Unsurprisingly, many of my favorite episodes this year dealt with the idea of connection in some way (or the lack of it). There’s our connection with ourselves and our desires, connection with our friends and family, and connection with our cultures. They are about seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole and the confidence and power that brings. No one does anything alone, we need each other to create a better and functional world. That will always be my favorite kind of fiction and it was a good year to see that reflected on TV in a variety of ways.
If you want more year end fun, be sure to check out all of MGCircles’s lists as well!
1. You Wanna Roll With This (Playing House) This episode is perfect. In 21 minutes, there is not a single misstep. This show is always full of warmth and laughter with just the right amount of weirdness but this episode goes above and beyond. This cannot have been an easy experience for Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham to relive and fictionalize but the fact that they had just been through this together makes all the emotion that much more real. It’s a serious episode and a serious arc but the show never gets too bogged down in worry and unnecessary drama. It’s always treated as something Emma will survive, even when characters give into their natural concerns. The guest casting in this episode is flawless. Laurie Metcalf makes an appearance as Emma’s oncologist and Michaela Watkins as her plastic surgeon, both of whom are the sort of doctors anyone would want on their team. They are the best at their job and their bedside manner is the right amount of comforting but firm (especially on the “no Googling” rule) and I can’t imagine anyone else more fitting for the roles. I’ve already talked about Emma and Maggie but this episode really shows that these two are the best. They are on each other’s team forever and it’s consistently beautiful to watch. Similarly, Emma and Mark are so easy and free together. It’s the natural extension of where they’ve been headed since Emma moved back and the history between them just makes this second chance even sweeter. They know each other and have seen each other at their worst and weirdest and they still love and chose each other. No one ever compared to the other and all those years apart didn’t chance that. They tease each other with the ease of people who have known each other for a long time. It’s completely without venom and so full of affection that you can’t help but smile watching them. And those are just the main relationships! Even in the minor characters like the rest of the police squad and Dr. Ericson, there is so much love and kindness toward Maggie and Emma that makes me cry every time. I cannot say enough good things about this episode, it truly is the best of an incredible show.
2. You Get What You Need (Big Little Lies) Everything about this episode is stressful as the lies and secrets that these women are keeping from the world come tumbling out. While Madeline’s breakdown during the fundraiser is important as she confesses her infidelity to a supportive Jane and it gets everyone in one place for the extraordinary conclusion to this episode and season. But the star of this episode is Nicole Kidman and everything she puts into her role as Celeste with a strong but terrifying supporting role from Alexander Skarsgård. From the opening scene, the tension builds as Celeste comes to the realization that she has to leave. She can’t pretend things will get better any more, not after it’s clearly starting to have a negative impact on the man Max is growing up to be. By the time Perry calmly tells her that she missed a call from her property manager about her apartment while calmly checking Max’s loose tooth, the tension became nearly unbearable and stayed that way until the end. Things were reaching their boiling point and there was no going back. We got momentary bouts of relief as other characters pulled the focus away but it isn’t fully released until the beach scene. It is masterfully done. As Celeste stands her ground, Jane recognizes the face of the man who raped her. The horrified look on her face clues in Madeline who gets Celeste’s attention and it is the three of them against the world, with Renata joining their union. Seeing these women stand together is an emotional experience. No matter what has happened in the past, they are united in their attempt to stop Perry. Bonnie is finally the one to get rid of him and their group expands once more. And by stopping this man together, they find unity, peace, and freedom. They found they are stronger together and its together that they will build a better future for their children, without the petty rivalries of the past. Watching these women support and care for each other was beautiful to watch and I am so glad it got the recognition that it did. We don’t see enough of it but it’s a start.
