It’s time for Best Episodes Part 2!
Let’s bitch it out…
The alphabetical approach continues with an exploration of the best episodes of 2016 with series I-Y.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I didn’t watch every episode of TV, so it’s possible I missed your favourite. For the shows below I tried to select the best episode of the season, but in two cases I simply couldn’t narrow it down. Spoilers ahead!
Insecure 1×07 “Real as F**k”
Issa Rae’s HBO series is another one of 2016’s great creator-driven series. Taking a page from Game of Thrones, the cable company’s biggest show, this penultimate episode is the character-driven equivalent of the Red Wedding because all of the big events go down. Just when everything appears to be coming together professionally for Issa’s self-named character, her personal life completely implodes in the form of two major blow-ups: a mean-spirited fight with best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) filled with cutting barbs as well as the revelation that Issa has been unfaithful to her boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Rae’s decision to reveal everything with one episode to go properly sets up 1×08, giving Insecure time in the finale to sift through the rubble in the fallout.
Jane the Virgin 2×23 “Chapter 44”
Jane the Virgin remains unlike anything else on TV and in its second and third season, the show manages to perfectly balance its inter-generational drama and its lurid telenovela origins. The S2 finale is a great example of Jane‘s masterful approach: Jane (Gina Rodriguez) finally walks down the aisle with her beloved Michael (Brett Dier) after two seasons of love triangle drama, but the episode still finds a way to end on (no joke) a half dozen over-the-top twists, including Michael getting shot in a Marbella hallway and (most ridiculously of all), Luisa (Yara Martinez) waking up on Sin Rostro (Bridget Regan)’s submarine in a move that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond film. It’s hilarious, it’s silly, and it’s heartfelt. It’s Jane in an episode.
Kingdom 2×19 “Late to Leave”
The most overlooked drama on TV remains Audience Network’s criminally underwatched MMA drama, which returned this summer to wrap up the back half of its second season. The dysfunctional family at the heart of Navy Street’s gym remains as f*cked up as ever, with two significant moments bookending the penultimate episode. We open on the near assault of Alicia (Natalie Martinez) by Ryan’s mentally ill roommate Keith (Paul Walter Hauser), but the threat of violence (out of the ring) lingers in the back of the audience’s mind for the duration of the episode. That the real threat lies at the sleazy motel where Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Natalie’s younger washed-out sister Ava (Lina Esco) are staying is hardly surprising, though the reveal that Ava has been brutally murdered in the empty pool out back is still a shocking development on a show where people are regularly beaten to a pulp. The use of music, slow-motion and great acting by Tucker and Martinez not only makes Kingdom‘s first murder tragic, it makes it exceptionally powerful.
Orange is the New Black 4×13 “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”
S4 OF OITNB proved a return to form for the prison drama and the finale wound up perfectly synthesizing the season’s percolating themes. After 11 episodes spent exploring the imbalanced financial underpinning of the for-profit prison establishment, the season ends on a depressing note in the wake of Poussey (Samira Wiley)’s accidental death. “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” spends its ~45 minutes wallowing in the grief process, tightening the screws as tensions steadily grow over the way Poussey’s body is handled. Using the show’s trademark flashbacks to intermittently cut back to one beautiful, exceptional night in Poussey’s life in NY (see Best Scenes/Sequences) helps to undercut the grief and perfectly balance the sweet and the sour.
Penny Dreadful 3×04 “A Blade of Grass”
RIP Penny Dreadful, the show that gave us the miracle that is Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives. While S3 struggles to find a happy medium between individual characters’ personal journeys and the need to unite against a common, powerful threat, the final season gives us one last show-stopping tour de force performance by Green. This extended flashback episode once again confirms Green’s immeasurable talent and if this is the last time we see this character, then facing off against the devil in a padded cell for a solid hour is one hell of a swan song. Both Green and the series deserved a bigger, louder send-off, but “A Blade of Grass” is Penny Dreadful‘s high point.
Rectify 4×05 “Pineapples in Paris”
As Daniel Holden (Aden Young)’s time on television came to an end, Rectify‘s last gift to viewers are these final episodes, the highlight of which is “Pineapples in Paris”. There’s a great deal of soul searching in the final episodes, particularly this one/two punch which finds Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and Ted Sr (Bruce McKinnon)’s marriage slowly unraveling while Teddy (Clayne Crawford) makes the selfless decision to offer Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) an escape from their marriage (see the Best Scenes/Sequences post). If you can make it through this episode without crying uncontrollably, you’re a better person than me.
The Americans 4×06 “The Rat” / 4×07 “Travel Agents”
Most other sites are (rightfully) praising 4×08 “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty” as the strongest episode of The Americans best season to date, but for my money, the high drama occurs in the previous two episodes. These is a tragedy in two parts: fan favourite Martha (“Poor Martha!”) is outed as the CIA’s mole, sent underground and (in 4×08) finally shipped off to an uncertain future.
