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.