We’ve talked about the year’s best TV scenes, so let’s branch out and discuss the best episodes…
As always a caveat or two:
- In an era of ~450 scripted series, I can’t watch everything so the following episodes come from the ~91 series I watched in 2017.
- The following list isn’t ranked. The episodes are listed alphabetically by series.
- In case you hadn’t guessed, SPOILERS ahoy.
- If you missed yesterday’s post on Best Scenes of 2017, you can catch it here.
12 Monkeys – 3×09 ‘Thief”
“Thief” is an unusual episode in that it more or less sidelines the principle cast in order to focus on one of 12 Monkeys‘ most mysterious characters: the Witness (aka the McGuffin doomsday prophet). Capitalizing on the series’ ability to jump in time, the majority of the action takes place in 1879 when Athan (James Callis) sets aside his destiny to fall in love with Eliza (Claire Cooper), a tragic woman doomed to die. The fact that the penultimate episode of the season is essentially a historical love story that can only culminate in tragedy is one of the reasons why 12 Monkeys shouldn’t be pigeonholed. With “Thief,” the series confirms its primary interest is an exploration of love and family, something far more complex than naysayers who wrote it off as simply “sci-fi” (as though there is such a thing) may have believed possible.
Broad City 4×04 “Mushrooms”
Last year’s Best Episode list revealed my weakness for experimental animation. Whereas BoJack Horseman used its underwater episode to tell an entirely wordless new adventure, Broad City uses its literally trippy imagery to uncover the NY of Abbi and Ilana’s imaginations: a technicolour marvel of curving, morphing bodies and buildings. It’s a fun, silly, creative episode that highlights Broad City‘s continued willingness to experiment even in its fourth season.
Dear White People 1×05
After a day of group hang – food, parties – a banal disagreement about singing the N word at a party escalates into a major physical and violent confrontation when campus security pulls a gun on Reggie (Marque Richardson) in the most emotionally substantial episode of S1 (directed masterfully by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame). The fall-out carries the rest of the season’s narrative, but even as a standalone, episode five is a pertinent, evocative reminder of the undercurrent of racism and racially-motivated violence that lurks in everyday life. It’s relevancy in 2017 makes it all the more potent.
Good Behavior 2×04: “I Think It’s A Sign”
After a slow start to the second season, the previous episode ends with Letty (Michelle Dockery) and Javier (Juan Diego Botto) being unexpectedly arrested by Agent Rhonda Lashever (Ann Dowd) of the FBI and her trainee, the hilariously nicknamed Agent Back-Up (John Behlmann). “I Think It’s A Sign” picks up in the immediate aftermath and feels a bit like a bottle episode. The group holes up at a Holiday Inn Express during a storm and Letty gets creative in her efforts to secure their release. Dockery and Diego Botto may be Good Behavior‘s stars, but the episode is really a showcase for Dowd, who steals the show by delivering every line of dialogue with venom, disdain and sarcasm. Bonus points: “I Think It’s A Sign” is also filled with hilarious visuals puns, such as when a giant neon sign crashes through the window, prompting the delivery of the titular line. It’s very clever and funny.
The Good Place 2×02 “Dance Dance Resolution”
In a dizzyingly brilliant script from Megan Amram, this early season two episode of The Good Place burns through more twists than most shows do in their entire lifespan. We witness not one, two or even ten failed attempts by Michael (Ted Danson) to torture Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and the gang,; we see 802! The hilarious puns of the different foods, the different snippets of the group’s tortured lives, the sex tape reveals and even fat Michael are all gut-busting, but it’s The Good Place‘s willingness to leave behind traditional sitcom formula that proves the series is not only brilliant, but willing to risks that no other show on TV would venture. It’s breathtakingly refreshing.
Fargo 3×03 “The Law of Non-Contradiction”
Parallels abound between Gloria (the exquisite Carrie Coon) and her pseudo step-father Ennis in this LA set sojourn that ends up having nothing and everything to do with her investigation into his murder. Doubling down on its quirky mannerisms and penchant for violent events that occur out of nowhere and from seemingly unrelated events, this third episode of Fargo eschews nearly everything that distinguishes it as a series (the winter, the Mid-West, the ‘Minnesota nice’) and yet “The Law of Non-Contradiction” still completely embodies Fargo in a nutshell. Plus: it is more or less a Carrie Coon standalone showcase. What more could a Leftovers fan ask for?
The Magicians 2×03 “Divine Elimination”
Master of None 2×04 “First Date”
Encapsulating the essence of online dating (with its usual pointed take on race and NY), this episode is a masterclass in editing as we follow Dev (Aziz Ansari) and a variety of women on their first date. What makes it work is not only the variety of experiences, but the depth of investment we feel as everyone awkwardly moves through the evening; despite knowing very little about any of these encounters, Master of None makes us invest in the future of the relationship, hoping that the good dates work out (most don’t) and that the awkward ones (coke girl, trust fund, bitch) peter out quickly. It’s a lovely, fun, and engaging episode of Master of None that still feels like it is making some well-chosen observations about dating in the 21st century.
Master of None 2×08 “Thanksgiving”
There are three great episodes of Master of None in S2 (the third is “New York, I Love You”), but this is the highlight of the season and possibly the series. Written by co-star Lena Waithe and featuring a guest turn by none other than Angela f*cking Bassett, “Thanksgiving” is a historical overview of Denise’s tumultuous relationship with her mother, filtered through the lens of the holidays. The performances are on point, but it’s Waithe’s sharp wit and observant writing that shines through in the screenplay, which recently won an Emmy. So, you know, no biggie.
