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TV's Top 25 Episodes of the Decade

 
 
 
TV's Top 25 Episodes of the Decade

Before this decade, the idea of a network dropping an entire season on one day was not a serious one. Episodes aired week to week, occasionally back to back, and so it went  until streaming services made clear that they were willing to tread a different path. Suddenly, it seemed, TV’s release calendar featured more and more shows releasing a slew of episodes all at once, banking on keeping the audience’s attention with “bingeworthy” content. While exciting at first, this shift eventually started to flatten seasons out in a way that kept episodes from shining in and of themselves. Assuming that a viewer would rather marathon a show than consume it sporadically, many shows leaned into interminably stretched narratives and a frustrating lack of urgency. 

That’s why highlighting particularly great individual chapters of shows feels even more relevant for a retrospective of this decade in particular. It’s not a coincidence that the shows that still make it a priority to keep episodes compelling  in their own right are often some of our very favorites overall. The following 25 episodes represent some of the very best chapters of television the medium had to offer this decade and beyond. 

1. “START,” “The Americans” (FX, May 30, 2018)

Written by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields; dir. Chris Long

The history that’s been stalking Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) finally arrives, and spirits away their daughter. That’s the big reveal of this perfectly pitched series finale, which sets the Jenningses on a course back to Russia at long last — a trip that means they’ll outright abandon their son — and builds to daughter Paige’s (Holly Taylor) deciding to stay behind in America. After this startlingly raw moment, Philip and Elizabeth’s reactions are in keeping with the training they received far earlier in their lives; they must grimly bear it, and look ahead to the rest of their lives, having been unable to win the Cold War or to keep it from wrecking their family. This painful realization is the crowning achievement of an episode, the decade’s very best hour of television, that incidentally features some of the most tense writing in memory with the Jenningses’s showdown with Stan (Noah Emmerich), their neighbor whose realization, far too late, of his friends’ true identity is wrenchingly painful. He and the Jenningses share one crucial thing — their inability to see what was unfolding, preferring an easier cover story. Finally disabused of the notion that the rest of their lives in Russia will be an idyll, Philip and Elizabeth end “The Americans” looking bleakly ahead, contemplating what is to come and trying to move past what has already befallen them. — Daniel D’Addario

2. “Teddy Perkins,” “Atlanta” (FX, April 5, 2018)
Written by Donald Glover; dir. Hiro Murai

Donald Glover’s most accomplished performance on “Atlanta” is not as the show’s protagonist. Playing Teddy Perkins, a creature warped by early fame and self-exiled to a remote and peculiar mansion, Teddy is a vision of every childish fantasy fulfilled — he dines on ostrich eggs and demands the extended play date-like company of Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), who’s stumbled into the home and would rather just leave. The episode moves from creepy to wrenching, revealing a new and openly emotional side to Darius as well. It also serves as a compelling parable about fame, and a way to talk about the Michael Jackson story without talking about Michael Jackson. Perkins is a character as broken as Jackson, and with a similar mask-like face, but otherwise hurt and searching in his own ways. He’s as elemental as the ages-old process by which fame alters lives and as original as anything “Atlanta” ever did. —D.D.

3. “Guest,” The Leftovers (HBO, August 3, 2014)

Written by Damon Lindelof & Kath Lingenfelter; dir. Carl Franklin

Over the course of three seasons, Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers” went to far more intense and bizarre places than did “Guest,” the sixth episode of the series overall. But “Guest” also marks a pivotal point for the series’ most crucial character (Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst), as well as the moment that “The Leftovers” left behind a more literal adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel to widen out its own universe and become something more specifically its own. As Nora falls down a rabbithole at a work conference, this episode examines her deep unhappiness with clear, penetrating eyes. ‘Guest” also provides a uniquely stark and painful look at all the terrible, wonderful ways the world of “The Leftovers” keeps adjusting to its inciting catastrophe, laying the groundwork for the show’s remarkable journey yet to come. — Caroline Framke

