Good television doesn’t stop being good after some time has past. While we are in the midst of Peak TV and there is more new scripted shows on television than anyone can keep up with, there is also a lot that aired in the past that I missed out on the first time. I always try to have at least a couple older shows that I’m slowly working through and this year, they were among some of the best things that I watched. This collection of posts is all about celebrating the things that brought me the most joy this year and these 10 episodes definitely qualified.
Libertus (Spartacus) The last 15 minutes of this episode are such a glorious spectacle that only Spartacus could pull off. Not that the rest of the episode isn’t fantastic but the arena battle has stayed on my mind for the past 9 months. Starting with the most human of the battles, the fight between Oenomaus and Gannicus had so much emotional history behind it. They were best friends, they were brothers in arms, and both slaves to the House of Batiatus. They were also in love with the same woman and Oenomaus’s wife died in Gannicus’s arms. There was pain and anger and betrayal that infused each blow and it was captivating to watch these men fight each other and Gannicus being unable to take that final killing blow. Oenomaus always represented the best parts of Gannicus, the parts that he lost when Melitta died, and it was only right that he gave up freedom to save his brother. Then there was the larger plan on Spartacus’s mind. He wasn’t just going to free his men, he was showing up to the arena that day to burn it all down. Just as far as plotting go, it’s a brilliant move that opens up a whole new future for the second half of the season. It was a blow to the heart of Rome at the hands of the slave rebellion. It also solidifies Glaber’s status as a legitimate villain and not just a bothersome antagonist. Killing his father-in-law and the chilling way he reminds his wife that there is no longer a way out of the marriage she came so close to leaving is really the first time we see him as the monster he is. It’s his personal uprising and he will use his newfound freedom to crush all those who sought to belittle and undermine him. But what made it truly remarkable to me is the deeper level on which this show works. Yes, there is a lot of over-the-top violence and nudity and delightfully campy dialogue in Spartacus, but at its heart, it is a story about oppression and freedom. And in this episode, the oppressed rose up and burned down the institution that was used to justify their enslavement. They sent the message that they would no longer be used for the gain of others. Their bodies would no longer further the wealth of others. It’s a powerful message, not just within the show but also for the viewers. In the spirit of resistance that has characterized much of 2017, I can’t imagine a more mood-appropriate episode to have seen for the first time.
The Queen’s Gambit Job (Leverage) Narrowing this down to one episode of Leverage was nearly impossible because there are so many that I love. There are three things about this episode that make it one of my favorites (four if you count Sophie’s especially fabulous outfits). First, Sterling is such a compelling antagonist and his relationship with Nate is fascinating. These two have an underlying respect for each other even if it is coupled with a lack of trust. There is no one else Sterling would have gone to in order to get his daughter back and no one who would have understood why he needed a con to do so better than Nate. Second, there are few things I love more than Eliot Spencer being a disaster when it comes to his feelings and never has that been more apparent than in this episode. Only he would unthinkingly hug Hardison and then immediately be annoyed that he did and try to pretend that Hardison initiated the hug. The lingering effects of the drugs lowered his inhibitions and walls and his instinctual response was to be as affectionate as Hardison would probably prefer. But he won’t let himself have that because he doesn’t think he deserves it and attachments are dangerous and whatever else he needs to tell himself to maintain that grumpy facade. Finally, Hardison is one of the best fictional boyfriends in the history of television and this episode is the reason why. He lets the hug thing slide and recognizes that Eliot would probably feel better if he beat some people up and finds some for him while they rescue Sophie, which is delightful on its own. But where he really comes through is with Parker. When we’re at our least confident, we revert back to old and familiar tendencies. So when faced with a heist that made her doubt her ability to get the job done, Parker lashed out and yelled at Hardison about things weighing her down (physically and metaphorically) and killing her. And he responds with understanding and kindness. That was true for much of Parker’s life and he’s never expected her to resolve her past issues immediately. He knows that trust doesn’t come easy for her. So he reassures her that she’s not alone any more, that’s he’s got her back and will be looking out for her. He calms her and refocuses her, not just in training but in the middle of the heist when she starts to doubt again. He plans ahead and makes sure he’s not leaving her without an escape route so he gives her a parachute and the opportunity to jump from one of the tallest buildings in a row. It’s the best gift he could have gotten her and one that comes out of the deepest understanding of who she is. They aren’t just words to him, he’s gonna back it up with his actions and do whatever it takes to help Parker feel safe and comfortable. I need more men like Hardison and more relationships like this one on TV because they are perfect.
