Best TV episodes of the decade, a highly subjective list

From "Community" and "Hannibal" to "Black Mirror" and "Atlanta," these shows yielded unforgettable TV installments

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 28, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men, and Danny Pudi in Community (AMC/NBC)
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men, and Danny Pudi in Community (AMC/NBC)

Truth be told, I've forgotten more great TV episodes that have aired over the past 10 years than I'd like to admit. That should tell you how far the medium has evolved over the last decade. The main story of the recent years may be the rapid increase in content output, but within that story is a more enticing tale of creativity and quality.

In short, this has been a wonderful decade for those of us who enjoy television, evidenced by the plethora of choices for best episodes. Meaning, the episodes that made this highly subjective list qualify not only merely as special but, in my book, unforgettable.

Had I endless amounts of time and a team of fellow TV devotees who had nothing else to do but ponder the best small screen stories that have aired since 2010, this list could have been 100 entries long. But I am only one person, so I've limited it to one entry per year, with a couple of runners up entries that I couldn't bear to leave off the list.

The usual caveats apply: many outstanding episodes of TV didn't make this list either because I haven't seen them or, just as likely, I simply chose to include different entries. This doesn't de-legitimize the worthiness of your favorite TV episodes, or my own list. Rather, this is one a collection of bests among many. And it is my hope that they assist you in looking back at the last decade with appreciation, and looking forward to the next 10 years of television with joyous anticipation.

The Suitcase”: “Mad Men,” AMC (2010)

From the moment Don Draper and Peggy Olson met, we could tell their relationship would be unlike any other in this series. Frustration, admiration, condescension, rage, loyalty, and sadness color their bond, but never had all of them surfaced at once until this hour, when the pair find themselves working late on the night of the historic Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston bout.

True to the series’ habit of finding a mirror to the history within the personal lives on these characters, the episode is structured like a boxing match.  Don and Peggy spar, landing blows and reeling at the impact, before returning to their respective offices before reconnecting for another round.

Eventually the two fighters exhaust themselves and trust each other with their vulnerabilities, fears, and sadness. In a series constructed around powerful personalities and the ability to sell themselves to the world at large, this is a story of true understanding born out of conflict. It shows us how two longtime fighters realize they make each other better and become true comrades, inside the ring or out.

Remedial Chaos Theory”: “Community” (2011)

Dan Harmon’s NBC half-hour played around with our concept of what a comedy could be by bringing together a group of disparate and idiosyncratic figures and refusing to place boundaries on their situational setting. This episode realizes that concept by extraordinarily merging scientific theory, sci-fi, and reality with Abed as the portal. A simple apartment warming becomes the point of divergence for several timelines, each changed in ways subtle and fundamental by two factors – the toss of a die and the decision of who goes to the building entrance to get the pizzas they ordered.

And the consequences of these factors result in everything from unintentional offense to burnt pies to a full-blown fire claiming a few lives and several limbs. But all of this served to prove two facts to the viewer. First it challenged the idea that Joel McHale's smug Jeff Winger, the self-appointed leader of the study group, actually improved their lives. (Turns out they’re happier without him.)

Second, it introduced the concept of The Darkest Timeline which, as we know, we’re living through right now. And to think it could have been avoided if someone had simply snatched one tossed die out of midair before sealing our collective fate!

 “Blackwater”: “Game of Thrones” (2012)

“Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of the second season, set the standard in terms of scripted tension, memorable repartee and the power dynamics driving this world, and stages it entirely within King’s Landing, the Westerosi seat of power.

Director Neil Marshall plays up the thick fear and portent in the air as Stannis Baratheon’s ships descend on the capital, and for all appearances it seems as if a number of key characters will not make it out of this episode alive or unharmed. Until, that is, Tyrion’s Wildfire set our screens ablaze with emerald fury.

Though this episode underscores the cowardice of Joffrey, reveals The Hound’s crippling phobia, and gifts us with the comedic duo of Drunk Cersei and Sansa, the battle would belong to Tyrion . . . from the audience’s point of view. In the end, we know, he doesn’t even merit a mention in the story’s larger history. But that night he was the man who pulled the Lannister forces back from surrendering to fear. “Those are brave men knocking at our door,” he tells them, adding with gusto, “Let's go kill them.”

Ozymandias”: “Breaking Bad” (2013)

Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem predates Vincent Gilligan's epic hour of television by nearly 200 years. Yet the parallels demonstrate one immutable truth about men and power: regardless of how carefully an empire is forced, it is ultimately doomed to fall.