4. “Ozymandias,” “Breaking Bad” (AMC, September 15, 2013)
Written by Moira Walley-Beckett; dir. Rian Johnson

A staggering piece of filmmaking that carried, in the moment of its first airing, the sense that anything might happen: “Ozymandias” has a reputation that’s well-earned and difficult to contest. The final break in the series is Walter’s break from his family, and with them from his sense that his meth-cooking work was done on the basis of helping secure their future. This episode also features one of the only glimpses of Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) imprisonment at the hands of Todd (Jesse Plemons), a circumstance so baldly horrific that overcoming it is the basis for the entire spin-off film “El Camino.” Overcoming and coming to terms would come later. As far as bottoming-out goes, this episode depicted the horrific process as well as even the series’s most ardent fans might have hoped. —D.D.

5. “Hitting the Fan,” “The Good Wife” (CBS, October 27, 2013)
Written by Robert & Michelle King; dir. James Whitmore Jr.

The Good Wife” was deep into its fifth season when it debuted its best and most explosive episode, which not only showed off the series at its very best, but changed it forever. After ending the previous episode with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) discovering that her protogees Alicia (Julianna Marguiles) and Cary (Matt Czurchy) are planning to form their own law firm, “Hitting the Fan” throws everyone into total chaos as they scramble to stake out their territory. From the writing, to the directing, to the uniformly excellent acting, no one wastes a single minute of this episode, thus matching the urgency of the subject matter itself. It even manages to squeeze in a devastating scene between Marguiles’ flinty Alicia and Josh Charles’ fuming Will that ranks among their most memorable, period. (You truly have to justify a character throwing everything off a desk in anger without making it look goofy, and “The Good Wife” sure as hell did.) “Hitting the Fan” is an exemplary piece of television drama that conveys the value of trusting tight plotting and solid actors to make just about anything  even a law firm turf war  captivating. —C.F.

6. “Ariadne,” “Russian Doll” (Netflix, February 1, 2019)

Written and directed by Natasha Lyonne

By virtue of its very premise, “Russian Doll” could have been too repetitive, too circular, too concerned with unraveling its own mythology as its reluctant heroes (played by Natasha Lyonne and Charlie Barnett) died over, and over, and over again. But as steered by Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, the series instead unfolded with expert precision, each episode propelling the intertwining narratives along at a breathtaking clip. As the season finale, “Ariadne” (written and directed by Lyonne) has the colossal job of bringing everything together in such a way that the preceding journey, in all its twists and terrible turns, feels worth it. Thankfully, “Ariadne” nails it. Not only is it a thrilling conclusion befitting the story, but it’s a gorgeous expression of hope, and tribute to the metamorphosis a person can go through if they actively strive to understand their own pain and look around to help someone else through theirs. The final moments of “Ariadne” are as triumphant as TV ever gets, and “Russian Doll” earned every one of them. —C.F.

7. “Person to Person,” “Mad Men” (AMC, May 17, 2015)

Written and directed by Matthew Weiner

Mad Men’s” latter seasons were richer and more nourishing than the more-heralded early going, but less approachable; the increased isolation of Don (Jon Hamm) made the show feel fractured, more and more cut off from the wellspring of interaction and humanity that he’d previously had access to. At the end of “Person to Person,” the show’s beautifully crafted finale, Don rejoins the world after a meditation retreat — but not because he’s newly at peace with himself. He uses his final, seemingly conclusive breakdown, one that has removed him physically from a New York he had already only been sleepwalking through, as grist for a new ad campaign for Coca-Cola, metabolizing his inability to feel into a campaign to sell sugar water as a means of achieving happiness. Elsewhere in the episode, characters get fitting sendoffs — Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finding marital bliss in a way that honors her independence feels right, as do more conditional victories for Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) and the dark fate of Don’s abandoned family — but it’s Don’s journey that’s most immediately memorable. Having run this far to get away from himself, Don ultimately cannot escape; his return to the ad game is both thrilling, in that it provides a view of a master at work, and darkly upsetting. There is no experience Don can simply have without reframing it as content. There is, finally, nothing he won’t leverage and then sell. —D.D.

