This isn’t a critical review of what makes an episode flawless, it’s a list of the TV episodes I found myself either revisiting after completion or the ones that I couldn’t look back on that continued to haunt me long after the credits stopped rolling. These are the episodes that left me in complete and utter awe. They’re the episodes filled with the most evocative performances and the most beautifully moving moments that touched my heart in a way I won’t forget easily.
The Good Place
One year later, and I still think about this episode at least a few times a month. It is without a doubt my favorite episode of The Good Place and the one I could potentially write an entire thesis on. “Pandemonium”, and especially the final few moments of the episode were utter chaos. “Embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.” There’s a great amount of happening in this episode like Michael panicking and then freaking out when he sees the soul squad together. There’s beauty in the montage created for Chidi and Eleanor. There’s beauty in Jason promising he won’t let Eleanor down. There’s beauty in Eleanor taking charge even while she’s afraid.There’s beauty in Tahani realizing what she’ll have to do when face to face with the person who’ll bring out the worst in her. There’s beauty in the humanity that’s found its way into Janet’s life. And there’s beauty in Michael’s faith in his Soul Squad.
The episode is simply put, special. It forces us to look within ourselves and confront the whys. It forces us to question existence, life, and even the afterlife. But it’s the perfect, most unique way of saying, smile because it happened. And I feel it’s safe to assume that we all know that’s nearly impossible to do, anything but the words we actually want to hear in a moment of sheer of frustration; however, it is what it is. Life is pure, unbelievably unfair chaos sometimes, and the only way to get through it is to embrace what’s bound to make us better. As mere mortals who are incapable of understanding what the afterlife entails, it’s also easy to just believe that we’d grow just fine without trials in our life, but the reality is, we don’t know that. We don’t know why life has to be the way that it is, but we’re here because of it, and there’s a whole lot of beautiful in between those tragic moments, which The Good Place captures perfectly in “Pandemonium”. While it is without question one of the saddest episodes on The Good Place, it succeeds in also being the most hopeful.
2. “Part Four”
When They See Us
I’ve never angry cried as hard as I have then while watching When They See Us, and while you’d think four episodes in would get easier or at least, the tear ducts would miraculously dry out, it hits harder because Korey Wise’s side of the struggle is fundamentally unbearable to watch. It’s the strongest episode where performances are concerned and simultaneously, it’s the darkest and most satisfying conclusion. (While they should’ve never been convicted in the first place and none of the montage undermines what they went through, the celebration of their freedom is a melancholic treat to watch.) Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, “Part Four” captures a whirlwind of emotions with incredible focus on the thematic importance of the horrifically frequent racial profiling, privilege, and emotional manipulation. Wise’s time in prison was legitimately, at times, impossible to watch. The final conversations between Nancy Ryan and Linda Fairstein was a jaw-dropping horrifically rage evoking scene. And the moments leading up to the exoneration were achingly cathartic. You didn’t even have to pay close attention to feel every ounce of the pain that’s conveyed throughout the entire episode because the performances, direction, and score did that effortlessly.
DuVernay’s storytelling and the acute attention to the details throughout the series make it an immensely vital watch, but the particular episode’s montage brings to the forefront years of pain and injustice with the rightful attention to who the boys had become. In the midst of this tragedy, there’s light in the people they’ve chosen to be. It’s a bittersweet conclusion to a twisted, inhuman situation that’s superbly written and supremely brought to life by a talented cast whose hearts were in the right place. They embodied men who’d lost their youth and kids who were broken by cruelty and manipulation. When They See Us is as perfect and as integral as a mini-series could be, and “Part Four” is an exceptional, thought-provoking, beautifully executed ending.
3. “Episode Six”
Sanditon is gripping from the start but the untitled sixth episode of its first season is a jam-packed wild ride that flows seamlessly from beginning to end. The journey to find Georgiana and bring her home not only allows for Charlotte and Sidney to open up to each other, but it gives viewers the chance to really see Sidney’s motives as a guardian. It’s the opportunity to see just how much he cares, just how fiercely he despises injustice, and the great lengths he’ll go to in order to ensure no one ever knows the kind of darkness he’s lived through.It’s also a clear look into the man he’s been before meeting Charlotte and that’s something to be appreciated. There’s a carriage chase, a betrayal, a reluctant but necessary reconciliation, a heated, dynamic changing argument followed by a gorgeously compelling dance, and the introduction of Lady Susan, the series’ most riveting guest star. The episode doesn’t miss a beat in exuding hope, even without the knowledge of a Jane Austen arc, it’s the episode where motives are most clear and it’s the excitement of what profound human connection entails. There’s tremendous appreciation that takes place even with the lack of words surrounding it, and where there’s vocal clarity, it’s sincere and followed by actions.