Punchline (Take My Wife) I was really mad when I watched this for the first time because I didn’t watch it in time to include on my end of the year list for last year. This episode wasn’t the primary motivation for starting this new list but it was certainly on my mind as I did so. I love everything Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher wanted to do with this show and this episode in particular. In 22 minutes, they talked about the Bury Your Gays trend, the proliferation of rape jokes in comedy, and misgendering issues in bathrooms all while being funny and in love and Cameron meeting her fictional celebrity crush. In the midst of all of the greatness, there are two moments that stand out for me. The first is Cameron telling Rhea that she loves hosting their show with her and that she loves her. These two are wonderful together. They have so much love and admiration for each other and that naturally bleeds into the fictional versions of themselves and their relationship. It’s authentic and sincere and still not something we see very much of on television. The second is the Me Too moment that comes near the end of the show. I watched this episode a few months before the Harvey Weinstein article came out and raised the cultural awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. It wasn’t something that was being widely talked about at the time and was (and would continue to be if someone wanted to pick up the show and put the first season back online) a powerful and important moment to see on screen. As a whole, this is an episode I couldn’t get out of my head and a show I loved with all my heart. It was special and its voice will be missed.
Jail Break (Steven Universe) I’m really bad about looking up spoilers for things that I haven’t seen yet, so it’s rare that I get to watch something completely unspoiled, especially when it aired a couple years ago. I don’t mind, I don’t think I’ve ever had my enjoyment ruined by spoilers but I was glad I was unspoiled for this episode. When Ruby and Sapphire finally found each other and fused into Garnet, Steven and I were identical in our excitement. First of all, even if this scene were just Ruby and Sapphire who remained two separate individuals, this reunion is adorable. Their love and concern for each other is so evident and I love it. But then the reveal that they were actually Garnet (who had been my favorite character from the beginning) put it over the top. Garnet is made of love. She exists because Ruby and Sapphire loved each other a lot and found that they were at their best when they were together. And that best is pretty amazing. It matters that this character who we had grown to know and love over the course of 51 episodes exists because of a romantic relationship between two women. It matters that Steven embraced them so wholeheartedly (as he does everything else). It is so important to show everyone that all types of love are valid and something to be celebrated and I love that this children’s show is addressing that. Then to makes things even better, Garnet goes on to fight the bad guy while singing a song about how the love that she is made from makes her stronger. It is my favorite song in the series because of its message. Shutting yourself off from people and doing everything on your own doesn’t make you inherently strong or better. Loving others and letting yourself be vulnerable with them is a strength and something to strive for. Also, when Estelle is one of your voice actresses, why wouldn’t you have her sing? Everything about it is wonderful. All of this takes place over just a few minutes but it made a powerful statement about what this show was to finish up its first season.
