It’s been another outstanding year for television. With so many truly great and memorable episodes to choose from, I had to find some sort of logical way to whittle down this list to my top 10. This year it seems, I really loved episodes that wanted to be about something. I want my TV to take a hard look at topics that can be uncomfortable and shine a different light on them. I don’t want them to gloss over the uglier or more painful sides to humanity in service of a story. At the same time, I don’t want that ever be the whole focus. The best episodes are the ones that show a light ahead and connections being made between people even in the bleakest of times. The idea of connection and focus on relationships is so prevalent on this list, in both the top 10 and the honorable mentions. I love that this is the direction television seems to be going after the age of the solitary antihero and look forward to more fantastic episodes in 2017.
1. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson) This show tried to address a lot of things, many of which are found in this episode and all of which I find fascinating. But when I look at this episode in isolation and not part of the larger whole it is contained it, one thing stands out most in my mind. I remember Marcia Clark (as I should, given the episode title). I remember the sexism that surrounded her during this trial that manifested in ways large and small. While also prosecuting the biggest trial of her life, Clark was facing another battle. She was in the middle of custody and child support disputes. She wasn’t a good enough mother to her children because she wasn’t there enough. She wasn’t sufficiently attractive and well-dressed enough to win the public’s approval. And when she tried to change it, she didn’t do a good enough job there either. She dared to have her husband (at the time) take photographs of her naked on a beach, where they were presumably alone, and his decision to profit from their release became another flaw in her character. She failed to uphold traditional gender ideals and was punished for it. Yes, as a prosecutor, she and Chris Darden failed to convict OJ Simpson for a variety of reasons. But it would be foolish to act as though her gender didn’t hurt the way she was perceived in the years that follow. Sarah Paulson is simply incredible here in the way she portrays the toll things like this take on a person’s psyche. Her haircut made her feel confident. She was asked to care about it so she made a change and she felt beautiful. That confidence was quickly burst by the reactions of everyone in the courtroom, save for Darden. It was humiliating and hurt but she couldn’t show it because it would have made her weak. It would be yet another example of her failure to compose herself and be somehow unfit. So she blinked back those tears and pressed forward, knowing that the room and the world were now laughing at her. During all of this, she even had the pleasure of interacting with a store clerk who is so awful that I thought he was made up for the show. He wasn’t. Of almost everything she faces in this episode, all of which is gross and unfair, the period joke made by the cashier makes me the most mad. It is so intrusive and reiterates the idea that hormones and emotions make women unstable for a quarter of their lives from around the age of 13 until they hit menopause. The idea that you would make such a comment to a stranger as a joke is appalling to me, even more so because I know it’s not an isolated attitude. But even in the midst of all the awfulness, all is not dark. In the hardest times in our lives, sometimes we’re lucky enough to find someone who will hold us up when the burden in too much. In this episode, we see how much Darden was that person for Clark. He supports her, encourages her, and makes her laugh at a time she felt most alone. That connection is something special and beautiful and important and I love that it was highlighted here as well.
2. Twenty-Two (You’re the Worst) This episode is the best that You’re the Worst has and possibly will ever create. It’s episodes like this that make me love the show so fiercely, even when Gretchen and Jimmy are being nearly unbearably awful. In 25 minutes, Stephen Falk’s directing and Desmin Borges’s acting give us the most visceral example of PTSD that I can remember seeing on television. We not only see what Edgar is going through with the action onscreen, but we are put in his shoes with the ringing in his ears that never quite goes away and the lack of focus. We feel how broken down and exhausted he is by trying to survive day to day in a world where everything around him feels threatening and takes him back to his days in the military. Despite the heaviness of this episode, all hope isn’t lost. Just when Edgar is at his lowest point, he finds something that gives him a reason to hold on. It leads him back to his car, which is in the process of being towed, and he finally finds someone who is willing to listen to him and who can truly understand what he’s going through because he’s been there before. It’s a moment of pure connection that brought tears to my eyes. On a character level, I love that this moment made Edgar feel like he had the power to make changes for himself. It’s scary to know that you’re the one who is ultimately responsible for changing your life. But it’s scarier to believe that it’s entirely out of your hands. We can’t always fix the broken systems that surround us but we can do what we can to make a better life for ourselves despite their limitations. It was the message Edgar needed to hear. He was hoping that there would be a magical fix that could make him feel alive again because it’s exhausting to exist as he does. But letting go of that idea and committing to fixing yourself as best as possible is the only way to get the power back to truly start living. On a larger scale, I love the compassion that this episode has for veterans and the systems that may be well-intentioned but fail them anyway. It never loses sight of the twenty-two veterans who commit suicide daily and give this episode its name. It extends empathy for their struggles and shines a light on what they face after returning from war. It’s not always comfortable for civilians to think about and their struggles often get overlooked once they’re home. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t take episodes of television to make us care about real world issues like mental illness or police violence. But to deny the power of this medium to make abstract struggles personal and understandable to people without direct experiences with them would be a mistake and it is my hope that this episode made people think and feel and care just a little more than they did before.
3. The Threshold (Halt and Catch Fire) What a magnificent episode. As is not at all atypical for me, this one’s a tough one to watch and I love it. It hurts to see these characters implode. It hurts to see the relationships these characters have formed explode. I will admit to not being much of a Joe McMillan fan. I am aware that he has a story line in this episode but for me, it pales in comparison to what happens at Mutiny. No matter what combination you put them in, the actors were magnificent. We saw the entangled weave of personal and professional connections among the core four of Mutiny and how that became their undoing. We saw relationships solidify or come back together only to be destroyed in the end. In the hands of lesser actors or writing, it could have felt manipulative. For Halt and Catch Fire, it felt right. The characters all made the decisions that made the most sense for them and their development. Had it strictly been a business dispute or a personal fight, it would not have had nearly the same impact. No one exemplifies the lack of separation between business and personal than Cameron Howe. She was Mutiny. It was her. She had a vision of what the company could be and she poured her entire being into making that vision come to life. It didn’t always make business sense. She was terrible at delegating and there was no way to create what she wanted in the time frame she was given. So to reject that vision instead of a deal that seemed to make more business sense was to reject her and what she had given to the company. And when everyone voted against her, she felt that loss on a personal level. She lost a partner, a mentor, and a friend. All she had left was her husband, who she spontaneously married during a time of emotional distress. While the relationship wasn’t terrible, it lacked the foundation she had with Donna and Bos. Donna tried to keep things separate at first. She thought she could have Cameron’s friendship and also her own vision for the company, knowing it conflicted with Cameron’s. But when the disagreement about the business became heated, the attacks quickly became personal. The choices made in that room on that day broke what they once shared. When no compromise could be found, all that was left was destruction. It took out Cameron and Bos’s recently repaired relationship and what was becoming a sweet friendship between Cameron and Gordon with it, but at the end of the day, those severed bonds were only casualties of the rift between Cameron and Donna. It’s tense, painful and brilliantly constructed and acted.