By Jake Pitre
2013 provided us with so many good TV shows, both new and old, that this list could potentially contain dozens of phenomenal episodes. In fact, there was so much excellent television in the last twelve months that it felt far too intimidating to list and rank the best shows, so I decided to focus on specific episodes instead. Much more manageable. And yet, I still struggled immensely in sorting through all the amazing stuff I watched this year and then picking out the best of it. The episodes gathered here are my absolute favourites, the ones that blew me away.
I watched a lot of TV this year, easily the most that I ever have, but there is still plenty I have not yet had the chance to catch up on (although I’m working on it). This includes Orphan Black, Broadchurch, Rectify, Scandal, Trophy Wife, Hello Ladies, The Bridge, Bunheads, Top of the Lake, and the most recent seasons of Bob’s Burgers, Elementary, Boardwalk Empire, Treme and Person of Interest. I’ll do all that, I promise. I think that this is indicative of just how much great stuff is out there (and how I shouldn’t have wasted my time with The Newsroom and Under the Dome).
As we watched the fall of the anti-hero in 2013, we marvelled as diversity and originality burst forth on our televisions in so many ways. Orange is the New Black, my favourite new show of the year and a Netflix exclusive (as if we needed yet another source of essential original content), came out of nowhere in the summer with its unparalleled ensemble cast and total female domination with its rich and complex characters. Hannibal turned the serial-killer glorifying procedural genre on its head with its cinematographically gorgeous attitude toward the grotesque and thematic depth. The Americans turned a spy show into the most meaningful exploration of marriage on television. Everywhere you looked, and no matter how you watched, there was brilliant writing, distinctive directing, perfect performances, beautiful imagery and purely original storytelling. Here are my favourites.
20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Vulture”
From Michael Schur and Dan Goor, the masterminds behind Parks and Recreation, this cop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher hasn’t been around very long but has already established its ensemble cast splendidly. This episode, where they all work together in order to solve their case before the titular vulture, Detective Pembroke, who sweeps in on practically-solved cases and takes the credit. The ensemble, which also includes the hilarious Chelsea Peretti and Terry Crews, is one of the best currently assembled on television, and this episode is the best-so-far example of that. “You can join my dance troupe, Floorgasm.”
19. Futurama – “Meanwhile”
This beloved animated sci-fi from Matt Groening and David X. Cohen never really captured the same magic in its rebooted material as in the original four seasons. These last few seasons have mostly run from mediocre to good, with the occasional great episode. But the series finale (evidently for good, this time) was a perfect farewell. Combining a clever sci-fi concept (a time-travel device that only goes back 10 seconds) with powerful emotion (Fry and Leela’s relationship) is classic Futurama, and it works wonders here to provide a truly satisfying ending.
18. Sleepy Hollow – “Necromancer”
This show needs and deserves a bigger audience. When at first it seemed pointless to reboot the story of Ichabod Crane and place him in modern times, it has proven to be one of the most delightful shows in TV – and even, occasionally, legitimately frightening. This episode, without spoiling too much, has the Headless Horseman finally captured by Crane and Abbie as they figure out what to do with him, and the results are both hilarious and chilling. Tom Mison (right) and Nicole Beharie have outstanding chemistry, and the often ridiculous situations are propelled by them – and their fist-bumps. “Dead guy, mental patient, and a time traveler from the Revolution.” “That’s our team.”
17. Masters of Sex – “Catherine”
One of my favourite new shows of the year, Masters of Sex isn’t really about sex – although, there is a fair amount of it on-screen and it is what Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are researching. But the show is really about intimacy and our struggle for it and our complicated issues with it. The performances of Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan anchor this show, and this episode contains perhaps my favourite moment between them all season. It comes after an otherwise excellent episode, with shocking moments like Libby, Bill’s wife, standing up and Bill pointing out her blood-soaked dress, and the first appearance of Allison Janney as the wife of the provost (she better get some Emmy attention for this role next year). But at the end, when Bill finally breaks with only Virginia in the room, he asks her to close her eyes. He can’t bear to have her see him like this. It is a powerful and strangely elegiac moment, and one of the most lasting of the year.
