Top Ten Television Episodes of 2013
Best of 2013: TV
Every year, the television staff at Review To Be Named comes together to choose their favorite episodes of television through a convoluted system that involves points and rounds of voting, basically to ensure that, whatever the final list, no one is completely happy. The system may change in the future, but for now, it’s a garbled reflection of our several individual favorites, clawing in the dark for some form of consensus, and coming out odd, misshapen, and kind of wonderful. Enjoy, and be sure to let us know how crazy we are in the comments!
10. Arrested Development, “Colony Collapse”
The fourth season of Arrested Development was divisive, even among our staff, but “Colony Collapse” was the episode where everything started to come together (for those of us who think it did). The season’s earlier episodes had a lot of narrative heavy lifting to do, but by the time we reach the first Gob-centric episode, the season’s overarching narrative and storytelling rhythms have coalesced, and the comedic whirlwind that is Arrested Development at its best can finally be unleashed. This episode follows Gob through his abortive relationship with Ann, his failed reconnection with Steve Holt, his time as part of Mark Cherry’s entourage, and gives us the comedic gift that keeps on giving with Gob’s roofie circle. Throughout it all, Will Arnett plays Gob’s thinly veiled desperation perfectly, as his bravado masks his inner loneliness and further alienates everyone around him. “Colony Collapse” is, in essence, the season in miniature, a Rosetta stone that unlocks both the main narrative arc and the comedic center of the show.
9. Hannibal, “Savoureux”
Savoureux, or delicious in English, I suppose is one way to describe the season finale of the stunning debut season of Hannibal. The finale of Bryan Fuller’s pitch-black take on the title character and those working with/hunting him proved to be a perfect summation of a season building tension between lead detective Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Both Dancy and Mikkelsen were at the top of their game, as Graham slowly comes to realize that, while he’s losing control, there’s also someone guiding his path toward incarceration. Hannibal is often shockingly gruesome, and the fact that a network television show gets away with some of the violence this program does is pretty astounding. Behind the murders of the week, Hannibal executed a slow burn that never really felt slow thanks to the wonderful performances and the engrossing murders/killers/detectives the show had to throw at us. It was only in the last minute or so of the finale, that we got the money shot (eww, sorry). After weeks of anticipation, we see Will locked behind bars for a murder he now knows he didn’t commit and Lecter is on the other side with the slightest smile, almost as if he’s asking Will, “Isn’t this game fun?” It sure is, and we’re all lucky it’s returning for a second season.
8. Adventure Time, “Simon and Marcy”
“Simon and Marcy” is what happens when an ostensible children’s show manages to riff on The Road/The Walking Dead, and it manages to fill it’s 11 minute running time with more emotion than both combined. Set 1000 years before the time of the show’s candy-colored world, right after the heavily implied nuclear holocaust that destroyed our own, the plot follows the younger versions of two characters we know well: pesky antagonist Ice King (or Simon) and vampiress Marceline. As they pick across a devastated landscape looking for food and shelter, Simon uses a magical crown that gives him power to protect young Marcy from danger. The problem: whenever he uses it, he goes bonkers, and the more he uses it the more his own mind slips away.
It’s a beautiful episode of television, exploring themes of trust and loyalty and sacrifice. But it’s largely a testament to Adventure Time’s commitment to it’s characters. Its one thing to provide backstory, but this episode places two minor-ish characters in a context that explains every behavior that came before, and changes our outlook on them going forward. That’s a masterful bit of storytelling. Plus there's a Clambulance, a food truck that only sells clams! And if you’ve seen it, you probably can’t listen to the theme song from Cheers the same way.
7. 30 Rock, “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World”
Though it isn’t in fact the series finale of 30 Rock, “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” is such a satisfying, hilarious episode of the show, it almost could have been. As Liz prepares for the arrival of her children, she must also try to save TGS from cancellation by rousing the writers from their general apathy and narcissism and convincing Tracy and Jenna to stop building themselves a career lifeboat (via a pitch for a movie in which they play Siamese twins—she, the youthful President of the United States, he a down-on-his-luck Santa Claus—in love with the same woman) long enough to make an episode to show the value of TGS. Liz cannot let the show she has sacrificed almost a decade for die, and considers not being there to meet her children in order to save it. But then, her staff does the unthinkable, saving the day in a way that is perfectly in character and hilarious by all simultaneously quitting their jobs so that the show dies. Liz Lemon sacrificed years of her life and much of her sanity to keep the show she loved alive. And her happy ending is the rest of the cast finally letting it die so that its creator might live. Meanwhile, there’s an extended Charlie and the Chocolate Factory riff as Kenneth is given the keys to NBC and we are gifted one more look at Jack’s biggest hit, Celebrity Homonym. “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” is a half hour filled with endings that never breaks character to allow for them, and that manages to be consistently hysterical along the way. In other words, it was 30 Rock at its very best.
