Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Best TV Episodes of the Decade

I figured it was high time I updated this list. We'll dive straight into this one as it's bound to get rather long. I've limited it to one episode per show, for obvious reasons, and beware - there are spoilers...

20. "Modern Warfare" Community (2010)

I wasn't a huge lover of Community as a show. In fact I gave up with it around the midpoint of its second season, but even the show's biggest naysayers would struggle to deny the ingeniousness of season one peak "Modern Warfare". Spoof episodes are a tough beast to crack, but Community made it look easy - everything plays out with a hilarious seriousness, and as the episode's events snowball into a conclusion it somehow brings the season's romance subplot front and centre too. It's the kind of episode not many shows could get away with, but one so perfectly suited to Community's hyper-meta self awareness that it's tough not to have a total blast with.

19. "The Reichenbach Fall" Sherlock (2012)

Sherlock has, by nature, always been a plot heavy show - it's part of what caused its downfall by season three. The once great series peaks in its second series finale with "The Reichenbach Fall", an episode that makes a solid claim to be one of the smartest stories British TV has ever seen. It permanently feels incredibly personal to its characters but plays out with global ramifications, creating a story as emotionally explosive as it is jaw-droppingly intelligent. That it also ends on a cliffhanger that genuinely got the country talking merely feels like a bonus - Sherlock had already put in all the necessary work to make "The Reichenbach Fall" a surefire classic in waiting. 

18. "Twilight of the Apprentice" Star Wars Rebels (2016)

Star Wars Rebels may not be a consistently great show, but every time it tackles something major it absolutely nails it. "Twilight of the Apprentice" remains Rebels' greatest hour, a phenomenally intense and emotionally rich season finale that boldly abandons half of its central cast in favour of providing a vehicle for its equally as interesting supporting characters. It's the show's best looking episode by a long mile, and one of the rare TV episodes that genuinely comes coupled with a sense of "nothing will ever be the same again" - felt most effectively in the episode's stunning concluding montage. The following season ultimately dropped the ball and frustratingly wrote its way around some of the game-changing developments "Twilight of the Apprentice" makes, but the episode itself still remains flat out terrific.

17. "Possession" Penny Dreadful (2014)

You don't see many flat out, all out horror television shows - they usually come attached to another subgenre or don't really prioritise being scary. Penny Dreadful fits that trend nicely, but in the penultimate episode of its debut season it gave us exactly what we wanted: flat out, all out horror with scares firmly in its eyesight. Eva Green's performance borders on revolutionary for both the genre and the medium, and the episode itself unfolds with an uneasy sense of dread before launching into an explosive, horrifying finale. "Possession" is essentially an hour long exorcism with a hell of a lot at stake - TV doesn't come scarier than this. 

16. "Who Goes There" True Detective (2014)

The show's second season may have fallen off the rails a bit, but it's tough to argue the brilliance of True Detective's first run. "Who Goes There" is already a stellar episode of the show, packed with first rate dialogue and surprising narrative developments, but when it wraps on a six minute unbroken tracking shot that follows two characters through a suburb-wide shootout, you kind of get the feeling you're watching something special unfold. The scene is executed with both chaos and clarity, and by the time it's all over you'll probably feel physically drained by how intense the whole thing was. The show is back for a third season later this year, but anything it serves up will struggle to dethrone this as its finest hour.

15. "Beryl" The Crown (2017)

Arguably the best thing about The Crown's best episode to date is that it very rarely actually feels like an episode of The Crown. By nature the show has to be somewhat emotionally distant, it frequently discusses why too, but Princess Margaret's season one subplot reaches a stunning, moving endgame in the season two episode "Beryl". Vanessa Kirby is electrifying here, completely selling Margaret's spiral into depression and ultimate rejuvenation through finally finding someone to love, and the shift away from Elizabeth and Philip's A-plot is satisfyingly refreshing. The episode is stripped bare emotionally and surprisingly seductive, it's like watching a 1950s royal melodrama on steroids - it's everything The Crown usually isn't.

14. "Kissing Your Sister" Veep (2016)

I don't wish to get too carried away with hyperbole here, but Veep's "Kissing Your Sister" is probably the funniest episode of TV ever written. After spending a whole season with Katherine filming odd moments in the background, the Emmy winning series finally goes full mockumentary and lets us watch the doc Katherine has made over the course of season five. The episode re-contextualises old scenes, uses an interview framework to deepen its characters further, and allows this first rate cast to experiment a bit and play themselves a little differently. That, and it's just endlessly, painfully hilarious for every second of its runtime - I've since watched it countless times, and I never laugh any less.

