The 10 best TV episodes of 2018: A highly subjective list

In this year of quantity, even the most watchable shows were uneven. These hours, however, stand out from the crowd

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 26, 2018 3:00PM (EST)

Lulu Wilson and Carla Gugino in "The Haunting of Hill House" (Steve Dietl/Netflix)
Lulu Wilson and Carla Gugino in "The Haunting of Hill House" (Steve Dietl/Netflix)

The past year yielded a ton of TV, and most of what I’ve seen qualifies as watchable if not stupendous. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is the general tendency toward bloat. In a flooded marketplace for an audience trending toward the model of delayed viewing and binges, the reigning school of thought seems to favor keeping the viewer’s attention for as long as possible by offering more.

Stories that should have a neat ending (*cough* “13 Reasons Why" *cough*) are extended into another season we don’t really need. Plots that can be resolved in six episodes are stretched out to ten, or 13. Episodes that could be fine at an hour of length expand, for whatever reason, to a flabby 90 minutes.

Often, though, what we get are wasted hours adding sag to season plot arcs that would otherwise be taut. As such, this prevents many a series from rising beyond the status of very good.

Uneven seasons can contain outstanding episodes, though, and those are far easier to call out than creating a year-end Best Series list. Keep in mind that as with my Best Series of 2018 list, the same caveats apply: there were 495 series to watch, and I am but one person, and as such, if your favorite episode isn’t on this list, it’s very likely I simply haven't seen it yet.

In other cases I chose personal favorites as opposed to ones the critical consensus listed as bests; such lists, like all criticism, are subjective. The hope is to provide you with suggestions for viewing choices you might otherwise pass by, or to provide additional context to ones you’ve already seen. Hopefully this list contains a few surprises, and debatable ones at that. Of course, a couple here are pretty much forgone conclusions.

10. “High-Like”: “Insecure,” HBO

We demand evolution in our characters, yet rap a series on the knuckles, so the speak, when its core figures move on. Some of this happened in this series’ third season, as Issa pushes forward into the unknown without Lawrence or the unfulfilling job at “We Got Y’all.”

But when Issa’s journey took a detour to Coachella, where she joined Molly, Kelli, and a very pregnant Tiffany on a girls' weekend, the show’s deft physical humor took center stage. Their quest is to see Beyoncé, but their own personal agendas derail their plans: everyone takes molly and edibles, and while Issa’s lowered inhibitions lead her to hook up with a new love interest on a ferris wheel, for the rest of the group, drugs and crowds do not mix well.

Natasha Rothwell, who’s always just the right amount of extra, stole the ending as Kelli’s comedown elevated her belligerence, eventually leading her to get tased.

Weekender episodes of any series can be psychologically revealing, with characters dropping their shields and showing their true colors. Such revelations can color later plotlines, which may explain why some aspects of the “Insecure” storyline and Issa’s character development came unmoored at the end of the season. Or maybe it was simply one of the funniest episodes of great show. Either way works.

9.  “Kiksuya”: “Westworld,” HBO

A lot of people exited the “Westworld” train in season 2. And for the most part, those who kept watching did so somewhat grudgingly, digging around for a deeper meaning they’re so sure had to be there after all.

Allow me to suggest that it may help to view the show in a very different way — not as a series of connected personal myths, but as a collection of emotional pieces evoking the broader human story. The best of these featured Zahn McClarnon’s Ghost Nation warrior Akecheta revealing the secret that the quietest character in the series was actually the one with the clearest idea of what was happening after all, enabled by taking control of his own humanity and finding ways to remember all that had happened to him —  and the love of his artificial, but very real, life most of all.

8. “Love Is the Message,” “Pose,” FX

The art of milking tears from the audience is a subtle one. Done badly, it comes across as manipulative. Done expertly, a creation engraves itself on the memory. This episode, directed  by Janet Mock (in her directorial debut) and co-written by Mock and Ryan Murphy, does the latter. First it opens with a clarifying conversation between Angel (Indya Moore) and Patty (Kate Mara), her lover’s wife, where they connect in their womanhood until Patty, painfully, points out the difference between them, the very thing keeping Angel from receiving equal treatment.