3. Late (The Handmaid’s Tale) This was a fantastic episode of television that I never want to watch again. This episode was designed to be chilling and horrifying and it accomplishes that goal well. Alexis Bledel is the best she has ever been as Ofglen is forced to watch her girlfriend hang before forcibly undergoing female genital mutilation surgery. It was intentionally one of the most upsetting moments on TV this year and both Bledel and director Reed Morano deserve the praise they received for creating it. Regardless of anything else, that portion of the episode was always going to be hard to watch. But there was a world where the rest of the episode would still have been powerful but had a less visceral impact. The nature of this book and similar dystopias is that something in them will always feel relevant. They are a critique of one or more aspects of our current society and those often change pretty slowly. This book felt resonant when it came out in the 80s, it felt resonant when I read it in 2012, and it still feels resonant today. However, seeing the way the US turned into Gilead may have felt less timely if we didn’t have a Speaker of the House who belongs to a party who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade who says we need to get our birth rates up or a Vice President who won’t be alone in the room with a woman who isn’t his wife. Nothing changes instantaneously but more and more freedoms are stripped away until we realize we no longer live in the world we thought we did. Seeing that change and hearing all the things that the citizens of what was now Gilead let slide was a stark reminder of how easily we can be led down a dangerous path as long as a nice justification is given to us. I wouldn’t have minded this portion of the episode feeling a little more theoretical but that’s not the world we ended up in. It was also a stellar episode for Yvonne Strahovski, who gave us a nice look at life as one of the privileged women in Gilead. She has more perceived freedom and actual power over the Handmaids and she will use every bit of that when she isn’t given her way, but even when it isn’t her body, she’s still defined by her ability to bring children into the household. The change in her attitude when she learns that Offred isn’t pregnant is scary, but unsurprising. There is no solidarity between them, Offred exists only as a means to get what Serena Joy desperately wants. That kindness she displayed wasn’t genuine and was easily ripped away. We can feel her longing for a child and have sympathy for her while also being disgusted at her attitude and Strahovski finds that balance well in her acting. The acting, writing, and directing are all extraordinary in this episode which only served to make it more difficult to watch.
4. Juneteenth (Black-ish) What a way to kick off a season. This is the show at its best, not because it worked in several Hamilton-esque musical numbers, but because it was unapologetic. As a country, America hasn’t been interested in looking too closely at the unpleasant parts of our history. They happened, yes, but they were a long time ago and surely can’t still have any effect now. This episode forced us to confront it. It should have made everyone question why we celebrate the things we do. Why there are statues honoring Confederate leaders but not the end of slavery. Why we gloss over Columbus’s actions because at some point, he got good branding with the catchy “in 1492” phrasing. It was uncomfortable to watch and that’s a good thing. We have to confront the ugliest parts of our history and the way they still impact people. It is the only way we’re going to move forward, by first recognizing that the playing field has never truly been equal for all people. I feel like it’s been well-established at this point that I will love virtually any musical moment in a show and this episode was no exception. They were smart and staged well and lit beautifully. This cast is so talented and it was a terrific spotlight for them. And Dre’s “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams” shirt was a fantastic bit of costuming. It, along with the rest of the episode, made a powerful statement. It wasn’t just an episode designed to give the audience a specific message, it was also a big one for Dre’s character development. His decision to stop turning down his blackness to make others more comfortable and accepting is a strong moment from him. Even if the rest of the country won’t join in, he can celebrate Juneteenth and recognize its meaning. This is the version of the show that has always worked the best and it felt like a conscious choice to fully embrace that in its fourth season.