13. "The Bicameral Mind" Westworld (2016)

After an astonishing nine episodes, the success of HBO sci-fi Westworld's debut season hinged entirely on its finale. To no-one's surprise, it paid off. "The Bicameral Mind" is everything you could want from a season finale: it's big, loud and action packed; it seamlessly rounded off the first act of development for its terrific characters; it provides jaw dropping twists that send you diving back in for a re-watch while providing a new framework for the next run of episodes. Westworld felt "big" as a concept since the moment it started, but "The Bicameral Mind" shatters the very definition of the word - what we'd just seen was only the beginning, and that couldn't prepare us for what comes next.

12. "Thanksgiving" Master of None (2017)

One of the biggest strengths of Aziz Ansari's Master of None has always been its ability to take minority figures and tell their stories on simple but deeply emotional levels. The show's best episode is "Thanksgiving", an episode that hands the reins over to the endlessly loveable Denise (played beautifully here by Lena Waithe, who also co-wrote the episode with Ansari) to tell the story of how a young black girl came out as gay to her religious family. It touches on familiar thematic beats, but it never feels any less than stunningly personal, acting as a window into a very much real family that we probably wouldn't see on any other show. The concept of unfolding the episode over various Thanksgiving dinners over the years is quite simply a masterstroke in coming-of-age storytelling, and when the episode concludes with Denise's family sitting down for dinner in full acceptance of her sexuality for the very first time, you'll feel more moved by the whole story than you expected you'd be.

11. "Total Rickall" Rick and Morty (2015)

Rick and Morty, sometimes, can be too smart for its own good. It's the rare show that knows how good it is. "Total Rickall" is the show's best episode because it walks the line effortlessly: it's ridiculously clever, but it never slips into smugness. It's perhaps elevated by being far and away the show's funniest episode to date - from Mr Poopybutthole to Reverse Giraffe, from Sleepy Gary to Summer's kitchen encounter with a Morty who very much thought he was home alone - and the nature of knowing your real family through your bad memories of them is paradoxically both dark and strangely hard-hitting. It's everything Rick and Morty usually is, but somehow it's just a little bit more than that - in a show of endless intelligence, it might be the one episode I'd call ingenious.

10. "Michael's Gambit" The Good Place (2016)

If you want to know how to pull off a good plot twist then watch "Michael's Gambit", the season one finale of The Good Place, because boy oh boy does it pull off one hell of a plot twist. After a debut season that ended nearly every episode on a cliffhanger of sorts, The Good Place saved the best until last. Not only is it entirely self destructive - it literally blows up the premise it's so carefully laid out over the preceding twelve episodes - but it makes perfect sense, both narratively and thematically. You'll kick yourself for not guessing it sooner. The show's second year was full of even more shocks and surprises, but nothing the show ever does will outdo the brilliance of this game changing season finale. Michael, you clever, clever sod.

9. "One Last Ride" Parks and Recreation (2015)

I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that, with "One Last Ride," Parks and Recreation served up the greatest finale of all time. As well as just being a brilliantly funny episode in its own right, "One Last Ride" uses a flashforward framework to allow us a glimpse into the futures for all the characters we've come to love over the show's seven season haul. Parks boasted some of the most interesting, loveable people on TV for quite some time, so there's just something indescribably emotional about seeing everything turn out okay for every last one of them, before cutting back to the present and watching them set off on their journeys to get there. 

8. "Blackwater" Game of Thrones (2012)

At its best, Game of Thrones fluctuates between being an explosive, thrilling action series and a confidently character driven one. The show has served up bigger (and arguably better) battles than that of "Blackwater" but none of those come coupled with the character focus that this episode represents. The show's first real foray into action film making is undeniably impressive - that wildfire explosion is unforgettable - but it's the moments between the fighting that resonate the most. Cersei drunkenly terrifying Sansa, her maternal instincts kicking in to pull Joffrey from the front lines yet her fear of capture leading to her attempted poisoning of young Tommen. It's perhaps the only episode of Game of Thrones to so effectively combine both breathtaking action thrills and gripping, complex dialogue - the two things that define what this show can achieve when the pieces really fall into place.

7. "" Mr Robot (2017)

How many episodes of TV can lay claim to being almost a 50-minute montage and never losing focus? Not many, but Mr Robot nails such a daunting task with confidence. In "Kill Process," Mr Robot finally landed on the conclusion it had been building towards for two and a half years, and the gut punch it pulls in its very final moments - when you realise everything Elliott had been working to prevent was still coming, but a whole lot worse because of his own actions- is the rare plot twist that hits both the heart and the gut at once. You know what it means for both the characters and the future of the show itself, so when the episode cuts to black after its finest hour to date, you're left to sit in silence, wondering how anyone can come back from what you just witnessed.

