One moment can say so much. It can fittingly conclude a character arc, provide a moment of sweetness, move characters forward, and capture the theme of a show. We remember the ones that touch us in some way and carry them with us as we remember the show and its impact on us. As always, there were too many to choose from and my final selections are all over the place as far as tone goes but I feel like they are a good representation of what I loved most about TV this year. There is so much character growth and catharsis in these scenes as I watched the characters I love move forward in much-awaited and surprising ways.
1. Philip and Elizabeth get married (The Americans) It was never supposed to be real. They were put together to have children and spy for Mother Russia. They weren’t supposed to fall in love along the way. But they did and we’ve gotten to watch it happen. At a time when Philip is drifting further away from the cause and even Elizabeth is getting tired, they chose to make a vow to each other. They pledged that no matter what happened, their love was real. It’s a simple scene. There aren’t elaborate vows, a wedding dress, or even very much light. No one else is there, it is just the two of them and a priest performing the ceremony entirely in Russian. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’s performances are so understated but moving. This is something neither of them thought they would ever have. It’s not something they’re supposed to have, even now, but they are so sure. The love on both of their faces is impossible to miss. There is a peace and vulnerability in Elizabeth’s expression and it’s all the more beautiful for its rarity. She lives in a world with carefully constructed walls, full of identities that allow her to be whoever she needs to be to get the job done. But here, with her husband, they all fall away. She’s allowed to just be Nadezhda. She doesn’t have to play a role with him any more because it’s real now.
2. Donna and Cameron imagine their next company (Halt and Catch Fire) One of the most important relationships on this show was the one between Donna and Cameron. After a shaky start in which both pre-judged the other, they came to an understanding and found something each needed in the other. They cared for each other and became a part of each other’s families then both got stubborn and Donna broke Cameron’s heart. The trust they had in each other was shattered and they couldn’t even occupy the same space without fighting. Gordon’s death reminded them that life was short and they didn’t want to spend it fighting. They apologized for everything they had done to each other although they were still hesitant to ever mix their personal and professional lives again. But that fear didn’t stop them from dreaming together. They visited the former Mutiny office and reminisced about good times before taking a leap into an imaginary future where they built a second company, fixing many of the mistakes the made the first time around. They dreamed of a company where they could be true partners, where they were still the same people who made the same choices but didn’t let those choices break their friendship. They gave themselves a second chance to do better. This time, in their new history, they walked away together. It let them heal some of those old wounds so that when inspiration actually did strike Donna, they were ready to face it together.
3. Jules confronts Nate (Sweet Vicious) Eliza Bennett is extraordinary in this scene. She is angry and hurting and raw in a visceral way that I felt deep in my gut. Rape is used as a device on television far too often but we rarely get to see the lingering effects on the person raped. It may fuel someone else’s revenge arc or simply be dropped all together, but viewers aren’t forced to confront the fear and anger and pain felt by the survivor. Especially when the person responsible remains in your life in some capacity, as Nate has for Jules. He can lie to himself and everyone else that it was consensual but Jules refuses him that comforting lie in this moment. She tells him she said no. She tells him he physically kept her from saying no again. She tells him exactly what he took from her and who she is now. It is honest and brave and powerful. Nate had convinced himself both that he had gotten away with it and that Jules wanted it. Both those illusions are shattered here. And none of it was for Nate’s benefit. He’d already proved that the desires of others meant little to him if it meant getting his way. This was a moment that was solely for Jules and what she needed to say. The focus was exactly where it should have been and it’s stronger for it.
