Good television doesn’t stop being good after some time has past. While we are in the midst of Peak TV and there is more new scripted shows on television than anyone can keep up with, there is also a lot that aired in the past that I missed out on the first time. I always try to have at least a couple older shows that I’m slowly working through and this year, they were among some of the best things that I watched. This collection of posts is all about celebrating the things that brought me the most joy this year and these 10 episodes definitely qualified.
Libertus (Spartacus) The last 15 minutes of this episode are such a glorious spectacle that only Spartacus could pull off. Not that the rest of the episode isn’t fantastic but the arena battle has stayed on my mind for the past 9 months. Starting with the most human of the battles, the fight between Oenomaus and Gannicus had so much emotional history behind it. They were best friends, they were brothers in arms, and both slaves to the House of Batiatus. They were also in love with the same woman and Oenomaus’s wife died in Gannicus’s arms. There was pain and anger and betrayal that infused each blow and it was captivating to watch these men fight each other and Gannicus being unable to take that final killing blow. Oenomaus always represented the best parts of Gannicus, the parts that he lost when Melitta died, and it was only right that he gave up freedom to save his brother. Then there was the larger plan on Spartacus’s mind. He wasn’t just going to free his men, he was showing up to the arena that day to burn it all down. Just as far as plotting go, it’s a brilliant move that opens up a whole new future for the second half of the season. It was a blow to the heart of Rome at the hands of the slave rebellion. It also solidifies Glaber’s status as a legitimate villain and not just a bothersome antagonist. Killing his father-in-law and the chilling way he reminds his wife that there is no longer a way out of the marriage she came so close to leaving is really the first time we see him as the monster he is. It’s his personal uprising and he will use his newfound freedom to crush all those who sought to belittle and undermine him. But what made it truly remarkable to me is the deeper level on which this show works. Yes, there is a lot of over-the-top violence and nudity and delightfully campy dialogue in Spartacus, but at its heart, it is a story about oppression and freedom. And in this episode, the oppressed rose up and burned down the institution that was used to justify their enslavement. They sent the message that they would no longer be used for the gain of others. Their bodies would no longer further the wealth of others. It’s a powerful message, not just within the show but also for the viewers. In the spirit of resistance that has characterized much of 2017, I can’t imagine a more mood-appropriate episode to have seen for the first time.
The Queen’s Gambit Job (Leverage) Narrowing this down to one episode of Leverage was nearly impossible because there are so many that I love. There are three things about this episode that make it one of my favorites (four if you count Sophie’s especially fabulous outfits). First, Sterling is such a compelling antagonist and his relationship with Nate is fascinating. These two have an underlying respect for each other even if it is coupled with a lack of trust. There is no one else Sterling would have gone to in order to get his daughter back and no one who would have understood why he needed a con to do so better than Nate. Second, there are few things I love more than Eliot Spencer being a disaster when it comes to his feelings and never has that been more apparent than in this episode. Only he would unthinkingly hug Hardison and then immediately be annoyed that he did and try to pretend that Hardison initiated the hug. The lingering effects of the drugs lowered his inhibitions and walls and his instinctual response was to be as affectionate as Hardison would probably prefer. But he won’t let himself have that because he doesn’t think he deserves it and attachments are dangerous and whatever else he needs to tell himself to maintain that grumpy facade. Finally, Hardison is one of the best fictional boyfriends in the history of television and this episode is the reason why. He lets the hug thing slide and recognizes that Eliot would probably feel better if he beat some people up and finds some for him while they rescue Sophie, which is delightful on its own. But where he really comes through is with Parker. When we’re at our least confident, we revert back to old and familiar tendencies. So when faced with a heist that made her doubt her ability to get the job done, Parker lashed out and yelled at Hardison about things weighing her down (physically and metaphorically) and killing her. And he responds with understanding and kindness. That was true for much of Parker’s life and he’s never expected her to resolve her past issues immediately. He knows that trust doesn’t come easy for her. So he reassures her that she’s not alone any more, that’s he’s got her back and will be looking out for her. He calms her and refocuses her, not just in training but in the middle of the heist when she starts to doubt again. He plans ahead and makes sure he’s not leaving her without an escape route so he gives her a parachute and the opportunity to jump from one of the tallest buildings in a row. It’s the best gift he could have gotten her and one that comes out of the deepest understanding of who she is. They aren’t just words to him, he’s gonna back it up with his actions and do whatever it takes to help Parker feel safe and comfortable. I need more men like Hardison and more relationships like this one on TV because they are perfect.
Punchline (Take My Wife) I was really mad when I watched this for the first time because I didn’t watch it in time to include on my end of the year list for last year. This episode wasn’t the primary motivation for starting this new list but it was certainly on my mind as I did so. I love everything Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher wanted to do with this show and this episode in particular. In 22 minutes, they talked about the Bury Your Gays trend, the proliferation of rape jokes in comedy, and misgendering issues in bathrooms all while being funny and in love and Cameron meeting her fictional celebrity crush. In the midst of all of the greatness, there are two moments that stand out for me. The first is Cameron telling Rhea that she loves hosting their show with her and that she loves her. These two are wonderful together. They have so much love and admiration for each other and that naturally bleeds into the fictional versions of themselves and their relationship. It’s authentic and sincere and still not something we see very much of on television. The second is the Me Too moment that comes near the end of the show. I watched this episode a few months before the Harvey Weinstein article came out and raised the cultural awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. It wasn’t something that was being widely talked about at the time and was (and would continue to be if someone wanted to pick up the show and put the first season back online) a powerful and important moment to see on screen. As a whole, this is an episode I couldn’t get out of my head and a show I loved with all my heart. It was special and its voice will be missed.