It’s been another outstanding year for television. With so many truly great and memorable episodes to choose from, I had to find some sort of logical way to whittle down this list to my top 10. This year it seems, I really loved episodes that wanted to be about something. I want my TV to take a hard look at topics that can be uncomfortable and shine a different light on them. I don’t want them to gloss over the uglier or more painful sides to humanity in service of a story. At the same time, I don’t want that ever be the whole focus. The best episodes are the ones that show a light ahead and connections being made between people even in the bleakest of times. The idea of connection and focus on relationships is so prevalent on this list, in both the top 10 and the honorable mentions. I love that this is the direction television seems to be going after the age of the solitary antihero and look forward to more fantastic episodes in 2017.
1. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson) This show tried to address a lot of things, many of which are found in this episode and all of which I find fascinating. But when I look at this episode in isolation and not part of the larger whole it is contained it, one thing stands out most in my mind. I remember Marcia Clark (as I should, given the episode title). I remember the sexism that surrounded her during this trial that manifested in ways large and small. While also prosecuting the biggest trial of her life, Clark was facing another battle. She was in the middle of custody and child support disputes. She wasn’t a good enough mother to her children because she wasn’t there enough. She wasn’t sufficiently attractive and well-dressed enough to win the public’s approval. And when she tried to change it, she didn’t do a good enough job there either. She dared to have her husband (at the time) take photographs of her naked on a beach, where they were presumably alone, and his decision to profit from their release became another flaw in her character. She failed to uphold traditional gender ideals and was punished for it. Yes, as a prosecutor, she and Chris Darden failed to convict OJ Simpson for a variety of reasons. But it would be foolish to act as though her gender didn’t hurt the way she was perceived in the years that follow. Sarah Paulson is simply incredible here in the way she portrays the toll things like this take on a person’s psyche. Her haircut made her feel confident. She was asked to care about it so she made a change and she felt beautiful. That confidence was quickly burst by the reactions of everyone in the courtroom, save for Darden. It was humiliating and hurt but she couldn’t show it because it would have made her weak. It would be yet another example of her failure to compose herself and be somehow unfit. So she blinked back those tears and pressed forward, knowing that the room and the world were now laughing at her. During all of this, she even had the pleasure of interacting with a store clerk who is so awful that I thought he was made up for the show. He wasn’t. Of almost everything she faces in this episode, all of which is gross and unfair, the period joke made by the cashier makes me the most mad. It is so intrusive and reiterates the idea that hormones and emotions make women unstable for a quarter of their lives from around the age of 13 until they hit menopause. The idea that you would make such a comment to a stranger as a joke is appalling to me, even more so because I know it’s not an isolated attitude. But even in the midst of all the awfulness, all is not dark. In the hardest times in our lives, sometimes we’re lucky enough to find someone who will hold us up when the burden in too much. In this episode, we see how much Darden was that person for Clark. He supports her, encourages her, and makes her laugh at a time she felt most alone. That connection is something special and beautiful and important and I love that it was highlighted here as well.
2. Twenty-Two (You’re the Worst) This episode is the best that You’re the Worst has and possibly will ever create. It’s episodes like this that make me love the show so fiercely, even when Gretchen and Jimmy are being nearly unbearably awful. In 25 minutes, Stephen Falk’s directing and Desmin Borges’s acting give us the most visceral example of PTSD that I can remember seeing on television. We not only see what Edgar is going through with the action onscreen, but we are put in his shoes with the ringing in his ears that never quite goes away and the lack of focus. We feel how broken down and exhausted he is by trying to survive day to day in a world where everything around him feels threatening and takes him back to his days in the military. Despite the heaviness of this episode, all hope isn’t lost. Just when Edgar is at his lowest point, he finds something that gives him a reason to hold on. It leads him back to his car, which is in the process of being towed, and he finally finds someone who is willing to listen to him and who can truly understand what he’s going through because he’s been there before. It’s a moment of pure connection that brought tears to my eyes. On a character level, I love that this moment made Edgar feel like he had the power to make changes for himself. It’s scary to know that you’re the one who is ultimately responsible for changing your life. But it’s scarier to believe that it’s entirely out of your hands. We can’t always fix the broken systems that surround us but we can do what we can to make a better life for ourselves despite their limitations. It was the message Edgar needed to hear. He was hoping that there would be a magical fix that could make him feel alive again because it’s exhausting to exist as he does. But letting go of that idea and committing to fixing yourself as best as possible is the only way to get the power back to truly start living. On a larger scale, I love the compassion that this episode has for veterans and the systems that may be well-intentioned but fail them anyway. It never loses sight of the twenty-two veterans who commit suicide daily and give this episode its name. It extends empathy for their struggles and shines a light on what they face after returning from war. It’s not always comfortable for civilians to think about and their struggles often get overlooked once they’re home. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t take episodes of television to make us care about real world issues like mental illness or police violence. But to deny the power of this medium to make abstract struggles personal and understandable to people without direct experiences with them would be a mistake and it is my hope that this episode made people think and feel and care just a little more than they did before.