8. “A Short History of Weird Girls,” “I Love Dick” (Amazon, May 12, 2017)
Written by Annie Baker & Heidi Schreck; dir. Jill Soloway

This operatic episode, written by two playwrights, expands its aperture beyond the single-minded crusade of Chris (Kathryn Hahn) to explore the ways in which desire has made itself manifest in many other of the show’s smaller characters. It’s like a season’s worth of flashbacks in a single episode, knitting together the stories of women we think we know and women we’ve barely met. They’re united only by their geographical setting — the scholars-and-artists town of Marfa, Texas, where the war between bodily desires and intellectual understandings rages on — and by their lifelong struggle to come to terms with what they want, and why they want it. —D.D.

9. “Blackwater,” “Game of Thrones” (HBO, May 27, 2012)

Written by George R.R. Martin; dir. Neil Marshall

In telling about a dozen sweeping stories at any given time, “Game of Thrones” made it difficult for itself to deliver stellar episodes in and of themselves. The ones that do stand out are ones that winnow down the action to a few manageable plots, makes the most of giant setpieces, and gives its characters enough delicious dialogue to chew on alongside the scenery. In that respect, it’s hard to beat “Blackwater,” an action-packed episode that includes Tyrion (Peter Dinklage striving to protect King’s Landing from Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) oncoming onslaught while Cersei (Lena Headey) educates a terrified Sansa (Sophie Turner) on how they, as women, might have to bear the consequences of losing a war. (It’s also very possible that we’re blinded by the power of Headey’s monologuing, which always made Cersei a scathing pleasure to behold throughout the show’s uneven run.) —C.F.

10. “The Answer,” “Steven Universe” (Cartoon Network, January 4, 2016)
Written by Lamar Abrams & Katie Mitroff; dir. Joe Johnston

The universe of Rebecca Sugar’s “Steven Universe” is a wonder of mythology and lessons in empathy, building out the complex story of a boy who uses his position in an intergalactic power struggle to do good. In just 11 minutes, “The Answer” reveals the origins of mysterious character Garnet (voiced by Estelle) as a queer love story for the ages. It’s as intricate as it is passionate, giving one of the show’s most iconic characters a rich history that will reverberate throughout the series’ runs. Many TV snobs might have written off shows like “Steven Universe” as inconsequential given its family friendly, pastel animation, but that would be a mistake. As “The Answer” proves, no genre, format, or target audience completely owns great storytelling. —C.F.

11. “Michael’s Gambit,” “The Good Place” (NBC, January 19, 2017)
Written and directed by Michael Schur

The first season of “The Good Place” unfolds under the already unusual premise of unrepentant dirtbag Eleanor (Kristen Bell) trying to fake her way through heaven. But as the first season finale of “Michael’s Gambit” reveals with the thrilling drive of a particularly compelling whodunit, this premise was also a lie: Eleanor and her friends had been in hell all along. This revelation comes as a huge shock, not just because Ted Danson played his double-faced character Michael with such precision, but because the writers had laid meticulous clues throughout the season that still managed to be subtle enough not to tip off this game-changing moment (which also rules in large part thanks to Danson’s slowly unfurling evil laugh the moment he finally gets to reveal his true colors). That “The Good Place” pulled this off without the audience catching on is a feat, and represents the best of what broadcast’s most bizarre comedy can do. —C.F.

