Best of 2021 TV Episodes features spoilers from various shows. Please be advised if there’s something you don’t want to know.
With what felt like the most prolonged year-long pause (and might continue to be), the best of 2021 TV Episodes continuously felt like a saving grace. There’s no denying that TV came back stronger than ever before with some incredible season finales and new premieres that we weren’t expected to be so stunned by. And as the one year where we wish we could’ve chosen far more than what time allowed us to, the best of 2021 TV Episodes are the ones we couldn’t stop thinking about it. The episodes that made it clear why we love the shows that we do and why television can be a healing balm when the rest of the world is dark and dreary.
For more end-of-the-year coverage, be sure to check out our Best of 2021: Ted Lasso Season 2 Special, as the shining example of what excellent TV looks like in its entirety. There’s also the Best of 2021: Scene-Stealers who made this year a joy ride through and through. The Best of 2021: Performances, the Best of 2021: Characters, the Best of 2021: Found Families, and the Best of 2021 Romantic Relationships.
“Rainbow” isn’t just my favorite episode of the year, but after countless viewings and having the same joyous reaction every time, I’m now confident that it’s one of my all-time favorite episodes of any TV show—ever. As an homage to romantic comedies and the kind of episode that thematically showcases Ted Lasso’s overarching theme, “Rainbow” is the kind of episode that encompasses so much joy, it’s impossible not to love it entirely.
As said in the full-episode review: The happy ending doesn’t disqualify or dim the fire of the darkness by spreading false hope, but it authenticates the fact that darkness isn’t meant to be a lasting feeling. We could marinate it for a while, but at some point, we’ve got to pick ourselves up and make the conscious choice to do something about finding a way out of the forest. It reveals the strength that human beings are bestowed with and the actuality that rainbows are a sign of endurance. As an episode that brilliantly frames Roy Kent’s homecoming around the rest of the team’s unparalleled joy in the return of hope, “Rainbow” stands as a genuinely perfect episode.
“The Last Day”
Eight years, 153 episodes, one astounding team. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a series that’s hard to depart from because the relationships established during its run have been so rewarding to watch as a TV viewer. Where there are far too many great moments to excavate and episodes to highlight somehow the series finale encapsulates all the best parts of the show and the characters we’ve grown to love.
“The Last Day” brought the best of all eight years onto our screens, and it did so with utmost sincerity. In every way that mattered, the episode was a love letter to the last eight years, a love letter to the fans, and a love letter to found families. “The Last Day” gave us one final heist with the promise of more, moments of beautiful vulnerability, and a whole lot of laughs to keep us fueled. If we loved it less, we might be able to take about it more.
“All The Bells Say”
Season three of Succession may have been a slow burn, but its season finale was a sizzling fireball. Brutal and captivating, the season finale cemented the series’ mantle as one of the best television dramas currently on the air. One of the shining aspects of the episode is the realization of how well it has been set up–you recognize all the elements that have been planted in previous episodes and how they eventually are addressed in the final few moments. (Did anyone else piece Tom calling a law firm and asking for Rex Hendon earlier in the season?)
“All the Bells Say” itself was quite an emotional rollercoaster. Even before it aired, fans were anxious in anticipation with the belief that Kendall had died. While that didn’t happen, in true Succession fashion, viewers were treated to an unpredictable ride. The last half hour explored crucial elements of the season–Kendall’s guilt over the dead waiter, the Roy siblings’ relationship with one another, and the future of Waystar Royco. We sense that Greg has become thoroughly corrupted, and Connor isn’t as big of a joke as we perceive. Our hearts raced as the siblings banded together to overthrow their father from the company, and we shared their despair at their shitty parents. And, of course, our hearts stood still when we realized Tom was the one who betrayed Shiv and her siblings. Those final moments packed a punch and a promise that there’s a lot more left to unfold, but there’s no denying this is one of the best of 2021 TV episodes that’ll stay with viewers.
