Like my comedies list, this rundown of 2012’s best drama episodes has 25 slots but could have gone to 50 or 100; that’s a testament to this amazingly fertile period of scripted TV. The list honors the best from ongoing scripted dramas, and also cites episodes from promising new shows that were cancelled this year, as well as two terrific pilots.
Again, as with comedies, I’ve awarded certain shows multiple slots rather than select one episode of a particular show and call it “representative” of others from that series, because the alternative — listing just one episode of, say, Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey or some other show that produced multiple classics — would have nagged at me all through 2013. I looked for consistent excellence throughout an episode, but I also cited several whose undeniably weak elements were overshadowed by rousing sequences, gorgeous images, and indelible moments. There are also instances where I awarded bonus points for originality even if the episode was irksome in other ways, because that’s how I roll.
The non-presence of one of your favorite episodes doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t like or didn’t see it, though either scenario is possible; it may just mean that I liked 25 other episodes better for my own mysterious, subjective, perhaps indefensible reasons. In any event, I hope you’ll share your own picks in the comments. Thanks for reading!
1. Mad Men, “The Other Woman.” (Written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner, directed by Phil Abraham.) I’m still not sure how I feel about Joan’s big decision in this episode to sleep with a car dealer to help the agency land the Jaguar account — beyond being appalled by it, which of course was the point — and I’m curious to see how the characters will deal with the aftermath in season six. No matter: “The Other Woman” was the year’s most exquisitely written, acted, directed, photographed, and edited hour of scripted television. It was funny, exciting, and sad, filled with mirrored scenes and rhyming situations and phrases which (like so many things on Mad Men) can be read in a lot of different ways. (As I discussed in my recap, this is even true of the episode’s title!) The most dazzling flourish was the repeated scene in which Don stopped by Joan’s place to talk her out of going on the date with the dealer. It was a vivid example of how a storyteller can alter the meaning of a moment by showing us a different part of it, or moving it to a different spot in the story.
2. Awake, “Pilot.” (Written by Kyle Killen, directed by David Slade.) This wildly ambitious one-season wonder reminded me of the opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” It’s about a cop (Jason Isaacs) who survives a car accident but now seems to exist simultaneously in two realities. In one, he lost his wife; in the other, his son. The premise was most compelling early on, when we weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at; like certain art-house headscratchers, Awake is a series that’s power dims in direct proportion to how much it feels compelled to explain itself. The pilot is one of the most formally audacious hours I’ve ever seen on network TV. The story advances relentlessly along two braided timelines, sometimes jumping between them within the course of a single scene, such as the hero’s first therapy scene opposite two different analysts. Because neither “reality” is privileged, we have to grant both universes equal weight, and surrender to the whole contraption as one might surrender to a dream. As I wrote in my review, “This is not the kind of drama you can half-watch while posting on Facebook or folding laundry. It’s puzzle-as-spectacle, and it asks you to commit.”
3. Mad Men, “Far Away Places.” (Written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner, directed by Scott Hornbacher.) Really an anthology of three mini-episodes, one of which saw Roger (John Slattery) and his wife Jane (Peyton List) tripping on LSD, this installment of Mad Men showed various characters fighting feelings of confinement and trying, heroically or clumsily, to escape. As I wrote in my recap, “Each story reflects the others, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. And within each section, scenes, lines, and images reflect scenes, lines, and images from elsewhere in the episode. In fact, more so than most episodes of Mad Men, you could describe this one as a hall of mirrors — a comparison made official by moments in which characters look at actual or figurative reflections of themselves.”
4. Treme, “Promised Land.” (Written by Chris Rose and Micah Kibodeaux, directed by Tim Robbins.) This Mardi Gras–themed episode (a series tradition) hopscotched between a dozen characters at pivotal moments in their lives. It’s one of the finest single episodes that David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s New Orleans drama has aired: buoyant and funny, without a wasted line or shot. Treme’s tough-love approach has rarely come across so vibrantly. As the characters stumble through life — the tryst between ex-lovers Janette (Kim Dickens) and Davis (Steve Zahn) seemed particularly ill-advised — you get the sense that the filmmakers view their decisions neutrally but respect them for having survived in New Orleans this long without losing sanity or hope. “Promised Land” also shows how trauma seems to exist in a perpetual present, managed or subsumed but never conquered or forgotten. Sofia (India Ennega) follows one of her late dad’s favorite parades to the banks of the Mississippi, where marchers say good-bye to loved ones, and sits by herself, lost in thought. The Lambreaux family (including Clarke Peters’s Albert and Rob Brown’s Delmond) sews Mardi Gras costumes while silently watching a documentary about one woman’s ordeal in Hurricane Katrina. These subdued records of deep sorrow coexist with scenes of revelry, laughter, and music, shot and edited with ragged documentary energy. “They’re so loose, then they’re so tight,” a music student says of some brilliant parade musicians, inadvertently describing Treme itself.
