Putting together a year-end list of the best shows of the year is both a critic’s rite of passage and a perennially nerve-racking experience. It’s thrilling to go back over the year and pick out the best moments to share with readers. But how do you narrow it down to just 10 shows? How do you compare a comedy like “Bob’s Burgers” with a drama like “Person of Interest”? And worst of all: What if you’ve missed something?
I did make a top-10 list, which you can see at the HitFix critics’ poll — a list I’ve been sketching out and expounding upon with more nuance for the Year in TV series. But while looking at shows as a whole is a fascinating process, one of the unique and frustrating elements of episodic television is that some half-hours are better than others. An outstanding episode can mean something more than a whole show, sometimes because it’s framed like a short film, and sometimes because it takes what the show does to a level the other episodes can’t attain. It’s the episode you recommend when you tell a friend, “You need to watch this show.”
In that spirit, I asked nine other critics to tell me a little bit about one of their favorite episodes of the year. Their answers come from Emmy-winning shows and from cult hits on late-night television, from 22-minute sitcoms to 90-minute miniseries installments. But they are all episodes to be remembered—and here’s why.
“Rick and Morty,” “Rixty Minutes”
The entire first season of Rick and Morty impressed me, but it was "Rixty Minutes" that blew me away and cemented the series as one of my new favorites. The centerpiece of "Rixty Minutes" isn't the actual plot — there isn't much of one — or the brilliance of using mindless channel surfing as a way to show the infinite number of alternate universes, the different twists and turns various members of the family could have taken. Instead, it's a sweet but disturbing conversation between Morty and his sister, who just found out that in many of these alternate universes she doesn't even exist. Morty reveals his own grave and "comforts" her by saying, "Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV."
It's a line that sneaks up and catches you off guard with its dark humor and brutal honesty — there is no better form of escapism than television, even when it gets a little too real — but it's also representative of what made "Rick and Morty" one of the most unique series on television this year. — Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire
“The Good Wife,” “A Few Words”
Coming in the middle of its most flooring season to date, there was still something that felt almost impossible about "A Few Words." “The Good Wife's" strength has always been its narrative plate-spinning: somehow keeping half a dozen ongoing plots in motion each episode while dealing with a case of the week. "A Few Words" outdid even that by slowing everything down to focus on protagonist Alicia Florrick — both her personal evolution over five seasons and her tricky symbolism as a feminist role model — when she’s asked to deliver a keynote on her status as a mom who "opted out" of work before returning to the law.
“The Good Wife” grapples with bigger issues without sacrificing the dimensions of its characters better than any other show — we're never lectured to. "A Few Words" arrives at its themes organically: Alicia realizing how beholden she is to the men in her life, wrestling with her privilege, and slowly awakening to the realization that she wants to control her fate. "A Few Words" serves as the crucial locus point between Alicia's self-doubt and the more self-reliant path she had already embarked on, and it did that while being an incredibly compelling episode of dramatic television. — David Sims, the Atlantic
My God, this is an emotionally devastating episode of television. You might not think it possibly could be, considering it’s about a cannibal serial killer and the criminal profiler who loves/loathes him engaging in an elaborate game of cat and mouse, and you’ve seen that before. But there’s a point around the halfway mark of this episode where showrunner Bryan Fuller’s masterful design for his entire season snaps into place, and the show goes not just for broke, but for astonishing. Yes, the episode is remarkably plotted, leaving a surprisingly large number of cast members bleeding out on the floor of Hannibal’s posh mansion and packing one final surprise into a scene that comes after the closing credits. But as mentioned, “Mizumono” works so well because it’s a payoff to two seasons worth of buildup, the moment when the show’s emotionally rococo view of the universe fully flowers. Hannibal is, at its most basic level, about what it means for two men to have a deeply intimate friendship, where they know everything about each other. And that means that “Mizumono,” in which one of the two betrays the other, must necessarily be about the deep scars of heartbreak. Fuller and company make sure you feel every one of them. — Todd VanDerWerff, Vox
“Sherlock,” “His Last Vow”
“Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage's Calculating Machine, and just about as likely to fall in love,” Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 1892, establishing the intentional omission of romantic desire in his detective’s personality profile. In 2014, “Sherlock’s” Holmes referred to love as an easily exploitable human error.
