the drill, but for those that weren't, here are the basic rules:
- In general, no (or very few) premium cable shows were considered, because I don't usually get to see those shows until well after they air.
- No more than two episodes from any one show can make the cut (and in most cases, I make an effort to restrict myself to just one). The reason for this is that, despite how much great TV there is every year, there are always a few shows that tend to tower above the rest. Last year those shows were Breaking Bad and Enlightened. This year it's Broad City, The Americans, and Transparent, which could easily have combined to take 17 or 18 of the 20 spots by themselves. But where's the fun in that? So this isn't really a true top 20, but rather a top 20 that aims to capture what I feel are the finest episodes of many of 2014's greatest shows.
- Ordinarily I'd write some stuff about every single episode in the top twenty and post this as a two-part list, but I'm writing my undergraduate thesis next spring, so right now I'm working on getting a head start on that. Therefore, I've only done write-ups for the top ten this time around. Sorry about that. Life of a student and all that.
- It saddens me to not be able to include Black Mirror on this list. I debated breaking the rules and allowing it to be included, since I didn't get the opportunity to watch it until recently. But seeing as it officially aired in the U.S. during the last few months of 2013, I decided against it. But had I allowed it, "Be Right Back" and "Fifteen Million Merits" would probably both have cracked the top five. Heck, they might have been my top two.
As always, we begin with the honorable mentions, otherwise known as "just about every other episode I loved this year". I'm sure I missed a few, so ask away in the comments if your favorite is missing. (Just don't ask about True Detective, because I promise you won't like my response to that.)
The 100, "Reapercussions", "Many Happy Returns"
The Americans, "Comrades", "The Walk-in", "A Little Night Music", "The Deal", "Behind the Red Door", "New Car", "Stealth"
Archer, "House Call"
Arrow, "The Promise", "Deathstroke", "Unthinkable"
Bob's Burgers, "The Equestranauts", "Dawn of the Peck"
Broad City, "Working Girls", "The Lockout", "Stolen Phone", "Apartment Hunters", "The Last Supper"
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "Unsolvable", "Charges and Specs", "The Mole", "The Road Trip"
Community, "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing"
Enlisted, "Pete's Airstream", "Vets", "Alive Day"
Faking It, "Burnt Toast", "Zen and the Art of Pageantry"
The Fosters, "Padre"
The Good Wife, "Parallel Construction, Bitches", "A Few Words", "The Last Call", "A Weird Year", "The Line", "The Trial"
Hannibal, "Sakizuke", "Mukozuke", "Ko No Mono"
Jane the Virgin, "Chapter Two", "Chapter Four", "Chapter Seven"
The Legend of Korra, "In Harm's Way", "Long Live the Queen", "Venom of the Red Lotus", "Beyond the Wilds"
Louie, "So Did the Fat Lady", "Elevator: Part Four"
Mad Men, "A Day's Work", "The Strategy"
New Girl, "The Last Wedding"
Orange is the New Black, "You Also Have a Pizza", "It Was the Change", "We Have Manners. We're Polite."
Parks and Recreation, "Moving Up"
Rectify, "Running with the Bull" "Charlie Darwin", "Weird as You", "Unhinged"
Rev., "Series Three, Episode Two", "Series Three, Episode Six"
Review, "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes"
Rick and Morty, "Rixty Minutes"
Transparent, "The Symbolic Exemplar", "Best New Girl", "Looking Up" "Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?"
You're the Worst, "Constant Horror and Bone-Deep Dissatisfaction", "Fists and Feet and Stuff"
20. Jane the Virgin, "Chapter Eight"
19. New Girl, "Background Check"
18. The Legend of Korra, "Korra Alone"
17. Review, "Revenge, Getting Rich, Aching"
16. Fargo, "Buridan's Ass"
15. The Americans, "Echo"
14. Archer, "Southbound and Down"
13. The Good Wife, "Sticky Content"
12. Rick and Morty, "Meeseeks and Destroy"
11. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "The Party"
Major spoilers for all the remaining episodes on the list
10. Parks and Recreation, "Ann and Chris"
It was an at times shaky (though still good overall) sixth season for Parks and Recreation, but "Ann and Chris" continues the show's trend of absolutely nailing the big emotional moments. As two of its longtime characters prepare to embark on a new life away from Pawnee, the show pays beautiful tribute to at least a half dozen well developed relationships. As usual with this series, many of this moments are both hilarious and sweet, such as April finally dropping her antagonism Ann for a moment of actual affection. The final scene, however, has the honor of being the only TV scene from 2014 to actually make me cry. I was moved by many others, of course, but everything about that final goodbye just got to me. The final crane shot was my favorite image of the 2013-14 season, but I think it was Chris and Ben's goodbye that started the tears: "You are literally the best friend that I will ever have." And then Ann taking a deep breath in the passenger seat of that car as the music starts playing . . . yeah, I'm about to start sobbing again just thinking about it. This show, people. This show has been just a gift.