3. The Threshold (Halt and Catch Fire) What a magnificent episode. As is not at all atypical for me, this one’s a tough one to watch and I love it. It hurts to see these characters implode. It hurts to see the relationships these characters have formed explode. I will admit to not being much of a Joe McMillan fan. I am aware that he has a story line in this episode but for me, it pales in comparison to what happens at Mutiny. No matter what combination you put them in, the actors were magnificent. We saw the entangled weave of personal and professional connections among the core four of Mutiny and how that became their undoing. We saw relationships solidify or come back together only to be destroyed in the end. In the hands of lesser actors or writing, it could have felt manipulative. For Halt and Catch Fire, it felt right. The characters all made the decisions that made the most sense for them and their development. Had it strictly been a business dispute or a personal fight, it would not have had nearly the same impact. No one exemplifies the lack of separation between business and personal than Cameron Howe. She was Mutiny. It was her. She had a vision of what the company could be and she poured her entire being into making that vision come to life. It didn’t always make business sense. She was terrible at delegating and there was no way to create what she wanted in the time frame she was given. So to reject that vision instead of a deal that seemed to make more business sense was to reject her and what she had given to the company. And when everyone voted against her, she felt that loss on a personal level. She lost a partner, a mentor, and a friend. All she had left was her husband, who she spontaneously married during a time of emotional distress. While the relationship wasn’t terrible, it lacked the foundation she had with Donna and Bos. Donna tried to keep things separate at first. She thought she could have Cameron’s friendship and also her own vision for the company, knowing it conflicted with Cameron’s. But when the disagreement about the business became heated, the attacks quickly became personal. The choices made in that room on that day broke what they once shared. When no compromise could be found, all that was left was destruction. It took out Cameron and Bos’s recently repaired relationship and what was becoming a sweet friendship between Cameron and Gordon with it, but at the end of the day, those severed bonds were only casualties of the rift between Cameron and Donna. It’s tense, painful and brilliantly constructed and acted.
4. Pineapples in Paris (Rectify) During group, Avery tells Nate “You can’t go back and undo what’s done” to which he replies “but you can go forward and do what’s right.”. Breaking free of your past is difficult, whether you are saying goodbye to a person or an idea. With just a few episodes to go until the end, this is the episode where characters finally move forward and do what’s right for themselves and for those around them. That theme carries through Janet’s decision to sell the tire store and whether she should stay in her marriage to Ted. It’s the driving force in Teddy’s request for Tawney to grant him a divorce. It’s the motivation for Bobby Dean’s words to Teddy and Sheriff Daggett sneaking information to Jon about Daniel’s case. Daniel isn’t quite ready to go forward but he took the first step to getting there by admitting that he was assaulted in prison to Chloe. His past still has a chokehold on him but for the first time, he’s surrounded by people who want to see the new Daniel he can become and will support him in that. Chloe may not be able to save him, but she’ll hold him and be there for him as he works through things. Pickle, Nate, and Avery can’t erase Daniel’s trauma but they can remove him from situations that bring back those memories and pain. They can entertain Janet and Ted while he’s out and change around room assignments so he doesn’t have a hostile roommate. This is a pivotal episode in defining who these characters could be in the future and the acting is nothing short of incredible across the board but I especially want to recognize two members of this extraordinary cast. I don’t know that Clayne Crawford and Adelaide Clemmons have ever been better scene partners than they were when their characters decided to divorce. It was time to let their relationship end and you could feel Tawney’s momentary relief that she was free but didn’t mean it didn’t hurt both of them deeply. It was in this moment that you could really see how far Teddy has come as a character. He still loves Tawney but he had to admit that he wasn’t what she needed or wanted anymore. He was gentle with her as he finally put her first even though his heart was breaking. It was the kind of scene Rectify is best at, raw and unashamed of the emotions it draws out in its characters and the audience.
