When I published my lists of the best dramas and comedy episodes last year, I struggled with definitions, and so did some readers. How, they wondered, could the darkest and most humiliating Girls and Louie episodes be described as “comedy,” or, for that matter, particularly funny? And should animated shows be grouped in with live-action half-hour comedies? As an end run around those issues, I thought about titling these lists “best hour” and “best half-hour,” but as you’ll see, thanks to the more elastic running times of streaming series like Arrested Development and occasional super-size very special episodes of regular shows, temporal adjectives didn’t do the trick, either.
So feel free to mentally re-title the drama list, which runs today, and the comedy list, which runs tomorrow, with whatever descriptors work for you, or think about them as halves of one big list. The important thing to know is that when I think back on the year in TV, these are the episodes I think of most often, because for one reason or another, they made a strong impression.
And however you parse them, bear in mind that my selection process was subjective, as always, and more difficult than it’s ever been, because this was an amazingly fertile period for scripted TV. What can you say about a year in which Mad Men, consistently one of the most intelligent series on American TV, wasn’t automatically assured a spot, and in fact didn’t make my final cut for Best Series? Its omission wasn’t a slam against Mad Men, but a reflection of how fascinating and in some cases innovative other series were. Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black experimented with structure in ways that confounded the usual divisions between seasons and individual episodes, while Hannibal, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad toyed with tone and style in fascinating and sometimes infuriating ways. This was the most satisfying year of TV watching since I started watching television, and I have a feeling that the medium’s creative evolution will only pick up steam as time goes on.
1.-3. Breaking Bad: “Ozymandias,” ”Granite State” and “Felina”
The more distance I get from the concluding episodes of Breaking Bad, the more they feel like a self-contained mini-season charting the sudden exit, exile, return, and demise of Walter White. “Ozymandias” was the TV event of the year, sparking arguments about authorial intent and a show’s responsibility to its audience; “Granite State” was the calm before the storm, showcasing Walter in a more vulnerable state than we’d seen in a long time; “Felina” was a maelstrom of vengeance and violence that seemed like a wish fulfillment fantasy until you thought about what, exactly, Walter had “won” at the very end, and compared it to everything he lost. Top of the world, ma.
4.-5. The Americans: “Gregory” and “Only You”
These two episodes revolved around a vibrant supporting character, Derek Luke’s secret KGB agent Gregory, the long-ago lover of Keri Russell’s Soviet spy Elisabeth Jennings and a source of much anxiety for her husband Phillip. These two chapters are separated by most of a season, but they feel like two parts of one bittersweet story. They’re about a great love that has outgrown its usefulness; Elisabeth has moved on because she has to, and because she can, while Gregory is still stuck in the past, clinging to the residual afterglow and gladly volunteering to be used if it means being able to spend time with a great love he can no longer possess. Marvin Gaye could have written a song about these people.
6. Mad Men: “The Crash”
A brainstorming session is livened and then overwhelmed by drugs, resulting in the sixth season’s most purely comic episode, an exercise in controlled chaos that veered into absurdism, slapstick, and surreal images.
7. Boardwalk Empire: ”Farewell Daddy Blues”
Boardwalk’s fourth season finale was one of its most purely tragic hours, but the tone and pace were so controlled and the performances so heartfelt that it left you feeling elated rather than crushed. The show’s allegiance to blues music has never been more clear.
8. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”
Blood, blood, blood. This one gave me nightmares. That hasn’t happened with a regular TV series episode since The X-Files’ “Home.”
9.-10. Downton Abbey, “Episode Five” and “Episode Six”
These two episodes would have left a mark anyway, because they killed off a beloved major character, but they acquired a wider tragic dimension when you thought about what caused the death: blindly clinging to tradition, glamour, and the allure of authority, rather than placing one’s faith in local talent and personal ties. “Episode Five” was the trauma; “Episode Six” showed how the family moved past it, by convincing a key participant to skate right up to the edge of a lie, to make it possible for the estate’s community to forgive one another and begin to move on. This was plain and simple heart-ripping melodrama, expertly judged.
Hannibal, “Entrée,” “Fromage” and “Relevés”
Bates Motel, “The Truth” and “Underwater”
Scandal, “Nobody Likes Babies,” “YOLO” and “Vermont is for Lovers, Too”
Rectify, “Plato’s Cave” and “Jacob’s Ladder”
Sons of Anarchy, “Aon Rud Persanta” and “A Mother’s Work”
The Good Wife, “Hitting the Fan”
Mad Men, “Better Half,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Quality of Mercy”
Justified, “Decoy,” “Peace of Mind,” “Get Drew” and “This Bird Has Flown.”
Game of Thrones, “The Bear and the Maiden Faire,” “And Now His Watch Has Ended”
House of Cards, “Chapter 10” and “Chapter 11”
Boardwalk Empire, “Marriage and Hunting”
Orphan Black, “Variation in Nature,” “Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner,” “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”
Parenthood, “The Ring” and “All That’s Left is the Hugging”
Top of the Lake, “Episode Three” and “Episode Five”
American Horror Story, “The Axeman Cometh,” “The Sacred Taking”