4. Meredith wins a Harper Avery (Grey’s Anatomy) After 300 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, I am still invested in Meredith Grey and the rest of the characters who have come and gone. There was no better way to honor this milestone than to spotlight the titular character and have her accomplish another one of her professional goals, with the people she loves (and the ghosts of those she has lost) surrounding her. This half of the dark and twisty sisters is not the person she was in the pilot. She has loved and she has lost and she keeps going and keeps reaching for more. She knows her skill and she lets her hunger and competitive spirit push her forward. There are few things better than watching characters you love achieve their dreams and for many seasons now, this has been one of her dreams. As Jackson said, she’s lost a lot but it’s clear from Richard’s supportive hand on her shoulder and Bailey’s proud face at one her two remaining original ducklings, and Alex, Maggie, and Zola’s beaming faces in the galley that there is still so much love in her life. She gets to celebrate this victory with people who know exactly what this means to her and that includes Cristina, who I have no doubt was watching the ceremony from Switzerland. She may no longer be on the show but she is far from forgotten to us or Meredith and I loved seeing that confirmed with the ending phone call. It is a testament to Shonda Rhimes, Krista Vernoff, and Ellen Pompeo that this show can still make me cry so much 13 seasons in.
5. Raven chooses life (The 100) This is one of those moments that highlight why television and its slower storytelling is so good. It’s a moment that means so much more because we’ve seen everything that’s come before it. We’ve seen Raven struggling to adjust to her injury and learning what it means to live with pain every day. We’ve heard her confess that she feels broken and less than what she used to be. ALIE’s code made her powerful. It made her mind, the part of herself she was always confident in, even better than it already was. But it was also killing her. It was a price she was willing to accept, if it meant saving everyone else. That was her value and she would risk everything and push herself beyond her limits to save humanity. It also meant she got to keep the super-powered brain and be free of pain and all the limitations that frustrated her. Seeing all of those things and understanding Raven and who she in the unique way that we’re able to as people who have watched her journey for 4 years made her decision so much more powerful. The reappearance of Sinclair as the angel on her shoulder made me sob. He has always believed in her, not just for her abilities but for who she is. It was Raven the person who was extraordinary, not just Raven the youngest zero G mechanic in history. And at some point in time, she internalized that and pulled that belief in herself out when she needed it the most. It was her confidence and security in her own worth that was passionately defending herself against the insecurities and doubts in her mind telling her that she couldn’t do it. It’s beautiful and empowering and filled me with pride for this character who has come so far.
6. Jaime leaves (Game of Thrones) I’ve been waiting for this moment for years and this scene was everything I could have asked for. As unhealthy as their relationship is and as much as it has frustrated me at times, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey are fantastic scene partners. They are completely captivating and bring out the nuances in this very broken relationship so well. There is a lot of manipulation in this relationship but there is also love, at least as far as they have always known it. We get to see all the excuses Jaime has made for Cersei over the years and the willful blindness to her actions and true self fall away as she defends a choice he believes will kill them all. Cersei’s plotting with Euron isn’t just a political betrayal but a personal one as well and it’s one that hits Jaime hard. He finally sees just what Cersei will do to maintain her power and it’s a future that doesn’t seem to include him, no matter what she may have promised in the past. Meanwhile, he also made a promise and it’s one he is unwilling to break. He needed to help Westeros survive and he needed to be the knight he once was, the one that killed Aegon Targaryen in order to save Kings Landing. The one who chose to disobey orders for a greater good and who broke one oath in order to keep another. The one Brienne thought he could still be. Cersei and Brienne have always represented two different paths for Jaime to take and he finally realized he was on the wrong one. This is what his arc has been slowly building toward and I can’t wait to see its conclusion next season.
7. Shawn adopts Maya (Girl Meets World) I’m still disappointed that this show was cancelled but the finale gave us this moment for two of my favorite characters so I can’t be too upset. Of the many Boy Meets World characters who were brought back for Girl Meets World, Shawn was the best used. The boy who was always wandering and looking for a place of his own to belong grew up into a man who fell in love with an amazing woman and her daughter. He got to be the person who was there for Maya after she felt abandoned by her dad and who helped heal that wound in her that he recognized all too well. He got his happy ending that was fitting for both the boy he was and he man he became. Maya, on the other hand, was my favorite on Girl Meets World from the beginning. This fiercely loyal girl who was afraid to hope because hope meant getting hurt found someone she could trust and believe in and it wasn’t a romantic relationship that did it for her, but a paternal one. When she met Shawn, she was afraid to let him in. She did, but always with the belief that one day it was going to fall apart. She wasn’t a person who got good things and he was something good for both her and her mom. She wanted him to stay but was afraid to trust in it. But he did. He married her mom and wanted her involved and around. He promised her he was going to be there no matter what. And he proved that to her in the most tangible way possible. He wanted to adopt her and give her his name so that they were linked together forever. He wanted for her what he didn’t get with Jonathan. I wanted that for her, but more than anything, I wanted her to believe that she could have nice things happen to her. I wanted her to believe that she deserved those things. She learned that maybe hope wasn’t for suckers and that she had parents and friends who were going to be hers no matter what. Distance or time or difficulties couldn’t tear them away from her. If we had to leave her story, we did so with her in the best possible place.