5. Game Night (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) Though this show chose to celebrate an episode milestone with their 99th episode, their 100th episode was also a fantastic distillation of all the things that makes this show great. In each other, these people have found a very weird but loving family. Yes, they may break your two wine glasses and your bathroom within minutes of showing up at your apartment, but they’ll always be there to support you and let you know you’re not alone. Stephanie Beatriz is simply incredible in this episode. There is a vulnerability that exists alongside Rosa’s hard exterior. She’s still the same character we’ve always known, but now she is sharing her truth and that is always a scary thing. We want the people who love us to see us and accept us. Jake is Rosa’s oldest friend. They’ve been through the academy together, they’ve worked side-by-side for years, and they even have the shared experience of prison. It makes sense that he would be the person Rosa leans on as she navigates coming out to her parents. It doesn’t exactly go well. Her parents struggle to understand and are dismissive of her words and the import behind them. The scene at her parent’s house was terrific. The show and Rosa got to dismantle so many stereotypes about bisexuality while also being a sharp look at the way heteronormativity can blind us to seeing what’s in front of our faces. Yes, Rosa’s mom was also in sharp denial that her daughter also liked women but it’s not the first time people have been presented with something clearly intended to be romantic only to dismiss it because it features two people of the same gender. And while Rosa and her dad find some sort of peace with each other, there is now a distance between them that had previously been starting to close. When one family lets us down, it’s important for us to have other people who are right there willing to take their place. Rosa may have been uninvited from family game night, so Jake and the rest of the precinct brought it to her instead. Jake’s gift already had me in tears (seriously everyone, don’t sleep on the treasure that is Jake Peralta) but then you put Andre Braugher and Stephanie Beatriz in a scene that might be the most emotional and genuine these two characters have shared and I was a mess. These are not characters who speak their feelings aloud or particularly like to admit they have them. Captain Holt’s coming out was a dramatically different experience for him and I like to think his words to her were the words he would have liked to hear back then. This episode also marked Chelsea Peretti’s return from maternity leave as Gina realizes that the 9-9 is also her family and she doesn’t want to leave it for good. I love that it was Amy and Charles of all people who helped change her mind. They’ll never be the closest but it doesn’t mean they don’t actually care about each other and want each other around. This family wouldn’t be complete without each one of them and the specific things they bring to the table. And what Gina brings is a sense of fabulousness and ability to slay mortals in their tracks, as she reminded everyone in the Cyber Crimes division.
6. The Liberal Chokehold (GLOW) So often, penultimate episodes of a season exist primarily to set up the finale and don’t have much to say on their own. This episode gave us three character moments that did so much to help us understand who Debbie, Ruth, and Sam are and what GLOW means to each of them. For Debbie, it’s a way to reclaim her body from the men in her life. The focus is on what she can do, not just what she looks like. She gets to be more than the pretty face in a coma on her soap opera, and Mark’s wife, and Randy’s mom. Her body is hers and she gets to train and learn to do amazing things with it. For Ruth, it’s a way to find herself. She’s been so full of insecurities and doubts and worries about what other people expect of her and want her to be. She has a desperate drive to be liked above all else but the result was losing her sense of self. By becoming Zoya and learning to embrace being disliked, she’s freeing herself to discover who she really is and who she wants to be. Her insecurities caused her to lose her best friend and now she has to learn how to come back from that. For Sam, it’s always been a means to an end. In his own mind, he is the stereotypical tortured genius whose brilliance is unrecognized. But the show knows better. He’s pretty much a garbage human being who is more off-putting than anything else and who will never actually see his visions come to life because he’s too busy complaining about what he should already have. His dreams vanish before his eyes as he realizes that his movie will not only never be funded because Bash is out of money, but has in fact already been made by someone else and is a huge success. It unmoors him and he turns to the only things he knows to comfort himself with – cocaine and women. Unfortunately, he learns the woman is his daughter who is now disgusted with him for being unable to recognize women as anything more than potential sexual partners. She admired him long before she knew him but it only takes a few moments to shatter that image of him and for the true picture of Sam as a dysfunctional jerk to emerge. This episode crystallizes and clarifies our view of these characters moving into the finale and the writing and acting are phenomenal. Ruth and Debbie’s conversation with each other is one of the best moments in the first season, particularly Debbie telling Ruth how sad she is that Ruth broke their friendship. For all the great character work, it’s also really funny. I laugh at Marc Maron’s delivery of “you look like fancy Mormons” every time I watch and you can’t help but love the girl’s unplanned crack testimonials for all of their ridiculousness.
7. Praimfaya (The 100) This episode is an emotional rollercoaster. There are setbacks and victories and a whole lot of friendship and it all pretty much destroyed my ability to process anything the first time I watched it. This is the show at its very best for me. As usual, there are hard choices to be made but there is also hope and moving forward. As great as the actual plot pacing was, the highlight was the relationships that are able to be explored between the various members of the Adventure Squad as they prepared to go back to space. We see Murphy and Monty come to an understanding and appreciation of each other, the love each of them has for their respective girlfriends, the Bravenlarke trio of leadership greatness that has been one of the backbones of the series, the newly discovered and amazing friendship between Emori and Raven that I want so much of in season 5, the bond that was forged between Bellamy and Echo way back in Mount Weather, the solidity of Bellamy and Raven, and the love that exists between Bellamy and Clarke. All in 42 minutes and all wonderful. The connections between characters have diminished as the seasons have gone on and I was so excited to see them return in full force as they face a new challenge together. And no discussion of this episode would be complete without mentioning the time jump. I was not prepared at all. We end the season on a giant cliffhanger but most importantly for me, with Clarke in a much better emotional place and a whole new world of possibilities that awaits these characters as they reunite after 6 years apart.