16. New Girl – “Cooler”
They might as well have called this episode “The Kiss”. This was the episode where the show’s writers decided to quit the will-they-won’t-they game and answer with a strong, “They will”. And Jesus Christ, what a kiss. It was so unexpected (up until that point it had looked like they were going to walk right up to that line but refrain from crossing it) and so perfect, you know? There are so many ways this development could go wrong and throw the show off the rails (we’ve already seen some problems in the new season), but we trust in the writers and actors to carry this. “The Kiss” was fantastic, and we even got another rendition of True American, which there better be one of at least once a season.
15. Archer – “Live and Let Dine”
When this show is on the ball, it kills. And it works best when the entire ensemble is together, particularly in an enclosed space. The ISIS crew are called in to work security at a restaurant called 16 (pronounced ‘seize‘) to watch over talks between the States and Albania, and it’s all captured as part of a reality show, Bastard Chef. The chef in question is Lance Casteau, beautifully voiced by Anthony Bourdain, who is perhaps the best utterer of the term ‘cockwits’. Even deep into its fourth season, Archer manages to find fresh ways to take off on the spy genre and do so hilariously. “Not you, Chet. You look like a dinosaur’s tampon.”
14. Girls – “On All Fours”
The second season of Girls was a little messy at times, but it would be hard to argue with this standout episode. Yes, this is the Q-tip episode as it has become known, and it shows these occasionally despicable characters doing pretty ugly things. Hannah is falling apart, all alone. Marnie is covering Kanye West’s “Stronger” for Charlie, and it is something you cannot look away from. And then she stumbles back into hooking up with Charlie, as she wants to be saved and he wants to save her, sort of (even though it’s doomed to fail again, almost immediately). Then there is Adam’s dark and deeply disturbing sexual experience with Natalia. This scene polarized some fans, and it is understandable from how horrific the scene is. But this episode is about how these characters can’t escape their pasts and how their pasts keep dragging them down, and Adam is the culmination of this. Girls in uncompromising, at least give Lena Dunham that.
13. The Americans – “Duty and Honor”
I could have picked several episodes from the stellar first season of The Americans, which tells the story of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American couple in Washington D.C. during the Cold War. More than that, it is a show about their marriage, which started fifteen years earlier as just a cover (the first time they met, they were told they were to be married for the mission) but has turned into something real. This episode splits them up as Philip (Matthew Rhys) goes to New York City for a mission. While there, he sleeps with another woman, and his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell, who was robbed of an Emmy nomination this year), decides she wants to work on their struggling marriage. The ending, wherein she tells him this, asks if anything happened between him and that other woman and he lies, is the bedrock of their relationship, which is plagued by lies and passion in equal measure and in alternating roles.
12. Parks and Recreation – “Leslie and Ben”
This episode was written (by Michael Schur and Alan Yang) as a potential series finale when the show’s future was uncertain, and it would have been a beautiful send-off. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, but it still stands as one of the show’s best episodes, which is saying something. The relationship between Leslie and Ben, who are absolutely perfect for each other, was slowly developed in order to strongly hit every emotional beat and significant milestone. It was all leading up to their wedding, which is thrown together at the parks department after some setbacks and yet is still completely suitable for these two and totally rewarding. Amy Poehler and Adam Scott sell the hell out of this episode, and it all hits exactly right with, “I love you, and I like you.” I got teary-eyed at that. Fuck.
11. Justified – “Decoy”
If there has ever been an episode to convince someone that Justified is worth checking out, this would be it. In its first couple seasons, the show was too obsessed with telling interesting, stand-alone stories rather than serializing. This changed more and more every season, and this – the fourth – was easily the most serialized and far better for it. Raylan Givens, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant who is peerless in delivering one-liners, is trying to get Drew Thompson out of Harlan County before the Tonin crew can get him. This results in an exciting episode, but one that still has plenty of time for what this show does best – clever dialogue. This mostly comes from Drew waxing nostalgic about Raylan’s father, trying to get into his head, but Raylan is having none of it, of course. “Playing the part of a lawman doesn’t mean you know shit about shit.” Amen.
