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.