It’s my favorite kind of episode not because of its riveting plot, but for the very reason that the entire story is told through character narratives. It’s an episode where Sidney not only shares some of his darkness with Charlotte, but he shows her the tangible effort he’s putting in by not only allowing Georgiana the closure she deserves, but by giving Otis his freedom from debt. His apology to Charlotte at this point is an added bonus because his actions were already doing the job of showcasing that he knows he shouldn’t underestimate her. And then the gut-punching gorgeous dance happens, and the infectious joy between the two of them authenticates potent, sincere equality at best. There’s no one else he’d rather share a dance with, no one else he’d rather gaze longingly at, and there’s absolutely no one else who’d awaken the kind of laughter in him that came to the surface that night. It’s the inevitable betrayal that’s coming to the Denham house that adds on to the remarkable mystery. This is an episode that tells us where it’s going from the beginning and it gets there. It respectively follows the narrative it sets up and it earns every single moment of its wild ride and quiet intimacy. And it leaves us at the kind of cliffhanger that doesn’t blindside us, but works on all fronts, whether it’s related to the Parkers or the Denhams, none of it feels forced or misplaced.
One Day at a Time
First and foremost, I’d like to formally apologize for sleeping on One Day at a Time for the first two seasons, but after binging it all earlier in the year, I get it all now. This show is unbelievably special and Justina Machado is brilliant — to watch her hold her own alongside a legend like Rita Moreno has been a gift in and of itself. Machado has been bringing Penelope to life beautifully from day one, but the amount of intricate layering she’s done in season three has been heart wrenching, allowing us to see every into the mindset of an anxious person. Anxiety works differently for everyone, and to be shown inside of Penelope’s head along with the stories told at her counseling group is crucial to moving forward with mental health awareness. The episode was full of sincere moments like watching Lydia pray for Penelope, Alex seeing Elena’s anxiety attack then learning about his mother’s that made for such a beautifully moving episode. “It’s nothing to do with happiness, it’s a chemical imbalance […] and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
These are the type of conversations we all need to have whether we battle anxiety or not, educating ourselves and being open to those around us. It’s also about understanding that anxiety and depression look different on everyone, my norm won’t look like yours, yours might not look like your neighbors. That’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned because when the conversation first began long ago, I made the silly assumption that it all looked the same. But circumstances and the proper education have taught me that it runs wild in different directions within us all. I also need to note that while I’m not a Latina, in the Armenian community, we have similar responses to antidepressants and mental illness all together, but breaking these stigmas in our cultures will only come from conversation, the willingness to listen, and the choice to accept. The episode’s not only vital because it spends the entire time dedicating itself to the topic of mental health, but it does so while addressing the stigmas and Latin cultural viewpoints.
5. “Episode Four”
There’s apparently something marvelous about the fourth episodes this year and I’m not even a little mad about this. Emmy award winning episode “Episode Four” is Fleabag at its most brilliant, chaotic, and tenderly vulnerable. It’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge at her strongest as Fleabag goes through battling the pain that suddenly creeps up regarding her mother and Boo’s deaths. It’s the episode with the gut punching confessional that’s so effortlessly evocative it actually hurts to watch. It’s the quiet frustration that only occurs at funerals. It’s remarkably transparent, brutally honest, and excruciatingly vulnerable. It’s oddly innocent and poignantly carnal. As much as this season is a love story, and as breathtaking as Fleabag and the Priest are after he tells her to “kneel”, the episode’s greatness comes from the incredibly relatable fear Fleabag lives through in the episode. When people you love deeply are taken away from you, it can be the darkest challenge to face learning to open up again. It’s not even the opening up part that’s hard, it’s trusting God, the universe, science, whatever to allow you to keep it. Our complexities as human beings are far and wide, but we all ache in love the same way, and for this reason, the loss of great love, brings forth great pain.
“Episode Four” is an episode that captures those very emotions beautifully. It allows a powerful woman to be entirely vulnerable and it gives a man with an armor the opportunity to put it all down. It’s multifaceted, it’s brave, it’s painfully hilarious, and it’s subtle progression to the climactic confessional brilliantly mirrors the often slow headways of grief that tend to creep on people who are often best as masking pain. It’s quite literally perfect from beginning to end, nuanced, full of incredible details, and intricately chaotic even in its steady, quiet moments.