10. Enlightened – “Agent of Change”
I may have enjoyed the Tyler episode, “The Ghost Is Seen”, more than this, the series finale, in terms of my emotional response, but “Agent of Change” is far more exemplary of the show as a whole and is a testament to its form of storytelling and how cruel it was that the show was canceled by HBO. It is a relatively happy episode for a show that usually was not, ending on an uplifting note to Amy Jellicoe’s journey (a word she would no doubt choose). In her search for self-actualization, Amy hurt people, but also helped them. Tyler grew out of his shell, and his future with Eileen is assured and utterly heartwarming. Jeff’s article is finally published, and Amy stands up to Charles Szidon. It is resoundingly cathartic when Amy says, “I’m just a woman who’s over it. I’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you. I tried to take a little power back,” and all Charles can do is sputter in rage and call her a “cunt”. Amy wins, and although her story is now over, what a way to go out.
9. Hannibal – “Fromage”
There are several episodes I could have chosen to highlight here (“Amuse-Bouche”, “Savoureux”, “Coquilles”), but I think “Fromage” was the best exploration of Will Graham’s deteriorating psyche and the show’s penchant for beautiful deaths. This is a show obsessed with death, all angles and aspects of it, and it chooses to depict it in exclusively creative and often gorgeous ways (the angels in “Coquilles”, the totem pole in “Trou Normand”). In this episode, a musician was killed, his throat opened, and a cello neck was inserted through his mouth. This is about one killer sending a message to another, and the episode ends up being more action-packed than Hannibal usually is. But what is truly significant is Graham’s rapidly worsening mental state, as he is having more hallucinations. Graham has been hesitant about doing this police work since the beginning, uncomfortable with what he is seeing, and all the while he is being manipulated by Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen, another actor robbed of an Emmy nomination). Hannibal blindly (or not) confesses to his therapist that he thinks he has found a true friend in Graham, and it all puts Graham in a box that he can’t escape from.
8. The Returned – “Camille”
This beautiful French show, which aired on the Sundance channel this year, is kind of a zombie show, but it’s really not. In this, the pilot episode, characters who died years earlier are returning from the dead, ostensibly healthy and normal, although ignorant of what happened to them. The pilot is all mood-setting and mystery-establishing, and it accomplishes this in spades. There is a distinct influence that can be felt from Twin Peaks, so I’m already inclined to like it, but it has plenty of its own style. It is haunting and contains several frightening images, but it mostly works through the emotion and conviction (or lack thereof) of its characters. The camera lingers at the end of the episode over Camille’s family (pictured above), shaken by her return, confused, happy, afraid. Her twin sister is terrified at first at the sight of her sister, four years younger while she herself has aged. The Returned is concerned with what these characters do in the face of the unexplainable, and it’s thrilling to watch.
7. Mad Men – “The Crash”
The sixth season of Mad Men was, in my mind, the one-hour drama equivalent of the messy second season of Girls. High prestige shows under similar amounts of pressure (one in living up to its terrific if divisive first season, the other in reaching towards its ending), sometimes succeeding and sometimes not so much. “The Crash” was the best episode of this season. It is a drug episode, as everyone in the office takes an unspecified drug and we watch the outcomes. It deals in surreality, as most of what happens is probably real but it’s difficult to be sure. This episode would probably have earned a place on this list just for the immortal gif of Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing on a bad foot, but there’s more going on. It’s an episode, like many episodes of Mad Men, about loss, and about Don’s self-destructive tendencies. He destroyed what he had with Sylvia, indirectly but inevitably, and he doesn’t know how to deal with that. He becomes careless and seems to be aimless and afraid. Tell me about it, Don.