5. Girl Meets A Christmas Maya (Girl Meets World) I love Christmas episodes and this one has become one of my favorites. The Secret Santa plot is a celebration of these friends and what they have come to mean to each other. Though at one point or another, Lucas (who wasn’t here for this), Zay, and Smackle have been outsiders to the lifelong friendships of Riley, Maya, and Farkle, the addition of each has brought something new and special to the group and the dynamics within and that is beautifully displayed here. They were gifts of growth. Some were about the growth of deeper friends. Another was an affirmation of friendship and love while the other explored new parts of their identity. Others were about celebrating the growth a person has already done. All were beautiful. That theme of growth carried through the second plot of the episode. During season 3, Maya lost some of the hope that she gained in season two. Old insecurities popped up and made her unsure of herself and she was back in armor-mode, ready to cut things loose before they had the chance to hurt her. At least some of this loss came from Riley’s decision that Maya was trying to turn into her. She meant well, because Riley would always want what’s best for Maya, but she was wrong. Yes, Riley had changed Maya, but that wasn’t a bad thing. She encouraged her to embrace hope and the possibility of a brighter future but it didn’t take away the things that make Maya her own person. Riley thought she needed the Maya that used to be, the broken girl who needed fixing, but in this episode, she realized that wasn’t who Maya needed or wanted to be. She needed to embrace the new life she was making for herself, even if it meant a little less time with her best friend. Riley has grown enough to let her best friend to the same, all while trusting in their unshakable bond. It’s a huge step for both of these characters, for Maya to take the chance on Shawn again and for Riley to encourage it, no matter what the consequences to her. It was not only an uplifting episode, but an important one for these characters and who they are becoming.
6. Hope (Black-ish) What an incredibly powerful episode of television. We need this story from this perspective. We need shows that are able to have tremendous impact because of both the specificity and generality of what is being said. I can hurt and be angry and horrified alongside Black Americans at the continued killings of Black men and women at the hands of the police but I will never have to think that it could be me or a member of my family. It’s not my community that is being disproportionately targeted. These writers and this cast can tell this story from a perspective that I can’t have and I appreciate so much that this show exists for that reason. Pilot Viruet wrote a great review of this episode for the AV Club that I would highly recommend reading about the specificity of this episode and why it resonated so strongly with her. But the general concept of continuing to have hope, particularly in those moments when everything seems most hopeless, is something that everyone can understand and relate to their own life. This is an episode that felt different to me now than it did when it first aired. I know I need that reminder to hope more than ever, even when things seem dark. Many times, it’s all we have. We have to believe that things will get better and stand along side others who feel the same way. It is up to us to make a better world for future generations and we can’t do that by giving up or writing of the system as hopeless. It’s a hard choice to make. It’s easier to let your anger and frustration turn you apathetic or cynical about the possibility of change. Holding on to hope doesn’t give us all the answers. We may still feel helpless to fix things but without that hope, what are we fighting for? If we don’t believe things can be better, how can we convince others that they need to be?
7. The Day the World Went Away (Person of Interest) In this episode, Root tells Shaw that this is the first time she’s ever felt like she belongs. Despite the war going on, despite the fact that they are fighting a battle that they may very well lose, despite the fact that no one’s life is anything like they might have chosen on their own, Root wouldn’t go back to the person she was. They’ll all come too far to ever go back. Shaw couldn’t unlove Root if she tried. Reese would be dead by now if Harold hadn’t reached out to him that first day. Fusco would either be dead or locked up after HR fell. They may not be quite whole or happy, but they have a family. They are cared for and fiercely protected. Everything they have been through together in the past five seasons have led them all to exactly the point they are now and in this episode, we see that there is no one that is more true for than Harold. He’s watched the people he’s cared for be hurt and killed in service of the world he created. He was the architect of the future that either directly or indirectly killed Nathan, Joss, Elias, and Root. He was pushed to the point he had so desperately tried to avoid and pretend wasn’t inevitable and when he breaks, it is nothing short of chilling. Fans of LOST will know that Michael Emerson is very good at playing characters who are in complete control of themselves while being terrifying because you know the hell they are capable of unleashing. That was never Finch, not really, until this episode. His monologue is incredibly written and performed and a true highlight from him for the run of the show. We go from the deadly promise of his words to the heartbreak on his face when The Machine calls and tells him it’s chosen a voice. Root’s voice. There is no better legacy for this special character. The Machine she loved and devoted her life to, the god who brought her a family and a woman with a great shape to love and flirt with at awkward times, chose her to be her spokesperson. Root was right, death doesn’t mean that we’re gone. She’s still there, doing the same work she did before and protecting the people she loves just as fiercely. She’s just unlocked a new set of abilities and now gets to be one with the god she’s spent the most meaningful years of her life in service of. It’s a death that hurts, for the audience as much as it does for the characters. But it was a death that honored who Root was and though not in physical form, she remains a part of these characters until they join her in The Machine.