Here, in a single pass, Walter loses everything he worked and killed for: The king's share of his money is taken from him while he watches. His wife Skyler chases him out of their home with a knife, and his son Walt Jr. finds out the truth about him and abandons him. He kidnaps his infant daughter and rains down vicious verbal abuse upon his wife during a phone call as the cops listen in on the line.

But all of this comes to pass after the sobering opener in the middle of the desert, as a thug holds a gun on his brother-in-law Hank. Walt pleads for Hank's life, but Hank turns to Walt and simply says, "You're the smartest man I know, but you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago." Minutes later the criminals bury Hank and his partner in the same hole where Walter's meth money used to be hidden. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Hitting the Fan”: “The Good Wife” (2013) – Runner Up

Quitting a job and going out on your own is hard enough. Quitting a job where the man who loved you, championed you and took you in can be . . . brutal. And the terrible second scenario is what unfolds when Will Gardner and Alicia Florrick clash over her plan to leave his law firm, Lockhart/Gardner, and set up shop for herself.

"I took you in. No one wanted you . . . You were poison," Will seethes, just after he furiously sweeps Alicia's desk clean with one arm, and just before he fires her.

What follows in the next 40 minutes is a beautiful frenzy: Stringed instrumental music flits frantically in the background as Alicia and her cohorts scramble to take control of their files. The scraps left behind, be they emotional or the files strewn across the carpet, are just the start of a major shift between the show that one and the all-out war between former work family members, as Alicia's new firm formed with Cary Agos, Florrick/Agos, is born in fire.

Mizumono”: “Hannibal” (2014)

True evil can be refined, but never tamed. And it may seek its equal, but rarely find it. The second season of this visually ambitious, poetically scripted series built to an inevitable tragedy previewed in the season premiere. But although we knew it was coming, the audience could not have predicted the extent of the white-hot rage lurking behind Hannibal Lecter's refined disguise. The full force of his predatory might explodes in this episode’s shocking climax, one that executive producer Bryan Fuller stitches with a measure of heartbreak and mourning that somehow harmonizing with all the bloody violence.

"Now that you know me, see me," Hannibal purrs mournfully as he stands over the man he thought, incorrectly, to be his destined equal. "I gave you a rare gift, but you didn't want it."

And with that, Hannibal leaves his enemies on the floor bathing in their own scarlet before stepping outside to a renewing baptism by rainfall before disappearing into the night.

International Assassin”: “The Leftovers” (2015)

Death is an inevitable fact of life. But to be haunted by the dead is mostly a matter of choice or sanity . . . unless, of course, the dead person’s spirit makes the choice to haunt you to the brink of sanity.

This is the conundrum faced by this drama’s protagonist Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), a man unmoored along with millions of others by The Sudden Departure. In the crazy weeks that followed Kevin is antagonized by the leader of a group called The Guilty Remnant, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) until she finally kills herself. But this is not the end for Patti and Kevin. She torments him until he decides he has no choice but to battle her on her own turf – the land of the dead.

This is the prologue to a post-death fugue state written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, in which Kevin wakes up in a strange hotel, puts on a suit and is immediately attacked by the hotel staff. None of what happens is logical, but it all makes sense because Kevin isn’t wandering for the sake of narrative flourish. His subconscious meandering has an end point, with a nasty job to do that culminates in pushing a very innocent-looking figure down a well.

And it is in this strange, wild episode that this series graduates from a solid recovery of a second season to sheer greatness, solidifying the directionless uncertainty of grief and mourning into an adventure in the darkest mystery we know. Kevin dies to do battle, then returns – only to die again, and return again. This twist has an odd comfort to it, asserting that death is a door to a different place where, as Kevin is directed to do, we can know who we are “and then adorn yourself accordingly.”

San Junipero”: “Black Mirror” (2016)

Grim as this series’ stories tend to be, “Black Mirror” captures other emotional shades quite well. In this hour written by Charlie Brooker, we’re treated to a romance that traverses realities and decades, as two souls meet late in life – or at its beginning, depending on how a person looks at it.

“San Junipero” has a twist at its core that’s revealed halfway through the episode, but by then we’re already invested in the whirlwind romance between the shy, introverted Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and party-girl Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a bedazzled vision in denim and curls, circa 1987. They meet in a strange party town filled with arcade games and dancing, and while the fun never ends, their time there is limited.