Mr Robot 3×05 “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00”
Narratively this isn’t a standout episode aside from the fact that Elliot (Rami Malek) discovers both his sister and best friend have been lying to him. Formalistically, however, this is Mr Robot at its most daring: the entire episode is filmed as a single long take (caveat: there are a few fairly obvious cuts, but let’s not be jerks about it). Admittedly this is also the show at its most narcissistic; there’s no discernible reason for Sam Esmail and his production team to mount such an endeavour. Whether or not you feel this experimental approach was necessary, however, the result is undeniably impressive.
Please Like Me 4×04 “Degustation”
Please Like Me, Australian’s little comedy gem, never shied away from doing intriguing bottle episodes,. At first glance “Degustation” simply seems like another example: Josh (Josh Thomas) takes his divorced parents out for an exhaustive eight course dinner because he’s concerned about his mom’s mental health and he’s worried his dad still has residual feelings for her. Upon reflection, the episode is evocative of Please Like Me at its best. Over the course of twenty-two hilarious, uncomfortable and candid minutes, the core family cast bonds over delicious gourmet food and, in the process, bond with us. Delightful.
Please Like Me 4×05 “Burrito Bowl”
If family is the heart and soul of Please Like Me, then “Burrito Bowl” is the episode that breaks the audience’s heart and soul. The show’s foundation is built on Josh (Josh Thomas)’ relationship with his mother – her suicide attempt literally instigates the plot of the first episode and provides the framing device for the second and third seasons. In hindsight, it now seems inevitable that Josh’s Mum (Debra Lawrance) would not only try to take her life a second time, but that she might succeed. After all, depression is a mental illness that no one ever fully recovers from; they simply learn to manage it (or, in this case, don’t).
It’s a testament to the series’ sharp writing and Lawrance’s portrayal that Sharon’s death is such a monumental blow. It’s not simply seeing all of the series regulars crumble under the weight of the news; it’s the realization of how much we had invested in Sharon as a character and our false assumption that she was doing well.
Thomas plays on our belief that the characters we love are bulletproof. The refutation of this belief is gutting. “Burrito Bowl” is easily the most upsetting episode of TV I watched this year and it ties for the episode that I cried the most at. It’s a hard watch, but it’s a gem.
Queen Sugar 2×07 “I Know My Soul”
Queen Sugar is similarly a series that hinges on the love/hate dynamic of family. The three Bordelon children may have bonded over their shared desire to protect the family’s legacy – the sugarcane fields that their father left behind – but it hasn’t erased the history of pain that they’ve all internalized. “I Know My Soul” is an explosive episode that finally lays all of their individual issues with each other on the table in a series of difficult, emotional confrontations. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) accuses his sisters of not believing in him, while Nova (the sublime Rutina Wesley) and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) grapple with the fact that their father cared for them less. It is a stunningly performed and directed episode that finally addresses the tension that has lurked on the fringes of every family interaction since the series began; it’s as difficult to watch as it is cathartic to finally see the grievances aired.
Twin Peaks: The Return 3×08 “Part Eight”
The entirety of The Return was a psychedelic experiment that none of us could have predicted. We all thought we knew what to expect when David Lynch and Mark Frost returned to their genre-bending, medium-defining masterpiece 26 years later.
Newsflash: we didn’t.
Moreso than any other episode of the eighteen that comprise the revival, “Part Eight” is like its own standalone movie. Some have posited that it’s about the origin of evil, with its gorgeous black and white imagery of an Atom bomb exploding (above); others have suggested it is a more literal depiction of the birth of BOB (Frank Silva). Like most things Peaks, there is no simple explanation; in fact trying to explain away the slug or the creepy Mudmen who attack the local radio station is less advisable than simply going along for the ride.
If you must try to unpack “Part 8”, check out Lynch superfan Matt Zoller Seitz’s essay for Vulture. If you can go without answers, however, why not simply revel in the terrifying and visceral visual and aural aesthetics that Lynch has created? They’re truly unlike anything else on TV this year.
Underground 2×03 “Ache”
Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is rendered both silent and deaf in a Revenant-style episode that finds the series’ heroine hunted through the woods by slave trackers. It’s an standout performance made all the more impressive when you consider that the actress was very pregnant in real life. How the production team got away with this level of torture on its star is a mystery, but the result is undeniably tense and dramatic. One of the year’s best chase episodes.
Underground 2×06 “Minty”
Aisha Hinds delivers one of the year’s most powerful performances in an episode dedicated exclusively to Harriet Tubman’s story. Presented as a public talk in an auction house full of abolitionists, Tubman weaves her tale like a master orator. The entire episode is dedicated to her story: her origins, her escape to freedom, her pursuit of the cause to free first her family and then strangers. Finally, in a stunning five minute uninterrupted steadicam crane shot that begins in the rafters and creeps in until the camera rests mere inches from her face, “Minty” delivers a call to arms in an unflinching direct address. There are highs, lows, tears and anger in Hinds’ performance – possibly the best she’s ever been – and damn if it isn’t magnificent.
Looking for more Best Episodes lists?
Those are the episodes that stood out for me. What are your favourite episodes of the year? Sound off in the comments below and come back tomorrow for the Worst TV Episodes of 2017.