If you’ve been around my blog and my channel, you’ve probably heard me say that I love the art of the individual episode. TV is always compared to film for pretty obvious reasons, with the main difference being how the two experience time. Film is an in-and-out trip, while TV stays in our lives for day-long bingethons, weeks, and years as seasons stretch on. Episodes are the smallest unit of TV, and at their best they tell stories that are both individual and part of a grander narrative. They’re like great soccer players, you can appreciate their singular greatness but only in the context of a team setting.
So every year I make a list of my 5 favorites (here’s 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 if you’re a Skip Intro completist I guess). The only rule: each show can only have one entry. Before we get into the countdown, here are some honorable mentions:
- “Fire Pink” — Ozark
- “Whenever You’re Ready” — The Good Place
- “Play” — PEN15
- “Adjournment” — The Queen’s Gambit
- “Episode 1” — Devs
- “Sundown” — Lovecraft Country
- Every other episode of Better Call Saul
#5. “Pickles 4 Breakfast” — Corporate (Comedy Central)
It is only fitting that we start this list off with an episode about two of my favorite topics in this world: television and late-stage capitalism.
“Pickles 4 Breakfast” starts with the season finale of Corporate’s show-within-a-show Society Tomorrow, a kind of Mr. Robot rip-off. The show took the office by storm back in the first season, and now is ending in front of a massive watch party that massively disappoints. Remind you of anything?
The office is so pissed off that they buy the rights to the show and decide to remake the finale. Meanwhile, Jake, who has never cared for Society Tomorrow, babysits his niece who is obsessed with a very creepy show called Pickles 4 Breakfast, which is basically like Veggie Tales if it was written and directed by Tim and Eric. Turns out our favorite company, Hampton-DeVille, makes this show too.
When Jake finds the production office for Pickles 4 Breakfast, he discovers that the entire show is written and produced by data, or as Jake puts it “it’s made by an algorithm, a computer with no regard for human life. Every day it churns out hundreds of episodes at virtually no cost, which means artists won’t have jobs anymore, so they won’t be able to afford drugs!”
Meanwhile, Hampton-DeVille can’t figure out a way to make the finale of Society Tomorrow work, somebody is always disappointed. So, inspired by the abject horror that is Pickles 4 Breakfast, CEO Christian DeVille decides not to end Society Tomorrow but to just keep the money train going with sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and spin-offs. As Christian says, “You’ll all keep watching even though there are plenty of other better shows that people have recommended that you know you should check out. And sure, you’ll all complain about how Society Tomorrow used to be better, but that anger will unite you. And so you’ll keep watching, hoping it will end, begging for it to end, and then you’ll all die!”
As a TV critic, it’s hard not to laugh at this premise. Disney+ just announced so many new shows based off Star Wars and Marvel that I haven’t actually been able to count them all. HBOMax is rebooting Gossip Girl, bringing back the Friends cast for a reunion, and has already announced their next Game of Thrones spin-off. We used to be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of new shows that we wanted to check out, scrolling through Netflix with decision paralysis before ultimately deciding to watch The Office for the millionth time. So now companies have decided to just make more of those exact same shows, milking that IP until the udder runs dry.
It’s not about making the best product, it’s about making the most profitable one.
#4. “Shirley” — Mrs. America (FX/Hulu)
It’s truly remarkable how relevant Mrs. America feels in 2020. I mean, the FX limited series takes place around the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, something that must feel antiquated nearly 50 years later right? Right?!?
Spoiler, the ERA doesn’t pass on the show, and it didn’t pass in American history, and in some ways Mrs. America is more about what didn’t happen as it is about history.
The show’s best episode is its third, centered around Shirley Chrisholm, the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President. Riding the progressive momentum of Roe v. Wade, the civil rights movement, and second-wave feminism, Chrisholm starts to campaign in 1972, only to be told by the Democratic establishment that it’s too much too fast.
Chisholm stays in the race, refusing to be a symbolic campaign and determined to wield political power with her delegates. Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem sells her out in a deal to bring abortion rights to the Convention floor, something that also doesn’t come to pass.