6. American Horror Story – “Madness Ends”
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of American Horror Story‘s third season, Coven, which I have been enjoying immensely but feels like a less-focused step down after Asylum. That season was kind of a beautiful mess, too, but it led to “Madness Ends”, a surprisingly poignant and affecting finale that expertly wrapped the story up. This is a show where you are constantly baffled as to what you’re watching. It is daring, but also pretty stupid sometimes. Some of it can feel ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. But there are moments of real brilliance, and this finale is full of them. The entire sequence of Sister Jude’s last days living with Kit and his family is among the best of the year, as she struggles with being her old self and helping to raise Kit’s children as a kind of surrogate grandmother. And when she dies, this woman we have watched do horrible things, it is so sad. This is partly due to Jessica Lange’s nonpareil performance, but it is also thanks to the writers having sketched this arc and drawing it to this emotional conclusion. American Horror Story is capable of such beauty and poignancy, but also of hilarious one-liners and embarrassingly stupid moments. There’s nothing else like it.
5. Game of Thrones – “The Rains of Castamere”
As with every other fan, “The Rains of Castamere” was tough for me. I know that Game of Thrones, or rather George R.R. Martin, are not afraid to break your helpless little heart. I also knew going into the episode that something called the Red Wedding existed and that it was going to be “crazy”. It was. Outside of the Breaking Bad finale, I can’t think of a more talked-about episode of television this year. Deservedly so, as we watch the writers ruthlessly kill off multiple beloved characters all at once with such confidence unseen in any other TV show. It happens so quickly, and it is so horrible. After, it cuts immediately to the silent credits. Sit with that, the show seems to say. The world isn’t fair, whether your world is Westeros or Earth, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The whole situation was set up brilliantly, as we slowly come to realize that something is not right here. The sequence was done so perfectly, and I kind of hate it for that because it makes me want to bawl just thinking about it.
4. 30 Rock – “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”
I’m cheating a little since this is technically two episodes, but together they made up the series finale for one of my all-time favourite shows, and it was a completely satisfying goodbye to Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Tracy Jordan and everyone else. While working in a little feminist commentary about women-in-the-workplace, Tina Fey gave Liz the best possible ending, as she is happy with Criss and their two children (mini-Jenna and mini-Tracy) after putting on the final episode of The Girlie Show (and a future in television). Right to the end, 30 Rock was the best at rapid-fire jokes (Kenneth is immortal, “Goodbye Pete Pete, I will forget you.”). But it handled its emotional moments very well, like Liz and Tracy saying goodbye in the strip club they met at in the pilot (“But because the human heart is not properly connected to the human brain, I love you and I’m gonna miss you.”) and Liz and Jack’s flawless final talk (“There is a word, a once special word that’s been tragically co-opted by the romance industrial complex and I would hate to use it here and have you think that I’m suggesting any kind of romantic sentiment let alone an invitation to scale bone mountain…”). I couldn’t have imagined a better ending, and then Jenna sang the wonderful and bizarre “Rural Juror” song.
3. Breaking Bad – “Ozymandias”
It’s not that I prefer to consider “Ozymandias” the series finale of Breaking Bad (as some do), it’s that in years to come when I think about 2013 as the year that the show ended, I will think of this episode. I think most people will. This was, along with the ending of “The Rains of Castamere”, the most punishing hour of television I saw this year. It was relentless and heartbreaking, and yet still felt somehow inevitable. Hank dies, and it hurts. But the most shocking moment of the episode for me was Walt spitting in Jesse’s face, “I watched Jane die.” This vicious and devastating line, delivered with a crazy amount of venom by Bryan Cranston (who is in a league of his own), didn’t emit a gasp but a yelp of disbelief. In an episode full of horrifying moments, that is the one that has stuck with me the most.
Directed by the great Rian Johnson (who also directed “Fly”), everything disintegrates in spectacular fashion. Walt tries, deludedly, to save Hank, but it fails (we at least get some relief from Hank dying with his dignity and identity strongly intact). He tries to tell Jesse that he means nothing to him by telling him about Jane, but we know better. Jesse becomes a slave. Walt kidnaps Holly in an act of pathetic desperation. This episode is an exhausting run of wholly devastating moments, and even though it destroyed me, I could not look away.
