Welcome to the TV in 2013 roundtable. Like last year, I’ve assembled a group of critics, friends, and television lovers to reflect on the year that was. Throughout December, we’ll discuss a variety of TV-related topics, covering the highs, lows, and everything in between. You can find all the entries here.
Cory Barker: Next category: Best (or favorite) episodes!
Noel Kirkpatrick: I’m going to twist this slightly for the sake of variation. I could tell you all about how The Good Wife‘s “Hitting the Fan” was incredible (and it was!), and someone’s sure to expound on the brilliance of “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad, and I’d be disappointed if someone doesn’t extol the virtues of Adventure Time‘s run of episode devoted to Finn’s struggles with his burgeoning sexuality. Instead, I’m going to talk about good episodes of shows I may not have particularly liked this year, or are, at least, not in the big conversations about best episodes or shows, as the two often go hand-in-hand.
For instance, Syfy’s transmedial Defiance—it’s a TV show and a video game and they kind of interact!—was not among my favorites of the last season, but I thoroughly enjoyed “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” an episode devoted to an astronaut awakened in the war-torn and terraformed Earth after a bloody war and how he struggles to fit into the new order. The astronaut was a big celebrity after his assumed death, and so there’s some hero worship and pre-wartimes reminiscing that gave the characters and actors some looseness that had long been missing from the show. There’s a plot twist in the episode that’s largely unnecessary (though it set up other things toward the of the season), but on the whole, the melancholy episode was a nice example of the show’s core immigration thread, and finding your place in a world where everyone feels a little lost.
On the flip side of this is a show I liked but it’s not something I’d consider one of the year’s best. It’s the cancelled Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The series proved a more fun place to be than the prequel films it spun out of, with a delightful and interesting expansion of the franchise’s universe, often from a variety of different perspectives, not just the Jedi. This final season also experimented with its format a bit, dividing itself up into mini-arcs, and the last arc dealt with the question of Ahsoka, Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan who does not appear in the films. The arc traded in Hitchcockian homages as Ahsoka sought to clear her name as the perpetrator of a bombing in the Jedi Temple. The prequel films always had an undercurrent about how Palpatine exploited corrupt institutes and political complacency to rise to power, but it was Ahsoka’s departure from the Order—even after she had cleared her name and they welcomed her back to the fold—that drove home this theme of failing institutions far better than the films ever did while providing a fitting, albeit unknowing, send off to the series.
Les Chappell: In terms of expectations this year, the episode of television that everyone was the most worried about was Game Of Thrones finally getting to the Red Wedding. For fans of the books that’s THE event, the most devastating and surprising section of a series built on devastating surprises, and the moment that they protect the secrecy of just to witness reactions of new readers. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talked many times about how this was the scene they wanted to shoot from the very start, and there was so much anticipation built around it that they needed to stick that landing perfectly. And stick it they did: “The Rains of Castamere” was a stunning episode of Game Of Thrones that did justice to the scene, dread gradually building as the band struck up the titular Lannister as Roose Bolton and Walder Frey violated guest right and led Robb Stark and his bannermen to ruin. It was as brutal and uncompromising as we could have hoped for, a bloody excision of what had been a major part of the show up to that point (and one that also inspired a fantastic Red Wedding Twitter feed from people who were less pleased by what happened. And Red Wedding aside, there was plenty of other great stuff—Bran manifesting his warg powers, Jon’s deception exposed to the wildlings, Daenerys taking the city of Yunkai. Plus, Hodor!
On the other side of the coin, there were few episodes of television more purely entertaining than Justified‘s “Decoy,” which saw Drew Thompson finally in custody with a race between the marshals and the Detroit mob to get him out of Harlan first. I talked at length about this one with Alasdair Wilkins at The A.V. Club last week, but suffice to say this was pure Justified gold, offering up some of the season’s best moments—Tim and Colt having their marvelous Elmore Leonardesque phone call, Constable Bob proving that people underestimate him at their peril, Shelby telling stories of Arlo out of his mind on acid in Vietnam, Raylan and Boyd once again throwing down the gauntlet to each other and reminding us of the show’s central conflict. Every performer on the show was at the top of their game this hour, and I could spend a lot more words quoting every awesome line of that script.