“We are here today because he fought for party reform. Every woman in this room owes him a debt of gratitude,” says Bella Abzug (played by character actress Margo Martindale), touting the progressivism of George McGovern, the man who would go on to suffer one of the greatest defeats in US Presidential Election history. She’s gotten her foot in the door, happy to be there and worried that policies won’t be passed if they seem too radical, forgetting her own roots as a feminist radical.
It’s a painfully clear portrait of how power is wielded in this country. Those who seek it court the support of the politically disenfranchised and unempowered with progressive promises, asking them to elevate them to the next tier of influence. “Elect me and I’ll bring you with me,” they say, only for those issues to be too complicated for them to keep. “But don’t worry! We’ll come back for you, just be patient.” And so women, racial minorities, and the poor wait and they wait, told to be happy that someone succeeded, even if it made no real difference to them.
Chisholm, like the contributions of so many Black Americans, has been largely forgotten to the feminist movement. Just as the Democratic party used the National Women’s Political Caucus, so too did the National Women’s Political Caucus use Black women to achieve their goals, without ever looking back.
The conversations in this episode feel eerily similar in the wake of the 2020 election, where establishment Democrats have complained that more progressive platforms like “Defund the Police,” Medicare For All, and The Green New Deal lost the party votes, despite a complete lack of evidence.
#3. “Episode 10” — Normal People (Hulu)
Hulu’s Normal People is an exploration of intimacy in all of its many forms. It uses its camera, its lighting, and its colors to bring us in close to the on-again, off-again relationship of Connell and Marianne. It explores their physical connection, their emotional connection, and how the strength of their bond spans time and space. I know, it’s all very softcore.
But the tenth episode stands out in particular because it isn’t just about intimacy with other people but about intimacy with ourselves. Connell can be a terribly frustrating character. He can’t get out of his own way in his relationships and he self-sabotages while mumbling some apology-excuse. “Episode 10” doesn’t change any of that, but it faces it head on, as Connell struggles with a depressive episode after losing a childhood friend to suicide.
Not only does this episode absolutely nail the nature of depression—“I find myself crying or having a panic attack so presumably, I do feel it. It just doesn’t connect.”—but it also explores the feelings that are fueling his depression.
I think so often in media we see depression as a vague sadness. Something bad happens, then the character gets sad. TV is getting a lot better at representing the symptoms and treating it with empathy. It’s become rare to see people lining up to shake depressed people, saying, “GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF.” And that’s great!
But what “Episode 10” does so well is explore the very nature of the feelings that Connell is having, why the death of a friend he didn’t even particularly like has sent him spiraling. He feels guilty for not going home and visiting his friend. He feels the weight of the end of that chapter of his life, the final nail in the coffin for the popular high school athlete he used to be. While it’s true that he never felt that he belonged to that world, the end of it only deepens how hard college has been for him.
The climax of the episode comes in therapy, a long single-take shot on Connell as he bears his soul, his insecurities and his feelings.
“I thought, um…I’d meet more like‐minded people but that just hasn’t… um…I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life. But I… I hate it here and…I can never go back.”
It’s more rare than it should be to see a masculine character on TV explore their own feelings outside of a relationship and to come to terms with their own insecurities. It’s not just important representation, but it’s great art, giving a character emotional depth that enriches his story and the central relationship that powers the series. Sorry, gotta go grab a tissue.
#2. “Good Damage” — BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
I don’t like to write about BoJack Horseman. Every time I’ve tried, I mostly just talk about myself and the issues that I can’t help but bring to viewing. So maybe that’s why, instead of picking the universally acclaimed finale or penultimate episodes of the series, my favorite episode of BoJack’s final installment was “Good Damage,” an episode that barely includes the show’s titular character at all. Instead it centers around Diane Nyugen, who has just started a regimen of antidepressants in order to tackle her book of memoir essays.
I’ve always identified with Diane (despite being lowkey problematic). She’s from Boston, she’s concerned with doing things the right way, she’s creative, she doubts herself, and she’s depressed (don’t hate me for putting two great depression episodes on my list, but 2020 was a vibe). “Good Damage” is one of the most relatable examinations of the creative process I’ve seen, detailing how easily it is for writer’s block to spiral into an existential crisis.