9. The Good Wife, "Oppo Research"
Following a 2013-14 run that saw it rise to new heights of both ambition and execution, The Good Wife's fall run arguably aimed still higher: juggling an ongoing trial of one of the show's central characters, Alicia's run for state's attorney, and a few excellent self-contained legal cases to boot. The balancing act worked largely perfectly (outside of a not wholly satisfying two-parter redeemed mostly by the always great Elsbeth Tascioni), but "Oppo Research" drops the virtuoso juggling to zero in on the political side of the equation, with Alicia learning about all the skeletons in her closet that could be used against her. That might not seem like the most thrilling concept to base an hour of TV around, but Juliana Margulies turns in some of the best work she's ever done on this show, and the episode's overall construction is just impeccable: dramatic and taut, but also punctuated by moments of hilarity (Grace and her school friends singing "I Will Trust in the Lord" in the other room as Alicia deals with all this stuff proves to be the gift that keeps on giving), Sharp, crisp, and full of moments that are a testament to how much Alicia Florrick has changed over six years, this is as good as non-"Hitting the Fan" episodes of The Good Wife get.
8. Broad City, "Pu$$y Weed"
Rare is the new comedy that attains this level of creative brilliance two episodes in. After one of the strongest and most assured (outside of that one scene with Fred Armisen in a diaper) comedy pilots in recent memory, "Pu$$y Weed" finds Broad City quickly perfecting several of the elements that would continue to serve it well over the rest of the season. This is the episode where you first really get to witness the heights that the show's physical comedy can reach; Ilana, high on two different substances, attempting to initiate a threesome between her, Abbi (also high), and Lincoln is one of the defining comedy moments of the year for me. The running gag of cutting right in the middle of various characters screaming begins here as well. Even if you remove that one bad scene from the pilot, it's still no contest: this episode is utterly virtuosic in its sustained sense of comic mayhem, setting an almost impossibly high standard for the remainder of the season to live up to. Miraculously, subsequent episodes managed to sustain this level of quality, but even after the dust settled on one of the funniest seasons of TV comedy ever made, this one—packed with memorable scenes, most of which involve various things Abbi does while after consuming a large amount of weed—stood almost unequaled. Two words: packing peanuts.
7. Rectify, "Until You're Blue"
If you'd have told me early on in the show's first season that Teddy would become one of Rectify's greatest characters, I would not have believed you. Yet the greatest episode of the show's tremendous second season is a testament to the work everyone involved—from Clayne Crawford to the Ray McKinnon and the rest of the show's talented group of writers—have done in developing his arc over the course of the series. It's become increasingly clear to me that Daniel's assault on Teddy in season one's "Drip, Drip" is the defining moment of the show thus far: a scene of horrific violence whose impact has lingered over the series ever since. It's present every moment Crawford is on screen, as he attempts to cope with what his brother-in-law has done to him, all while keeping it from everyone he loves due to pride, shame, and a desire to avoid seeing his stepmother's life torn apart once again. And it's also seen in the fragility of Teddy's increasingly strained marriage, which—after a season on the brink of collapse—is finally torn apart in one brutal scene. His verbal abuse of Tawney in this scene is unquestionably horrible, but if for most of season one his jealousy about her interest in Daniel came off as possessive and petty, here it's downright tragic. When Tawney shows up at his door at the episode's conclusion, Daniel Holden tells her he's a bad person. He's right. Or at the very least, he's a man capable of evil acts. And one evil act can have permanent and far-reaching consequences, as this shattering hour shows.