12. “One Man’s Trash,” “Girls” (HBO, February 10, 2013)
Written by Lena Dunham; dir. Richard Shepard

“Girls” excelled in its bottle episodes, and this bit of experimentation — placing Hannah (Lena Dunham) in a very different Brooklyn than the one to which she’s accustomed — was a striking early success, and of forward motion, if infinitesimal, for Hannah and the series. After a chance encounter with a handsome fellow (Patrick Wilson) who turns out also to be a wealthy, homeowning doctor, Hannah ends up spending the weekend in his fortresslike mini-mansion, screwing it up in the end not because of “Girls”-esque hijinks but because of her fundamental disbelief in her own readiness for and deservingness of love. (Hannah’s brio is revealed, here, to be hiding quite a lot: No “Girls” skeptic, however vocal, could dislike Hannah as viciously as she did herself.) The episode’s end is as minor-key painful as its bulk is fantastical and dreamlike; it fades out with Hannah having, maybe, grown a bit closer to self-actualization. —D.D.

13. “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” “Review” (Comedy Central, March 20, 2014)

Dir. Jeffrey Blitz

Even six years later, “Review” still feels like one of those rare TV miracles of comic specificity the likes of which we may never see again. Running for two astonishing seasons, the series (based on an Australian comedy) followed Forrest McNeil (Andy Daly), a man determined to review life experiences as requested of him by curious viewers, and his subsequent spiral into madness. Even the most benign of assignments could (and often did) go horribly awry  and no episode showed how quite like “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes.” What begins as a ridiculous ask (“what’s it like to eat 15 pancakes?”) becomes a literal stomach ache before snowballing into an existential crisis. After Forrest forces himself to swallow the last bite of his fifteenth pancake, a viewer prompts him to divorce his loving wife (Jessica St. Clair) of many years. Then, as he wallows in despair, yet another viewer ups the ante by asking what it’s like to eat thirty pancakes, and Forrest is just too exhausted to care as he once did. The final sequence of Daly joylessly shoveling pancakes down his throat as the diner staff watches in awe, his voiceover intoning that “these pancakes couldn’t kill me, because I was already dead,” is a thing of unforgettable, and absolutely demented, beauty. —C.F.

14. “Eulogy,” “Better Things” (FX, October 19, 2017)

Written by Louis C.K.; dir. Pamela Adlon

The best and strangest (which, in this case, is really just another way of saying “best”) aspects of “Better Things” are on display in this episode, in which a pushed-past-her-limit Sam (Pamela Adlon) confronts her children over their ingratitude and demands they eulogize her while she’s still alive. “I don’t want to have to wait until I’m dead,” Sam says, “for my kids to appreciate me.” Sam’s anger, as expressed elsewhere in the episode, is not merely at her children but at the world for marginalizing her, making a middle-aged woman feel invisible and unwanted. What Sam has wanted is to be recognized and understood by those around her. It’s fitting that she’s on a show — one Adlon directs with sensitivity and care — that recognizes and understands her quite so well, too. —D.D.

15. “Globo,” “High Maintenance” (HBO, January 19, 2018)

Written and directed by Katja Blichfeld & Ben Sinclair

This episode, the second season premiere of the show’s HBO era, depicts a world fundamentally changed; characters are all reacting to a cataclysmic piece of news that cannot be borne without the mind-altering effects of cannabis. That means good business for the show’s nameless protagonist (Ben Sinclair), but bad vibes all around him. This episode did an elegant job of being about one very specific thing (its unnamed bit of bad news generates a response that feels a lot like New York in the day or so after Donald Trump’s election) while also going diffuse and telling many mini-stories. It’s a miniature of “High Maintenance’s” whole project, toggling amongst several entirely different New Yorks in order to paint a picture of a nervy, wired city that needs help taking the edge off. Even in moments of tragedy, “High Maintenance” keeps its curiosity and its unwillingness to blink in the face of human oddity intact. —D.D.

