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Best TV episodes of 2012

We don’t just watch TV series anymore. We watch episodes, and scrutinize each one. Every week, viewers debate and celebrate every plot twist and joke, and bloggers recap them with the intensity of scholars.

So while Top 10 series lists are valuable — my list for the Globe is due later this month — TV demands closer attention. Some shows deliver fine episodes, even while their seasons may be uneven. Here are some of my favorites from the past year, with only one episode per show allowed. On a different day, as always, the order could be different, and some of the honorable mentions might have made it to the list.

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10.“Handle Your Scandal”
on
“Nurse Jackie”

We finally got to see Jackie clean and sober last season, and it was deeply satisfying after four long years watching her destroy herself and her family. In the season finale, Emmy-nominated Bobby Cannavale’s cold Dr. Cruz has to face his dead son, played by his real-life son, Jake Cannavale. Grief-stricken, he yells at Jackie, “Don’t say his name, it’s not yours to say.” It’s a piercing moment. Meanwhile, in another part of the hospital, O’Hara gives birth. Yes, one kid dies and another is born — it’s a cliché. But it worked, embodying the choice Jackie has had to make for herself. At the end of the episode, when Jackie says, “I made it,” it’s a beautifully earned victory cry.

9. “The Return” on “Girls”

The sixth episode of “Girls” was the point when I realized I’d grown attached to the show, and also when I realized that the character of Adam would become more than just a pretentious weirdo. In this half-hour, we get back story on Lena Dunham’s Hannah, who leaves New York and returns to her Michigan hometown for her parents’ anniversary. She’s on her way to adulthood in the big city, and she feels bigger than her high school friends; but she’s still small-minded and insecure. Her judgments are so clearly her fears about herself; the script, co-written by Dunham and Judd Apatow, makes that amusingly clear.

8.“Blue Bell Boy”
on “Boardwalk
Empire”

The central part of this episode, named after a nursery rhyme, was a play for three characters, as Nucky, Owen, and an ambitious 19-year-old named Rowland hid in a basement and listened to a raid through the floorboards. You think the guys are forming a lifelong bond, and wonder if Rowland could become Nucky’s new Jimmy. But Nucky is bent on showing no weakness, and, shockingly, he shoots the kid. Meanwhile, Al Capone vents his rage over the fact that his deaf son gets bullied at school, by beating a guy to death; then goes home to soothe his son. The episode, like the gangsters it portrays, toggles between violence and tenderness.

7. “Blackwater” on “Game of Thrones”

This hour was a mighty visual spectacle, and yet not alienating as so many visual spectacles can be. There was the traffic jam of armies on land and at sea, with explosions and a battering ram, and then there were close-up scenes of sword-fighting and hand combat. Most important, there were great character moments. To his own surprise, Tyrion emerges from his hedonism and cynicism to become an inspiring leader, telling his troops, “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.” Peter Dinklage is excellent, and so is Lena Headey as the drunken Cersei.

6.“Basic Lupine Urology”
on
“Community”

The sometimes brilliant “Community” tends to riff on other TV shows with an almost “Simpsons”-like fervor. This concept episode took that TV spoofery to a fantastic extreme, with a full half-hour parody of “Law & Order.” All the “Law & Order” clichés were in play after someone murders Annie’s sweet potato biology experiment. Troy and Abed were the cops with bad one-liners, Britta was the forensics nerd, and Annie and Jeff were lawyers. In the criminal justice system, laughs need to be had.

5.“Live Ammo”
on “Parks and
Recreation”

The entire fourth season of this lovable sitcom was a spoof of political campaigns, perfectly timed to serve as light commentary on the real presidential election. This episode, though, also goofed on a fake presidential election — on “The West Wing.” Bradley Whitford, Josh from “The West Wing,” played the outgoing councilman asking for budget cuts in the parks department; he and Leslie do a classic “West Wing” walk-and-talk shot; and he has an inspirational napkin framed in his office, as did President Bartlett. Even the title of the episode is from a “West Wing” line, spoken by Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, who is in the “Parks and Recreation” ensemble. In this episode, Leslie gets bad press for inadvertently closing an animal shelter, and April and Andy get a house full of animals.

4.“Fifty-One” on “Breaking Bad”

I could have listed almost every episode from the first half of season 5 as one of the year’s best. But this hour was a standout, as it put aside the action and zeroed in on the tense coexistence of Skyler and Walt and the explosive performances of Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston. He forces her to stay in the marriage, a domestic terrorist; she walks into the pool on his birthday, hoping to silence his voice. “All I can do is wait,” she tells him during their seething face-off. “Wait for what?” Walt asks. Her haunting response: “For the cancer to come back.”

3. The 37th season finale of

“Saturday Night Live”

The last show I ever expect to bring tears is “SNL.” But I loved the emotion on the stage as Kristen Wiig said goodbye, to the tune of “She’s a Rainbow” as played by Arcade Fire with Andy Samberg on piano. Holding back tears, she danced with each of her cast mates and, finally, Lorne Michaels. Then everyone, including guest host Mick Jagger, sang “Ruby Tuesday” while Jon Hamm, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, and Steve Martin danced along. Added bonus: The best-ever episode of “The Californians.”

2. “Far Away Places” on “Mad Men”

Roger Sterling was the last “Mad Men” character I expected to try LSD. But in this episode, his drug experimentation with his wife, Jane, is natural, hallucinatory, and, ultimately, revelatory. He and Jane reach a breakthrough in their understanding and break up; likewise, Don and Megan have a momentous blowup amid the orange nightmare that is Howard Johnson’s and orange sherbet, and Peggy and her relationship with her job achieves a new, lonely level. The three story lines intertwine in and out of order, infusing what is a relatively ordinary day with import.

1.“Daddy’s Girlfriend, Parts 1
and 2” on “Louie”

This two-par ter, especially Part 2, captures the darker side of the “Louie” experience. Louis C.K. drew many inspired guest stars to his show last season, including David Lynch and Melissa Leo. But Parker Posey was tops as a bookstore clerk who takes Louie on a date — a date that turns out to be a wild existential adventure. As they wander through New York, she pushes Louie to take risks, including dressing in women’s clothes, and she describes — and then displays — her emotional instabilities. She leans on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper, high on danger, aware of her mortality, wondering why she doesn’t jump. She challenges Louie’s stubborn passivity, and affirms it, too.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

“Smackdown Thaw” on “Happy

Endings”

“Jess and Julia” on “New Girl”

“Q&A” on “Homeland”

“Aunt Phatso vs. Jack Donaghy” and “Live from Studio 6H” on “30 Rock”

“Dead Freight” on “Breaking Bad”

The “Nashville” pilot

“Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a the Crackcident” on “Girls’’

The “Smash” pilot

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at
gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on
Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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