But the soul of the hour is the agonizing journey of Pray Tell (Billy Porter), who slips into drunken coping as the death of longtime partner Costas from complications due to AIDS draws near.

Porter’s performance is a whirlwind of rage and sorrow at first, then softens when he realizes there’s at last something he can do: bring color and music to the ward where Costas is spending his final days, in form of a cabaret. Porter’s performance of Donny Hathaway’s version of “For All We Know” is stunning, but when Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca shows up to sing “Home” from “The Wiz” — joined by Porter when Blanca, who lives with HIV, is overwhelmed by realization that she’s gazing into her own possible future — the world melts.

This episode’s soundtrack is inspired, but it’s the message that lifts this hour above most what we’ve see in 2018. “We are living in a world where all of us could truly be gone one day, where our kind is just a memory, one the rest of the world would be happy to forget,” Pray Tell says. “All we have left is right now.”

7. “A Life in the Day”: “The Magicians,” Syfy

This show has a lot in common with a potion or a craft cocktail: It’s intoxicating, sexy and colorful, even though there may be a lot of ingredients to track that occasionally require a bit of muddling. “The Magicians” also is fearless in its willingness to play with its storytelling format, using magic as a tool and its rules as palettes instead of taking for granted that the audience’s fascination will fill in any blanks.

But its best episode plays the familiar instrument of the heart strings in unexpected ways. Throughout the season the team has been on a quest to find seven keys that can restore magic to the world, and until this point, they’ve been fairly straightforward adventures. This one tasks Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Eliot (Hale Appleman) with returning to the magical realm of Fillory — though in the past — to solve a puzzle.

The catch is that it takes an entire lifetime , during which Quentin falls in love, marries and has a son; Eliot falls in love with Quentin, and the pair remain loyal to one another for all their days. Only when their lives are spent and Eliot experiences his greatest loss is the quest fulfilled, allowing the two to return to their own timeline and regain their youth.

6.  “The Bent-Neck Lady”: “The Haunting of Hill House,” Netflix

Most horror stories explain their evils by pointing to places and things in the universal that exist to eat, destroy and radiate malevolence without reason. Others reveal horrors to be misunderstood things, phenomenon that are only as good or bad are the people who interact with them.

I suppose the responsible thing to do as a professional critic would be to list the episode that comes after this, “Two Storms,” an impressively executed hour colliding the past into the present using what appears to be a single long take — though, in reality, it’s several joined together — one of the more challenging high wire acts of cinematic technique.

From a myth-building perspective, however, “The Bent-Neck Lady” does more than simply reveal the true story of what happened to Nell, the youngest Crain, whose suicide brings the estranged siblings and father together and lures them back to the place they hoped to never set foot in again. It reveals a disturbing, fascinating detail about the supernatural nature of Hill House itself that hints it to be something more than merely haunted.

Creator and director Mike Flanagan positions “The Haunting of Hill House” to be a tale about family dysfunction and distrust as well as a horror story from the start, but this episode evolves what is otherwise a stylish scare piece into a heartbreaking tragedy.  And the final scene, more than just shocking, is emotionally wrecking.

5. “START,” “The Americans,” FX

When a long-running, critically acclaimed drama about professional killers draws to a close, it seems its creators are dogged by the same questions. Will the characters viewers have come to love get out alive? Will they be made to pay for their sins? And there’s the question they cannot answer: Will the end live up to the rest of the series?

The fact that Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields landed this enterprise satisfyingly and without a hitch is extraordinary enough. As for the rest, it would ruin the surprise to reveal what happens. So many people still haven’t picked up this series, after all.

What I can say is that “START” achieves the rare feat of closing the operation while remaining true who the Jenningses were, at heart, as well as all the things they appeared to be. Not everyone’s story ends cleanly, or happily. That means the viewer gets exactly what she wants.

