10. Spartacus: War of the Damned – “Victory”
Not the last finale on this list, “Victory” is a triumphant conclusion to a slightly overstuffed season of the great, underrated Spartacus. With a substantial list of casualties, “Victory” was defined by tragedy and, yes, victory, even if that victory was a moral one, not born of success on the battlefield for our heroes. Yes, the historical veracity is questionable – the real Spartacus was probably not motivated by the oh-so-American concept of “freedom” – but it’s a strong conclusion to a strong series nonetheless. The best “moment” for me was the credits, which had a visual tribute to the characters and, most powerfully, the actors who defined this series, ending with the late, great Andy Whitfield, who passed away between the show’s first and second seasons.
9. New Girl – “Elaine’s Big Day”
The title of New Girl’s second season finale is significant. This is one of the funnier episodes of New Girl, weaving together Schmidt’s romantic complications, the tension between recently-dating Nick and Jess and Winston’s wackiness into a brilliant, dense farce at Cece’s wedding. But what makes the episode really work is the way that it respects the characters on the margin, the kind of characters that most sitcoms dismiss or ignore. Characters like “Elaine,” (played briefly and memorably by Taylor Swift) and her boyfriend/Cece’s fiancé Shivrang, or Schmidt’s current girlfriend, Elizabeth. Despite all the clichés – disastrous wedding, love triangles, etcetera – “Elaine’s Big Day” works by worrying about the little things.
8. Masters of Sex – “Catherine”
Usually I give new shows about five episodes to prove their mettle. Perhaps coincidentally, a lot of great shows have some of their best moments five episodes in. Deadwood interrogated the moral foundation of its society in “The Trial of Jack McCall,” The Wire introduced Obama’s-favourite-character Omar Little in “The Pager” and The Sopranos had arguably its best episode ever in “College.” Count Masters of Sex among that number. This episode had a lot going on, but at its heart was Libby’s devastating miscarriage and its ramifications, which shed light on the deep rift between her and Bill. I was surprised to learn how deeply I felt about these characters, less than a half dozen episodes into this show.
7. Mad Men – “The Crash” and “In Care Of”
I found Mad Men’s sixth season below its usual standards, but remember, this is Mad Men. Even if the sixth season were its worse (it’s not), it’d still be among the best seasons of television from the last decade. The two extremes of the show were on display in “The Crash,” where a celebrity doctor’s “booster” (basically, speed) inspired a hallucinatory, feverish, utterly insane episode of television and in season finale “In Care Of,” as Don’s burgeoning alcoholism and selfishness erupted in a moving confession that left him no longer welcome at the advertising agency that bears his name. Dick Whitman’s resurgence here felt more permanent than it ever has before, and puts the show in an interesting position for season seven.
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “The Gang Saves The Day”
Nine – yes, nine – seasons in, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia faces the usual challenges that present themselves to any sitcom that runs this long. Characterisation tends to take a backseat to humour in most sitcoms, even great ones, meaning that as the show continues, genuinely human quirks mutate into broad, cartoonish behaviour. So many “old” sitcoms lose their ability to shock and wither into mediocrity.
Not so It’s Always Sunny. Certainly, The Gang have all become a bit broader, a bit more exaggerated than earlier seasons, but its less a consequence of poor writing than a realistic look at what such an insular, unpleasant group of people would do to one another. The writers here truly great the twisted psychology of these characters, and that’s on full display in an episode where each member of The Gang fantasizes about “saving the day” in their own way when a convenience store is robbed. There’s even some commentary on the “cartoonification” of sitcom characters, with Charlie Day’s chapter presented as a cartoon. A great episode that demonstrates this show is as good as ever.
5. Hannibal – “Savoureux”
The last season finale, I promise! Hannibal was always an impressive series, presenting a fantastical tale of serial killers with majestic darkness, demonstrating a visual panache rarely seen on television. The season finale was a potent reminder that there’s more to the show than Mikkelsen’s restrained villainy, Dancy’s encroaching madness or immaculate, imaginative montages of murder. As Lector’s dreadful, delicately-executed plan came to fruition and we end on a memorable inversion of a famous shot from Silence of the Lambs, it was abundantly clear that is a show with a deep intelligence, not just a dark heart.
4. Justified – “Decoy”
I caught The Lion in Winter on television the other day, and while I was in and out of the room, never quite catching the full intricacies of a fairly convoluted narrative, I was consistently entertained by the lively verbal confrontations between Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Their repartee split the difference between drama and comedy, the actors deftly threading their way through precisely written barbs and parries.
Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins – and the rest of the Justified cast – may not match up to O’Toole and Hepburn, but there’s a similar kind of pleasure to be found in the excellent “Decoy.” The Drew Thompson plotline came to a head with a tense episode, filled with violence and the threat of violence, but the joys of this episode are found in the dialogue – Raylan and Boyd, of course, but also Tim and Colt or Ava and Augustine. Terrifically-written dialogue throughout, infused with delicious black comedy to undercut and complement the teeth-grinding tension.
Both of these episodes ended with moments that were surprising, violent and hugely significant from a storytelling perspective. They’re great episodes outside of all that, of course, but there’s such a sense of release when all the scheming and plotting erupts into fearsome climax. The two climaxes in question couldn’t be more different: “And Now His Watch Has Ended” has that visceral victory as Daenerys reveals the true extent of her confidence by unleashing a slave army (and a dragon, natch) on the slavers that had ruled them, whereas “Rains of Castamere” …well, if you don’t know how it ends by now I see no point in spoiling it. Each a potent reminder of how Game of Thrones has matured into greatness over this season.
2. Girls – “One Man’s Trash”
“One Man’s Trash” is a great litmus test for Girls in my opinion. It’s not that it’s a particularly representative episode of the show, acting as a bottle episode of sorts, focusing in on Hannah and whatever-Patrick-Wilson-was-called. This is pretty distinct from an average episode of the show, which tend towards an ensemble approach. But if you can’t appreciate the surreal messiness, the frustrating almost-insights and subdued poetry that’s on full display in “One Man’s Trash,” I’m not really sure what you’re getting out of the show. A gorgeous, different, complex episode.
1. Breaking Bad – “Ozymandias”
How could it be anything else, really? It would have been this episode after five minutes, after Hank faces his fate with grim fatalism. It would have been this episode when Walt reveals the devastating depth of his betrayal of Jesse, minutes later. It would have been this episode when Walt finds himself facing down his own son, who treats him with such fear that he needs to hold up a kitchen knife in defence. It would have been this episode by the time Skyler falls to her knees, utterly defeated, reduced to an incarnation of inhuman grief. How could it be anything else?