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10. Parks and Recreation, “Two Parties” (NBC)
When two people get married, two worlds come together — not just the couple at the altar, but everyone who made them who they are. Parks and Rec captured this in the story of Leslie and Ben’s bachelor/ette parties. Ben’s, a geek-out swapping out strippers for Settlers of Catan, becomes a way of celebrating each of the Parks Dept. guys who have taken in this former Ice Clown. Leslie’s, which turns into a caper to save a park and foil her rival Councilman Jamm, shows how deep her identification with her community runs. Ben and Leslie both manage to turn a party for themselves into a party for everyone, and though they spend much of the episode apart, it’s all about their connection.
9. Scandal, “Nobody Likes Babies” (ABC)
Picking the most entertainingly insane episode of this Washington opera (“soap” seems too diminutive) is like picking the most bombastic Spinal Tap song. But this episode, closing out a season 2 opening arc in which the show found its seamy, lusty reason for being, brought its plot threads together like the crescendo of a fine, stirring symphony of WTF? An assassination attempt, a fixed election, a Presidential murder! This would be too much for a whole season of a lesser show; this committedly gonzo climax only left us wanting more.
8. Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere” (HBO)
It’s not automatically true that the best episode of a drama season is the one in which the biggest things happened. (GoT‘s “And Now His Watch Is Ended” gave this one close competition.) “Rains,” though, took an event that readers of the shocking book knew would be shocking — spoiler alert, though why are you reading this before watching? — the betrayal and murder of several key characters, and staged in it a way that was brutal yet mournful, and stunning even to the forewarned. This was indeed a Red Wedding to remember.
7. Switched At Birth, “Uprising” (ABC Family)
It doesn’t get the attention of cable’s darker series, but this family drama on a network aimed at young viewers aired what may have been the most formally daring and ambitious hour of scripted TV of the year: an episode, from the perspective of a deaf character, entirely in American Sign Language. “Uprising” was no gimmick, though, but an outgrowth of the show’s long-running storylines, character conflicts, and nuanced attention to disability issues and rights. This “silent” episode spoke loudly.
6. Mad Men, “For Immediate Release” (AMC)
Mad Men went to some dark places in the assassination-plagued year of 1968. But for all its angst, this is also a caper show, albeit the corporate kind. And this exhilarating episode zigged where the season had been zagging, having rivals Don Draper and Ted Chaough, their firms being played like cat’s toys by General Motors, decide to join forces and unite SCDP and CGC into a bowl of alphabet soup powerful enough to take on the advertising world.
5. 30 Rock, “Hogcock” and “Last Lunch,” (NBC)
Tina Fey’s bizarro-NBC sitcom ran barely into 2013, but it finished strong. (I could just have easily included the penultimate “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” here.) The two-part season finale showed that, among the many things this breakneck surreal comedy was, it was a love story: not just a romantic one (though Liz Lemon ended up with her man Criss), but a love story for friends, for coworkers, and for TV itself. Jenna sang it best, if unintelligibly, in the closing “Rural Juror” theme: “These were the best days of my flerm.”
4. The Good Wife, “Hitting the Fan” (CBS)
The series has always been many great dramas in one: personal, political, legal. In this pulse-pounding climax to Alicia and Cary’s split from their old law firm, it became one more: a war story. The minute-by-minute unfolding of the breakdown of Lockhart Gardner played out like a guerrilla battle in the suites, the camera wending its way around glass doors and the players exchanging phone calls and restraining orders like small-arms fire. The verbal bullets flew in this thrilling hour of TV, and its aim was true.
3. Justified, “Decoy” (FX)
Is there another TV show that loves words more than Justified? This high-water mark of a strong fourth season was built around a siege and a standoff, which meant not just action and suspense but plenty of time for talking — which here means storytelling, negotiating, and good old-fashioned bullshitting that’s as dramatic as any shootout. Justified’s godfather, author Elmore Leonard, died this summer; “Decoy” was as good a sendoff as anyone could have given him.
2. Girls, “One Man’s Trash” (HBO)
In a step outside Girls‘ usual stories and structure, Hannah (Lena Dunham) goes to take out the garbage and walks into another world. Her lost weekend at the brownstone of handsome neighbor Joshua (Patrick Wilson) is an idyll, but not an escape; it makes her realize, sadly, that for all her hipster adventurism, “I want what everyone wants.” Like a persistent but haunting dream, this raw and honest episode ends, but leaves the feeling that Hannah has woken from it ever so slightly changed.
1. Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” (AMC)
The title of this episode comes from the Shelley poem about the self-aggrandizing statue of an ancient king, fallen to ruin in a desert. In the greatest hour of one of TV’s greatest dramas, Walter White’s dreams shatter into the red dust around him, as the violent forces he unleashes cost him his family and most of the drug fortune he sold his soul to cook up. Five seasons of lies and near-misses built to this powerful moment, as Walt sees his dreams of a happy ending vanishing in the rear-view mirror. Look on this work, ye mighty TV creators, and despair.
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