5. Mad Men, “Lady Lazarus.” (Written by Matthew Weiner, directed by Phil Abraham.) Named after a suicide- and death-laden poem by Sylvia Plath, this episode encapsulated season five’s obsession with random violence and the inescapable certainty of aging, irrelevance and mortality. Germane moments were strewn throughout with seemingly offhand confidence: Don staring into the abyss of an elevator shaft; the ongoing chatter about social and pop cultural change, insurance and suicide (!!); the chilling montage set to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” arguably the series most brazenly cinematic sequence to date. Surrender to the void, indeed.
6. Breaking Bad, “Madrigal.” (Written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Michelle MacLaren.) The best of season five’s two Mike-centric episodes, this was a fairly low-key installment, mainly concerned with setting up relationships and plot threads that would be developed down the line. I ranked it higher than more eventful Breaking Bad episodes because it’s as perfect as an egg. Every scene is precisely judged, every shot beautiful yet functional, and a few moments — including the tête-à-tête between Lydia (Laura Fraser) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) in the diner, and their final confrontation in Lydia’s house — were so exquisitely crafted that they played like self-contained short films.
7. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater.” (Written by George R.R. Martin, directed by Neil Marshall.) This account of the siege of King’s Landing broke from Game of Thrones tradition. Prior episodes jumped from character to character and location to location; this one concentrated on one incident involving a few key characters (and, seemingly, thousands of bloodthirsty extras). “Blackwater” sits ostentatiously in the show’s master narrative like a bulge in the body of a snake, but its singularity makes it feel more unique and jacks up the suspense. Once you realize you’re not leaving King’s Landing until the battle is done, you feel trapped alongside the characters. The flight of the green fire arrows is an awesome spectacle, on par with the archers’ volleys in Henry V, Chimes at Midnight, and Braveheart. Very few episodes of TV drama earn the adjective “epic.” This is one of them.
8. Breaking Bad, “Fifty-One.” (Written by Sam Caitlin, directed by Rian Johnson.) “Fifty-One” is superb example of how to weave a series’ guiding metaphor — in this case, cancer — through every scene and moment of an episode without coming across as heavy-handed or academic. This account of the very uncomfortable 51st birthday of meth dealer Walter White is mordantly funny, haunting, and often stunningly beautiful. Cigarettes, a wristwatch, a close-up of Walter’s bald head getting nicked by a razor accompanied by a music cue that suggests a tolling bell: These touches and others reminded of us the fragility of Walt’s flesh as well as his empire. The birthday party alone guarantees the episode a spot on this list. No TV drama staged a moment more nightmare-eerie than the one in which Walter’s tormented wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) leaves their guests and silently wades into the deep end of their swimming pool, her hair floating around her stricken face like strands of kelp.
9. Luck, “Episode Five.” (Written by Scott Wilson, directed by Bryan Kirk.) Underrated by many critics, underappreciated by viewers, and canceled after one season due to horse safety issues, David Milch and Michael Mann’s Luck was the most promising series of the 2011-2012 season, a meditation on luck, fate, free will, God, gambling, greed, love, and fear, and other things besides. As I wrote in my recap, the episode “cut among different major characters winding down after a very dramatic day — taking in, among other moving sights, the stuttering agent Joey (Richard Kind) in a moment of acute despair over a busted home life that money and success can’t repair — then closed with one of the most mysterious and moving scenes in any David Milch production: the gangster-entrepreneur Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who spent the night in the stable with his wounded horse Pint of Plain, waking up to find his horse staring down at him. After a moment, this brittle old tough guy stood up, petted the horse tenderly, kissed it on the nose, and stared at it with a wonderment that we’ve never seen him lavish on any human being, not even his maybe-soon-to-be-sweetheart Claire (Joan Allen). The music, Devendra Banhart’s ‘Now That I Know,’ certified what anyone who’s been watching the show already suspected: Luck, like all of Milch’s work, has a radical tenderness.”
