I’ve made my 2019 show recommendations here and here, but now it’s time for my original end of year tradition: highlighting my favorite episodes of the year.
If you’ve been around my blog and my channel, you’ve probably heard me say this before but I love the art of the individual episode. What makes TV unique is its ability — at its height — to tell stories each week that both stand alone as singular achievements AND tie into a larger overarching story. These vignettes make television so powerful, spending time focusing on complicated stories in segments, before zooming out and showing us the beautiful mosaic that we’ve been building together. The only rule is that each show can only have one entry.
Usually I make a list of five (here’s 2016, 2017, and 2018 if you’re a Skip Intro completist I guess), and write a little something nice for the honorable mentions, but this year I needed to expand my list to six, so here are they are in list form:
- “ASSes” — Big Mouth
- “Bandersnatch” — Black Mirror
- “New Client” — BoJack Horseman
- “Episode 6” Catastrophe
- “And Salt the Earth Behind You” — Euphoria
- “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” — Game of Thrones
- “Episode 5” — Mindhunter
- “Rage of the Ape-Men” — Primal
- “The Way Out” — Russian Doll
- “Episode 1” — Years & Years
- “Zero Eggplants” — You’re the Worst
I even made a little clip montage:
Let’s get to the top 6. Oh, and SPOILERS for these episodes/shows. You can always skip to the next section:
6. “Outward Bound” — GLOW
GLOW is criminally underrated — so underrated, in fact, that it made me change my rules and expand a top 5 to a top 6. But “Outward Bound” belongs in this top tier, with its own spotlight, and not in the sea of honorable mentions.
One of the great strengths of TV is its ability to give you a character’s experience. For most of television’s history, this tool has been reserved for studying the psychology of straight, white men (says the straight, white man), exploring the reasons why they behave the way they do. This is a much larger topic for another time, but I think one of the reasons this was done was because the people making that TV thought of these characters as blank canvases — people we could all relate to.
But that ignores the fact that there are many human experiences that stretch beyond those canvases and experiences that those characters cannot capture. As it’s truly grown into its own as an ensemble dramedy, GLOW has given light and voice to characters who we don’t usually see on screen, in a different time period, dealing with issues have not gotten much revealing light in mainstream media.
The camping is essentially a series of heart-to-heart conversations, between characters and between the show and the audience.
Ruth and Debbie talk around their tortured past (“Well, Ruth, you are finally going to get your wish. We’re gonna die together”), touch on Debbie’s desire to go back home to her infant son, and Ruth and Sam’s equally complicated relationship. Yolanda and Arthie talk about their relationship from two angles, one who’s been out for a while and knows the danger looming around homosexuality in the 1980s and the other who is blissfully unaware of the microaggressions around her.
The power of television even gets us to understand a character as idiosyncratic as Sheila the She-Wolf. We feel her existential pain when she is rejected by a wolf and the freedom she feels when she takes off her mask.
But the epitome of this concept is in the connection between the Jewish Melrose and the Cambodian Jenny who talk about their close calls with genocide, in the most heartwrenching sequence of the show to date. None of Jenny’s friends had ever heard about the Killing Fields, as I’m sure most of the audience was also ignorant. “Outward Bound” is a masterpiece of empathetic storytelling, which is one of the greatest strengths of the television artform.
5. “405 Method Not Allowed” — Mr. Robot
Notorious for not caring about plot, creator Sam Esmail (who directed 38 of the series’ 45 episodes, including each after the first season) is a master of creating tone and tension with his trademark unbalanced framing and bleak color palette. This approach makes him among the best creators of individual episodes of TV, wild rides that grab you by the feet and yank you through the looking glass.
“It’s cool, dude. We don’t have to talk.” Once Darlene says this to Elliot at the beginning of the episode, it’s complete radio silence. There is literally no dialogue for the rest of the hour, a break-neck heist that carries on without a break for a commercial or to catch your breath. We don’t need dialogue to watch this break-in and break-out take place. Everything plays out on computer terminals with a security guard around the corner on Christmas morning.