8, Dani confronts her parents (sense8) My most consistent theme of the year in my fictional preferences was that family is what you make it. There is not a singular model or ideal to aspire to but rather a collection of sizes and configurations and the freedom to choose and define the relationships in your life. And that’s what this scene is. It’s Dani choosing her family and her home and that is with Lito and Hernando. It’s a different life than the one her parents planned for her (the one that involved her marrying an abusive jerk) and though their concern for her may be genuine, it is also manipulative. They want her to have a good life of their choosing, not her own. They want to maintain the control they previously held on her and treat her like a child gone astray in the process. Fortunately, Dani’s not alone any more. As soon as Lito and Hernando see Joaquin, they move toward her and shield her. They aren’t going to let anyone take her anywhere she doesn’t want to be because she is theirs as much as they are hers and each other’s. Family fights for each other and we not only see it with these three but also with Lito’s sensate family when Wolfgang shows up to lend a hand. Lito means well and was willing to fight Joaquin but he knows the only reason he won last time was because Wolfgang intervened. It was a relief to see him show up looking like there was nothing he wanted more in life than to punch the jerk who just insulted his friend. Wolfgang will fight, not just for Lito, but for his family as well. The threat works and though still shaky from the encounter, Dani gets to stay. She gets to be wrapped in hugs and given lots of cute kisses on the shoulder and head and know that she has found the place she wants to be and the people she wants to spend her life with. You can’t help but let their affection for each other warm your heart and smile at the family they’ve made.
9. Sheila’s party (GLOW) It’s a good feeling to find the group of people who will see you and accept you just the way you are. Sheila feels better and the most like herself when she puts on her wolf makeup and outfit. It’s not a costume or something she puts on for the benefit of other people, it’s something she does to make herself feel good. In her fellow women of GLOW, she’s found people who accept that, even if they don’t fully understand it. They care about her and want to celebrate her and that includes taking her out for her birthday. Though hesitant at first, she ends up having a great time with people who care about her. She’s a character who could so easily have been dismissed as a joke and to see her so embraced and compassionately treated by the writing and her friends was one of the biggest treats of the season. It is also important to be the person who gives their friends that acceptance and space to be themselves and that is exactly what we see from Stacy and Dawn. They have been fairly minor characters in the show and haven’t gotten quite as much development yet, but their actions in this moment speak volumes about who they are. They took the time to research what Sheila’s age would be in wolf years so they could have the right number of candles on her cake and it’s weird and beautiful in the way true friendship should be.
10. Digital Get Down (The Good Place) Yes, I did pass over moments that were by most measures better than this scene. But I’m not sure that anything else gave me the specific kind of delight and surprise that this music choice did. Jason and Janet’s wedding was already pretty great to watch but the decision to have them dance to an obscure song off an old NSYNC album put it over the top. It is perhaps the only time this song can or should ever be used in a TV show and is only going to land for a very small segment of the audience but as I am part of that segment, it was perfect. I love this album and it was a reminder of my early teen years that thrilled me.
Honorable Mentions: Elena’s quinceañera (One Day at a Time), Dre’s “Lemons” monologue (Black-ish), Claire and Jamie’s fight (Outlander), Allison’s coming out (Fresh Off the Boat), Jacqueline takes the weights (The Bold Type)