16. “Love Is the Message,” “Pose” (FX, July 8, 2018)

Written by Ryan Murphy & Janet Mock; dir. Janet Mock

This episode’s emotional impact is anchored by a duet of “Home,” the Diana Ross signature song from “The Wiz,” between Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez). Singing in a hospital’s AIDS ward, the pair — confronting their fears for themselves and for their embattled community — raise their voices to announce their desire for comfort and safety with an emotional intensity that threatens to deplete them entirely. But, in this episode and in “Pose” on the whole, there is always more love to go around. Pray Tell’s grief for his boyfriend Costas, an AIDS patient to whom he directs his song, haunts the episode even before Costas’s death; Billy Porter’s acting gets a showcase in this episode, but so too do the manifold talents of the trans performers who surround him, especially the incandescently warm Rodriguez. Her Blanca’s bottomless well of support for Pray Tell, as much as his pain and rage, define the episode, and show what “Pose” can do uniquely well. It’s a depiction of the ways communities band together and resist being broken, strengthened rather than weakened by adversity, and it touches as well as galvanizes. —D.D.

17. “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World,” “30 Rock” (NBC, January 24, 2013)

Written by Lang Fisher & Nina Pedrad; dir. Jeff Richmond

When looking back at the latter seasons of “30 Rock” that aired this decade, it was tempting to choose “Queen of Jordan,” the show’s truly iconic spoof of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” starring a ferocious Sherri Shepherd. But that episode doesn’t quite represent “30 Rock” as itself in the way that “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” does. The excellent final season of “30 Rock” gave just about every major character a perfectly fitting swansong on their way out. And yet, the twofer of Liz (co-creator Tina Fey) finally getting to adopt twins (who look suspiciously like mini versions of Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski’s needy characters) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) gifting Kenneth (Jack Brayer) the entirety of NBC after proving his worth makes “A Goon’s Deed” particularly special. —C.F.

18. “Alive in Tucson,” “The Last Man on Earth” (Fox, March 1, 2015)

Written by Will Forte; dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

The loopy willingness of “The Last Man on Earth” to reinvent itself — to reshuffle the deck and reboot its story from the premise level — began with its pilot, which puts forward a big idea and then shelves it. The idea is that dirtbag-lite Phil (Will Forte) is the, well, last man on Earth, which he is (for much of a clever episode that features his breaking into a mansion and alleviating loneliness by talking to sports equipment) until he isn’t. His meeting with Kristen Schaal’s Carol is the first of many twists for a show whose rollicking confidence was consistently more interesting than nearly anything else on network TV, and that counterbalanced its inherent darkness with loopiness and light. This pilot remains one of the decade’s best, and showcases all the strengths of a gem-like show that deserves rediscovery. —D.D.

19. “Cities,” “Planet Earth II” (BBC America, December 11, 2016)

Produced by Fredi Devas

The second series of BBC America’s astonishing “Planet Earth” series was more in-depth, ambitious, and pointed than the first, and no entry represents that scope more than “Cities.” In taking a closer look at the creatures who live alongside humans in the closest of quarters, whether we realize it or not, “Cities” is regularly jaw-dropping and more than a little devastating as it details the consequences of climate change and human interference. (No one who saw those baby turtles squeaking across an unforgiving stretch of pavement will ever forget it.) “Cities” might be the sole unscripted entry on this list, but it’s also an extraordinary feat of filmmaking that demands more attention. —C.F.

20. “San Junipero,” “Black Mirror” (Netflix, October 21, 2016)
Written by Charlie Booker, dir. Owen Harris

As anchored by Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “San Junipero” tells a bittersweet, compassionate tale of longing and loss over decades of life and, as it turns out, the afterlife. As with the best “Black Mirror” episodes (not to mention the best of science fiction in general), the central twist on our reality drives the plot without monopolizing it, letting the characters grow around it organically. “Black Mirror” has become shorthand for “terrifying technology that will gain sentience and colonize our brains,” and this episode isn’t necessarily an exception to that rule. It is, however, one of the very few episodes in which the show’s imaginary technology yields more optimistic results than catastrophic — and a dazzling love story, besides. —C.F.

