Choosing the best episodes of the year is always tough because it can be tricky to compare against many different types of shows. Ultimately, as always, I opted to discuss the ones that touched me the most. Whether it was for a standout moment, a departure from the ordinary, the relationships showcased or saying goodbye to a show, these are the episodes I could watch again and again. They were executed well and made me feel and there isn’t a better qualification, in my opinion.
One Last Ride (Parks and Recreation) To close out seven seasons of the show, Parks and Recreation chose to spend their final episode by reflecting on these characters and how they have been changed by knowing Leslie Knope. For a character whose dreams always included the happiness of her friends, I can think of no better ending. The unique structure allowed us to peek into the future and know that these characters had bright lives ahead of them. We got to say goodbye to each of them individually before we got to celebrate one final moment of them working together to make a difference in a small, rather unappreciated way. We got one more chance to celebrate the friendship between this intense, occasional steamroller of a woman and her beautiful tropical fish (and cry many tears at their reunion). We got one more look at the unconditional support and belief that Ben Wyatt has in his wife and got to see Leslie accomplish everything she had ever wanted. We even had time for one last library joke. Nobody does anything alone. Leslie taught us that has she achieved all of her goals with the people of the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana by her side. It is a beautiful message and the only real way to say goodbye to this beautiful show.
Stingers (The Americans) A single scene and its fallout elevate this episode into one of the best of the year and the best thing The Americans did in an incredible season. This scene wasn’t loud or splashy, but instead was quiet and almost painfully tense. For the first time in her life, Paige’s parents decided to be honest about who they were. It was a question she had every right to ask because no one can pretend that their life is perfectly normal. It was also a question whose answer she was in no way prepared for. Her parents were similarly unprepared to tell her the truth though I’m glad they did. They understood what they were asking of Paige even if I think they overestimated what a teenage girl could reasonably be expected to bear. And so they told her with as much compassion and love as they could muster because despite their history and everything they have been asked to fake, they’ve never needed to fake their love for their children. This scene was so affecting because you could feel Philip and Elizabeth’s need for Paige to understand and accept what they were saying just as much as we felt how overwhelming all of this information was to Paige in this moment and for the rest of the episode. Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Holly Taylor are all so talented and made this a scene and an episode I won’t forget.
Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television (Community) There was no other way for Community to end. The final episode needed Jeff to come to terms with himself and be wonderfully meta about the role television plays in our lives. This episode was Dan Harmon’s thank you letter to his fans. It was an acknowledgement of the show’s ups and downs and a statement of his vision and everything he put into creating such a weird little show that never found mass success but inspired a dedicated following. It was his frustration of the way the show was received by fans and an admission that it’s hard to create a TV show that is everything each viewer needs and wants it to be. Saying goodbye is hard, whether it’s to a show you love or to your best friends as they go off and start new chapters in their lives. But things can’t stay the same, in television or in life. Change is needed. People need to move on and grow so they don’t end up in a permanent stasis that isn’t true to who they are. This episode was about welcoming that change and by making it as much about TV and the viewers as it did about the characters, Community gave us a fitting end so we would be ready for whatever the future held for the show.
The Devil’s Mark (Outlander) In this episode, Claire found out that that she wasn’t the only time-traveler in Scotland and Jaime found that that Claire was from the future. These two events changed Outlander and solidified the bond between Claire and Jaime. From now on, these two are full partners, with the knowledge that they have chosen each other and their life together. When a character is keeping a secret as big as Claire’s, we know as viewers that it can’t last forever. Eventually, someone one has to find out. Often times, it gets revealed for an easy source of drama, but Outlander chose to go a different route. Jaime may not understand how all of this was possible but he listens and he chooses to trust his wife and let her decide how she wanted to move forward. Their separation at the stones was painful because you could see the effect it was having on both. They got married out of necessity but the love between them is real. Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have incredible chemistry with each other and they sell the epic love story that is Jaime and Claire. Their reunion at the end and the tender kiss they share says what words couldn’t at the moment. Claire no longer wanted to go home. Or rather, she didn’t want to go back to her own time. She did choose to go home but that home was now wherever she and Jaime could be together.
Officer of the Year (Playing House) This episode is everything I love about Playing House in one neat little package. Keegan-Michael Key is in a tux. So things were already pretty great but then he came out and found Emma surrounded by beautiful soft lights and they almost kissed but didn’t because Emma says a boyfriend and neither of them is that kind of person but for that moment, I really wanted them to be. This was the episode where both of them admitted (sort of) to Maggie that they wanted to be together and made us want that too. The focus of this episode is really on Emma and Mark’s growing feelings for each other but it also had Maggie being the wonderful friend that she is to both of them. She loves them and wants nothing more for them to be happy and that comes through in everything Maggie does. From the discussion in the bathroom where Emma was just not ready to hear what Maggie wanted to tell her about Mark to the final scene with Emma high-fiving her for her successful sex the night before, we felt their friendship and the long history between them even when it wasn’t an explicit focus and it just makes me feel warm and happy to see them together.
