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Mad Men, "The Strategy" (AMC)
I left Mad Men off my top-10 series list because the final season had just built up steam before it stopped halfway through. (See you in 2015!) But the second-to-last hour was one of the series’ finest ever. A sort of older, quieter version of season 4’s high point, “The Suitcase,” it saw Don and Peggy hashing out a stubborn pitch, but this time with her as the boss and him as her humbled counselor. (The key to making a decision, he tells her, is accepting that you’ll never know if there might have been a better idea. “That’s just the job,” he says. “Living in the not knowing.”) It was a testament to the characters’ rapport and history–and the last pullback shot with Peggy, Don at Pete at the Burger Chef table-as-communal hearth? I’ll have what they’re having.
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The Leftovers, "Guest" (HBO)
Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof’s sorta-Rapture story could be a riddle inside an enigma inside a white Old Navy jumpsuit. But when it had a driving story, like this hour focused on triple-left-behind-ee Nora Durst (Gone Girl‘s Carrie Coon), it had an emotional wallop like the fist of God. (Even as it posited a potentially Godless universe.) A strange business trip to a bereavement-industry conference broke down Nora’s stoic facade and made the series often airy story of loss and endurance achingly real.
Bob's Burgers, "The Equestranauts" (Fox)
In this essentially Bobsian episode, the much-put-upon Bob Belcher (H. Jon Benjamin) goes undercover at a convention for grown fans of a kids’ show to recover a lost toy for daughter Tina (Dan Mintz). Hilarity, of course, ensues–but not the make-fun-of-these-nerds kind that would be the easy default (the convention is loosely based on “Bronies,” adult fans of My Little Pony). Instead, “The Equestranauts” manages sympathy for an a-little-too-intense subculture, while showcasing how deft this comedy’s character sketching and voice acting has become–and that, like a rainbow-hued pony, is magic.
True Detective, "Who Goes There" (HBO)
A confession: I admired True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto’s Camus-in-the-bayou mystery, but I didn’t love it the way many visitors to Carcosa did–too many flat supporting characters and dorm-room monologues. But it soared on Woody Harrelson and (especially) Matthew McConaughey’s committed performances and the direction of Cary Fukunaga, never more than in this Apocalypse Now of an episode that ended with an extended single tracking shot of an undercover operation gone wrong. The bravura scene made this episode cool; what made it great was how it embedded us inside Detective Rust’s, well, Cohle-dark mindset.
Game of Thrones, "The Lion and the Rose" (HBO)
It’s tempting to think of Game of Thrones in terms of events rather than episodes: The One Where That Guy Gets His Head Smashed, The One With the Red Wedding, and so on. But this–The One Where Joffrey Dies–was great less for the shocker ending than for how, during one of the most awkward royal wedding receptions ever, it laid out the alliances and subterfuges among the attending guests and suggested the horrors of an ascendant Lannister family, all before poor Joff had one cup of wine too many and the game, as well as the throne, changed once again.
Masters of Sex, "Fight" (Showtime)
The parallels to Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase”–a period-drama episode about two characters, set on the night of an epic boxing match–must have been obvious to everyone but its creators (who say they hadn’t seen its predecessor). But it’s a very different kind of emotional sparring and clinching that unfold between scientist-lovers Bill and Virginia, who meet for a “research” session at a hotel and end up unfolding personal history in a way that changes their relationship. It’s heavyweight-class intimate combat.
Review, "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes" (Comedy Central)
I was skeptical about the premise of Andy Daly’s comedy–TV “life reviewer” Forrest MacNeil has to undertake any experience his viewers suggest. But the third episode, in which Forrest must get his beloved wife to divorce him–bracketed by two bouts of eating absurd amounts of pancakes–pushes past absurdity to establish the show’s own logic, setting up up both an emotional ongoing story arc and some well-earned gastrointestinal distress gags. It’s a half hour of surreal comedy that hits the heart and the stomach.
Outlander, "The Wedding" (Starz)
Here’s something truly different on pay cable: a steamy episode about sex, sex, bow-chicka-wow-wow sex–shown from a woman’s perspective. This episode was the climax, so to speak, of the sci-fi romance between 1940s nurse Clare (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), the 18th-century Scots warrior she was betrothed to. Making both partners equally subject and object, explorer and explored, their exquisitely staged consummation showed that a TV episode can be radical and hot.
Girls, "Flo" (HBO)
Girls is often at its best in self-contained stories (“One Man’s Trash”) and episodes that step outside Brooklyn (“The Return”). Here, Hannah’s grandmother (the wonderful June Squibb) lays dying in a hospital in the suburbs, Hannah rushes to visit her and the resulting vigil taps a gusher of history and resentment in her extended family. In a comedy about a twentysomething writer beginning life, having Hannah stare down the end of it adds resonance to her situation–a young adult who has already said goodbye to one part of her life, but still isn’t sure what the next part is.
The Knick, "Get the Rope" (Cinemax)
TV, in which the writer-producer rules, isn’t usually considered a director’s medium. But trust Steven Soderbergh to change that: his haunting play with light and dark and his longtime composer Cliff Martinez’s intoxicating score made a hospital drama set in 1900 feel vitally of our moment. The finest hour of the first season, which re-created a race riot in Manhattan’s Tenderloin District, brought alive some the series’ major themes–the integration of the hospital staff and the rise of progressivism–with action that was like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.