4. “The Queen”: “Castle Rock,” Hulu

This is another narratively fragmented series, whose plots are steeped in memories that differ and darken depending on whose perspective is the focus. And in this episode Ruth Deaver, played by Sissy Spacek, careens between the past and the present as she attempts to make sense of a world shattered by dementia.

“The Queen” appears to be a standalone episode, but as its scramble of logic and history shows us, appearances deceive. This chapter adds fresh context to every episode leading up to it, helping us to appreciate that Ruth’s plight is more profound than just contending with the disease destroying her faculties.

As an aside, recently a number of television series have done a stellar job of allowing the viewer to see the world as a writer imagines this condition would present it; “BoJack Horseman” had a terrific episode in a past season that evoked life as a character in mental decline.

Doing this with live actors and film requires an entirely different set of skills, and a disciplined performer — which this series celebrates by tasking Spacek with holding the center of a world shifting through time and space, room by room, and sometimes with each step.

3. “Not Yet”: “One Day at a Time,” Netflix

How much have we taken for granted this year, in this hour, or even in this moment? The second season finale confronts this as a comatose Lydia (Rita Moreno) hovers between life and death, and each character that visits opens up to her completely. Some of their monologues are sweetly comical; daughter Penelope (Justina Machado) is an orchestra of regret, anger, bargaining and ultimately benediction as she frees Lydia, crawling into her hospital bed with her.

The sorrow blanketing “Not Yet” is outdone only by the tension co-showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce maintain throughout the episode, hanging the audience in that gossamer-thin space between life and death until the very last moment. It’s a heck of a cliffhanger that eventually manifests as an ode to honesty, and the necessity of not counting on tomorrow to mend what needs to be fixed today.

2. “Mother of All Matches,” GLOW, Netflix

Two mothers from very different walks of life, united by the pressure of their roles inside the ring and the responsibilities outside of it.

But while Debbie Eagan, aka Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin) can drop her child off at daycare to take care of such necessary tasks as getting her nails done, the sort of daily task load wealth and society has conditioned her to expect as her birthright, Tammé Dawson, aka Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens) and mothers of her hue have long been trained to work excessively, compromise much and expect little in return.

The mention of the word "privilege" in debates about race and class is all it takes to kill the conversation dead. People of means, and many white people, are uncomfortable with even acknowledging that they benefit from simply by existing in this culture. But this episode walks viewers through the definition of privilege without explicitly mentioning the current conversation, ending with Tammé taking solace in knowing all the slights she’s endured have ensured a better future for her son, who is attending Stanford on scholarship.

1. “Teddy Perkins”: “Atlanta,” FX

Donald Glover planned his spring and summer of 2018 very well.  He could have contented himself with flexing as Lando Calrissian in “Solo” (and we’re glad he didn’t) and killing his hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live.” But the same weekend he made his “SNL” debut, he dropped the pitch black, artistically defiant video for “This Is America,” the release that launched a thousand think pieces.

And this came at the tail end of “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season” shredding and reconstructing the definition of what half-hour episodes are supposed to be. The season’s crown jewel is an uninterrupted trip into the eponymous character’s phantasmagorical and haunted life: Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) visits Teddy, an entertainment industry relic whose features and pale complexion are as far from natural as one can fathom.

And it all begins very innocently, with Darius thinking he’s simply going to Teddy’s house to purchase a piano with rainbow-colored keys. Soon, however, he becomes a participant in a black version of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”

“Teddy Perkins” is a masterpiece in psychological terror, presenting the title character as the warped diamond that results from decades of pressure by external forces and internalized hatred. Glover, uncredited in the episode, dons thick prosthetics and make-up to play him, rendering the performer completely recognizable under a haunting, unforgettable vision.

And Teddy is a creation that only an artist who has grappled with constantly being observed by people who desperately want to define who and what he is could conjure. Glover plays many roles, some cultivated, others thrust upon him the moment he came into the world as a black man. Teddy is a manifestation of one possible end —  a physical reminder that this, too, is America.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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