6. "International Assassin" The Leftovers (2015)

Across its heartbreakingly short three year tenure, The Leftovers served up episode after episode of masterworks - but it never quite topped "International Assassin". It's an episode that takes place entirely in a world and a dimension that isn't our own and yet the stakes feel more real than ever. In order to banish the ghosts he sees, Kevin is forced to take a trip to the realm of the undead and is there presented with an impossible task. Aesthetically, "International Assassin" feels like being plunged into the concept of abstraction itself - the score, production design and cinematography all feel both classically human and unnervingly alien - and emotionally the episode perhaps lands on its darkest ever material. "International Assassin" may be the show's most divisive hour, but it's also the one that most perfectly demonstrates the crazy, visionary nature of all that The Leftovers was.

5. "The Law of Non-Contradiction" Fargo (2017)

Narratively speaking, "The Law of Non-Contradiction" is an entirely pointless hour of TV - and we know that from the outset. Gloria Burgle's trip to L.A. can not and will not aid her investigation, but she thinks it will; she doesn't have the information we have. Rather than an episode that furthers the mystery or the plot, then, we have one that becomes a profound, complex analysis of futility and pointlessness. An episode that argues that meaning can be derived from randomness, that purpose can be drawn from coincidence - we don't always need to find the answers we seek in order to gain deeper understanding. Gloria's plot is engaging enough as it is, but it's the episode's little cutaways to the animated tale of The Planet Wyh that push Fargo's efforts here into true greatness. "I can help!" says little robot MNSKY repeatedly, to everyone he comes across. Yes you can, buddy, but not the people you realise, and not for a very, very long time indeed.

4. "Heaven Sent" Doctor Who (2015)

Steven Moffat, regardless of what you think of his writing, made Doctor Who a notably more cinematic show. Peter Capaldi, regardless of what you think of his character, lent a gravitas to Doctor Who that the show hadn't felt before. When you combine and isolate their respective efforts, you get "Heaven Sent" - an episode written by Moffat, starring only Capaldi, and probably the greatest episodic achievement the show will ever have. "Heaven Sent" is gorgeously conceived and jaw-droppingly ambitious, but it nails its high wire concept purely because every last component is functioning at peak capacity - the writing, direction, score, editing, cinematography and Capaldi's performance come together like clockwork to craft an episode that endlessly threatens to get so big that it can only collapse. Collapse it doesn't, though. Instead, it wraps with a montage so intense, so stunningly powerful that our very interpretation of the episode is shattered before our eyes. It'll blow your mind and break your heart - two things Doctor Who does quite often, but very rarely at the same time.

3. "San Junipero" Black Mirror (2016)

If you can find an episode of television more beautiful and more emotional than "San Junipero" then I'd like to see it. Here's the thing: Black Mirror never has a happy ending. Not until now, not until Yorkie and Kelly. "San Junipero" unfolds its real intentions slowly, through some of the most intricately penned dialogue you'll likely ever hear, but when it reaches its final act and you come to realise the emotional gravity of what's at stake, that's when the ingeniousness of this episode truly strikes. Just this once, everything turns out okay - and yet, it doesn't. "San Junipero" is the definition of bittersweet, the happiness of its ending only exists because of lifetimes of pain and emotional suffering. It's a visually and emotionally beautiful piece of storytelling, and one that, I'd argue, could work to redefine how we see love stories for years, even decades to come.

2. "Mizumono" Hannibal (2014)

Hannibal's "Mizumono" is a perfect season finale, and yet it very rarely comes across like an episode of Hannibal. It's violent, artistic and endlessly gripping like most Hannibal episodes, but it seems to strike a tone unlike any other - after a full season that felt like time was running out, "Mizumono" lands as if the clock expired ages ago. There's a breathless urgency to the episode as we wait for it to land on the flash-forward sequence that opened the season, and amid all the bloodshed and emotional trauma (and, believe me, there's a lot of it) "Mizumono" somehow finds time to bring back a character we long thought dead only to kill them off again for real. It's bold, it's brutal and it's blindingly intense - the perfect capper to a phenomenal season of TV. 

1. "Ozymandias" Breaking Bad (2013)

If the last two episodes of Breaking Bad felt slower and less explosive than what came before, that's because they're really the epilogue: "Ozymandias" is the show's finale. The episode that concluded five years worth of plot and character development, "Ozymandias" begins with an emotional sledgehammer to the gut, and the blows just don't stop coming. It's a devastating, almost unwatchable hour of television for how cruelly it takes down every last shred of hope we as viewers had, and yet every beat feels organic and, well, just right. It features a bullet to the head that sends shockwaves down your spine, a sequence inside a family home that shakes you to your core, and a resolution that makes you question why you ever wanted to watch the damn thing in the first place. "Ozymandias" is a masterpiece of both story and character - I can't ever say that I enjoy watching it, but it is completely, unequivocally brilliant.

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