“What If…T’Challa Became Star Lord?”
The concept of Marvel’s What If…is compelling in every way, but especially for those of us who appreciate variations of our favorite stories. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s completely fine. But of all the episodes, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star Lord?” is the kind of poetic masterpiece that’s hard to find the right words for. As one of his final moments as T’Challa, the late Chadwick Boseman shines so impeccably it makes his loss that much heavier. Boseman as a person and T’Challa as a character are a match made in heaven—two extraordinary hearts that changed the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since that very first moment in Captain America: Civil War. Boseman’s legacy and the seeds of kindness he planted into the life of T’Challa have made him the kind of character who’s an absolute comfort the moment he graces our screens. And that’s precisely what the episode showcases.
It’s proof of the fact that T’Challa’s heart is so pure and beautiful, he can single-handedly be the very person to get through to people like Thanos. Exceptional in animation, unbeatable in voice acting, and incomparable in storytelling. If you watch only one episode in What If…, let this be the one. Guaranteed, it’ll hit in all the right areas while leaving you emotionally gratified and in awe.
It’s been nearly a year, and still, it’s hard to put into words what WandaVision‘s “Previously On” means to so many of us as viewers. When Agatha Harkness forces Wanda Maximoff into a troubling journey back to her past, it’s the culminating heartaches of the past few years while simultaneously bringing to the surface what it means to be a person who’s profoundly suffering—a person who’s ultimately seeking a way out, and in this case, it’s a woman. “Previously On” is the story of a woman who creates in her darkness, and though that creation puts lives at risk, it’s not something she does willingly or through terrible intentions. Instead, the episode acts as a showcase for what television means to so many people and why we rely on the fictional forms of comfort when our life seems to be in shambles.
“Previously On” is the kind of special episode with several beautiful elements that will mean something different every time it’s revisited. Sometimes, social media is a terrible cesspool full of horrific takes, but other times, it’s a gorgeous place where shared grief becomes a healing experience of sorts. For a moment, many of us collectively shared the loss and pain we’d been through in the last year. For a moment, many of us felt understood in a way that helped us out of the waters. Wanda’s exhaustion, her palpable vulnerability, the backstory into her quiet moments of comfort before all the pain followed by the revelation of what’s happened to Westview made for brilliantly earned emotional beats.
The Expanse‘s “Nemesis Game” is the kind of perfect penultimate finale that sets up so much of what is to come in the final season. Reunions and moments of peace before the declaration of more significant battles. It was the kind of sacrificial death that would honor a character as best it could. It’s the kind of finale that showcases just how high the stakes are while making it clear that these are the people who will do anything they can to ensure they’ll always protect one another.
It’s the decision to point out precisely how this team can win with everyone dealing with the aftermath of whatever comes their way together. It’s the kind of finale that makes you question whether or not people will make it and when they do, it sets a concrete example of the fact that love is at the forefront of everything they do. It’s all about the hope that these unlikely friendships instill.
“Bride or Die”
Blindspotting’s Season 1 finale, “Bride or Die,” beautifully cements the detail that the series is a love story by bringing to our screens variations of what the word means both in a romantic and platonic sense. It’s one of the best shows of the year without question, but what makes this episode a 2021 staple is the fact that it carries on with all the emotional beats in a poetic way that leaves you feeling like the best kind of force has struck you.
It leaves you wanting more while simultaneously satisfied if it doesn’t go as planned because, at the very least, it’s more apparent than ever that Ashley and Miles are in this for the long haul, and their family will be right beside them through everything. The last few moments are some of the most brilliant milestones of a romantic declaration while simultaneously the most entertaining as Trish officiates with guards trying to kick them all out. The planning, the surprise, and every moment leading up to that final scene are the kind of masterful editing that makes this show a gem to watch. It’s hard to believe anyone could watch Blindspotting and not fall in love, which is why it’s easy to be convinced that the only people who aren’t fond of it are the people who don’t know about it yet.