But this year, I think there’s no contest over the most powerful episode of television this year: Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias.” Look upon Vince Gilligan’s works, ye mighty, and despair. Regardless of what you thought of the finale two episodes later, “Ozymandias” was a brutal and uncompromising hour of television that brought Walter White’s empire to colossal ruin. Hank Schrader, the closest thing the show had to a hero, was gunned down in the desert by Uncle Jack. Jesse Pinkman was devastated emotionally by the revelation that Walt had observed Jane’s death, and conscripted as a Nazi cook. And Walt, for all his efforts to find one master argument that made sense to everyone, lost everything: his money, his pride, his surrogate son, his family. Every moment of the episode, from Walt pushing the barrel through the desert to the knife fight in the White kitchen to his real/feigned rage at Skyler over the phone, was gorgeously agonizing to experience. Perhaps most painfully, the episode began with a memory of Walt and Jesse’s first cook, showing the “innocence” of those early days when not wearing pants (pants we later saw in the present-day desert, one of the show’s greatest callbacks) and baby names were the biggest issues. And then it all gradually dissolved, Jesse, RV and Walt slowly fading away to the empty desert. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Andrew Rabin: I was ready to suggest an episodes based category, so I’m glad we’re here. Cory said best episodes, and I’ll let you all discuss “Ozymandias” and “Hitting the Fan,” as I watch neither series (though I did watch “Hitting the Fan” and was quite entertained).
Personally my best episodes were “Cooler” from New Girl, the finales 30 Rock and The Office, and the pilot of The Americans, but none of those are the episodes I want to discuss. The episode I want to discuss is the one that succeeded with the highest degree of difficulty.
In any given year, the episode with the highest degree of difficulty would be the finale of a beloved series or a pilot of an anticipated show. That was not the case in 2013. In 2013, a former hit in its last legs was given one unanticipated hour in the spotlight due to events beyond its control.
My episode of the year is the third episode of the fourth season of Glee, “The Quarterback.”
Ryan Murphy and the Glee team are never the masters of subtlety, so writing an episode centered around the death of a central character, Cory Monteith’s Finn Hudson, because of the real life death of the actor, was going to be a challenge for them. The series main protagonist, Rachel, is portrayed by Lea Michele, who was dating Monteith in real life. Finally, addressing death with Glee‘s audience, not quite as mature as the audiences for shows like Cheers, The West Wing, or 8 Simple Rules, but not unaware of death like the audience for Sesame Street, presents it’s own challenge.
“The Quarterback” was not perfect. It was not as flawed as a standard episode of Glee, but it was not ideal (The lack of Diana Agron’s Quinn is a big deal and should be, but likely will not be, addressed when she returns in 2014). But the execution, overall, was on the level of only the series very best episodes. The display of varied responses, particularly from Mark Saling’s Puck and Naya Rivera’s Santana (albeit with silly stories involving stealing Finn’s letterman jacket and assaulting Sue), showed a depth of emotion Glee is rarely evokes, particularly in its later years.
And then there was Rachel. By not having Lea Michele appear for the first 40 minutes or so of the episode, the show held back what it knew would be its biggest emotional punch (apologies, Mike O’Malley). Michele’s performance, one which must have been exceptionally difficult for her, is a reminder of why she is a Broadway star and an award nominee for this show. It is, at once, gut wrenching to see her pain and promising to see her doing what she does best even after this tragedy.
I have not watched Glee since this episode. I will come back for the 100th episode spectacular and maybe occasionally, but this was the breaking off point for me. It was not the best episode of the year or my favorite episode of the year. But given the circumstances that it was facing (including, after all, that it is Glee, and by that alone it could go off the rails), it was one of the best executed and most memorable episodes of 2013.
Julie Hammerle: I loved many of the episodes mentioned above (especially “The Cooler,” “Ozymandias,” and “Rains of Castamere”), but I want to talk about an episode of a show that just keeps chugging along, doing its thing while nobody notices. There has been so much talk this year about Scandal and how crazy Scandal is and oh-my-god Scandal. But nobody mentions its predecessor, the show that airs one hour earlier on Thursday nights on ABC. That show is Grey’s Anatomy, now in its tenth season.