In contrast to other episodes, the central conceit about technology’s incursion into our lives isn’t necessarily horrific or frightening. The soundtrack selections and background details burst with hints about the episode’s great mystery, but the song that defines this love story and its particular grace is Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”

Sometimes, Brooker’s story posits, it can return parts of ourselves we presumed to be over and done with or lost to time and circumstance. It can give us the gift of bliss.

Michael’s Gambit”: “The Good Place” (2017)

Not many comedies can claim to revolve around a season-ending twist that changes its entire premise. Rarer still is the sitcom that makes it impossible to explain what the twist is without ruining the joy of its discovery for everyone to comes to it later on.

The first season finale of “The Good Place” does both of these things in a single, brilliantly calculated move that also establishes Ted Danson as one of the finest comedic actors of our time. (Without spoiling it . . . that smile is everything. Fans know what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, this game changer explains a number of the nagging questions about “The Good Place” that may have prevented people from full appreciating where series creator Michael Schur and his writers were heading. And it also elevated the nature of the audience’s queries beyond “What is this place?” to “Is it possible to be good in a world that rewards evil?”  From here, a sweet little comedy raised its game into the realm of greatness and hasn’t slowed its rise since.

Teddy Perkins”: “Atlanta” (2018)

To stand out within a series that devotes itself to shredding and reconstructing the definition of what a half-hour episodes needs to be takes an outrageous level of originality. Enter “Teddy Perkins,” an uninterrupted, consistently bizarre trip into a forgotten performer’s haunted life.

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 psychological horror show, as the title character (played by Glover, hidden under a thick mask of latex and makeup) demonstrates how warping the pressure of fame can be, collapsing under the expectations of people who desperately want to define who and what Teddy is.

START”:  “The Americans” (2018) – Runner up

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields consistently described this series about Russian spies living in America as a drama about marriage, first and foremost. And what is one of the top stressors on any relationship? The demands of a job, of course. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ profession forced them to build a life around it, not the other way around. And in the series finale, we witness the ramifications of this: their partnership remains solid, but heeding the call to return to Russia costs them their children. Their son, they outright abandon; the daughter leaves them at the last moment.

This chilling reward at the end of so much cold killing and betrayal feels right, and it’s a far more painful answer than to have either pay for their sins with a death.

In this way, “START” achieves the rare feat of closing the series with a solid landing while remaining true to who the Jennings are and verifying the truth or fiction at the heart of all the people they appeared to be. Not everyone’s story ends cleanly, or happily. That means the viewer gets exactly what she wants.

 “This Extraordinary Being”: “Watchmen” (2019)

To repeat what I previously wrote, this visually stunning hour nails its multiple roles as expositional chapter, cultural critique, and social commentary on the roles race, class and power play in systemic justice in one single resolute sweep. And it doesn’t only transform the canon of the comic book that inspires the series. It challenges long-held assumptions about what a hero looks like.

“Watchmen” followed this character reveal with another that, arguably, may hold greater significance. But without this hour’s connecting of Hooded Justice to Will Reeves, a survivor of a race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, none of the surprises that came after would feel as substantial. More than an extraordinary episode, it’s the rare hour that shows the potential television has as a medium capable of yielding high art.

Episode 3, Season 2”: “Fleabag” (2019) – Runner Up

The No. 1 character of 2019 may be Hot Priest, but the episode that best exhibits Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s incisive writing and Fleabag’s curiosity about emotional connections beyond lust may be this one, in which Fleabag caters an event at her sister Claire’s workplace and ends up having a commiserating cocktail with her co-worker Belinda Frears, a successful 58-year-old business woman who takes a shine to the 33-year-old café owner, and assures her, “It gets better.”

Then she launches into a delightful, withering monologue about menopause.

“Fleabag” is cited as an extraordinary work due to Waller-Bridge’s performance and her crafty means of breaking the fourth wall to make the audience co-conspirators. This coping mechanism breaks down when she discovers the one person who truly sees her, the Hot Priest, who also happens to be the one great love she can never, ever have.

Looking back in light of the season’s outcome, this episode symbolizes the possibilities beyond the urgent search for validation through a relationship. It mitigates the fact that Fleabag finds true love with a soul who is forbidden to her by speaking to her about biological destiny and a woman’s pain – and how one day, after a trial by fire, it all goes away, and she’s free.

“It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent,” Belinda says. “Something to look forward to.” In lieu of a third season I guess it’ll have to suffice.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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