There were some truly spectacular episodes of TV this year. As always, the episodes I love the most tend to be the ones that highlight the relationships between characters. Whether it was people coming together to support each other or fracturing over hurts that were too big to be easily contained, each of these episodes work as well as they do because of the strength of the character work and the talent of the actors.
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1. Not Yet (One Day at a Time) This episode is a masterpiece. It’s basically a bottle episode that takes place at Lydia’s bedside and it is full of emotion, laughter, and so much love. Each of these characters has their own relationship with Lydia. Some are uncomplicated, like Alex’s love and understanding of who his grandmother is, while others are trickier, as Penelope’s was considering their fight that ended the previous episode. But she is a woman who these characters all admire and care for so much. We see that in their actions to make sure she looks like the vibrant, dramatic woman that she is and in their words, all of which make me cry. But where I completely lose it is from Penelope telling her that it’s OK to go if she needs to and Berto’s appearance. As a television moment, it’s brilliant and beautiful and made me extremely concerned for Lydia’s survival. It’s very good and that only barely matters to me. What it also does, and what I value more, is how much it reminded me of my own grandma’s death. She said it was time, that my grandpa had told her to hurry up. She was ready and we told her that it was alright to go be with him again. I defended my master’s thesis the day after getting home from her funeral. She didn’t get to see me graduate or my cousin get married the following spring. This episode brought me right back to that time and made me remember the incredible woman that she was. It reminded me of all the love that surrounded her. It captured that so beautifully and so perfectly for me that everything else, as technically impressive as it is because every single actor is at the top of their game here, fades in comparison. That’s the beauty of fiction for me – those moments that connect with the person you are and the life you lived so powerfully. This episode absolutely nails that and I’ll carry that with me forever.
2. START (The Americans) This is how you end a show – with perfect clarity about what your show is about and who your characters are. This finale was nothing like anyone expected. It was much quieter and opted for bittersweet over outright devastation. It was always a story about the Jennings and their marriage. It was a story of two people who loved their country and used that as an excuse to do horrible things. It was a story of having nowhere to belong except by the side of the person you unintentionally fell in love with. It’s not a spy show, just a show about two spies. No one dies in a hail of gunfire and no one really wins. The dramatic moment everyone expected of Stan discovering the truth turned into a twelve minute dialog-heavy scene in a garage and the show is absolutely better for it. The garage scene is going to be a highlight of Matthew Rhys’s career and as Phillip weaves just enough lies into a pained confession to his best friend in order to save his family. It’s heartbreaking and raw and you feel just how broken Phillip has been by everything, especially the realization that he has to leave his son behind. It’s a stunning scene in every single way and for all the words that are exchanged in it, the rest of the episode is comparatively silent. It lets the body language and facial expressions of this tremendous cast take center stage as they say goodbye to everything they know and start again in their home country that no longer feels like home. It is nothing like I expected and everything I needed from the conclusion of this extraordinary show.
3. Love is the Message (Pose) Billy Porter is phenomenal in this episode from start to finish. This episode in general is incredible and beautifully kind. Blanca and Prey Tell are the emotional core of this series and their hearts, fears, and vulnerability are on full display throughout this episode. The threat of AIDS was ever present in the 80s and this episode is a love letter to all who were lost and a refusal to let what they went through be forgotten. The cabaret Prey Tell organizes sought to bring life into a place that had experienced too much death and is one of those gorgeous acts of humanity that Pose does so well. His duet with Blanca is a standout moment of the year. Not only do they sound amazing, the song choice of “Home” from The Wiz perfectly encapsulates what this show is all about (which is echoed earlier by Angel as she talks to Patty and attempts to explain the concept of community as home). It is a place where there is love overflowing. And despite the very real fear that his community could have been wiped out and no one would care, in the end, Prey Tell promises to live. He promises to embrace life and everything that is to come because it won’t last. And he challenges Blanca to do the same. There is a reason this episode is showing up on every best episode list of the year. It’s touching and powerful in ways large and small. It makes the most of its characters while also being about something bigger and it pulls that balance off spectacularly.
4. Janet(s) (The Good Place) Holy motherforking shirtballs, this show is incredible. First of all, how freaking amazing is D’Arcy Carden for playing 5 different characters in this episode. She did a brilliant job and I will be needing award nominations next year. Second, that moment immediately proceeding Chidi and Eleanor’s void-stabilizing kiss used my favorite trope of someone listing all the things they know about another person and it just keeps becoming increasingly clear that they love them and it was already perfect before the kiss that brought them both back to their original bodies. This soulmate AU is terrific and I’d once again like to thank Mike Schur for writing such good romances. Finally, congratulations for beautifully blowing up this show once again. It had become increasingly clear that the whole points system was garbage. But to see the accounting office and to get it confirmed that it’s basically impossible to get into the Good Place was not what I was expecting at this point, let alone everyone ending up in the actual Good Place. This whole season, Michael and Janet have been looking for someone to fix things. They thought The Judge would help, they thought Doug Forcett could somehow lend some insight, and they were so sure the head accountant would help. But each time, they found themselves without a solution. The system was still forked and it seemed no one was interested in truly fixing it. So Janet makes Michael realize it was all up to him. No one was coming to help them, he was going to have to do it himself if he thought it was worth fighting for. We’re not all reformed demons trying to correct problems in the afterlife. But we can stop waiting around for systems and checks and balances to eventually work themselves out and start taking action. We can fight to make things better and fix what is broken. That’s the message the show ended on for the year and I can’t think of anything more fitting.