Oh yeah, did I mention that the entire seas takes place in a jam-packed Christmas week, with this episode coming as the sun rises on a New York City Christmas morning? It does. It adds a whole new obstacle for Elliot and Darlene, who can’t blend in amongst a crowd and a whole new dimension of surreal tone for the audience.
In some ways, this is the adrenaline-filled peak of the series, one that has already seen long take gundowns and an entire episode taking place in a riot, Birdman style. Somehow, “Method Not Allowed” takes the anxiety up a notch, not as a gimmick, but as a choice that makes sense for the story of a covert operation with characters too busy trying not to get caught to talk to each other.
There is real palpable fear that something could go wrong at any minute. (Things already have, that’s why they’re here.) A wrong keystroke or missing the mark on their incredibly tight schedule or being seen are all as thrilling as the daring escape that takes place afterwards, a chase scene that would feel at home in the Bourne franchise.
4. “Season 2, Episode 6” — Fleabag
Fleabag’s second season (and first) is often viewed as one long piece — in its entirety it’s still about an hour and change shorter than The Irishman. But Fleabag is decidedly a television show, and just because you binged it in one sitting on Amazon, doesn’t mean that’s the only way to watch.
Contrary to popular belief, it did air one episode at a time on the BBC (which is how I watched it, the first time that is) and viewing the series that way does change things. Every episode in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece is worth dissecting, but the finale embodies every reason the show is great. There isn’t a second, a shot, a frame, or even a raise of the eyebrow that’s wasted, and it’s astounding how much nuance and beauty can be crammed into 20 minutes.
In just this episode alone, Fleabag wakes up next to The Hot Priest, goes to her father’s wedding, confronts her wicked stepmother, supports her sister in her messy breakup with Martin, finds her father in the attic, watches The Priest give the homily, gets dumped at a bus stop, sends a fox after her ex, and breaks up with us, the audience.
Not a moment of the episode feels rushed or undercooked either. A lot of characters try to put chaotic emotions into inarticulate words but somehow the space between them conveys the complicated feelings going through them better than the words themselves. Fleabag is a magic trick, something that shouldn’t be able to do as much as it does, but somehow feels effortless.
It’s funny (“I’m not a bad guy, I just have a bad personality!”), it’s melancholy (“I think you know how to love better than any of us, that’s why you find it all so painful”), it’s profound (“[Love] is all any of us want and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do it on our own.”), and it’s utterly heartbreaking (“It’ll pass”).
Fleabag takes gigantic swings, hinging the entire story on deconstructing the fourth wall and a CGI fox, and they all pay off — largely thanks to this magnificent singular episode.
3. “Safe Room” — Succession
Succession took the #3 spot last year as well by creating out-of-nowhere empathy for the capitalist monster Roy family in their “Austerlitz” family therapy session. “Safe Room” is significantly funnier than that episode and marks some of the all time great bits of Succession to this point.
Connor Roy gives a nothing eulogy for a molesting family friend, Tom interviews a maybe-Nazi about what he finds so interesting about World War II history (“Just checking the till here, Mark, and it seems you’re short a few million”), and Roman going through leadership training.
The episode takes a hard left turn when an active shooter forces everyone into safe rooms at Waystar Royco (which are tiered, of course). Those safe rooms ironically serve as pressure cookers, driving Greg and Tom to business-breakup and Kendall and Shiv to put the screws to Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) as they attempt to buy the company she runs.
But “Safe Room” isn’t just a pressure cooker for work relationships. Shiv is ascendent, having been “offered” the position of CEO by her father Logan — an offer previously reserved for her brother Kendall. Kendall is at his lowest, racked with guilt and full of self-loathing. The only thing that has gotten him through this lowpoint is work. He needs purpose in this moment and with the company leadership in flux, that purpose feels threatened.
Of course, Shiv has no idea that this is going through Kendall’s head and still views him as competition, unaware that he’s been lustfully eyeballing the drop from the top of the company’s building. When Shiv confronts him, Kendall just matter-of-factly tells her it won’t be him and pleads that she keep him around. The scene is so perfectly played by Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook, and expertly shot, showing first Shiv’s reaction to her brother’s unexpected vulnerability before the tears on his face.