“Return of the Prodigal Son”
Law and Order: SVU
SVU had a good enough 2021 that it was difficult to come up with an episode that was the best of the best. “The Five Hundredth Episode” showcased Mariska Hargitay at her best. Or there was “In the Year We All Fell Down,” which looked at the slow human devastation brought on by a frustratingly still-worsening pandemic or any number of other strong stories over the 22nd and 23rd seasons.
So. Why choose April’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” then? It felt just like old times while kicking off something entirely new, a return home and the foundation for the future. It fused our hero’s past with her present, giving longtime viewers the clear message that time is meaningless in the face of something truly special. Somehow, despite not having shared the screen as Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler since season 12’s “Smoked” in 2011, Hargitay and former costar (now technically a guest star) Christopher Meloni proved they’d never lost what made us love them in the first place. The emotional pull of simply seeing the characters lock eyes again for the first time after so many years was undeniable. And that was just the beginning, not just for the episode but for so much more. –Shana L
“The Christmas Episode”
“The Christmas Episode” had a little bit of something for everyone: Benson and Stabler working as partners again, a surprise murder investigation, a breakout moment for Nicky Torchia as he played a teenager buried in grief and anxiety, a forward movement for the slowest of slow-burn ships…and Big Tough Elliot Stabler, both in a very vulnerable place and in his element as a grandfather.
In short, it was the perfect way for Law & Order: Organized Crime to end a stellar first year, of eight episodes in the series’ first season and nine so far in the second. Some folks might think it’s impossible to create a quality crime drama with complex and high-stakes cases while masterfully diving into the characters’ personal lives…But all anyone needs to do to prove them wrong is to look to this series—and this episode specifically. It’s an hour of television that passed far too quickly, as is the norm for Organized Crime, and it’s one we’ll be happy to revisit over, and over, and over again. –Shana L
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
While “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas” is technically a film outside of the series’ second season, we’re cheating a bit here to include it in this category because it’s pretty close to a sublime feature and one of the best of 2021 tv episodes even if it’s longer. It’s the best thing the series has done since “American Pie,” and in more ways than one, it feels like a love letter to the fans while effortlessly acting as a healing balm to those who’ve experienced grief in recent years.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas” is a beautifully moving, thought-provoking holiday gem that’s bound to leave a lasting impression on fans for the kind of film they’ll likely revisit yearly. It provides the type of closure necessary for all characters. It wraps itself up in the sort of live number that feels like a sense of homecoming. It is a beautifully detailed showcase of what it means for the lost souls to find a home by allowing its main characters to find the comfort they’d long been seeking. It’s a gorgeously romantic episode with the most precious familial moments this show excels at.
“The Boy from 6B”
Only Murders in the Building
Only Murders in the Building is one of the best new series of the year, and “The Boy from 6B” cements why brilliantly—digging into the original crime by showing us more of the Hardy Boys’ background and precisely what happened the night Zoe was killed. With riveting episodes throughout that are fast-paced and silly, the decision to quiet everything down was an utterly clever way to tell a compelling story.
Audiences learn that since Zoe and Theo, the boy from 6B, both know ASL, which then makes it evident why no one heard any of the fights that escalated on the rooftop—except that Tim Kono watched the accidental push. And so it begins. But what the series does with storytelling throughout this episode truly marks it as unique as it is. It’s the ability to step away from its delightfully farcical hijinks to deliver something that’s thoughtful, heartfelt, and full of some astounding performances. James Caverly is fantastic in the emotional beats he touches on, making it so easy for us to resonate with what his story means in the bigger picture. In short, “The Boy from 6B” delivers even more than the finale does to a degree with the kind of episode that’s easily memorable.
The Morning Show
The last three episodes of The Morning Show Season 2 work so well together it makes choosing a single episode to highlight a difficult feat. But still, “Confirmations” is the kind of episode that highlights the show’s most robust features—its performers and the ability to pace its storylines in an environment that’s known for its rapidity.
