TV in 2014 Roundtable: Best Episodes

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Greetings! Welcome to the TV in 2014 roundtable. I’ve once again convened some of my friends to work our way through the year that was in television. I’ll be posting a few of these conversations the rest of the month, and you can find all of them here.

Cory: We’re into the second week of the TV in 2014 roundtable, and we kick things off this week with best individual episodes. Again, so many to choose from, but try your best. What stands out most on this front?

Andrew Daar: It should come as no surprise that I’m bringing this show up, but after a disappointing second season, The Legend of Korra came back strong in its third and fourth seasons, raising the level of the show’s emotional maturity to levels on par with or greater than its parent series.  The series addresses how the class gap increases over time, the nature of leadership, and how to deal with trauma.  There were a lot of gems, but perhaps the best episode (yet) was “Long Live The Queen,” which revealed just how dangerous the season’s villains were and forced viewers to reevaluate their preconceived notions of the “peaceful” art of airbending.

But while Korra was great, Hannibal deserves the crown for having what I saw as the best episode of the year.  “Tome-Wan,” the penultimate episode of the season, was everything and more you’d expect from an episode of Hannibal.  Beautiful and grotesque, brilliant and visceral, captivating and disturbing, it was the (temporary) culmination of the Vergers’ arc, reminding us why trying to get the best of Hannibal Lector is such a dangerous game.  Mason Verger had spent a lifetime mentally and physically abusing people who were out of his depth, who were easy targets for him.  Mason assumed he could play his games against Hannibal as well, but his lifetime of picking on easy prey left him completely unprepared for the good doctor.  Mason had never gone up against someone with the intelligence and cunning of Dr. Lecter, and his failure resulted in a fate much, much worse than death.  The scene of his downfall was so psychologically disturbing that it induced a physical reaction in me that resonated for days.  Now that’s good TV.

Orrin Konheim: I’ve never been conscious of TV on an episode-by-episode basis but back when I was directing my critical attention towards movies, I often used a simple 2-step litmus test: 1) How did I react to the last five minutes? and 2) To what degree did the film get me invested in how those last five minutes would turn out?

TV is now evolving in a more arcing fashion which means that the good shows get me invested in their end game and the best shows follow up with a season finale that can live up to those expectations. I felt a great cathartic sigh of relief at the endings of Suburgatory (I believe I’m in the minority on the Tess-and-Ryan-making-out-in-the-street development but, hey, I thought it was the most fitting endpoint for Tess), Review, and Silicon ValleyValley was particularly notable in that Mike Judge’s live action comedies tend to go for a more subtle form of satire  and the final episode included two outright hilarious gags—Jared’s hypermanic attempts to pivot Pied Piper and a complex brainstorming session over how many guys Ehrlich could jerk off—that really pushed the envelope on the humor front and raised the bar for season two.

If I had to pick a non-season-finale episode, Bates Motel’s “Shadow of a Doubt” struck me in that it brought back a forgettable character, Bradley, and imbued her with a hellish vengeance streak. The show’s dark undercurrent is understandable: This world needs to be crapsack enough to turn sensitive teenage Norman Bates into an eventual serial killer. That doesn’t mean that the show can’t take a turn for the better once in a while and the thank you letter from Bradley to Norman (as well as Dylan looking out for his brother) was ultimately quite sweet. With an eye on the larger story arc, the episode also nicely escalated the uneasy standstill between Dylan’s criminal syndicate and its rivals.

And thank god this prompt calls for “best episodes” because I’ve got one more: Masters of Sex’s “Blackbird.” The relationship between Virginia and Dr. DePaul isn’t exactly a necessity to the show’s main storyline but I’m so glad they didn’t omit the conclusion of that relationship because that was a powerful and supremely touching way to go out. The episode also revealed once and for all that Masters isn’t above a Machiavellian ploy or two to get his study done.

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Whitney McIntosh: The one thing The Good Wife’s “The Last Call” does so well, that it by all means shouldn’t have been able to accomplish, is following up “Dramatics, Your Honor” with such confidence while not stepping off the throttle. The audience’s emotional state was fragile and still in shock after the sudden murder of Will Gardner the week before, coping with how a Will-less Good Wife might look while at the same time trying to stay in step with Alicia, Diane, Kalinda, and Cary as they processed the same things. A hundred different things bouncing around Lockhart/Gardner after Will’s death, and yet everyone still has to focus on their cases or their family life or their husbands, etc. It is as true a look at grief as possible, without delving too far into melodramatic memories.

Filled with master class performances from Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski, the entire hour is imbued with such emotional pain and loss that it translates resoundingly to the audience. Of course, Margulies is tasked with much of the heavy lifting as she struggles to figure out if Will’s aborted voicemail attempt meant anything in relation to their tragic love story or if it was as unimportant to her memory of him as it was to him in the moment he hit dial. The eventual conclusion to that phone call, that she will never know for sure what he wanted to say to her moments before his death, is at once horrible to think about and also a chance for her to let go of an obsession that has potential to derail her mental state for the long run. Closure is decidedly not a part of death, nor is it a part of saying goodbye to a favorite television character, and “The Last Call” makes lays this out in a way that only The Good Wife can pull off. I’m still crying.