8. Michael’s Gambit (The Good Place) This is always going to be the One with the Bad Place Reveal, if you wanted to give it a Friends-esque title. The zoom-in on Michael and his evil chuckle is perfection as is Kristen Bell’s delivery of “holy motherforking shirtballs” when she realizes the truth. It’s a finale twist on level with “We have to go back” and it was all carefully seeded throughout the season when you revisit it. It opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the show and I was thrilled about it. But it’s not my favorite thing about this episode. There were a ton of little moments I loved, like the “you were my flashlight” moment between Eleanor and Chidi and Vicky’s irritation that her big moment was ruined. These characters are all so delightful on their own and in all combinations that it’s easy to invest in them and enjoy watching them even when they aren’t moving the plot forward. The actual best thing about this episode, however, is how representative it is of who Mike Schur is as a creator. He took a group of people who were on the surface very different, who shouldn’t have fit together at all, and turned them into a team. They were specifically chosen to torture each other and they rejected that and made each other better instead. If that’s not the most Mike Schur thing to do to his characters, I don’t know what is. He’s all about groups of people coming together and being better and achieving more as a result. It’s an ethos that draw me to his shows every single time and I love that he always explicitly calls attention to it. The Good Place is a very different sort of show than Parks and Recreation but there’s a similar worldview that runs through them both and makes them a joy to watch.
9. Goodwill (Halt and Catch Fire) This episode is a gorgeous meditation on grief and the differing ways it affects us all. This was always a show about the way technology encourages connection and can also tear us apart but there is little of it to be seen here. The focus is on the people who were brought together over a new computer and were never really able to pull themselves apart. It is an extraordinarily human hour with fights, tears, laughter, remembrances, and isolation. It’s gentle in its treatment of each of these characters even when they aren’t always gentle with themselves or each other. No one really knows what to say in the face of grief. We rely on easy platitudes to capture a topic that’s hard to fully explain and share while also recognizing their lack of meaning. This episode never shies away from that while also taking this opportunity to reinforce connections. Donna and Cameron have a few scenes that allow each of them to feel seen and understood by the other. Joe may not be ready to talk and deal with his emotions, but Boz can feed him chili and take care of that need. Sometimes all that’s needed between sisters are open arms and a place to feel safe and together. When we leave this set of characters for the episode, they are all together around a dinner table, telling stories and laughing together as we pan out through a house that no longer belongs to Gordon but where his presence is still felt.
10. Witches (Broad City) No other show could have done this particular election take. Ilana’s orgasm difficulties are not on the surface the most relatable problem but they are entirely fitting for who she is and the things about herself she values. This year has been one of recalibration after the previous election didn’t go the way that was anticipated. There’s been anger and frustration and an almost endless series of distractions with a news cycle that seemed to move at light speed. Things that once made us happy have occasionally seemed pointless and those parts of ourselves we valued were temporarily dimmed. But, at least for me, the thing that has consistently been a source of joy for this year is the women in my life. It’s been my friends, coworkers, and the amazing women I’ve found on Twitter who have inspired me and encouraged me. Seeing what we can accomplish when we join together and listen each other’s differing stories has given me focus and clarity on who I want to be and how to let myself hold on to joy where I can find it. Similarly, it’s a montage of inspiring women who help Ilana break through and have her first orgasm since the election. The episode defines witches as women who in some way are living outside of societal expectations and there is freedom and community in the bonfire scene near the end of the episode. It doesn’t stop Abbi from dying her grey hair at the end of the episode but both end the episode feeling stronger than they started it. It was a relatable story told in a very specific, very Broad City way and it was the right choice for the show.
Honorable Mentions: And the Winner Is (Feud), Resist (Supergirl), Chapter 61 (Jane the Virgin), Eulogy (Better Things), Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story (Grey’s Anatomy), World Meets Girl (Girl Meets World), New York, I Love You (Master of None)