Born Again (Vikings) It became clear to me fairly early on that Vikings wasn’t going to be a show for me. I wanted different things than it wanted to give me but they were also telling one story I knew I would appreciate and so I knew I needed to make it through this episode. For reasons that are not fully clear to me, I love stories about characters losing and regaining their faith. I loved in on Penny Dreadful and I loved it here with Athelstan. Finally, after 2 seasons of being pulled between his original Christian faith and Ragnar’s Norse gods, he has a vision of Christ and is reborn. George Blagden did a phenomenal job conveying Athelstan’s excitement and his newfound peace. Both his baptism-esque rededication and the way he runs to tell Ragnar what has happened fill me with joy at the smile on his face. He was my favorite male character from the beginning and I’m glad I got to see the conclusion of his journey in this episode, even if it then broke my heart. Athelstan was not only my favorite guy on the show, he was also Ragnar’s favorite person (as Ragnar was his). That’s made very clear in the episode even before Athelstan’s death which both delights and pains my shipper heart, but the other triumph of this episode is the final scene of Ragnar burying Athelstan. It is some of the best work Travis Fimmel has done on the show and he makes Ragnar’s heartache palpable. The entire speech is fantastic and a beautiful tribute to the strength he saw in Athelstan from the very beginning as well as a glimpse into how broken he is by this loss and the thought of never seeing Athelstan again. It is the emotional work that so much of the remaining four episodes of the season stands on and one of the best glimpses into the mind of this fairly enigmatic character. There are other things I love in this episode (namely Bjorn and his newborn daughter) but it’s Blagden and Fimmel’s work here that makes it a standout even in a series I didn’t love like I wanted to.
Korra Alone (Legend of Korra) I love it when life-changing events happen to a character and they don’t immediately go back to the way things were. I want them to have the time to accept the change and work through it and take the time needed to heal. It’s so much more realistic (though more painful to watch) and reinforces the idea that it’s alright to need time to deal with things that have happened. It’s a reminder I often need. Everything about Korra in this episode breaks my heart but also feels so familiar to me. I understand her frustration that her healing will take time, not just with the concept in general but also the self-loathing that comes with that because you feel like you should do better. To make it worse, losing the ability to go into the Avatar state makes her feel cut off from a portion of her identity. If she can’t be the Avatar, then who is she? It’s a struggle we can all relate to at one point in our lives and it feels so real here. Korra’s PTSD and depression are handled with such care and as much as she feels alone, this episode makes me feel less alone. Katara’s patience and her friend’s letters help to an extent, but ultimately, it’s an emotional journey she needs to take by herself and that’s always been a message I’ve found empowering (and a little scary). They can give us the strength to look inside ourselves, but ultimately, we’re the ones doing the hard work. Korra may not find healing in this episode and she still has a journey ahead of her, but she did find the next person to help prepare her to take the next steps. Toph’s reappearance here THRILLED me. I love every single appearance of an Avatar: The Last Airbender character so that’s not a huge surprise, but it’s perfectly done, right down to Toph calling her “twinkle toes”. It’s this sort of emotional investment in characters that television is able to use so effectively and it excites me every time.
And the Point of Salvation (The Librarians) This is such a smartly crafted episode and a terrific spotlight for John Harlan Kim. When they’re well done (like Person of Interest’s If-Then-Else), I love time loop/repeated simulation type episodes and this one is done well. It’s genre-savvy and incredibly fun to watch while also doing fantastic things for Ezekiel’s characterization. Ezekiel has always been the most irreverent and seemingly least attached member of the group. He enjoys his role but I don’t think he’d mind going back to being a thief. But when faced with being the main character in the game they were trapped in, he had no choice but to lead and beat the game. He had to step up and save his friends and he did so time and time again. As the only one who had any memory of their repeated level restarts, he knew he was walking into pain and sacrifice every time and he accepted that so long as he could learn a little more, get a little closer to that next save point. He watched his friends die over and over again and while it didn’t stick, it had a lasting effect on his psyche. He realized how important these people were to him and that they were worth prioritizing, even over his own life. He willingly sacrificed himself for them not knowing that they would fight equally as hard to get him back. He may not remember that final sacrifice but his friends do and so does the audience. We now know exactly who Ezekiel Jones is when he needs to be. There is also a Leverage reference in the episode that thrilled me and the episode makes a convincing case for shipping Ezekiel and Cassandra with a moment that made my heart melt. It is a lot of things I love wrapped up in a well-made package and made me extremely glad to have started this show.