Greg Boyd: Okay, this isn’t quite my absolute favorite episode of 2014 (“Destination: Wedding” is). But seeing as I’m trying to highlight different shows with each response, let’s go with a terrific, under-the-radar series that I’m constantly trying to get people to watch, because I really think it’s one of the four or five best comedies (and I do classify it as one, as it’s often a very funny show, even if the episode I’ve chosen falls more on the side of drama) of the last half-dozen years. “Series Three, Episode Four” is the standout of Rev.’s great third season, delving into the concept of forgiveness and delivering a half hour that is just absolutely gutting. Centering around protagonist Adam Smallbone’s interactions with a man who’s just finished serving a sentence for child pornography, it asks the question of whether he can open his church and heart to this person. Can he? He’s supposed to. It’s the Christian to do, after all. But this is a horrible crime. And even if he can, what about his parishioners? The episode doesn’t provide any easy answers to these questions. Rather, it presents a haunting take on the old adage “to err is human, to forgive divine”: one that foregrounds the fact that we’re all human, and none of us are divine.

Oh, and sorry Andrew, but “Korra Alone” dwarfs every other episode of The Legend of Korra to date. (Though the one you highlighted is awfully good.)

Orrin Konheim: Greg, I have to concede something to you as you’ve been pretty effusive in your praise for Broad City. While the show hasn’t caught on with me, the season’s final episode, “The Last Supper,” was more hilarious than it had any right to be. I think the show has been aimless at times but that episode just left me in a state of delirium (if you can explain, please try). If the show can reach those highs consistently, I could see it becoming a classic.

Greg Boyd: I mean, I think that episode is maybe the fifth best of the season (though it’s still nothing short of brilliant). Not sure why it stood out for you over the others. The “Adrenaline!” scene is definitely one of the biggest single laughs of the show so far, though. I don’t know . . . maybe it’s because its’s a little more compact in terms of setting and story than many of the others? I couldn’t tell you. But I’m glad you at least liked that one episode.

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Les Chappell: I fully understand anyone who says The Leftovers is too depressing or inaccessible to watch—I love the show and the thought of watching more than one episode at a time makes me hesitate. It’s a show about depression, and as a corollary tends to be a depressing experience. But it’s also a show with tremendous power, a show that understands the weight of grief and confusion as everyone tries to start over. Nowhere was that pain more on display than in the episodes where Damon Lindelof went back to his Lost toolbox and crafted installments centered largely on one character. “Two Boats and a Helicopter” centered on Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) struggling to hold onto his faith and his church in the wake of the Departure, and “The Guest” showed his sister Nora (Carrie Coon) grappling with identity theft on top of the still raw loss of her entire family. Both of the performers were terrific in their respective spotlight episodes: Eccleston displayed an emotional desperation that his time as the Ninth Doctor only hinted at, and Coon’s masterfully balanced frustration and grief secured her position as one of the year’s breakout performers. (All agreement with Emma’s support of Coon in our last chat.) Beyond that, the focus on one character rather than the entire Mapleton ecosystem provided the perfect lens for what this phenomenon did to the world, the individual struggle to function in what Nora later called “the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization.”

It’s impossible to pick one or the other, because both had transcendent moments. Matt’s attempts to demonize the Departed vs. Nora buying and discarding the groceries her absent family would have eaten. Nora paying a hooker to shoot her in the bulletproof vested chest so she could feel something vs. Matt’s seemingly God-given winnings and hellish display of force to keep them. And the look of devastation on Matt’s face when he realizes he missed the window he needed to buy his church vs. the emotional collapse on Nora’s face when Holy Wayne takes her into his arms. Other episodes were more important to the narrative of The Leftovers, but few were more important to its atmosphere than these.

Andrew Rabin: There is, in many things, a rule of threes; there is the comedy rule of threes, the celebrity death rule of threes, the way you fully expected me to have a third example in this list. After strong final seasons by two outgoing veteran sitcoms in 2013, I expected How I Met Your Mother to fulfill it’s place as the third in that rule. And boy was I wrong.

The final season of HIMYM was generally bad, with the exception of Cristin Milioti Tracy McConnell. Which brings us to “How Your Mother Met Me,” the 200th episode of HIMYM. The episode put our five leads in the background, and highlighted The Mother’s journey over the past several years. In 2013 I named Milioti my standout performer of the year, and she did not drop off in 2014. One of the biggest problems with the final season of HIMYM (besides, you know, that whole killing-the-mother-and-getting-back-with-Robin-and-why-didn’t-Lyndsy-Fonseca-just-break-this-to-us-years-ago thing) was not enough Milioti, but “How Your Mother Met Me” put her in the spotlight and showed that she could carry a sitcom herself (R.I.P. A to Z). Perhaps “How Your Mother Met Me” was less the best episode of 2014 as it was the last great episode of a once great series, but it is almost definitely the first episode of television I will think of when I think of 2014.