2. Orange is the New Black – “Lesbian Request Denied”
I could have chosen practically any of this series’ excellent first season episodes, and I can’t disagree with many TV critics that put “Tall Men With Feelings” on their own lists. It’s a fantastic episode with a killer montage and thematic resonance. I wanted to choose “Lesbian Request Denied”, though, because this was when I knew this show was something special, and it is my favourite example of the show using Piper Chapman as a gateway to tell the interesting stories of other characters. In this case, it is the story of Sophia, a transgendered woman in the female prison with Piper. Creator Jenji Kohan knows what she’s doing with Piper being at the centre (in this interview, she even refers to her as their “gateway drug”), and she knows that Piper’s story can easily become the subplot while someone like Sophia, with a captivating and complicated story to be told, can become the focus.
Sophia’s forced switch to a lower dose of estrogen is something that affects her deeply and threatens her body, and we see through tragic flashbacks that she traded in one prison (her body) for another. On a lesser show, this would come off as trite and on-the-nose, but here it is beautiful and heartbreaking. Laverne Cox does an amazing job portraying Sophia’s struggle, and the complicated issue of transgendered people is dealt with maturely and movingly. This gives us a much stronger hold on who this character is when in the perspective of the prison, and her fight to find herself is depicted with tremendous care and passion. Again, this is a remarkable episode of the best new show of the year and is only one example of how it tells a compelling story about complex female characters.
1. The Good Wife – “Hitting The Fan”
Few television shows, particularly procedurals on broadcast networks, are willing to go for the slow burn. This is when you spend a lot of time putting pieces into place, developing strong relationships, and laying foundations…in order to, eventually, burn it all to the ground. The writers of The Good Wife, led by series creators Robert & Michelle King, this year pulled off one of the best blow-ups in TV history. It is almost as if the entire show, which is currently in its fifth season, had been leading to this episode. I’m not overstating it, either. When the fourth season brilliantly ended earlier this year with Alicia Florrick inviting Cary to her home to tell him that she’s in (referring to abandoning their firm and starting their own), there was a flurry of excitement from the show’s fans. This is a show accustomed to good season-ending cliffhangers, but this was something else.
It may seem strange to those that do not watch this show that it is my choice as the best episode of the year. What you would need to understand, without going back and watching the whole thing (which you should do), is that this has been a long time coming. The splitting of the firm, yes, but more so the implications of this. Several episodes later, we are still watching as these characters struggle to process and deal with this change, especially as Will tries to understand Alicia’s betrayal. They are former lovers, and I cannot think of a more charged moment this year than Will storming into Alicia’s office and, as pictured above, throwing everything off her desk in an emotional act of anger and hurt feelings.
That moment, and the episode in its entirety, was what we’d been waiting for. The show has been building to this, and it earned the right to destroy everything it had built and start again, as Alicia and Cary are at Florrick Agos. I found myself rooting for them, very excited about the prospect of them starting their own firm, but I was also deeply sympathetic towards Will and Diane, blindsided by this betrayal and disloyalty. Beyond the desk-destruction, two other moments made this episode the best of the year for me. The first was Will, calling Alicia but instead getting her daughter, and he is very polite to her amid the chaos. A small moment, but a significant one putting the mayhem in perspective. The second was Alicia entering the elevator, up until that point remaining strong and steadfast, but then breaking down in tears. This isn’t what she wanted. Perhaps she was naive, but now it’s real and Will has told her, full of rage, that he was the only one that would take her in. And once she is alone, all she can do is cry.
- Eastbound & Down – “Chapter 26”
- The Colbert Report – “Daft Punk”
- Arrested Development – “Off the Hook”
- Veep – “Running”
- The Office – “Finale”
- House of Cards – “Chapter 8”
- South Park – “Informative Murder Porn”
- Getting On – “Born of the Fourth of July”