No Weddings and a Funeral (Younger) On one hand, this episode is kind of frustrating as we are briefly teased with the possibility of Liza coming clean about her lie. I wasn’t really expecting it to happen but it might have been nice. On the other hand, this episode is a look at a lot of the things that makes this show so good. Liza lived her life the way she thought was supposed to. She met her husband in college, got married, had a baby and moved to the suburbs. Then that life all went away when she got divorced. Now she’s getting a chance to do it all over again. She’s not 26 year old Liza, she has the benefit of more life experience and perspective on her side. But she does get to redefine herself and live a life of her own making. Maggie was right to think that her current life (though partially based on a lie) is more authentic and true to the woman she is trying to fit back into a divorced version of her life in Paramus. The relationships she’s formed with Kelsey, Lauren, and Diana stand in sharp contrast to her old friends and have made her more confident in her own desires. While said out of grief and embarrassment, Kelsey was right that sometimes it’s more important to let someone make their own mistakes than protect them from themselves. Liza was doing the right thing by urging Thad to come forward about the cheating and Kelsey deserved to have all the information before making her decision, but at the end of the day, it was her decision to make. It was an ugly fight but it was one between friends who have grown to trust and care about each other so much. It reaffirmed to each of them how important their relationship had become and their reunion at the end made me cry. And finally, no discussion of this episode would be complete without mentioning the kiss. I like Josh. He’s attractive and is sweet to Liza and makes her happy. But I want Charles for her as an endgame and as ill-timed as it was, the kiss was one of those exciting ship moments that make TV fandoms so much fun. It’s gonna be a long haul and more seasons of a love triangle than I would prefer, but I have a feeling they’re gonna be worth it.
Hard Sell (White Collar) Episodes don’t always have to serve a larger plot or have deeper thematic resonance. Sometimes you just want pulpy fun that makes you happy and that’s what this episode is to me. The whole first season of White Collar is terrific at finding that balance of characterization and focus on relationship dynamics while also writing interesting cases and a reasonably entertaining arc that’s not overly convoluted. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a well-made, fun procedural and it’s better for it. This episode in particular is 43 minutes of things I love done by characters I already care about after eight episodes and there is value to be found in that. The case itself gave me one of my favorite procedural tropes with Neal and Peter going undercover to stop an insider trading con that could have been straight out of Leverage. On top of that, we’ve got oxygen sharing, declarations of trust in life threatening situations, Peter being the most dramatic and protective friend, and Elizabeth telling Neal that Peter is the best thing to ever happen to him. We also get a chance to see that Neal really was as good of a con man as he was rumored to be. His ability to talk people into anything is on full display here as he charms his way into the company their infiltrating and it is not hard to see why people fall for it every time, thanks in so small part to the casting of Matt Bomer as Neal. It’s an all-around entertaining episode and a good example of the show at its best.
Cold Comforts (Rookie Blue) This episode is sad. The aftermath of character deaths always hits me harder than the actual death so a whole episode honoring Jerry and starting the healing process was always going to hit me hard. It’s one of the better episodes of this sort that I’ve seen, as much as it hurts to watch. It’s an episode that recognizes how different the grieving process is for people. Traci is heartbroken but doing her best to hold herself together, Sam is angry and pushing the people around him away, and Oliver is trying to stay in denial for as long as possible to avoid having to think of a world without Jerry. The episode has two standout scenes. The first is Traci’s visit with Gail in the hospital. These are not characters who have had the smoothest relationship. They get along and have spent a lot of time together, but they aren’t overly close. And Jerry died saving Gail. It made her feel so guilty she couldn’t even look at Traci, thinking it would be too difficult. But rather than a reminder of what she lost, Gail became a reminder of the man her fiance had been. They both have a lot of healing to do, but this episode lets them start the process together, holding each other up when they feel unsteady. The other was Traci reading the speech Jerry was planning on giving at their wedding, honoring his friendships with Sam, Oliver, and Noelle as well as his relationship with Traci. I have no doubt that is how Jerry would have wanted to be remembered. The whole episode feels so lovingly put together and not only honors the character himself but also the connection the viewers felt to him. For me, this is exactly how I want character deaths to be handled.