Emma Fraser: This has been a year where episodes have wrecked me in several different ways from The Good Wife’s “The Last Call” ugly crying inducing hour (I rewatched it this week and I was still a sobbing mess) to the amped up tension of The Americans season 2 finale.

The episode I want to focus on is one where it felt like I didn’t breath for the last twenty minutes and the very bloody conclusion of Hannibal’s second season was full jaw on the floor devastation. We knew where it was heading from the fight sequence in the first episode as Jack Crawford and Hannibal battled it out in Hannibal’s oh so pristine kitchen. In media res as a device has a habit of feeling like a cheap trick and a way to tease the audience, which doesn’t always pay off, with Hannibal it created tension that felt earned, plus we already kind of know the general gist of the Hannibal story so it isn’t a big surprise that he’s going to get found out. “Mizumono” takes every character close to Hannibal rips them apart (both literally and figuratively) and we are left with broken and bloody bodies not knowing who will survive. It is brutal, beautiful, haunting and horrific; everything this show excels at.

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J Walker: Between Dan Harmon’s return, Chevy Chase’s and Donald Glover’s departures, the show’s cancellation and its surprise revival, Community seemed to get far more attention for what was happening behind the scenes than anything that actually happened on screen. I thought part of that could be blamed on the uneven material on display in season five, but in “Cooperative Polygraphy,” everything fell into place like magic again.

Cameron White: With the help of a friend, I’ve been spending some time catching up on Person of Interest, and, well, everyone should do the same (if you’re not already watching). Season three in particular is nothing short of pure artistry: an elaborate discussion on the ethics of technology and its relationship to human morality, all clearly and cleverly played out by its cast of characters, chief among them Amy Acker’s delightfully anarchic “True Believer” character Root.

So for my best episode pick, I’m going to eschew a lot of the traditional picks and present you with POI’s third season episode “Death Benefit.” Though the show is one of those that has consistently excellent action sequences (see also: Arrow, The Flash, Game of Thrones), the crucial, climactic scene of this episode is a visceral version of the “if you could time-travel, would you kill Hitler?” dilemma. As Harold, Shaw, and Reese debate whether or not the Machine actually gave them the number of an apparently innocent (at least according to the Machine’s parameters) man in order to kill him, Person of Interest stakes its claim as one of the most thrilling television shows ever made—all without firing a single bullet. Not since the halcyon days of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing has a scene in which people are just talking ever been more heart-pumping or jaw-clenching, and the immediate fallout of their decision is heart-wrenching for its utter lack of judgment. Any other show would probably be hardwired to deconstruct the decision made as good or bad, but when your show is dealing with heady issues like privacy and freedom versus security and intelligence, making those calls would be far too arrogant. I like that about “Death Benefit” and about POI as a whole: it doesn’t ever pretend to have all the answers.

Josh Spiegel: There’s “The Last Call” from The Good Wife and “The Equestranauts” from Bob’s Burgers, and then there’s everything else this year, trying and failing to compete.

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Noel Kirkpatrick: Since some of my choices have already been selected (“The Last Call,” “The Equestranuts,” any episode of Hannibal Season two), I’m going to go with Cosmos’s “Hiding in the Light.” It wasn’t the flashiest of Cosmos episodes, but it was by far my favorite. The episode lays out the theory of light waves, from how see colors to how the camera obscura works to how light informs how we study the universe. While I very pleased the episode highlighted Ibn al-Haytham and Mozi’s respective contributions to science, it was host Neil deGrasse Tyson getting a little misty at these discoveries that got me. Without the discoveries of the scientists chronicled in this episode, Tyson wouldn’t do what he does today. He made the science personal and thus memorable.

Cory: Mad Men had a sort of weird half-season this summer—thanks for that, AMC—but the concluding episode, “Waterloo,” featured so many of the things that make it one of the best shows of all time: inter-agency politics, merger talk, Sally Draper being cool, important historical events, an out-of-nowhere death, and an epic pitch, this time from Peggy, not Don. The show’s generally referential treatment of real-life history helps make the attention paid to moments like the moon landing that much more special, as most of the characters simply sat transfixed in front of a TV, watching the entire world change around them. In theory, that doesn’t make for good TV, but it’s evocative because it’s real. Peggy’s timely pitch to Burger Chef put a wonderful button on her half season-long work frustrations, and gave Don another proud Work Dad moment after his struggles with his role in the SCP office. I haven’t even mentioned Bert Cooper’s swan song, which I didn’t necessarily adore but most other people did, something that only speaks to the multitude of ways that Mad Men hits people when it’s firing on all cylinders. 

I’d also like to give some love to the Big Brother season finale, which wasn’t necessarily a GREAT episode, but it completely worked as a triumphant coronation for undercover cop-turned houseguest Derrick, who turned in one of the best full-seasons of reality competition show gameplay that you’re ever going to see. That the producers barely tried to hide the fact that Derrick cunningly outplayed his competition, going as far to reveal his occupational secret and his connection to the secret Team America twist, only made it that much better. Sometimes, it’s OK for reality shows not to surprise us.  

Up next: Worst show

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