In the final scene of the episode, the balcony of the company’s room has been surrounded by a tall glass wall. Kendall’s way out is blocked — and in its place, his own reflection.
2. “ronny/lily” — Barry
By far, “ronny/lily” is the most what-the-fuck episode of TV in 2019.
The episode follows our titular hitman Barry as he meanders his way through a job he couldn’t have botched harder if he tried. After trying to avoid violence and send his mark peacefully out of town, he realizes the dude is a Taekwondo master, and proceeds to get his ass kicked before accidentally breaking his trachea. That’s when his daughter comes home from her Taekwondo lessons. In another twist, she’s apparently a magical demon capable of flying through the air and climbing trees with no branches.
Turns out Barry’s original mark wasn’t even dead yet and they run into each other at a pharmacy as Barry tries to get some first aid. “ronny/lily” is incredibly reminiscent of last year’s winner “Teddy Perkins,” in that, at no point, do you have any idea what might happen next. Each twist is disarming in its utter strangeness, and the comedy of its absurdity is captured perfectly by Bill Hader’s blood soaked face trying to somehow keep a low profile.
But the real heart of the episode is the relationship between Barry and his handler Fuches, the one person who gave him a purpose when he came back from war. Since then he’s been taking advantage of Barry in order to line his own pockets and take out his enemies, all while masquerading as a father figure.
The episode, also directed by Hader, features some incredible dreamlike flashbacks that capture the essence of the Barry/Fuches relationship, a deal with the devil in which Barry trades his morals for a sense of belonging.
At its core, this episode is a turning point between Barry and Fuches, where Fuches wants Barry to cross a line that is just too far. That realization pivots the larger season, but the ride is engaging as a standalone half-hour of the darkest comedy. It’s incredibly hard to avoid making a traumatic episode of television about crossing the child-murder line, but “ronny/lily” is just ridiculous and surreal enough to create space for you to enjoy it. It isn’t just unexpected twists and turns, it’s also a rich journey for Barry in this episode and one that marks an important turning point in his overarching story.
1. “This Extraordinary Being” — Watchmen
Watchmen is a show built on the strength of individual episodes, deep dives into singular characters that piece together the larger story that weaves them all together. It is chock-full of incredible hours like this that each could have been in contention: “A God Walks into Abar,” “A Little Fear of Lightning,” and “She was Killed By Space Junk” in particular.
But the crown jewel of Watchmen’s first (and maybe only) season is its sixth installment which dives into the life of Angela’s grandfather Will Reeves in an imaginative and immersive experience unlike anything else on television this year. Angela takes Will’s nostalgia pills at the end of the previous episode — a drug that holds individual memories — and launches into a full experience of his life in 1930s New York City where the line between Angela and Will dissolves.
Stephen Williams’ direction floats us through Will’s memories, often in long singular takes that blend together multiple scenes and seamlessly replace Angela and Will with each other so that we never forget that this is a story of inherited trauma, both in a familial sense and in the broader context of American history.
You see, “This Extraordinary Being” takes the first masked vigilante from the Watchmen universe Hooded Justice, and reveals to us that he was, in fact, Will Reeves — a black man. Hooded Justice is the only vigilante whose identity was never revealed in the original text, and doing so here gives new meaning to the reason he put on the mask in the first place.
“This Extraordinary Being” depicts horrific acts of racial violence that we know exist in the abstract, but it’s something else entirely to experience it right alongside the characters we’ve grown to know over the previous five episodes. It’s more real than any textbook, grounded in people who feel real. Like Angela, we feel Will’s emotions right along with him.
Just as importantly, the episode confronts the difference between history and mythology, contrasting the real story of Hooded Justice with the myth being told on the show-within-a-show American Hero Story. That version isn’t just inaccurate — it’s a fantasy. The people under the masks are just as complicated as anyone else, trying desperately to simplify their life into a symbol whether that’s a badge or a mask.
No episode of TV in 2019 was able to blend big ideas with a creative delivery method like “This Extraordinary Being,” and that’s why it takes the top spot.