Diane’s journey in this episode, trying desperately hard to turn her struggle into art, is even more relatable—and something I think even non-artists can identify with. We want to make meaning out of the things we’ve overcome. Bad things happen, but we want to turn that into something positive. We want to help other people through the same thing, or we want to spin that struggle into something beautiful. The secondary plot of this episode is the season long narrative about the hurt BoJack has hurt bubbling up to the surface, unburying their trauma in order to make that pain meaningful.
Kintsugi appears as a metaphor in this episode, the Japanese art of filling in cracks in pottery with gold. The idea is that those breaks are part of the piece’s history and that there is beauty in its flaws. We want our damage to mean something, or as Diane puts it, she has to write her book of essays “Because if I don’t, that means that all the damage I got isn’t good damage, it’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it, and all those years I was miserable was for nothing.”
As someone who has struggled with depression, I’ve found it can be really hard to let go. Depression becomes part of your identity, and if you are able to get over it somehow, then what’s left? Do you lose your “edge” too? Are you anything more than your depression?
“Good Damage” argues that we don’t have to show off our damage to make it meaningful. Diane doesn’t write her book of essays, she writes a teen spy novel, something without the profound weight she was craving, but an accomplishment nonetheless.
#1. “Bad Choice Road” — Better Call Saul (AMC)
At its core, television is about character. Sure, there’s a lot of plot to fill those hours of screentime but the reason we come back every week (or let Netflix play the next episode) isn’t just because we want to see “what happens next.” We want to see what happens to our characters.
We are rooted in the perspectives of characters as shows march on. We watch them grow and change. We experience the story—its cliffhangers, its comedy, its tragedy, its themes—through them. A show is only as good as its characters.
Perhaps no character on TV this year was more interesting than Better Call Saul’s MVP: Kim Wexler. It’s impossible to talk about Better Call Saul (and especially Kim) without mentioning its parent show Breaking Bad. Because of its prequel status, we know the endpoints for most of the main characters with one or two notable exceptions (shoutout Michael Mando’s Nacho Varga whose amazing performance is always mentioned 6th or 7th because this show’s bench is so deep).
The most important of those exceptions is Kim. She has been the angel on Jimmy’s shoulder from the beginning, tempering his scammiest impulses, but at the same time never judging him and accepting him for who he is. It’s a position we find all too relatable as we watch the show play out from the same vantage point.
For five years, we’ve waited for Kim to see Saul Goodman lurking beneath Jimmy McGill, to fully realize the gravity of the situation she’s in. That moment came halfway through this season when Jimmy pulled a Saul stunt against her. We wanted her to cut and run, to save herself, but instead she doubled down and proposed. Despite the obvious warning signs, Kim can’t turn her back on Jimmy, because doing so would be to admit she was wrong to fall in love with him.
While the moment of reckoning didn’t come for a few more episodes, Kim was already on a “bad choice road” and something we wouldn’t fully come to understand until the episode of the same title.
Better Call Saul’s penultimate episode “Bad Choice Road” is a display for perennial Emmy-snub Rhea Seehorn to put in her best work from top to bottom. Seehorn shows off every emotion in the book, all with Kim’s trademark independence and grit.
She sobs silently after thinking she’d lost Jimmy out in the desert, alone and to herself—a spare moment she allows herself. She cares for Jimmy’s sunburnt and dirt-caked body, seeing Saul peeking out from beneath the grime, trying desperately to square the two people she sees before her. She quits her comfy job as a bank lawyer to practice pro-bono work full time, and when Jimmy pushes back, she declares her independence, “give me the courtesy of believing this is right for me.”
Then in what is possibly the best scene in the entire run of the series, the drug kingpin Lalo arrives. Lalo has his own run of awesome scenes in the episode, but this is Kim’s moment to shine. She lawyers her ass off defending Jimmy, despite knowing that he brought this danger on himself.
Kim’s fate is now the driving force behind Better Call Saul, not just because of what it will mean for Jimmy, but because of what it means for her. We’d all cared about Kim for a while, but “Bad Choice Road” marked the point of no return. She’s in it now.