10. Downton Abbey, “Part Five” (Written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Bryan Kelley.) This is one of season two’s most eventful episodes, and arguably the one that best fuses credible emotion and flagrant melodrama. Matthew (Dan Stevens) and William (Thomas Howes) are wounded in battle; the former suffers a spinal injury and is told he may never again walk or have kids, while the latter sustains irreparable lung damage and asks his sweetheart, the assistant cook Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), to marry him so that she can collect his military benefits after he dies. Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) threatens to expose the secret of the visiting Turk Pamuk’s death; Mary decides to marry the newspaper baron Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) in exchange for his help in quashing Vera; Matthew comes to terms with the fact that he can never be “properly married” to Lavinia; Mary (Michelle Dockery) cares for him tenderly, even though she once rejected him, and he can’t even be her secret lover now. That’s just a short list of memorable elements; this episode is packed with surprising twists, juicy confrontations, and ensemble scenes that affirm the characters’ shared humanity. The emotional peak is the wedding ceremony, which binds the house in joy while acknowledging that Daisy and William’s union is troublesome on many levels. The episode contains my favorite line by Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, from the scene in which she strong-arms a priest that objects to the wedding by listing all the things that he and his parish owe to the Grantham family. She concludes, “I hope it is not vulgar in me to suggest that you find some way to overcome your scruples.”
11. American Horror Story, “I Am Anne Frank, Parts 1 & 2.” (Part 1 written by Jessica Sharzer, directed by Michael Uppendahl. Part 2 written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) Ryan Murphy and Falchuk’s horror-comedy anthology is TV’s battiest drama. This two-parter — which featured conspiracy to commit murder, unnecessary surgery by extraterrestrials, lesbianism aversion-therapy, and the claim that an asylum staff member was a former Nazi war criminal (“I was never in Auschwitz, I’m from Scottsdale!”) — was too much even by American Horror Story standards, which is the highest praise one can pay to a program such as this. Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente guest-starred as none other than Anne Frank, reimagined as a traumatized adult turned avenger. Bad taste, schmad taste: The whole point of horror is to revel in the unspeakable. “I Am Anne Frank” was a taboo carnival. If only it had songs!
12. Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All.” (Written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Michelle MacLaren.) A grand summation of four and a half seasons’ worth of criminal misadventures, this chapter tied up every loose end from seasons three and four, playfully established Walter White as the master of his self-created empire, and set the stage for his inevitable downfall, which should occupy the final run of episodes when Breaking Bad returns next summer. The hour’s gutsiest move was fast-forwarding three months in a montage backed with “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” a stylistic departure for a show that otherwise stuck to a fairly tight linear timeline. The kicker — Hank discovering Walt’s secret identity through sheer dumb luck — inspired heated debate among fans. Was it perfectly ridiculous or ridiculously perfect? I didn’t approve at first, but the fact that I can’t recall the scene without grinning makes me think the filmmakers made the right choice.
13. Mad Men, “Commissions and Fees.” The death-obsessed season’s penultimate episode intertwined the suicide of one major character, Jared Harris’s embezzling partner Lane Pryce, with a subplot about Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) having her first period while on a date at the Museum of Natural History with her former neighbor Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). As I wrote in my recap, this episode’s unifying theme might have been shame, “given that both Lane and Sally responded impulsively and drastically to embarrassment. That Lane’s response was spectacular and irrevocable, Sally’s mundane and perfectly normal, gave the episode a faint Crimes and Misdemeanors vibe.” The depiction of Lane’s many thwarted attempts to off himself infused an unbearably sad subplot with wicked humor worthy of Todd Solondz (Happiness).
14. Treme, “Tipitina.” (Written by David Simon & Anthony Bourdain, directed by Anthony Hemingway.) The third season finale finds many of Treme’s striving but easily dissatisfied characters realizing that the system — whatever that word means to them — is rigged, and that sometimes the best thing to do is realize when you’ve been beaten and try to escape with what’s left of your dignity. So many major characters learn this lesson the hard way, including the do-gooder cop Terry Colson (David Morse), the civil rights lawyer Toni (Melissa Leo), and chef Janette (Kim Dickens), who learned that she was less a partner in her fancy new restaurant than a glorified mascot. No disillusionment subplot carries greater weight than that of poor LaDonna (Khandi Alexander). After being stalked by a friend of the thug that raped her and watching her bar burn down in an arson attack, she sees her agonizing rape trial end with a hung jury, which means that all the witness intimidation she endured was ultimately pointless. That description makes “Tipitina” sound dour and fatalistic, yet somehow the episode felt warm and embracing, and boasted a gallows humor that said, “What the hell, that’s life. What can you do but soldier on?” The long tracking shot that follows various characters through LaDonna’s benefit concert, visually affirming the human connection between them, is a camera move worthy of Nashville. If there’s a heaven, it’s wired for HBO, and Robert Altman saw this episode while smoking a giant blunt and grinning ear-to-ear.
