Year-end lists usually offer up our favorite TV shows. This year we thought we’d also single out a few individual episodes, since just one can make a world of difference inside a show’s universe.
These episodes revealed crucial plot turns or had us holding our breath. Some made us laugh out loud or simply left us in awe of how a single smartly written, well-acted story can stick with you for days.
(If you’re not caught up with these shows, warning: spoilers ahead.)
Orange Is the New Black
“Can’t Fix Crazy”
The cell block propinquity and feuding in the stunning Netflix series explodes in the season finale as Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, left) mauls ardent religious bully Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning, right) after being threatened by a crucifix doubling as a shiv. The veneer covering the varying states of character desperation throughout the debut season is ripped away in the final episode, leaving us slack-jawed with amazement and clamoring for more.
“The Better Half”
I was tired of friends complaining this season was moving too slowly. The languorous build made “The Better Half” all the more delicious and dangerous. With a background of a sweltering and violent 1968 New York summer, a slimmed down and confident Betty (January Jones) slept with her ex-husband (Jon Hamm), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) accidentally stabbed her boyfriend, Megan (Jessica Pare) fended off a co-worker’s Sapphic advances, and Bob Benson (James Wolk) launched a national debate about the merits of men wearing short-shorts.
“The Better Half”
Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) have a tryst! Megan’s (Jessica Pare) female costar makes a pass at her! Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) (accidentally) stabs her boyfriend! In an uneven season this episode offered pivot points for several players and reminded viewers how dynamic Hamm and Jones can be together.
This new workplace sitcom already has a lived-in feel thanks to a fine ensemble who got a chance to shine as a group in this episode. From the running-joke bingo game, to Captain Holt (Andre Braugher, standing right) hilariously caving in, to Detective Peralta’s (Andy Samberg, standing left) dramatic shenanigans, to Terry Crews’s hunger-induced mania, the precinct house nimbly closed the case.
American Horror Story: Coven
I adored AHS “Asylum” so much that I initially had difficulty warming up to “Coven.” But as the plot shifts from the young witches of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies to the storm brewing among seasoned actresses Frances Conroy, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Sarah Paulson, the show has officially cast its spell over me. I’m calling “Head” my favorite episode so far, but I anticipate the arrival of a witchy Stevie Nicks next month may change that.
The Good Wife
“The Decision Tree”
In a reinvigorated season this quietly simmering installment, the drama’s 100th, utilized the strengths of main players and guest stars alike. And the structure was genius, as we saw Will (a pitch-perfect Josh Charles) prepare his cross-examination of Alicia (Julianna Margulies) in a case that forced him to wrestle with his good memories, his heartache, his bitterness, and his innate sense of right and wrong.
Before this French show gets adapted for US television (the British are already developing their own), I beg you to watch the original on Sundance. In a small French alpine town, the dead are slowly returning. These are not rotting corpses clawing for flesh, but seemingly normal humans (including a serial killer), with no recollection of their deaths, trying to return to their normal lives.
Game of Thrones
“Kissed by Fire”
Although “Rains of Castamere” was the showier episode thanks to the bloody “Red Wedding,” this installment managed to cover a lot of bases. From the stunning confession of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in a brilliant monologue) of why he killed the “Mad King,” and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) warming each other up with their own kisses of fire, the episode was heartbreaking, slyly funny, and sexy.
This demonstrated everything that was so wonderful about the Tina Fey comedy (and everything that is woefully missing from most network comedies). Tracy (Tracy Morgan) attempts to direct an ornery Octavia Spencer in a Hariett Tubman biopic, Kaylee (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Devon (Will Arnett) spar with Jack over leadership of Kabletown, and private eye Lenny (Steve Buscemi) decides to live life as Jan Foster, high school drama teacher. Oh how I mourn this masterpiece.
“Everything’s Coming Up Mellie”
So often first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) is presented as a brittle villain. In this episode we learned how she became that way, working tirelessly — and in some cases silently being victimized — to get her husband elected. Young offered a complex view into Mellie’s soul, connecting the dots between the woman she was and who she has become with a silence that speaks volumes. Plus, in this episode we got the big reveal that Olivia’s mother, played by the dynamite Khandi Alexander, is alive.
S.R.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.
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