6. Mad Men, "Waterloo"
Okay, let's get the main criticism of this episode out of the way: it did not feature a time jump to 1974 set to the music of ABBA. (I mean, if it had, it would have been #1, no doubt.) What it does feature, however, is history. Lots and lots of history. Indeed, at times "Waterloo" seems almost to be directly in dialogue with many of the show's most beloved hours. The caper plot moments recall season three's "Shut the Door, Have a Seat", of course, but beyond that, season one's "The Wheel" obviously shines through in Peggy's Burger Chef pitch. That speech crystallizes what (for me) much of the first half of season seven has been all about: breakthroughs and possible breakthroughs. Peggy's is concrete, as she enjoys one of the biggest professional triumphs of her career. Don ends the season in a place of optimism too, but his is a bit more reserved; he's still working towards a deeper connection to the people around him than he's ever really had before. When Bert shows up for that marvelous musical number, it's at once a typically audacious Mad Men moment, a fitting send-off for one of the show's many beautifully drawn, multifaceted, and deeply flawed creations, and a scene that reminds us of just how much Don Draper has changed as a person over the course of seven seasons: often for worse, but sometimes (this season especially) for better as well. This hour has many other fine things going on as well, but for me its heart and soul can be found in these two characters and where their respective journeys have taken them. "Waterloo" speaks to that heart and soul with a level of profundity that rivals any episode of the series.
5. Hannibal, "Mizumono"
Hannibal's second season is an ambitious creation, and one of the shows of 2014 that still has me wrestling a bit with my overall reaction to it. Around three-quarters of it was among the best dramas on TV this year. But at the same time, the grandly operatic goals of the season's larger road map ended up necessitating a few narrative contortions en route to all that powerful stuff. Ultimately, while the show failed to crack my top ten this past June, I think most would say this was worth the trade-off. Certainly "Mizumono" is. Hannibal has always been a disturbing series, of course, but this finale goes far beyond that. It's just nauseatingly scary in a way the show never really has been before, as it brings every one of the show's major figures face to face with Hannibal Lecter's violence and leaves them all fighting for their life. This is a somewhat unusual choice for the series; for all its haunting impact (and yes, admittedly often gruesome crime scenes), this has never been a show defined by a large number of violent onscreen encounters. But that's what makes "Mizumono" such a staggering achievement. Had this been just about any other crime show on network TV, the level of violence here would have been business as usual. For this singular, quieter, and infinitely richer drama, it's a disruption of the norm that marks the end of 26 episodes of development for Hannibal, Will, and everyone around them, as well as the long-awaited transformation of the very fabric of the series promised in the season's first installment. Other shows this year surpassed it as a whole, but for my money, Hannibal delivered the greatest concluding statement of them all.
4. Transparent, "Moppa"
There have been grumblings from certain corners of the Internet that the unlikability of some of Transparent's characters held the series back just a tad in its first season. I'll be frank; I find that sort of ridiculous. Many great TV shows have been built around characters considerably worse than, say, Ali or Josh. (I mean, for crying out loud, look at Hannibal.) And I stand by my assertion that most of the principal characters of Jill Soloway's wonderful show are basically good people, even as they screw up (sometimes horribly) along the way. Indeed, one of the many things I love about "Moppa"—my favorite episode of the season—is that it takes this idea one step further, by showing how even completely good intentions can go horribly wrong when people don't bother to consider things beyond their own immediate frame of reference. When Sarah and Ali bring Maura into a women's restroom, for instance, it's an action that on one level demonstrates their love and support for her. But they fail to register Maura's discomfort and obvious reluctance to enter, and while it's not their fault that someone harasses her, their obliviousness ends up causing her to be in a situation she didn't want to be in, resulting in tremendous emotional harm. It's a powerful reminder that—however much someone may be trying to be a good ally—there's simply no excuse for not listening. But just about every other scene in the episode (from the opening with Maura and Ali to the concluding Ali/Josh dance) is a reminder that human beings can screw up and still be capable of warmth, empathy, and love for one another at the same time. That beautiful, complex balancing act is something Transparent perfected in its very first episode, but it shone through especially well here.