15. Luck, “Episode Four.” (Written by Jay Hovdey, directed by Philip Noyce.) A perfect episode of a truly original show, Luck’s fourth episode introduced a couple of characters that seemed to represent the darker and lighter sides of Dustin Hoffman’s gangster-businessman, Ace Bernstein: the activist Claire (Joan Allen), who wants funding for a program that teaches felons to care for horses, and the hateful mogul Mike (Michael Gambon), who played a key role in Ace’s downfall years ago. Their stories and others’ came together in a thrilling race which, as I wrote in my recap, “gave you a sense that the bettors, owners, jockeys, veterinarians, trainers, and other track regulars are as much a community as the people of Deadwood or the eccentric denizens of Milch’s short-lived John From Cincinnati. In moments like this one, they all see, feel, and think the same things, and feel that they’re a part of something larger than any one person.”
16. Boardwalk Empire, “Margate Sands.” Written by Howard Korder and Terence Winter, directed by Tim Van Patten. Every season I gripe about Boardwalk Empire being too busy, sprawling, and easily distracted, and then every year I get wrapped up in the story near the end, when the writers shift into “suitcase on fire, you can only pack ten things” mode and start tying up plot threads and killing off characters in spectacularly gruesome ways. This season finale was a knockout, and not just because it was basically one very long action sequence. Too-big-for-his-britches gangster Gyp Rossetti (Bobby Cannavale) bought it on the beach in a Godfather-worthy whacking, while disfigured World War I sharpshooter Richard Harrow reenacted the end of Taxi Driver Prohibition-style, marching into the Aretmis Club like a one-man army. But as Vulture’s Seth Colter Walls wrote, “There is something exciting and also depressingly hollow about Harrow’s pitiless and efficient killing spree. You buy that he’s that good enough to be twisting and firing and hitting his mark every time. But the blankness on his face is troubling — as though he’s already decided that Gillian was correct in the last episode about the low likelihood of his ever having a fulfilled emotional life.”
17. Mad Men, “At the Codfish Ball.” (Written by Jonathan Igla, directed by Michael Uppendahl.) Built around Don Draper (Jon Hamm) receiving an award from the American Cancer Society for his cheeky anti-tobacco ad in season four, this was a great example of a “nothing happens” episode that’s thrilling because so much is happening inside the characters heads and hearts. Professional distress, parent-child resentment, middle-aged craziness and childhood disillusionment (poor Sally should never have seen what she saw!) all came together at the title event, which observed the nuances of etiquette and the little details of human relationships with an almost anthropological precision. As my friend Deborah Lipp writes, the episode is “about passing the torch, about generations, about growing up. [I]t ends on a dark note; that tableau at the end of dinner is as striking as the elevator tableau at the end of ‘The Beautiful Girls’. Yet about three-quarters of the way through, I was wondering if I was watching the most optimistic episode of Mad Men ever made.”
18. Homeland, “Q&A.” (Written by Henry Bromell, directed by Lesli Linka Gatter.) My second favorite episode of Homeland to date, after season one’s “The Week End,” this one was built around a CIA interrogation room, with Quinn and Carrie trying to pry the truth out of Brody while their colleagues watched through closed-circuit TV. This might have been the best TV episode built around an interrogation room since “Three Men and Adena” in season one of Homicide: Life on the Street — a series that, not coincidentally, employed Homeland writer and co-producer Henry Bromell, this episode’s screenwriter. The only thing keeping this episode out of my top ten is the stuff between Dana and Finn, particularly the hit-and-run incident, which was problematic for all sorts of reasons.
19. Scandal, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” (Written by Shonda Rhimes, directed by Oliver Bokelberg.) On the night that her lover, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), the president of the United States, gets shot by an assassin, PR ace Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) succumbs to flashback reveries triggered by a bloodstained lapel pin. Like season two of Homeland without the pay cable dourness, this episode is pure turbocharged melodrama, a daytime soap with nighttime flair, and the episode’s director, Oliver Bokelberg, treats it as a deeply subjective experience. A woman’s scream morphs into the electronic whine of heart paddles; Oliver Stone–like flash cuts of the assassination echo the episode’s fake newscasts and the interstitial faux-paparazzi “photographs.” It’s ludicrous but emotionally serious, a fever dream about a powerful man’s hold over a charismatic woman (and the reverse). It’s also refreshingly willing to acknowledge the race and power dynamics at play in Olivia’s relationship with the prez. “I’m feeling, I don’t know, a little Sally Hemmings–Thomas Jefferson about all this,” she tells Fitz disgustedly. Yep.