6. “He Said, She Said”
“Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward.” Stephanie Beatriz’s directed episode “He Said, She Said” is without question, one of the most important episodes in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s history. If all men were as open to hearing a woman’s side of the story as Jake Peralta is, we’d live in a pretty amazing world. Amy opening up about her past and Jake agreeing to fight alongside her to make the work force a healthier place is the kind of quality content I want to see in a comedy because amidst the jokes, it’s these quiet moments of realism I long for. It’s episodes like this that have something as crucial as a sexual assault case and peppered in is Holt using his unbeatable wit to bring down an old bandit everyone believes is dead. It’s well written sardonic, yet evocative dialogue like: “He’s a great guy I don’t think he’s even bought a prostitute before.” “Is that the minimum requirement for being a good guy these days?” that play on the comedy brilliantly without losing focus of the episode’s theme. It’s Duck-Tales references, awkward uncertainties, and the showcase of a sincere, beautiful relationship. That said, performances throughout the episode left me floored, Andy Samberg is great at layering Jake, but the sheer expressiveness he brought to surface as Jake listened to Amy tell him about her past, broke me. And Melissa Fumero told the story with such embodiment and poise, it was easy to feel every word because most women have experienced what she faced to some degree. (I should say face because something is probably happening as I type this because the sexism and horrendous mistreatment of women continues to be utterly baffling.)
As Jake puts it, Amy is sad, as we all are because: “Historically entrenched patriarchy has created a culture of victim-shaming that suppresses any power shift in our masculo-phallic system.” A man’s life is seldom “ruined” after he commits an atrocious sexual assault against a woman, but rather because of her truth, she frequently loses more than the trauma she’s already endured. But that said, “He Said, She Said” doesn’t leave off on a negative note, as Rosa points out, another woman comes forward because the case inspired her to tell her story, too. Sometimes all we can do when we’re ready is come forward with our truths with the hope that a chain reaction will occur and standing up for basic human rights will eventually prevail in the face of malicious intends. Stephanie Beatriz captured the essence of a painfully obvious truth with the acute attention to detail and the stunning focus of casual intimacy that reflects how it should be.
7. “Life is a Cabaret”
“Life Is A Cabaret” is full of so many fantastic moments that wrap up the season in the best Schitt’s Creek fashion. From Johnny’s inability to grasp that Alexis will be going away for so long to Moira’s “Cabaret” success ending with “The Crows” being pulled from production. The absolute greatness of the banter between David and Patrick’s engagement, along with Stevie’s moving showcase of vulnerability we can all relate to. “Life Is A Cabaret” is every character at their best.
But Stevie’s arc is perhaps the one that gets to me the most because it’s so unbelievably relatable and Emily Hampshire puts on her strongest performance to date, on and off the stage. This is an extraordinary episode that allows the audience to see just how much heart these characters have. There are a plethora of moments throughout the episode that made me happy cry, for instance, Stevie crying because of the sheer joy she experienced as David told her the news of his engagement. It’s the way she opened up to Moira and the amount of praise that was given her. Stevie killed it at the performance and Hampshire told us a profoundly moving story of what it means to feel stuck. It’s dark and lonely, but when surrounded by people who love and care for us, nothing is impossible to get through. It’s about taking risks and having faith in ourselves. It’s an episode full of a whole lot of great love stories, whether it’s David and Patrick’s, the Rose family, Cabaret’s ensemble team, or the friendship that runs deep within David and Stevie. The unanimously disastrous day has some gorgeously moving scenes in between, and though it doesn’t end perfectly, it doesn’t lose the warmth of the love, which had filled the room so effortlessly that day.
8. “It’s Comedy or Cabbage”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I told myself to not even dare entertain the idea of “what if” with Midge and Lenny Bruce knowing the real-life comedian’s tragic life, but it’s proved to be an impossible feat given Rachel Brosnahan and Luke Kirby’s unbearably explosive chemistry. And while I’m fully aware the show won’t go there, it doesn’t change the fact that their scenes in the episode “It’s Comedy or Cabbage” are some of the most memorable parts of the latest season. Brosnahan and Kirby do so much in silence during this episode it’s both painful and breathtaking. It’s sensational. That’s not a word I use frequently, but it is. The entirety of the episode is one stunning trope after another that somehow works seamlessly even though it probably shouldn’t. There’s something so psychedelically moving about the relationship between Lenny and Midge because the amount of mutual adoration is reserved solely for the other. The expanse of love buried deep within them is transcendent — it’s fleeting and everlasting all at once because there’s so much happening, neither of them know how to handle it. (And frankly, neither do I.) If they give in, everything changes. If they don’t, all they have is this moment, all-consuming and sensational, bound to end after a night of sharing longing gazes, a dance, jackets, and cigarettes.