21. “Modern Warfare,” Community (NBC, May 6, 2010)

Written by Emily Cutler; dir. Justin Lin

“Community” first made a name for itself with banter, elaborate homages to landmark pop culture, and canny combinations of the two. And while the “concept” episodes wore out their welcome a few seasons into the series, looking back at the initial run of them makes clear why they became so beloved in the first place. The first one to stun was Emily Cutler’s “Modern Warfare,” which took tropes from action and post-apocalypse movies and distilled them into just over 20 minutes of comedy. Each character had a purpose, stayed in character, and got a moment to shine. Even the directing embraced a more ambitious scope and aesthetic  which is unsurprising, given that the episode’s director was, in fact, the prolific action director Justin Lin. When “Community” fans talk about what made the show special, it’s episodes like “Modern Warfare” that make the case. —C.F.

22. “Mother of All Matches,” “GLOW” (Netflix, June 29, 2018)

Written by Kim Rosenstock; dir. Mark A. Burley & John Cameron Mitchell

At first blush, it seemed like “GLOW” could be a wacky comedy about the misadventures of women wrestlers in the ‘80s. Almost immediately, however, the show proved itself to be a remarkably incisive study of what it means to be a woman who wants to work, distinguish herself, and dream bigger in a world that isn’t built for working women and rarely cares enough to change that. Season 2’s “Mother of All Matches,” in which two exhausted mothers (played by Betty Gilpin and Kia Stevens) try to handle the extreme pressures of balancing it all while reconciling their ambition with their often sexist, racist realities. This episode synthesizes the best of “GLOW” in 30 bruising, extremely effective minutes. —C.F.

23. “Mother,” “Veep” (HBO, May 15, 2016)

Written by Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck; dir. Dale Stern

Perhaps the crowning episode of “Veep’s” ongoing evolution of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from self-interested into sociopathic was this one, in which the death of Meyer’s little-loved mother becomes a valuable public-relations talking point even as it means little to the candidate herself. The scene in which Selina, overcome with emotion at the news she is set to lose the election recount, bursts into tears while delivering her eulogy is both a case-study in Louis-Dreyfus’s effortless brilliance and in the darker territory through which the show was increasingly willing to tread, to eventually mixed results. In this moment, though, the balance was chillingly right. —D.D.

24. “You Get What You Need,” “Big Little Lies” (HBO, April 2, 2017)

Written by David E. Kelley; dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

In its first season, “Big Little Lies” provided a powerful argument in favor of the linear experience, growing in potency as its story unveiled itself week-after-week in a manner that would not necessarily have happened under the binge model. In its finale (designed to conclude the series), “Big Little Lies” cemented its case, then, as an era-defining show. The plot is driven home by the revelation of the depths of Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) cruelty, and by his final violent rage; the women of the show, who’ve at times circled each other warily, unite to protect one another and in so doing unleash the power of cooperation rather than competition. The final shots, of the show’s cast decompressing on a beach, were pitch-perfect, creating a utopia undergirded with the sense that it’d be fleeting. (We saw them, after all, from the vantage point of the cop tailing them.) That this really ought to have been where the story ended does not take away from the power it had in its moment — a gloriously earned flourish of an ending. —D.D.

25. “Offred,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu, April 26, 2017)

Written by Bruce Miller; dir. Reed Morano

“The Handmaid’s Tale” seemed stuck in its recent third season, unclear on how to move forward; it can grow hard to remember just how audacious its early going, especially its pilot, really was. Benefiting from an accident of timing — coming out shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration and the global Women’s March movement — “Offred” depicts, in flashback, the capture and breaking of June, an independent woman in a nation that has decided that category of person cannot exist; in the present day, her name and identity stem from Commander Fred Waterford, her captor. Elisabeth Moss’s performance — fearful and defiant in exhilaratingly equal measure — was both startling and genuinely transformative; the swerves that later defined the series are tamped down in favor of a unity of tone. “Offred” is governed both by dread and by the thing that comes after it: hope. —D.D.

Source: variety.com
 
 
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