As much as I enjoy cliffhanger-driven television for encouraging me to keep watching a series, I will always prefer shows with slightly more discrete and distinct episodes. The ability to craft a good story that satisfies in 22-60 minutes that also ties into the season or series as a whole is a difficult one that not every show can manage, but when they do, it stays with with you. Some of these episodes, I liked simply because they did a good job doing exactly what they set out to do, others had something more profound to say that spoke to me on a deeper level, and I think both types are important to me as a viewer.
If you’re not already, be sure to check out the year-end reviews over at MGCircles and continue to celebrate the things that you enjoyed the most this year!
Episode One (Fleabag) Everything about this episode is brilliant and absolutely riveting. The jumps between scenes, the choral backing, the most satisfying punch in the history of television, the introduction of Hot Priest, and the complication and devotion that can only exist between sisters. It’s a fantastic reintroduction to the series after three years away and the whole episode is infused with a frantic energy that sucks you in and won’t let go. The family dinner after over a year apart where they are so desperately trying to appear normal in front of this outsider and utterly failing because they are absolutely not functional as a unit. The writing and acting are both terrific and Andrew Scott slid so seamlessly into this world and immediately feels like a natural fit for the off-kilter, fast-paced banter that helps define its style. It’s a masterclass in efficient, dynamic television and I cannot possibly say enough good things about it.
The Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (Game of Thrones) In a season that was mostly filled with disappointment and horrible writing choices, this episode feels like a gift from Bryan Cogman. In this precursor to the battle against the White Walkers, the characters and the viewers were given a chance to breathe and to take stock of what was important. And this import was found in each other – the history they’d shared, the bonds that had formed, the trusts that had yet to be shaken. This show is plot-heavy, it always has been. But just this once, we got a look at a version of the show that wasn’t. Yes, there was some necessary battle prep like the shots of Gendry making weapons and the war council, but really, it was a change for discussions and decisions and declarations. It was only right that Cogman wrote this episode after gifting us with “Kissed by Fire” and “Oathbreaker” in previous seasons. This was the culmination of Jaime and Brienne’s arc that started so many seasons ago and I could not have wanted anything more. Regardless of their ending that I will be mad about forever, this is who they were to each other. The person they chose to fight and potentially die alongside. The one who had their unquestioned trust and loyalty. The one they loved. There are three separate points in this episode where that subtext nearly ticks over into actual text and for as much as I love these two, it was the better choice to leave it unspoken but still heard. Then we cap off the episode with Jon and his terrible timing but as a result, we headed into battle with all the cards on the table for the most important relationships on the show.
Anxiety (One Day at a Time) This episode is so well-made and the care that went into its creation is so apparent in every choice. As always, Justina Machado is incredibly talented and I will never understand how every awards body isn’t showering her with accolades and she grounds her performance in something compassionate and real. I love that the bulk of the non-flashback portion of the episode takes place at group therapy. We absolutely need to normalize getting help like this and the benefits of having a supportive community around you and there was something special in seeing this group of women come together around an issue that affects them all in very different ways. There’s not one way for anxiety to present and not a single coping mechanism that will work for everyone and it feels like the writers of this episode wanted to be extra sure that the viewers knew that. It was an outstretched hand saying that we aren’t alone and there is possible relief. This episode also really demonstrates what’s so special about Penelope and Schneider’s relationship. We all need that person in our life that we can be honest with and trust that they will be there in response with whatever it is that we need. Just being able to tell someone “I’m having an anxiety attack” and putting a name to the feeling is an important step and allowing yourself to lean on someone else when shame would have us isolate and hide away is a powerful and healing part of the process and this episode demonstrated that perfectly. I’m so grateful for everything that went into making this episode what it is and hope that it started conversations and fostered a little more understanding in the world.
Who’s Got the Pain (Fosse/Verdon) Coming together and falling apart. This episode is Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s relationship in a nutshell. From their first meeting, you see why they connected both personally and professionally. It changed nearly everything for them, they found someone who instinctively understood them creatively and worked to make them shine even brighter. It invigorated them in every way. But it didn’t change who they were. Fosse wasn’t capable of a monogamous relationship with anything, he was always looking for something more or new or different. We see it as his marriage with Joan falls apart and we see in the fight in Majorca. He undoubtedly loved Verdon as much as he was able and it was never going to be enough. She needed more of him than he had to give and sometimes that made her walk away but sometimes she stayed anyway because some of him made more sense than none. This episode is brilliantly directed and edited, the camera angles in their pre-rehearsal fight are tense and suffocating, William’s line delivery of her stage directions for their fight on the beach are brutal and cutting, and the dance scenes are all filled with chemistry and a natural intimacy. Every element of it was perfectly executed and it’s the episode I’m most likely to keep coming back to as an example of who these two were and how the show captured them.
Outward Bound (GLOW) Sometimes all you need is to get away from your routine to have the epiphanies and conversations you need in order to move forward with greater clarity. This overnight camping trip gave Jenny and Melrose the space to reconnect, Sheila the courage to shed some layers, Debbie the reminder that this is the life she fought for and she shouldn’t give up, and Ruth the determination to accept that Sam is the person she wants. The scene by the campfire where Jenny and Melrose talk about their family traumas and how that informs and pulls against the personas they put on in and out of the wrestling ring brought me to tears as they saw each other clearly for the first time in their friendship. So much of wrestling is putting on a character bigger than yourself that intentionally play with racial stereotypes and for those in the show who can’t get away from them after the show ends, it gets tiring. That GLOW gave these women the space to share those frustrations and grapple with what they are doing was incredibly important as was the fact that Jenny was given the narrative time to be frustrated by the flattening of her background to “generic Asian mashup”. It was also truly wonderful for Sheila to feel confident in herself and who she is apart from the costume she wore every day. It gave her freedom when she needed it but she’s ready to move on and embrace something new and that growth over this season was beautiful. It’s an episode of moving past the labels and restrictions and definitions that rule our lives to find something more real and meaningful both in their relationships with others and self-conceptions that thematically tied together in an incredibly satisfying way.