3 1/2. The Legend of Korra, "Day of the Colossus"/"The Last Stand"
Had to go and amend this list after seeing this pair of episodes. I already wrote some stuff about them, so I won't repeat myself here. But let's just say that while plenty of shows have aired good, satisfying series finales over the years, The Legend of Korra belongs to an elite group that did so much more than that. Not only did the action outclass pretty much anything I've ever seen on TV, but the core themes of the series were also dealt with in beautiful fashion through scenes like Kuvira's surrender and Korra's final words with Tenzin. All that plus the Korra and Asami conclusion? Yeah, endings don't get much better than this.
3. The Americans, "Martial Eagle"
In terms of pure emotional intensity, "Martial Eagle" is not quite Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias". But the mere fact that it's even in the same ballpark is a remarkable thing for a show that's only two seasons into its run. This is an hour that feels downright earth-shattering in the way it brings the simmering feelings of hopelessness, fear, rage, and guilt that have been brewing in Phillip Jennings all season to a boil. After opening with a gripping, suspense-filled infiltration of a military compound that leaves several people dead, we spend most of the rest of the hour watching Matthew Rhys take out his character's anger and sorrow about the lives he's taken on everyone and everything around him, delivering one emotionally charged line after another in a way that suggests he's just shy of losing it completely. In the episode's masterful final scene, the show manages to pull back from sending him completely over the edge, as something in the way Paige's pastor speaks about his beliefs convinces him to walk out without doing any harm to the man. Maybe he's swayed by the man's certainty: possibly it's something he wishes he could have, but cannot. In any case, there are no easy answers to be found in this gripping installment, and we conclude with no real resolution, but rather the storm continuing to rage inside him. It's the only way it could have ended: any semblance of peace would be a cheat for a series built around characters who have to be constantly on edge. This makes for stressful viewing, certainly. But it also makes The Americans the best drama on TV right now, and this its finest hour to date.
2. Rev., "Series Three, Episode Four"
The remarkable fourth episode of Rev.'s (series-best) third season is one of the great depictions of the ways in which people fall short of their ideals. Whether religious or not, just about all of us preach (or at least profess to believe) in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. In practice, of course, paroled prisoners are constantly punched down when they try to pick themselves back up, and people struggle to see past someone's prior transgressions and give them a real second chance. That's obviously horrible, but "Series Three, Episode Four" complicates matters by making George (the seeker of redemption in question) guilty of one of the worst crimes short of murder. Adam Smallbone searches his heart, and is willing to open his church's doors to the man, who may also be able to help with the church's financial situation. It's both a deeply Christian act and something that could save the church. But in the episode's brutal final act, all of that fails to persuade Adam's parishioners when they learn (courtesy of a spiteful Nigel) what George has done, and they expel him without hesitation. That this series of events coincides with the joyful reunion between Alex and Adam makes it that much more devastating; here, the episode is showing us, is an instance of forgiveness enriching the lives of all concerned. That could have happened with George too (though obviously his crime is a far more difficult one to forgive). Instead, they take the route of hatred and disgust. Understandable? Yes. But also unbelievably sad for everyone involved.
1. Broad City, "Destination: Wedding"
This was a tough choice. Unlike last year—when we all knew, pretty much from the moment it aired, that "Ozymandias" would take the top spot—2014's possible picks were much more wide open, with so many shows doing different things astonishingly well. In the end, though, I'm going with "Destination: Wedding" for one simple reason: it made me laugh as hard and as frequently as any episode of TV comedy ever has. The same could be said of just about every episode (save for the pilot and maybe one or two others) of Broad City's brilliant first season, of course, but this one stands just a tad above the rest thanks to its relentless sense of motion. There's nary a moment in Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer's script where someone isn't running, driving, or moving with some form of urgency, which allows it to pack in an incredible number of jokes per minute. Callbacks galore ensue, as do a number of great gags involving several new characters, all of whom are introduced on the fly but developed into first-rate, unique comic creations almost instantly. Indeed, they're responsible for a large volume of the highlights here: from Morgan's lust for her brother to Kevin crashing his bike seconds after revealing it to be stolen and declaring to Ilana that he "can't go back to prison". It's the show's masterpiece so far: the episode that best shows off all of its considerable strengths, from the best comic editing on TV, to the tremendous abilities of its two leads (true triple threats of physical, verbal, and facial comedy, all of which can be seen here), to the endless source of joy that is Lincoln. I say this as someone who's seen all of Fawlty Towers and the golden years of The Simpsons: television doesn't come any funnier than this.