20. Downton Abbey, “Part Four.” (Written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Brian Kelley.) Wherein the consequences of deciding to turn Downton Abbey into a home for recovering infantrymen begin to sink in. More so than any season two episode, this one conveys the sense of an entitled aristocracy buckling beneath changing times without feeling obligated to boldface the theme in dialogue every five minutes. The character beats are delightful, the staging inventive and often thrilling, and it all converges in the remarkably powerful scene of Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) leading family, staff, and soldiers in a singalong to “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” After a verse or two, Mary’s great love Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who was feared lost or dead in battle, appears at the back of the hall and walks into the room, the sings along. Kleenex stock soars.
21. Breaking Bad, “Say My Name.” (Written and directed by Thomas Schnauz.) A.k.a. the one where Mike (Jonathan Banks) buys it at the hands of Walt. As I wrote in my recap, I have a lot of problems with this episode, but it has two sequences so powerful that they earned the episode a slot: Mike fleeing the Feds and abandoning his granddaughter on the playground, and Mike’s demise by the river. As I wrote in my recap, when the episode “cut to a long shot of Kaylee obliviously swinging — squeak squeak, squeak squeak — I was reminded of Mike’s conversation with Lydia in ‘Madrigal’: Mike threatening to kill her with her daughter in the next room and saying, ‘Nobody’s going to find you, Lydia,’ and Lydia replying, ‘I can’t just disappear. She has to know I wouldn’t leave her … My daughter’s not thinking I abandoned her. ‘”
22. Last Resort, “Pilot.” (Written by Sean Ryan, directed by Martin Campbell.) As I wrote in my review, the pilot for this soon-to-be-canceled ABC drama from Shawn Ryan (The Shield) about a nuclear submarine crew that goes on the run rather than obey questionable orders to nuke Pakistan “never makes a big deal of its excellence. It just sketches its premise, plot, characters, and themes in deft strokes, always giving you enough information but never too much, always adding new layers and twists. They could put the show’s logo in the dictionary as an alternate definition of ‘professional.’” The last ten minutes are perfect, and Andre Braugher is the most magnetic star one could wish for. Pity it didn’t continue.
23. Parenthood, “I’ll Be Right Here.” (Written by Sarah Goldfinger, directed by Jessica Yu.) This is the episode in which Kristina (Monica Potter), Adam (Peter Krause), and the family prepare for Kristina’s cancer surgery. It’s a Mississippi river of tears, yet somehow light and sweet, in that distinctive Parenthood way, and it gives strong material to other characters, including the school speech by Max (Max Burkholder) in which he reveals and claims his Asperger syndrome (“I’m glad I have it, because I think it’s my greatest strength”), and the courtship between Amber (Mae Whitman) and the Afghanistan war vet Ryan (Matt Lauria). I love when Ryan reacts to Amber’s distress during their date by telling her, “I would love to buy you a burrito and talk some more about your aunt, if that’s okay.”
24. Sons of Anarchy, “Laying Pipe.” (Written by Kem Nunn, Liz Sagal and Kurt Sutter, directed by Adam Arkin.) One of the darkest episodes of the show’s fifth season, “Laying Pipe” climaxed with one of the show’s most vividly violent sequences: the prison slugfest in which the burly Opie (Ryan Hurst), an audience favorite turned sacrificial lamb, perished as part of a tit-for-tat arrangement between SAMCRO president Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and the gang lord Damon Pope (Harrold Perrineau). The coup de grâce by pipe was the most chillingly primordial TV killing since Eddard Stark lost his head in Game of Thrones’ “Baelor.”
25. Justified, “Slaughterhouse.” (Written by Fred Golan, directed by Dean Parisot.) Taking a page from The Sopranos, this season-three finale never moved in quite the way you expected, yet it managed to tie up the season’s ongoing plotlines (including the business about the missing money from season two) in satisfying ways. The final action sequence — a four-way showdown that ends with the ghastly-hilarious death of Detroit killer Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) at the hands of Nobles Holler boss Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) — was Tarantino-worthy.