6. Doctor Who, “The Day of the Doctor”
“The Day of the Doctor” was more special than the many Doctor Who “specials” as it marked the 50th anniversary of the long-running British show. Writer and show-runner Steven Moffat had a very difficult task ahead of him, having to pen an episode that not only served fans of the current show, but people who have loved The Doctor for decades. He also needed to create a story that would propel the program into its next fifty years. For the most part, he hit it out of the park, bringing back The Tenth Doctor, David Tenant, to join Matt Smith’s Eleven. Also adding a certain level of gravitas to the proceedings was John Hurt, who portrayed the “War Doctor”, a regeneration of our hero that existed during the Time War, an epic battle that wiped out all of the Daleks and Time Lords. Moffat didn’t get lazy when he could have. People seeing a big celebrity paired with two popular Doctors could have been enough on its own. But Moffat gave each Doctor, and some old friends, cracking dialogue and a fun, propulsive story that looks like a great jumping-off point for the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi.
5. Legend of Korra, “Beginnings”
The Legend of Korra is definitely the best show on television that you aren’t watching (but that you should be). If you’re among the lucky populace that DOES in fact watch Korra, then there’s very little I need to say to make the case for the show’s appearance on this list. “Beginnings” was the best outing of a more-than-solid season. The show is so damn good, in fact, that it’s been credited with creating a new TV genre( and proving, once and for all, that female protagonists can sell cartoons (I’m waiting for some more Wonder Woman, guys). You know this show is the greatest when you consider that the airing time changed basically every week (7:00, to 7:30, to 8:00, to 8:30) and STILL raked in record ratings for the network. It’s smart and funny and proves how bad ass girls can be (which is definitely much needed on TV these days) without being preachy or pedantic. Plus the animation is great, the voice acting (KIERNAN SHIPKA!!!) is fantastic, and the music is nothing short of epic.
But why “Beginnings”? The episode fills out a lot of history for the series—and it’s predecessor, The Last Airbender—while serving up a new set of twists that establish the plot for the rest of the season in such a way that keeps you on the very edge of your seat (I may have actually once fallen off the couch, but that’s neither here nor there). The episode features a knocked-out Korra, setting up a world in dire straits, and brings her through her own personal journey of healing while establishing a path forward for the entire universe. The concept of the Avatar can be stress inducing (ONE PERSON responsible for the balance of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE???) but “Beginnings” sets some high stakes in a way that is so innately accessible but fundamentally awe inspiring that it shocks me when people fail to consider animation as “real.” “Beginnings” makes all other Avatar-related material fall into place like you’d never considered possible, but that, by the end of the episode, makes the most perfect sense. It draws you deeper and deeper into the universe of the show and makes you want to stay there as long as possible.
Plus, it sets up THE GREATEST VILLAIN OF ALL TIME: Vaatu.
4. Enlightened, “The Ghost is Seen”
The second (and tragically, final) season of Enlightened took what worked about the first season to the next level, and mostly solved the problems that had hampered it previously by firming up a master-plot and spending more time outside the perspective of its complex, yet difficult and often obnoxious protagonist Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern). “The Ghost is Seen” is one such episode, following Tyler (Mike White), Amy’s quiet, timid coworker who she constantly harangues into assisting her in corporate espionage. The episode charts Tyler’s fitful steps back into the world after years in hiding. As it opens, he tells us in voice over, “It’s ok to be a ghost. It has its pleasures… Maybe there was a time when you wanted to be found, to be seen, to be held. But now, only hope hurts. I am my own secret, a secret kept by me.” Over the course of the episode, though, Amy’s machinations throw Tyler into the path of Eileen (a wondrous Molly Shannon), a corporate secretary and tentative extrovert. The attraction between the two is awkward yet immediate, less a love story than a subtle nod in that direction, a tale of two people yearning to be seen actually noticing each other and finding a connection. “The Ghost is Seen” is tragic, funny, and in some sense bittersweet. It is a paradigmatic example of Enlightened’s ability to get inside a character’s head completely within one episode. But above it all, it’s the story of a man who has willed himself to be invisible and unfeeling learning to awaken himself to the possibility of pain for the chance of something much greater.
3. Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”
Holy shit. Sorry, that’s just an involuntary reaction I have whenever I start thinking about “Ozymandias,” the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad. Highly regarded as maybe the best episode of the season (and maybe the series), “Ozymandias” is when things take the last big plummet for Walter White. This hour of television is unforgettable, seeing Hank in the desert, Walt begging for his life, and a domestic battle with a weapon that took the air out of myself and likely many who watched. Fans of the show would always say, ‘How could it get any worse? How could it get any darker?” and it always did. With “Ozymandias,” it was the final plunge. Without getting too spoiler-y, Walt has to pay for what he’s done over the course of the show in big ways. Those who wanted a dark, sad end to the story of Walter White may have been better served to stop with “Ozymandias,” which actually could have served as an end to the series. Of course, picking one episode from the excellent final season of Breaking Bad wasn’t easy, but when a show manages to be both moving and shocking while still maintaining that iron-clad grasp of its characters, it makes for some of the best television, maybe ever. Yes, it didn’t land at the top of our best episodes list, but depending on who you ask, this may be in the running for best hour of dramatic television in the history of the medium. Such hyperbole isn’t out of place for this powerful an episode of TV.
2. Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere”
Ned Stark’s death was Game of Thrones’ mission statement. The final sequence of “The Rains of Castamere” is the fulfillment of that mission. In this series, nobility (of both kinds) does not protect you from the repercussions of your decisions. Death followed Robb Stark from the first episode of the season. His marriage infuriated allies, leached his army, and generally weakened his claim for glory. And yet, in the final, perfectly-executed set piece of this bloody episode, what should have been obvious is rendered in shocking, surprising and horrifying detail.
Taken alone, the Red Wedding is simple proof that the show has no heart. But Game of Thrones has never been as grim and hopeless as its critics accuse it of being. “The Rains of Castamere” is the best example yet of the consequences for missteps—an ice-cold look at the realities of this fantasy. But this massacre doesn't exist in a vacuum. If it proves to us that actions have consequences in this world, then one has to look forward to seeing these particular chickens coming home to roost. There are green shoots of hope all across this world, even when times are grimmest. It’s why we keep watching.
1. Mad Men, “The Crash”
If “drugged-up SCDP” isn’t enough to assure you that “The Crash” was the best episode of television this year, then I’m not sure what I can say to convince you otherwise. But let me give it a shot.
How about “Ken Cosgrove tap dancing”? Or “Stan and Peggy having feelings”?
Didn’t do the trick? Ok, for serious:
“The Crash” is a psychedelic, emotional, tumultuous view of all that Mad Men does best. In desperate need of some inspiration, the crew gets a pretty close to literal kick in the ass when Cutler calls in his doctor to get the juices flowing with a “proprietary” but totally “mild” injection he’s calling an “energy serum” but probably involves some coke, because let’s be real. Let’s not even talk about the newly combined firms, the fact that Don is pretty deep into his downward spiral, that Stan is finally saying all the things about Peggy we’ve been waiting for him to say for seasons, or that Roger is, somehow, no longer the least responsible partner. Getting close to GM isn’t all the firm thought it would be, and the Holy Grail is proving a double-edged sword in the form of the Chevy contract.
This episode represents a real turning point for the show. Don’s desperation is so severe, and he’s so supremely lost, that you know—really know—that starting here, there just might not be a way out for him. Most of Season 6 is dedicated to the downfall of Don Draper, but the intricate looping of his past with his present, and the clear presentation of the lack of his future, is masterful. Whenever death gets anywhere near Don, you know things are going to get serious. But the heavy is so brilliantly balanced with the light in this episode, the ridiculous so tied to the real (is the problem REALLY what the firm is going to be named? Is the best way to spend this newfound energy REALLY races around the office? What is going on with this robbery that could have turned way darker than it did?) that “The Crash” proves to be the cream rising to the top of some of the best milk ever. Somehow, the most honest these people have ever been is while on drugs (“My mother. No—my first girlfriend.”). And it’s glorious to witness.
Plus, is there a better symbol for Don Draper at this point in his life than a sad pile of discarded cigarette butts in the service hall? NO THERE ISN’T. And really, Stan and Peggy finally have the heartbreakingly heart-wrenching interaction we (just me?) have been waiting for, and it’s just one representation of how this off-kilter episode is so satisfying and so devastating all at once, in the particular Mad Men style that keeps us glued to the screen.