4×06-07 find Martha forced to lie low in a Russian safe house with handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) – a man we know will just as soon kill her as help her flee the country. Alison Wright is a revelation, delivering a gut-wrenching and captivating performance; she perfectly captures the dawning realization that she’s accidentally betrayed her country and ruined her life beyond repair. The pair of episodes also lay bare the excruciating toll the spy game has taken on Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell)’s marriage, anticipating the time jump in 4×08 that is required to save not only their cover, but their sanity. Both “The Rat” and “Travel Agents” are taunt as razorwire; these episodes are a masterclass in how to keep the audience on the edge of our seats (particularly in the wake of the shocking departure of Nina just a few episodes before). This is The Americans taking typical spy tropes and elevating them to high art.
The Girlfriend Experience 1×09 “Blindsided”
This is the first of two episodes of note from The Girlfriend Experience, the STARZ series about an emotionally distant law student named Kristine (Riley Keogh) who decides to moonlight as a high priced escort. Episode 9 is the closest that the series comes to a bottle episode. The entire half hour takes place during a single afternoon at the law firm Kristine interns at when a vengeful ex-lover exposes Kristine’s double life to her co-workers. The results are electrifying. “Blindsided” is a surprisingly taunt, thriller-esque episode of a traditionally sterile, dispassionate drama and watching Kristine come unhinged is immensely entertaining.
The Girlfriend Experience 1×13 “Separation”
The second episode of note from The Girlfriend Experience is the final episode of the season, which picks back up with Kristine a short while after she makes the decision to devote herself full-time to her work as an escort. It’s a measured, extremely calculated episode that focuses almost exclusively on an extended role-play interaction with a client that highlights the extent to which Kristine is now in control (of her work, others, everything). It’s the perfect synthesis of The Girlfriend Experience‘s central treatise and confirms how distinct the show is from everything else on TV.
The Good Place 1×07 “The Eternal Shriek”
The Good Place arrived ready made with its own sense of humour and a fully-formed world. Any number of episodes of this “after life” series featuring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson could have made the list – from the pilot which sets up the strange new world to the episode directly after this when the appearance of cacti becomes a hilarious recurring joke. Ultimately I settled on this one because it encapsulates all of The Good Place‘s strengths: Danson’s penchant for dry delivery and his character’s misunderstanding of humankind, inappropriate scheming from Bell’s Eleanor and her “soul mate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and delightfully unexpected sight gags. That the moral quandary around killing the “Good Place”s resident Siri, Janet (D’Arcy Carden) could produce as much humour as it does is a testament to the show’s cleverness.
The Night Of 1×01 “The Beach”
Although the remainder of the series never lived up to lofty expectations (see the Worst TV of 2016 list), the pilot episode of The Night Of is full of promise. The direction, the visual aesthetics and Riz Ahmed’s nuanced, naive performance are all spot-on. The little details about the failings and inadequacies of the criminal justice system are beautifully captured here so that by the end of the episode you can’t help but hope that things will improve, even though you know they won’t.
Togetherness 2×03 “Advanced Pretend”
HBO’s criminally underseen dramedy about the lives of two couples – one dysfunctionally married and one constantly dancing around their attraction – peaked early in season two when the truth about Michelle (Melanie Lynskey)’s S1 infidelity sends her husband Brett (Mark Duplass) into a tailspin. In an episode that wouldn’t be out of place among the best creator-led series from FX (Louie, Atlanta, Better Things), Jay and bestie Alex (Steve Zissis) return home to Detroit for a series of soul-searching adventures that reinforce what is important to them. “Advanced Pretend” is whimsical, evocative and compelling on a small emotional scale – which is where Togetherness‘ strengths always were.
Transparent 3×08 “If I Were A Bell”
This Amazon series has become slightly more polarizing over its short life the more the focus shifts away from Maura’s transition to the fractured lives of her adult children. While the acting remains uniformly amazing, the focus of “If I Were A Bell” is on Maura’s journey to self-identity over the years. Eschewing most of the main cast and featuring a perfectly cast Sophia Grace as young Maura, the episode is an exceptionally beautiful and moving standalone. S3 is never anything less than highly watchable, but this is Transparent at its best.
You’re the Worst 3×05 “Twenty-Two”
While the third season of FXX’s rude, crude and lewd comedy lost its way from the highs of S2, one episode matched the emotional peak of Gretchen (Aya Cash)’s S2 meltdown. “Twenty-two” is an Edgar (Desmin Borges)-centric episode that explores the world from his PTSD, paranoid, suicidal perspective and the results are terrifying and overwhelming. Borges infuses so much pain and depth into Edgar’s day long struggle just to survive – it’s a tour de force performance that absolutely deserves awards recognition.
That’s it for the best episodes of 2016. Stay tuned for Best New Series, coming Dec 29.