Grey’s is known for its finales. Shonda Rhimes is the queen of Big Moments. She killed George. She killed Izzy (among other people). She crashed a plane with nearly all her doctors on it. And in the ninth season finale, she left Chief Weber for dead down in the basement of Seattle Grace (or whatever they’re calling it these days).
The finale was great, but the episode that really proved that Shonda Rhimes is a master at the shock and awe game was the Season 10 premiere, “Seal Our Fate.” I walked into this episode expecting somebody to go downstairs and find Chief and, well, that’d be the end of him. But no. What happened was that Shane, one of the interns (played by somebody who was, apparently, on that show Friday Night Lights everybody likes), effectively killed Brooks. He had been competing with Tina Majorino’s Brooks for Derek’s respect for much of the ninth season. Derek, who preferred Brooks, told Shane to look in the basement for Chief and to find Brooks so that she could assist Derek on a big surgery. Instead, Shane saw his chance and sent Brooks down to the basement to get Chief, so he could steal her surgery. Brooks fell, hit her head, and got electrocuted. And died on the operating table. Chief was rushed up to the OR and saved.
I did not see any of this coming, but all of it makes sense for the characters and the show (which isn’t always the case for Scandal). Shane has grown into more and more of a monster as the season has progressed, and his storyline has been one of the most compelling on the show. I find it amazing how this show just keeps sustaining itself. The old characters grow and change. The new characters become part of the fabric of the narrative. And I just spent, like, three hundred words gushing about Grey’s Anatomy. So there.
Greg Boyd: Obviously “Ozymandias” and “Hitting the Fan” are consensus top five episodes (and are two of my overall top three, with “To’hajiilee” being the other), but I’m going to go back way earlier in the year to highlight a couple of other favorites: among them “Victory”, the series finale of Spartacus, which I might very well rank as one of my top five series finales of all time. If you happened to be among the contingent that was slightly disappointed by the relatively subdued way Breaking Bad ended, then you really need to go watch this show. Because its ending was the exact opposite of subdued, featuring an epic final battle that was borderline Lord of the Rings-level in both its massive scale and stirring emotion. Almost no one survives, but it proved to be an appropriately glorious death for the likes of Spartacus, Saxa, Naevia, and others: and one not entirely devoid of tangible triumph, either, thanks to Agron and Nasir’s happy ending.
My other choice is from my second favorite show of the year, Enlightened. All of the eight episodes that aired this year are fantastic, but “The Ghost is Seen” is probably my favorite. Part of it is that I just relate to Tyler so much. His voiceover in this episode doesn’t describe my life right now with 100% accuracy, but the general tone of it is seriously on the money, and I can see myself basically being him in twenty years. I’m honestly not sure there’s ever been an episode of TV that has connected with me on such a personal level. And then, after all of that, they go and play Joanna Newsom (and one of my favorite songs of hers to boot) over the final scene and credits? Checkmate, Enlightened. Checkmate.
Andrew Daar: As Noel said, there deserve to be some Adventure Time episodes here. The fifth “season” has been airing since November of 2012, and it still has a few episodes left. Among the 60+ episodes this “season,” there have been many great ones, including the ones to which Noel alluded, which examine the adolescent Finn’s sexual maturation (see: “Frost & Fire” for a particularly good one). But I’m going to talk about an episode that barely featured Finn and Jake: “Simon and Marcy.” This episode expands on the fourth season’s revelation that a young Marceline knew Simon Petrikov before he descended into madness and became the Ice King. Most of the episode is an extended flashback, taking place not long after whatever event destroyed the society we ourselves live in, but well before the events of the series. Simon acts as Marceline’s protector in an increasingly hostile world, fending off physical monsters as well as seeking out shelter and medicine. But Simon is slowly growing mad; his greatest weapon against the monsters, a magic crown which grants him magical ice powers, is causing his sanity to slowly slip away, and he is repeatedly confronted with a choice between eliminating monsters and holding on to his mind. On one hand, he’ll never be able to keep Marceline safe without resorting to the crown’s powers. On the other, what good is he to her if he’s crazy? The episode is not only extremely emotional, it finds ways to wring emotion out of the most unlikely sources. The theme song from Cheers is used twice, first as a comforting symbol of something familiar (as well as something lost), and then later as an anchor, something for Simon to cling to as the Ice King personality begins to take over.