8. Fall (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life) This episode was everything I could have asked for in the revival. Like most viewers, Rory’s story wasn’t the primary draw of the season and as a fan of Rory and Logan, I will never understand the choice to have them cheat on a forgettable boyfriend and a fiancee. But despite my many issues surrounding that relationship (and Rory in general), their goodbye scene was among the best Alexis Bledel and Matt Czuchry have shared together. It was bittersweet but full of the love these two will always share for each other. The real draw of this episode, however, was everything related to Lorelai. As I mentioned earlier in my year-end coverage, Lorelai’s phone call to Emily was incredible. We needed the story as much as Emily did because it fits so well into what we already knew about their relationship. It was distant but never contentious in the way that Lorelai and Emily’s has been. Lorelai needed the moment to grieve what was in order to move forward and that is exactly what she did when she got back to Stars Hollow. She planned a wedding. It gave her the certainty that she needed to change her relationship with Luke. It’s fitting that just like her first proposal, it came after a classic Luke Danes rant about how much he cares. He’s a curmudgeon to basically everyone he meets but he has always cared so deeply about the Gilmore girls, no matter what his official relationship status with Lorelai. Just like it was fitting to choose “Reflecting Light” as the backing track for their wedding montage. It brought us back to that first moment Lorelai realized what that relationship could be and it carried them into their next stage together. It’s been a long but satisfying journey to watch those two evolve from the first scene in the pilot episode and this was the best way to honor that journey, with a firm declaration of a happy life for the two of them. Finally, the final Gilmore girl branched out and took control of her life in a way that has never been possible. She found her own unconventional family and a life that suited her after Richard’s death. She’ll carry his memory and love with her for the rest of her life, but now she gets to rebuild in much the same way that Lorelai did when she left for Stars Hollow all those many years ago. Just as Rory finds herself in a similar situation to her mother, so Emily does as well.
9. Halloween IV (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) Creating a yearly episode of a comedy is hard. You can’t just repeat all the same beats as previous versions, there needs to be something that sets it apart and makes audiences excited for another edition. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done that with their yearly competition for the best detective/genius in the precinct. There was so much to love about this year’s entry. Most importantly, Cheddar makes everything better. He is the most adorable dog and it feels right that Captain Holt was preparing for the competition so far in advance and training Cheddar for that purpose. Just as it felt right for Amy to have a holographic model of the precinct on a flash drive and recommended reading for Rosa to fully understand the reasoning behind everyone’s code names. Of course Jake would hire a male prostitute to look like Boyle and distract everyone and of course Gina planned an elaborate scheme to beat them all. All of these comedic details work because we know these characters. It’s payoff for three seasons of character work and it makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. That’s where the brilliance of this show and this series of episodes in particular lie. Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn’t doing anything way out of the ordinary when it comes to comedic form, it’s simply doing what it does very well.
10. Nevermore (The 100) This is probably not one of the ten best episodes I saw this year but it is one that I love the most. First off, Lindsay Morgan is fantastic in this episode. Her ALIE-controlled demeanor is so different from the Raven we know and there is a brutality to to the way she fights to free herself that reminds me a lot of Eva Green’s brilliant portrayal of Vanessa Ives. Second, I love the way ALIE fights. In order to get people to join her, she finds their deepest fears and insecurities and pushes them until they are ready to break. It’s brutal and vicious and absolutely fascinating to watch from an audience’s perspective. All those traits that lie under the surface of a performance are made explicit and we’re allowed into the headspaces of these characters in a way that was especially appreciated in a season where important character moments were often neglected. It’s also a very relationship driven episode. We see Sinclair’s love for Raven and his worry that the might save her at the risk of the thing she most values. We see the distinct bond The 100 share in Monty’s words to Octavia. Yes, by birth they are part of Skaikru, but that was a world who sent them down to Earth to potentially die. The connections they’ve formed with each other and the experiences they’ve shared together are what kept them alive and keeps them strong. Finally, we have Bellamy and Clarke. This is the first time they’ve seen each other since their fight in Haldekama. They are hesitant around each other and not quite sure where they stand any more, but it doesn’t stop them from leading together and tending to each other because that is who they are at their cores. They are the people who take care of each other all while feeling unworthy of that care for themselves. When ALIE’s words are too much, Bellamy steps in so Clarke can get herself out of the situation. When Bellamy is confused and unsure because he realizes that his part in the massacre might have been wrong and harmful to other people who had done nothing to hurt him or his loved ones, Clarke’s the one he goes to for reassurance. The episode ends with these characters affirming their commitment to saving each other and saving the world and it brought back all the initial reasons I fell in love with the show and the sense of hope I found in their connections to each other.
Honorable Mentions: Sound of Silence (Grey’s Anatomy), When Will Josh See How Cool I Am? (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Sticky Hands and a Walk on the Wild Side (Mom), Chapter Forty Four (Jane the Virgin), Episode Four (Fleabag), The Day Tennyson Died (Penny Dreadful), Faith (Outlander), Christmas Special (Sense8), The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears (The Americans)