Life’s A Beach (Pose) There’s not another show doing what Pose is right now. This episode has very little in the way of plot that impacts the season as a whole but does wonders for these characters and what they represent. Too often, the narrative of black trans women is one of pain and violence. It’s important to not ignore this reality (and also to support those doing the work to change it) but it’s also important to not overlook the importance of joy. That’s what this episode is, a celebration of joy and sisterhood. It is a moment for these four women to get away from everything and connect with each other after the year they’ve all had. Their worries are given space but aren’t the focus and it’s more about lifting each other up and finding a way to carve out a space for themselves in a world that is objectively more dangerous for them. I really loved seeing this quartet grow a little closer after losing Candy and Elektra making an effort to do better by this group of her children. Their support of Blanca as she struggled with her insecurities about not passing and again when she took a chance on a new man and the happiness they felt for her matter (as does the fact that they stayed up all night because they were worried she wouldn’t make it home). I spent most of the episode waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go terribly wrong, and it never did. They were able to be free and happy for a weekend and while I wish that didn’t feel rare, that’s not our current television landscape.
All That Hard, Glossy Armor (The Magicians) I struggled with the decision to include this episode in this list and had a similarly hard time on most of the previous TV lists. But for as much as I feel let down and disappointed with the choices the show made at the end of the season, I remember how much I loved this episode , the music, and Margo’s journey throughout it. She is reclaiming her power and authority and ability to get shit done because she is a fucking king. She’s so much more than a pretty face and a party girl, she loves deeply and she’s extremely intelligent and she should never have felt like she had to choose. This absolutely gutting scene as she describes the boxes and restrictions placed and her and women in general is one of the best performances I saw all year and there are not enough words for how phenomenal Summer Bishell was as we see the complexity of being hurt and furious and just a tiny bit of belief in her father’s words from long ago, that maybe she couldn’t be everything she knows she can be, and the triumph we feel later when she unleashes the spirit and her axes to free the women of this village from those same narrow boxes they’ve been placed in. It’s visually stunning and emotionally powerful and it’ll take some more time but I refuse to let that be taken away from me.
The Golden Child (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) How could you ask for more from a fun comedy episode than this? I love petty, competitive Amy more than words can say and Melissa Fumero does an amazing job being a little awful (but also the best) because she has spent her life being unfavorably compared to her brother. Who is played by Lin-Manual Miranda because sometimes we can have nice things and in the case of B99, sometimes those nice things are because very famous creators champion other things and end up guest-starring in something they really love. They play off each other so well and the dance competition is an utter delight as they overemphasize their elbows and forearms. Then we also have disaster bi Jake getting distracted by the Brazilian guards then defending his wife’s greatness (aka his favorite thing to talk about) to her mom. It was an A-plot designed for my personal enjoyment and then the B-plot gave us one of my favorite running jokes of the series – Captain Holt pretending to be a straight guy by talking about the virtues of breasts. Andre Braugher’s line delivery is perfect and why we’ve not thrown Emmys at him for it, I’ll never understand. Sometimes you just need a silly episode of television constructed well and that’s exactly what this episode is.
Pandemonium (The Good Place) This episode is the best kind of emotional gut punch and sets up a final season full of potential. Chidi’s decision to reboot himself is incredibly in character. He knows himself well enough to know that he can’t have the weight of humanity resting on his ability to not reveal the fact that Simone is his ex and selfless enough to give up the one thing he’s ever been sure about. Because Chidi, for all the uncertainty and anxiety that consumes his life, is sure of one thing and that’s his love and belief in Eleanor. The montage of relationship memories that Michael gave them as a final goodbye was everything you could want as a fan of theirs. It was a gift to us as much as them since the final season has largely kept them apart so far. And no discussion of this episode would be complete without the sincerity D’Arcy Carden brought to her “pandemonium” speech to Eleanor. There are no answers except the ones we make for ourselves and build together so when we find things that matter, we cherish them.
Hero (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) I wasn’t prepared for an upending of the mythology surrounding She-Ra, especially not coming from a character who could have been nothing more than a comic relief. I also didn’t expect to get emotional over pie, but that’s what this episode gave us. The idea that She-Ra was only intended to be a weapon and the magic of Etheria a force of destruction drove the last few episodes of the season and will continue to have repercussions in season 5. We’ve gotten to see Mara through the eyes of others (and we technically continued to do so as Razz fell in and out of the present day) but now we really see how much she and Adora have in common. They have good hearts and protect the people of Etheria not because they have to but because they care. Her sacrifice to save everyone and hide Etheria from the rest of the universe may have now been undone but it protected them for years. And her declaration to the corrupted Light Hope program that no one gets to decide her destiny but her was a powerful one and I am thrilled to see it in a show made for children. That ownership over our fate and the agency we have to be more than others intended is one I will always prefer to a pre-ordained “chosen one” narrative and I’m excited by what this episode opened up for the show as a whole.
Honorable Mentions: Pick Your Poison (Good Girls), Homecoming (Schitt’s Creek), Chapter 100 (Jane the Virgin), We Were Having Such a Nice Day (You’re the Worst), Episode 9 (Vida)