Midge and Lenny could’ve been perfect, but the “Maybe someday.” makes me wonder if this was his curtain call. The entire framing of the episode felt like one melancholy perfect goodbye to the comedian whose life was cut tragically short and putting Midge at the center of the story worked so well for the show. When he passed her his cigarette, it’s almost as though he was passing down his legacy, his last breath, his last shared bliss. (I really hope I’m wrong about this and we get more of him in season four, but the episode’s framing paints such a dark picture.) No matter where they are in their lives, they were connected from the moment they met, and the very connection sparked a fire impossible to perish. You could feel every ounce of the emotions stripping them bare during the dance when they declared that their inability to crack a joke felt nice. Throughout the entirety of the episode, they were each other’s sanctuary. They were each other’s home away from home, for Lenny especially whose inability to settle down has often been a result of his despondent nature. But for a moment, Midge is his home, the light in the darkness that frequently embodies him. Their swaying bodies told the story of the two people who’d grown to understand one another on a profoundly unreachable scale another soul might never cross, and it’s that very understanding that makes it easy for them to be so vulnerable with each other. Whether it’s Lenny’s genuine fascination with Midge’s entire being or her deep respect of his opinion, the unspoken love for one another is so painfully evident in the episode, it’s perhaps what makes it so evocative. They could never be, but what’s there, it’s poetry. It’s sensational. It’s a date. Maybe, someday.
9. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
Game of Thrones
I don’t think I’ve loved an episode of Game of Thrones more than “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, if the series had decided to just end here, right before the big battle, before the ruler was crowned, I wouldn’t have been even a little upset. There’s not a single episode throughout the eight year run that’s more intimate or grounded in realism than “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, and it’s that very intimacy that I might never get over – even the misplaced Starbucks cup doesn’t stop the episode from being absolutely magical. Whether it’s the beautifully touching intimacy in Jamie knighting Brienne, Arya giving in to her feelings for Gendry and spending the possibility of their last night together, Sansa and Theon’s moment of silent conversations, Game of Thrones stars an impeccably gifted cast, and to think that we could’ve had more episodes with this much depth and beauty is almost gut-wrenching. I’ve cried watching this show a few times, who would I be if I hadn’t, but not a single episode in the past has evoked as many emotions as this has, and for that alone, I’m satisfied. I’ve already discussed the profundity and exquisite vulnerability in Jamie knighting Brienne, but there’s so much more to the intimacy they share in that moment — it represents humanity at best.
At the end of the day, thrones and dragons aside, each of these characters were longing for connections, they were longing to be appreciated just as they are in moments of solitude where they could just be still. And that very stillness and quiet intimacy throughout “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” illuminated the fact that all any soul ever wants is to love and be loved in return.
10. “The Battle of Star Court”
Stranger Things has gotten finales right since the very beginning–each year from day one ending up on my list because the episodes have it all. “The Battle of Star Court” is as dark as it is fun, which is an unconventional thing to say about an episode, but on a series titled Stranger Things, the juxtaposition works. It’s one of the episodes you could watch more than once and always notice something new, like what the heck are Robin and Steve even doing in the background at the start of the episode? I don’t know, but it works. It’s Hopper and Joyce at their most vulnerable, making plans they intend to keep, and silent promises of a future where they’ll always be a team. It’s the ridiculous yet unbelievably charming “Never-Ending Story” sing-a-long while meeting Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie. This time, she definitely copies. (Also, everyone’s reaction to the singing is everything to me. You can’t possibly be in a bad mood after this scene. It’s scientifically impossible. I deem it so.) It’s Billy’s demise followed by the sincere apology Max needed and deserved to move forward with her life. It’s El and Will finally becoming a family despite moving away. (Can you tell I’m in utter denial and refuse to acknowledge that Hopper isn’t coming back? Because he absolutely is and I refuse to believe this show doesn’t end with a happy ending.) The episode’s framing, organically moving screenplay, and commendable performances is the reason this show continues to succeed.
Honorable Mention: “Better Angels” (Madam Secretary), “The Birds and The Bees” (Outlander), “Carpe Diem” (Madam Secretary), “Four Movements” (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), “The Long Night” (Game of Thrones), “Chapter Four” (The Mandalorian), “The Funeral to End All Funerals” (The Good Place), “The Very Last Day of the Rest of Their Lives” (Good Omens), “Ariadne” (Russian Doll)
This time of year is my favorite for a number of reasons, but sharing these categories with remarkable writers like Heather over at TV Examined and Katie over at Nerdy Girl Notes is on top of the list. Be sure to check out their Best of the Year reviews, too!
What were your favorite episodes of the year?