5. 2×06 (Harlots) So much happened in this episode, as it does in all episodes, but it is balanced by quiet moments that allow these characters to shine. It’s an episode of reckoning but also an episode of love and sacrifice and kindness. Charlotte’s scheme against Quigley is finally revealed and Lydia is forced to come to terms with the fact that the young woman she had come to think of as her daughter and her heir was working against her the whole time. As much as she tries to taunt Margaret with the claim that Charlotte was a Quigley now, it rings false (and she knows it) because Charlotte is a Wells through and through. Everything she did, every damnable choice she has made was out of revenge and love for her mother. She hates what Lydia did to her mother, just as she hates what her mother did to her in turn. But she understands now how it happened, how she was never given a chance to be innocent. It was a cycle that seemed doomed to repeat itself until Margaret made the choice to break it. Just as Mrs. Scanwell has made sure her past sins couldn’t touch her daughter, Margaret chose to protect hers. It couldn’t take back what had been done but the hate and pain was going to stop with her. Her reunion with and apology to Charlotte was tender and hesitant in a way that feels as though she knew she didn’t deserve forgiveness but it was exactly what Charlotte needed to hear in order to begin to heal. Lucy wasn’t at a point where she could hear it but she knew she was leaving her in Charlotte, Nancy, and William’s hands. Her last act was to protect Lucy – both from the repercussions of George Howard’s death and from the monster who had ensnared her with his words. It was a choice she made with eyes wide open, accepting of her fate the whole way. Her final moment with Mrs. Scanwell as they vow to keep each other in their prayers was a chance for these two women who chose different paths to come together in understanding and absolution, bound by their shared love of their daughters. Just as Isabella’s confession of her brother’s rape and their resulting child to Charlotte allowed them to share a vulnerable moment as they reveal their cursed and broken states. They give each other the kindness and empathy they won’t offer themselves and Charlotte’s gentle insistence that Isabella deserves to have goodness in her life is beautifully quietly and sincerely done. Grace abounds in this episode in a world where there is often none to be found for poor harlots. It’s not enough to solve the societal problems that led to their position but it’s what brings them together and helps them survive.
6. Nothing Shattered (GLOW) Ruth is my favorite character on this show and this is an episode all about her and the relationships she’s built because of GLOW so I could I not love it. Because of this job, she has people who take her to the hospital and do ridiculous things to try to make her feel better. She has a family who wants to stay by her side when she is hurt. She even has a producer who is sometimes the worst but also who cares about her despite his best attempts not to. She’s found a place where she fits and where she matters and that is everything. It’s my favorite type of story for my favorite characters and this episode warmed my heart in so many ways. It’s also the episode with the giant fight between Debbie and Ruth that Betty and Allison did a phenomenal job with. It’s the kind of fight that starts out about something small and quickly becomes about everything they’d ever done to hurt each other. They may have been best friends but that didn’t make their relationship dynamic healthy even before Ruth slept with Mark. It’s brutal and ugly and completely necessary if they were ever going to move forward. They’re both allowed to be angry. They’re both allowed to feel hurt. And it’s up to both of them to decide if they want to do better in the future. There’s not going to be a big, tearful apology between them. It’s going to be in the small things, like Debbie’s message on Ruth’s cast that apologizes for the small parts of their anger and Ruth’s tiny smile that says she understands it’s about more than her ankle. It’s so brilliantly done in every way and takes this episode from solid to incredible.
7. Jake & Amy (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) “Life is unpredictable. Not everything is in our control. But as long as we’re with the right people, we can handle anything.” Had NBC not come to the rescue and saved this show from cancellation, this would have been the perfect thesis statement to end the show. This is an episode of unpredictability. It’s chaos and weirdness in a perfectly B99 way. But it’s mostly an episode of love. Jake and Amy’s love for each other is at the forefront, as it was their wedding episode, but also Captain Holt’s love for the squad (and those two in particular), Charles’s love for Jake, Terry’s love for Rosa, and in a very sneaky way, Gina’s love for Amy that she will never admit exists. These people are a family. All they really want is for each other to find happiness in whatever form that takes and we see that as they do everything in their power to give Jake and Amy the best wedding they possibly could. It may not have been the one they planned but it was the most them that it could have been. Milipnos’s return was delightful, the robot ring bearer was perfect, and their vows were up there with TV’s best. More than anything else, Jake and Amy love being together. Their love grounds them and pushes them and makes them happy and there is nothing they can’t accomplish together. They are each other’s balance and perfect fit because they love the other for exactly who they are. It was a beautiful celebration of one of TV’s most successful slowburn relationships and I couldn’t have dreamed up anything better. This is also the episode that gave us Rosa’s perfect “panics in bisexual” reaction face and that made everyone’s dream a reality by bringing in Gina Rodriguez which gives it some bonus points.