But in dismissing this inherently human emotion, Sherlock created a blind spot into which stepped a woman – John Watson’s new wife, Mary, played by Martin Freeman’s partner Amanda Abbington. In one thrilling scene, everything that occurred between “The Empty Hearse” and that heart-stopping moment in “His Last Vow” became mere distractions as sweet Mary’s unveiling invited viewers to reevaluate their own powers of deduction. Holmes’ initial appraisal told us, among other things, that she was a size 12 clever romantic who bakes her own bread, loves cats … and is a liar.
What else did we notice along the way? We saw what was genuine: her strength, quick intellect, and admiration for Sherlock matched her adoration of his best friend. Mary fit into Sherlock’s puzzle so beautifully that he didn’t let her go, even when a blackmailer shattered her genteel veneer. The “liar” designation became an afterthought until the writers made us realize it was everything. Knowing what the real mystery was made an encore viewing of Season 3's episodes a differently satisfying experience. “His Last Vow” proved that the detective did love, in his way; so great is Sherlock’s affection for Watson that he was ready to sacrifice his freedom to protect Mary. — Melanie McFarland, IMDb
"Transparent,” “Symbolic Exemplar”
The ostensible theme of "Transparent" is transformation, and all season long, we watched the evolution of genders and individuals within one family. But what "The Symbolic Exemplar" examines with awe-inspiring focus is another of the show's themes: expectations. Ali's expectations for her date with a new man are so overwhelming that they affect what she perceives. Maura wants to be truly seen in her big moment in the talent show, but she's terrified of making a fool of herself. Her children want to not be embarrassed by who Maura is in that moment, and they also want credit for merely showing up. What's fantastic about the episode -- and what's heartbreaking about Maura's kids giggling then slinking away during the performance of "Somebody That I Used to Know" -- is the rigorous excavation of why every single person let everyone else down. Maura hasn't been truthful about her identity for so long that deception is a reflexive habit for all the Pfeffermans. Confusion, pain and anger get in the way of each character's expectations, and creator Jill Soloway depicts all these messy emotions without bitterness or an overdose of melodrama. The episode, which is anchored so beautifully by Jeffery Tambor's depiction of Maura's bravery, serves as the emotional heart of a series that brilliantly examines the cost of expectations and the painful necessity of evolution. — Mo Ryan, the Huffington Post
“Review,” “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes”
"Best Friend; Space" is probably a funnier episode. "Revenge; Getting Rich; Aching" is probably a darker episode. But "Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes" is the episode to watch if you want to see how gracefully Andy Daly's Comedy Central gem is able to spiral from comedy to tragedy to absurdist nihilism. Settled between missions to eat "an upsetting number of pancakes" and a dispiriting amount of pancakes, Forrest MacNeil undertakes a challenge that impacts more than his waistline, that could inflict more than temporary pain. After two episodes of laughing along as Forrest test-drives drug addiction, being a racist, and other paths from which he can always retreat, we witness the pathological danger of his review-every-life-experience mission. It's here that we realize that what Forrest is doing leaves marks, that it impacts the people around him, that his commitment to this bit may be a symptom of a bigger problem. It's here that we start to ponder the mechanics of the show-within-the-show, "Review With Forrest MacNeil," and the complicity of the audience in the whole endeavor. And as the solemnity has fully set in, suddenly it's even more hilarious when, later in the season, Forrest is trapped in space with an unmoored corpse and descending deeper into sexual depravity. Five stars. — Dan Fienberg, HitFix
“Game of Thrones,” “Watchers on the Wall”
We are so accustomed to “Game of Thrones” flitting across Westeros in service of its many families that when it stays in one place for an entire episode to tell a single story the results can be powerful. The penultimate episode of Season 4, depicting the bloody battle between the wildling army and the Night’s Watch, was no exception, giving us everything that is captivating about the series in one compact gem. Plus: Giants! Mammoths! Flaming arrows!