Fast Enough (The Flash) This episode concluded a wonderful first season of The Flash while opening up a new set of possibilities for the show. It was an emotional episode that made me cry at numerous points, largely due to the sincerity Grant Gustin brings to his role as Barry. That sincerity was key in this episode as Barry interacts with many of the people who are important to him as he grapples with the decision to go back in time and try to stop his mother’s murder. Nora’s murder and Henry’s subsequent incarceration was a defining moment in the life of Barry Allen, but not in the way that is normally seen in superheroes. His tragic past didn’t give him a brooding need for justice or harden him. Instead, he is primarily defined by his heart and his genuine desire to help others. Which made it all the more heart-wrenching when he succeeding in time travelling, only to be informed by another time-traveling version of himself that the events in his past needed to stay as they were. However, he was allowed one final moment with his mother, which he used not for himself, but to reassure her that her son would be alright. That’s who Barry is. He is the man who fights crime because of the lightest parts of him, not the darkest. He is the man who saves the world because it’s the right thing to do and he has the power to make a difference. This episode is entertaining but it is also a tribute to Barry and everything that makes him special.
There Is Not Currently A Problem (You’re The Worst) This episode kicked off a truly incredible arc for You’re the Worst. I went from laughing at Jimmy’s pretentious, unaware explanation of the meaning of “hakuna matata” to hurting for Gretchen as she told Jimmy about her clinical depression. I want to shower Aya Cash with awards for her work in this episode. Her explosive rant at her friends was painful to watch but in a very different way than her scene with Lindsay. The range of emotions and anger and fear Cash took us through with Gretchen was simply remarkable in this episode and all the ones that followed. More than anything else in this episode full of wonderful moments, it was the simple conversation Gretchen and Lindsay had after Gretchen yelled at everyone that grabbed me the most. Gretchen had just been completely awful to everyone, including Lindsay and rather than get mad at her, Lindsay offered her understanding and compassion. She may not fully understand Gretchen’s depression but she does understand that Gretchen can’t deal with it alone. Being vulnerable may be scary for these two but it’s often the best option and Lindsay knew it was what her friend needed most in that moment. She needed to share all of who she was with Jimmy, even if it was big and scary and hard to deal with.
Johnny and Dora (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) This episode is basically perfect to me. Mike Schur does romance better than pretty much anyone else on TV right now and this episode was pure joy for Jake and Amy shippers. I already love the “fake dating/marriage” trope but then to top it off with a beautifully sincere moment where Jake and Amy actually share what they love about the other and their final kiss makes this everything I could have wanted for these two. Plus, there was a lot to laugh about in between their cuteness, mostly their awkwardness at being professionals who work together and Boyle’s enthusiasm about a potential relationship between them. This episode also brought the battle between Wuntch and Holt to its peak, as she removes Holt from the Nine-Nine. While Kyra Sedgwick and Andre Braugher were excellent scene partners, I grew a little weary of their characters’ issues with each other. However, it brought us the lovely moment of Holt’s departure speech and Gina declaring her loyalty to him, so I can’t complain too much. This episode was all about showing how far these characters have come from the beginning. Jake and Amy were in a place to admit they had real feelings for each other, Holt admitted how much he cared for everyone in the precinct, and Boyle showed that he could be a true friend to Rosa beyond the crush he had on her at the start of the series. It was a fantastic end to a strong second season that left me excited for season three.
The Word (Black-ish) I want more network shows to do what Black-ish did with this episode. I want them to confidently tackle complicated and controversial topics instead of shying away from them. I want to see more diverse representation on TV that allows for different members of the same group to hold different opinions because minority groups aren’t monoliths. I want shows to inspire others to share their experiences wrestling with the same topic in their own lives and to inspire passionate, positive discussion. This is a fantastic episode of television. It was bold, smart, and unafraid while still being funny. It pointed out the n-word long (mostly negative) history and the issues surround its reclamation. It didn’t present easy answers for anyone in the Johnson family but rather provided the viewers with a space for discussion and better understanding. Pulling off something like this, while remaining true to the space and tone already created on a show is tough. Too often, something like this would have fallen into “Very Special Episode” category and would have lost some of its effectiveness. It was a fantastic way to kick off the second season by demonstrating just what Black-ish is able and willing to do and presenting more evidence of the value and richness that comes with promoting diverse faces and voices on TV.
Little Scorpion (Penny Dreadful) This episode was the calm before the storm. Vanessa left London with Ethan accompanying her for protection and for a time, everything was OK. He vowed to protect her, she surprised him with her shooting ability, and they got to spend a little bit of time being happy and being free with each other. They revealed their hidden (or not so hidden) demons and opened themselves up to each other and I think they both almost believed that things could stay like this. But one stormy night, with the rain coming down around them, a kiss snapped them back into reality. It was a comfort and solace with the other that Vanessa couldn’t allow, not with all the risks involved in being close to her. She gave in to those demons and crossed a line Ethan couldn’t tolerate. She opened herself up to the evil and the power that is ever present within her. She gave into hatred and vengeance and those moments she shared with Ethan were lost. This season and this episode in particular showed the importance of contrast in a show. If everything is bleak, one more act of pain fails to make the same emotional impression. Once these characters have experienced connection and happiness, the pain of losing that is sharper but the respite makes that pain bearable for the viewers. We got to see Vanessa allow herself some happiness before the events of the finale and it made a world of difference.
Honorable Mentions: Knockoffs (Broad City), Wrath of the Lamb (Hannibal), Looking for a Plot (Looking), The Hauntening (Bob’s Burgers), Birth (Once Upon a Time), Chapter 25 (Jane the Virgin), May God Bless and Keep You Always (Parenthood)