“Confirmations” is an episode that holds so much emotion within its arc it’s astonishing. Because while there is so much heavy, dark material thrust front and center, it’s the kind of intrinsic storytelling that both showcases the burdens of breaking news, the heightened emotions at TMS, and the personal heartaches threading themselves into the workplace. It serves as a meta representation of what it means to grieve even when there’s treacherous darkness looming over. It’s the kind of episode that keeps you on your feet while simultaneously providing the completion of an arc that it had carried on since the start of the season.
“Partners, Am I Right?”
Hawkeye is the last Disney Plus show I expected to love this deeply, but it’s entirely a testament to the women and the intimate, warm, yet haunting storylines present throughout the character arcs. And that’s especially the case with Season 1, Episode 4, “Partners, Am I Right?” which frames the answers characters are looking for through quiet moments of Christmas cheer and the slow excavation into the conversations that matter along with an epic battle that leaves us in a bind by the end.
Something about Hawkeye and its home-based stretch into a Marvel Cinematic Universe reminds me so much of the greatness in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, perhaps even more than Black Widow. And that’s easily due to how hard Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova hits the landing during that final shot. The episode makes us truly question an abundance of things—whether or not, much like most of the original Avengers‘ (excluding Thor) if Hawkeye’s time is coming too. The way the episode is framed like a homecoming of sorts while simultaneously feeling like a curtain call. In serious competition with its previous episode, “Echoes,” the reason we chose “Partners, Am I Right?” is because nearly midway in, the stakes are high in an episode that’s so intrinsically balanced, it’s easy to re-watch and pick more apart.
“All Sales Final”
The last two seasons of Superstore have tragically paled compared to what the series used to be, but its series finale, “All Sales Final,” pulls us right back with the type of ending that showcases why the show will be missed. It’s even more bittersweet for anyone who’s worked in retail and made friends along the way.
But Superstore does something beautiful with its ending by making it clear that these characters will be in each other’s lives for a long, long time. They weren’t just workplace associates—they’re more. And with developments such as Mateo’s relationship with Amy’s brother, some people even become family. “All Sales Final” is the kind of series finale you put on and watch even if you abandoned the show and you still feel all the emotional punches. It’s especially the case for everyone who shipped Jonah Simms and Amy Sosa from day one because their moment of beauty comes back around somehow even better than before. It’s the kind of finale that makes you nostalgic in the best way.
Miss Scarlet and The Duke
“Cell 99” shifts the course of Miss Scarlet and The Duke with the kind of episode that’s every romance aficionado’s dream. It’s a brilliant hour of television that’s so thrilling to watch, it makes the dynamics utterly captivating. The episode belongs to William and Eliza and the dynamic that none of us can get enough of. It’s the kind of episode that finds its footing through quiet moments and the kind of loud declarations that will later be even more important than they are today.
As our Alice Sarkisyan had said in her review of the episode: “Cell 99” succeeds in providing a diverting episode thanks to the focus between Eliza and William and its brevity. With these two, you never know what you’re going to get–they go up and down more times than a roller coaster. However, as the mystery progresses, you do see a shift in their dynamic. In terms of professional cases, they nearly always seem to be at odds, but those differences seem to diminish as the case becomes more personal. As they unravel more about Cell 99 and Henry’s involvement, the two demonstrate that they can seamlessly work together and be more productive when they’re not at each other’s throats. They are also more alike than they think. Whether they consider themselves as such or not, these two are partners.”
Honorable Mentions: “Kristy and the Baby Parade” (The Baby-Sitters Club), “The Unsea” (Shadow and Bone), “Family” (The Witcher), “Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam” (Lucifer), “Journey Into Mystery” (Loki), “I’m Scared” (Trying)
What are the best of 2021 TV episodes on your list?