There was the high drama of the expertly choreographed fight scenes as the huge scythe shaved advancing wildlings off the wall and the outmanned Crows held back their attackers. There were small, intimate moments suffused with poignancy, including Jon Snow mournfully cradling a dying Ygritte and Grenn leading his comrades in the oath of the Night’s Watch as the giant advanced. There was also humor, as Sam parsed for Jon the gray area that exists in their vows with regards to “relations” with women. And, most thrillingly, there was the ascension of Sam to warrior as Jon assumed his leadership mantle. Ygritte may have repeated “You know nothing, Jon Snow” with her last breath, but, as he sets off in the harsh early morning light to confront Mance Rayder, he knows more than he ever has, about love, war and what it means to be a member of the Night’s Watch. — Sarah Rodman, the Boston Globe
“The 100,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”
Before you scoff at a CW show making any “Best of” list, you might want to check out this mold-breaking sci-fi endeavor (and most of “Arrow’s" second season). Gritty and unsympathetic, this twist on “Lord of the Flies” plays more like “Battlestar Galactica” than Hot Teens in Turmoil, and never was that given sharper focus than this hour-long countdown to a mass execution. With the adult residents aboard the Ark running out of oxygen and unaware that the kids they’d sent to Earth had found their old planet reinhabitable, the decision is made to reduce the Ark’s population to save the dying space station’s resources. It seems at first as if this plot twist is set up to show the good in people as noble folk volunteer for the culling, and that Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and her band of beautiful juveniles on Earth will alert the mothership in time. But as the final minutes of the episode wind down, it becomes devastatingly clear that, like those consigned to a suffocating death in the Ark’s locked chamber, the viewer is in for a horrifying, breathless look at the brave new world of a show that doesn’t mess around. — Damian Holbrook, TV Guide
“Masters of Sex,” “The Fight”
My favorite episode of the year is from a show that ultimately didn’t end up breaking my top 10. It’s not that “Masters of Sex” is bad: It’s that “The Fight” is really, really good. “Masters of Sex” had up till that point told the story of the evolving relationship between Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson — two people drawn to each other professionally, romantically, sexually, even as they butt heads. The show has been built on Bill’s inability to articulate his own feelings, Virginia’s sense of disenfranchisement as a single mother, and the sexual and social mores of the 1950s in the Midwest. In “The Fight,” this all comes together in a subtle, well-crafted, denouement. The entire episode, almost, takes place in one hotel room, as a conversation between these two people — and it dawns on the viewer that this is a particularly brilliant installment of a conversation that these two have been having and will be having for their entire lives. It has the clarity and grace of a stage play and the aggression and dominance of a boxing fight (there’s one playing in the background of the whole episode). And though it is, in places, achingly sad, the complexity of the performances from Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are so brilliant that they burn out the tragedy. “The Fight” is a masterpiece. —Sonia Saraiya, Salon
“Mad Men,” “The Strategy”
What had been a bumpy, strange “Mad Men” half-season roared gloriously to life with this episode that somehow managed to out-“Suitcase” “The Suitcase” in its depiction of Don and Peggy’s evolving relationship. After all they had been through, they still bonded over their shared love of the work — and the realization that no one understands that love as much as each other — and came up with a new approach for Burger Chef that (like the best pitches on “Mad Men”) tied together what was happening in their own lives with what was happening to the culture at large at the time.
And then they danced.
I know there are seven more episodes of this great series to go, and I have high expectations for them, but “The Strategy” was so much the summation of everything this show and its two central characters had been about, that if the last we ever saw of “Mad Men” was Don and Peggy slow-dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” it would have been more than enough. — Alan Sepinwall, HitFix