I would also like to mention “One Man’s Trash,” an episode of Girls that was even more divisive than normal. The episode is a look into Hannah’s character as she leaves her comfort zone with the people and personalities she is familiar with and ventures into the world of a middle-aged, affluent doctor. The only regular in the episode, other than Hannah, is Ray, and he only appears for two minutes, maximum, at the very beginning. After Hannah meets Joshua in the opening scene, the rest of the episode takes place in his gorgeous brownstone apartment, where he and Hannah have a weekend-long affair. With Joshua, Hannah initially seizes on desires she never before felt she could (likely knowing that this is just a romp that will end when the weekend does). As she grows more comfortable with the man, who comes off as kind and sensitive and approachable in ways Adam and Eli never were, Hannah lets her guard down and truly opens up about herself. When she does, Joshua’s kindness and sensitivity melt away, revealing someone who really did see Hannah as nothing more than a fun weekend distraction. This was the fifth of ten episodes in Girls‘ second season, and after the emotional injury Hannah suffered here, things started getting worse and worse for Hannah throughout the rest of the season. While she and her friends never have an easy time of things, she would soon relapse into OCD and end up back with Adam.
Emma Fraser: “Cooler” is my sitcom highlight of the year and it’s hard to top THAT kiss and the big Parks and Recreation wedding episode “Leslie and Ben” comes a very close second. It’s one of those Parks episodes that feels like it could be a series ender (and thanks to the near cancellation status of the show these happen with more frequency than most) as Leslie gets a victory and everyone contributes to the big plan. In “Leslie and Ben” it’s a twofold plan; stopping Jamm’s Paunch Burger while funding Leslie’s park and Leslie and Ben’s impromptu wedding. This is Parks and Rec at its best as it’s warm and fuzzy, while giving us glorious moments like Ron punching Jamm. I mean who doesn’t want to see that?! There’s also the tear factor and this is one sitcom that has me laughing and crying in equal measures.
One other sitcom that did this was the series finale of The Office and even though I hadn’t seen an episode since season six, I wanted to watch this last outing. As someone who hadn’t seen it in a long time and therefore missed all the really terrible episodes it does feel like cheating in a way, but I really like what I saw and as they all described what Dunder Mifflin means to them the waterworks kicked in. The Steve Carell return wasn’t a surprise but his “that’s what she said” entrance is perfect.
Another show I returned to that produced an excellent hour of television is The Killing, yep that’s right The Killing. Season three suffered from the same plot contrivances as season one (and I assume season two) and once again the performances are the best aspect of this much derided show. The reason why I came back was down to Peter Sarsgaard and in the devastating tenth episode “Six Minutes” he made this decision worth it. You could probably watch this as a standalone episode and it’s one of the toughest watching experiences I’ve had this year (the gut wrenching Southland “Chaos” would also be in this category). While this is turning into things that have made me cry rather than just the best episodes I will admit that by the end of this I was pretty much a sobbing wreck.
Like most I would include “Hitting the Fan” and “Ozymandias,” I’d also put “One Man’s Trash” up there. Pilot-wise The Americans, Hannibal, and Sleepy Hollow all perfectly capture the tone of their series while making me want to watch more. The Americans gets a special bonus mention for bringing TUSK into my life.
Kerensa Cadenas: There were so many outstanding episodes of television this year—I agree with everyone that New Girl’s “Cooler” and Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” (hell, most of Breaking Bad’s episode this year were outstanding). And I completely agree with Greg that Enlightened’s “The Ghost Is Seen” is one of best half hours of television this year
While I was supremely moved by “The Ghost Is Seen,” another episode of Enlightened that I really loved was “All I Ever Wanted” (directed by one of my favorite directors, Todd Haynes) which gives Amy Jellicoe everything she thinks she’s ever wanted. She’s well on her way to exposing Abaddonn, falls into bed with intriguing journalist Jeff and spends a weekend lounging around Los Angeles with a man who she can envision a future with. This is all upended when her ex-husband, Levi, returns home from rehab early. But he returns to Amy by giving her everything she wanted from him—he’s sober, wants to be together, have a family. Finally things are going perfectly, too perfectly for Amy, and she never prepared for the consequences of that possibility. It’s beautifully shot and ends perfectly to Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark.”