8. Sleeping Giants (The 100) This episode is a demonstration of The 100 at it’s best. There are complex moral dilemmas, characters who are clearly a team, and best of all, plot that comes from an understanding of who the characters are instead of the other way around. We get to see Spacekru in action together and witness their dynamic and who these characters have become after six years alone. We get to see how well Bellamy and Raven work as co-leaders and where Emori and Echo fit in with the delinquents. And importantly for me, we get to see how losing Clarke has affected them. This show has historically not been great at remembering character’s connections to each other when their not in the same physical space and I appreciated that her memory and sacrifice were remembered (and very clearly something that still causes Bellamy a lot of pain). We also see how badly Raven needed to be fulfill her unspoken promise to Clarke to get her family back to the ground so they could start again. Her sacrifice and lie to Bellamy is so in character for her, especially after six years of learning just how heavy a leadership role could be. Back on the ground, you see Clarke’s faith give out. She would still sacrifice herself for the people she loves (now just Madi) but this is a woman who has long since given up on the idea of ever having anything more. She may talk about Spacekru coming back or the people in the bunker eventually getting out, but it’s more a story for Madi than anything she truly believes. She doesn’t think anyone is coming for her and you see her resign herself to that. She’s going to die alone but if she can save her daughter in the process, it will be worth it. Which makes the ending scene that much sweeter. She believed enough in Bellamy that Madi knew she could trust him with no more than a glance and he proved that faith right. The revelation that Clarke was alive upended everything he thought he knew. He thought he was coming back to negotiate for Octavia’s life only to find the best friend he’d had to leave behind. He’s clearly still in shock but when Diyoza remarks that Clarke must be important to him, there was only ever one thing he could say. She is. She never stopped being important and there’s nothing he wouldn’t have bargained (save for his new family, perhaps) to get her back. Eliza’s face and the immense sense of relief that instantly overwhelms her exhausted state is tremendous and speaks to what these characters have meant to each other. They trusted their actors to pull off this first reunion of the season and it paid off for them in ways they never really managed to achieve again.
9. Sanctuary (The Fosters) This is a perfect example of this show at its most compassionate and beautiful. This has always been a show that cares deeply. It believes in the inherent value and dignity of its characters, and by extension, the people they reflect. This episode put a face on undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients at the beginning of the year, right as ICE raids and debates over the future of DACA were coming to the forefront in the media. It humanizes a group of people who are often denied that humanity in the rhetoric of many. We see Ximena’s fears, not just for herself but for the rest of her family. We see her parents and their concern for their daughters, one who is a citizen and one who isn’t and whose protection had expired. We see the damage that a lack of trust in the government can cause and it offers an explanation of why people can be afraid to come forward. And we see that there are people who want to help. The Adams-Foster family is full of people with big hearts who have a drive to help and Callie is the best example of that. Ximena is her friend and that means she would do anything she could for her, but her motivation goes beyond friendship. She sees that injustice and unfairness and wants to fix those broken systems. It’s what makes her both frustrating and extraordinary depending on how she’s going about things. She’s at her best when she is trying to amplify the voices of others, in this case, the Sinfuego family and there is value in showing that on TV. It’s a show that’s always wanted to make us feel because it wants us to see people for who they are rather than faceless groups and this episode succeeds in doing so.
10. Chapter 74 (Jane the Virgin) I can take or leave Rogelio’s subplot in this episode but everything else is terrific. I love seeing Petra and Jane learning to work together and the fact that Jane was able to learn things from Petra. She may be Petra’s moral compass but Petra has her own valuable lessons to offer and I loved seeing that on display at the sex store and again in their final discussion of the ghostwriting sessions. They are both fascinating, nuanced characters who were thrown together in ways they were not prepared for and it’s been incredible watching them become tentative friends and then family. Also on the Petra side of things, the stairwell scene with JR is exactly what I need to see from her to keep her feeling like a grounded character. Yes, she is strong and powerful and forceful but she’s also human with vulnerabilities and soft spots that hurt when pressed. Seeing her let her guard down with JR and letting her in past the ultra in charge persona she wears the rest of the episode and then how that vulnerability helped unlock her sexual fantasy about JR at the end of the episode. It’s was a natural way to introduce Petra’s bisexuality and I am still thrilled with it. And finally, Jane’s own exploring and embracing of her sexual needs and desires after struggling with fear and shame earlier in the series has been perfect to me. I loved seeing how ready she was to finally have sex with Rafael and how working on their communication skills as a couple plays into building that strong foundation for them moving forward but what I love most of all were her two conversations with Alba. The sex store may have been a little forceful but Alba needed to hear that she was allowed to enjoy sex, even at her age and despite what she had been taught. Women’s sexual pleasure matters in relationships or solo and as someone who literally wrote a thesis on the topic, having it discussed and the message reinforced on a TV show in a frank and compassionate way meant a lot.
Honorable Mentions: Nathaniel and I Are Just Friends! (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Wicked 15 special, Reunited (Steven Universe)