My other favorite episode of the year is a good companion piece to “All I Ever Wanted.” In a season that I didn’t entirely connect with, “One Man’s Trash” packed an emotional punch that I wasn’t entirely expecting. After dumping the coffee shop trash in a handsome doctor’s nearby brownstone, Hannah, after admitting to her crimes, ends up sleeping with the handsome doctor, Joshua, only to spend, not entirely unlike Amy Jellicoe, a weekend lounging with him—having sex, playing ping pong, reading the newspaper—two lonely people trying to forge a connection. In her twenty-something “poverty,” Hannah envisions Joshua—both him and his things—as another life path for herself. Both of them are using one another for different reasons but it echoes those fleeting moments where you briefly connect with someone at a very specific point in your life and never see them again. I thought it was beautiful and incredibly depressing.
Both episodes pose the question of what we do when what we seemingly want is right in front of us—and the results are beautiful, sad and complex.
Cory Barker: The benefit/downside of waiting to go last on these suckers is that many of my big picks have already been discussed (“Hitting the Fan,” “Ozymandias,” “Cooler,” “The Ghost is Seen,” Office series finale, etc.), so like a lot of you, I’ll pull some lesser-discussed efforts. One of the shows that has been weirdly absent from our discussions thus far is Mad Men. Though the sixth season wasn’t its strongest, mostly remembered for the Internet’s obsessive speculation over whether or not Megan was going to die, the show still turned in some really great episodes. I could talk about “For Immediate Release” and how fascinating it is that Matthew Weiner, like Don Draper, loves the thrill of the beginning of new things, or I could recall the straight-up wild experience that was “The Crash.” But I think it’s the season finale, “In Care Of,” that still stands out the most to me. Don’s “pitch” to Hershey is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series (and one of Jon Hamm’s best acting moments), and Ted’s retreat to California put a button on the season’s most interesting storyline. Mad Men always manages to pull things together in the finale that makes the rest of the season more powerful in retrospect and the moment where Don takes the kids to his brothel definitely did that for me.
And if we’re on the subject of shows that haven’t really been mentioned yet, how about The Newsroom? Season two saw a sizable improvement, despite the silly framing device. The apex of that good-but-dumb storytelling was “Red Team III,” the episode where the Genoa story all came crumbling down, jobs were threatened, and all hell broke loose. Had the show not already told us that the story failed the moment where Mac discovers that that SOB Jerry Dantana falsified video confirmation of the operation would have been even more powerful. And somehow, Aaron Sorkin managed to resist his urges and keep Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing off-screen until just the right moment and her “You’re not quitting” speech ended up as one of the season’s best SPEECHES, which is really all that matters on The Newsroom anyway.
Wesley Ambrecht: I feel like in the past we’ve mostly expressed one comedy episode and one drama episode that really resonated with us all. Folks have seemed to shy away from that this year but it was a format I was quite fond of, so I’ll stick to it.
On the drama front, I remain one of the few individuals truly in love with The Newsroom. In fact, I think season two tightened up most of what was wrong with season one and the show began operating on the highest level a TV series can, specifically with the episode “Red Team III.” After a season’s worth of hints at exactly what went wrong with the Geneoa story, “Red Team III” kicked pealed back the curtains and revealed the intricacies of an institutional failure. Wisely, the failure never made the staff seem bad at their jobs, only hungry to share what they thought was the truth. The moment when Dantana knows he’s been caught and tries to defend himself has a rawness to it that just landed for me.
My favorite episode of comedy also came from an HBO series, one that several of you have mentioned, Girls. But, for me, the sharpest episode was not “One Man’s Trash,” much as I liked that. No, it was “Video Games” that did me in. Jessa had largely been the weakest element of the series and I think Lena knew that even as she was writing the character and her wedding story. Then, we travel home with Jessa in “Video Games” and it was like a rug had been pulled out from under me. I tend to respond best to comedy that also has a healthy dose of sadness; take that as you will. So, while I was gut busting at the stuff in the woods and Hannah’s UTI issues, it was actually Jessa’s emotional confession to her father that seared this episode into my brain. I made my writing partner, who had abandoned the show, sit down and watch it and I would encourage all of you to do the same.
Up next: TBD