This was a big year on television. Netflix and Amazon added a bunch of new shows and whole new model for making them. A bunch of big shows, from 30 Rock to Breaking Bad, aired series finales. And what the hell happened to Homeland? The result was a lot of turnover on my list of best episodes. Some shows, like Louie, didn’t air in 2013, and some, like Community, simply dipped in quality. Anyway, here are the top ten episodes of the year. With spoilers, obvs…
10) “The Marry Prankster” — Happy Endings
Happy Endings did not get one. It was cancelled unceremoniously after a season that was kind of a letdown. But it was still one of the funniest shows on TV until its dying day. “The Marry Prankster” was probably the best example of its absurdist humor to air in 2013, from the Usual Suspects homage (“I’m not as dumb as I am”) to the crafty one-liners (“Classic Brad panic move, like when 9/11 happened and you full on supported the War in Iraq…” “We were lied to!”). Happy Endings will be missed, though some of the cast have found new homes on Fox sitcoms.
9) “Favors” — Mad Men
Mad Men has grown somewhat predictable in its old age, with characters mostly repeating familiar stories (Don is philandering again, Roger is adrift, Peggy has a complicated relationship with her boss). But one story that was truly new—and all the more impactful since the show had stayed away from it for almost six seasons—was Sally walking in on Don and his mistress. The subsequent fallout offered the most harrowing scenes of the season and a new level of desperation for Don. “Favors” also had the big revelation about Bob Benson’s sexuality, one of the season’s other major surprises, making it an episode that bucked this season’s trend of predictability and showed what Mad Men is still capable of.
8) “Colony Collapse” — Arrested Development
The long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development was an odd duck. Each episode’s focus on one character made them very different from the original episodes, which were so dense and interconnected that they were hard to keep track of. And some of this year’s early episodes lacked the comic punch of the first three seasons. But if you could get used to the new format, many of the episodes really clicked. “Colony Collapse” worked in jokes about Gob’s magic (“This is for something I call ‘mouse-ellaneous.’”) and a few new nicknames for Ann (“Mouth”/“Blank”), while also working in new jokes about Gob’s adventures in religion and nightclubs (“And by Jeremy Piven!”). The episode is mostly a one-man show, but even Tobias and Michael get in some good moment, reminding us what made the series so great in the first place.
7) “Erlkönig” — Boardwalk Empire
The real stars of Season Four of Boardwalk Empire were Chalky White (played by Michael K. Williams) and Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston), so it seems strange to pick an episode that focused on Nucky and Eddie. But those storylines blended so well here, illustrating the way Nucky brings people into his orbit (the way he compromises his nephew in an attempt to get him off the hook) and what happens to people once they are in (Eddie gets targeted because the FBI knows he’s valued so little). Plus, the Chicago storyline involving the death of Frank Capone was also one of the season’s best.
6) “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” — 30 Rock
It took me a long time to warm up to 30 Rock, and there were parts of it that never did click, but its final season brought out the best in it. The penultimate episode even drew laughs from characters like Kenneth and Jenna, who ranged from tired to unbearable for most of the series. But the best bits of this episode, as usual, came from Jack (“Man, women who try to do things sure do get killed a lot…”) and Liz (“Treme gets GOOD if you stick with it.”). Plus, it felt like a fitting lead up to a finale without suffering too much from finale syndrome.
5) “First Response” — Veep
Sometimes it’s not clear if Veep takes itself seriously as political satire, or if it just uses its Washington setting as a showcase for an unabashedly cynical workplace comedy with operatic swearing. For the most part, it’s better at the latter, but “First Response” allowed the show to do both well. It had great character moments, like Selina forgetting her daughter’s a vegan (and being reminded by Gary off-camera), Jonah’s creepy hug, and jokes about the inane patter of political interviews (“This is a bell!”). Overall, Veep may have been the funniest show on TV this year, and this episode was its highlight.
4) “Catherine” — Masters of Sex
Set in the late 1950s and focused on a brilliant but emotionally closed-off boss, Masters of Sex could have very easily felt like a Showtime copy of Mad Men. But an elegantly constructed episode like “Catherine” showed how the series proved to be its own thing. Every character in “Catherine” received an individualized story that also dovetail neatly around the theme of family. More importantly, the scenes where Bill tells his wife she’s lost the baby, and the final scene where he breaks down in front of Virginia added levels of complexity to the central relationships that normally take years to build. The performances of Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, and especially Michael Sheen were on full display in this emotionally draining episode.
3) “Boys” — Girls
It feels predictable, even vaguely sexist, for me to admit my favorite part of Season Two of Girls by far was when Ray and Adam teamed up to return a lost dog. But those two characters complement each other so well (though, as Adam suggests, “Maybe it’s because we’re both kind of weird looking…”) that their scenes together worked brilliantly. Season Two also had a much funnier version of Marnie, as her breakdown in front of Booth Jonathan in this episode showed. Overall, this season of Girls was more ambitious, and “Boys” was an example of that ambition working perfectly.
2) “Fucksgiving” — Orange is the New Black
The best new show of 2013, Orange is the New Black, was also a very pleasant surprise. With all the fuss Netflix made about House of Cards and Arrested Development, OitNB flew under the radar, but once it premiered it proved to be the most daring. “Fucksgiving,” for example, allowed the show to do stories about adjusting to life after prison and being thrown in solitary confinement. At the same time, the show was funny and vibrant with characters who could rarely be pinned down (like Crazy Eyes, most famously). The scenes of Chapman in SHU, from her finally snapping at Healy to her resolve to behave, were some of the best acting on a show with a surprisingly good cast.
1) “Granite State” — Breaking Bad
Before I talk about “Granite State,” I want to talk about “Ozymandias,” since choosing any episode other than that one seems to require some explanation. “Ozymandias” is the consensus choice for the best episode of Breaking Bad’s thrilling final season—even Vince Gilligan said it was the best episode the show ever did. And while it’s certainly a very intense, harrowing episode, there’s a by-the-numbers quality to it that makes it far too predictable to be the best episode of such a great show.
Every scene of “Ozymandias” feels like it’s checking off a box on the checklist of Walter White’s downfall: A family member gets killed? Check. His money gets stolen? Check. He betrays Jesse? Check. His son finds out the truth? Check. Skyler finally turns on him? Check. He realizes he has to give up his daughter? Check. To be sure, some of these are supremely well-done, like White’s reactions to Hank’s death and Holly calling for her mom. But because some version of all these moments have been expected for five seasons now, they aren’t as wrenching. (Plus, a lot of the emotional heft of “Ozymandias” rests on Walter Jr., who has never been as well-developed as Walt or Jesse, and—no offense to RJ Mitte—is not played by an actor as gifted as Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul.)
“Granite State,” on the other hand, is as emotionally draining as “Ozymandias,” albeit in a much different way. Instead of shocking, violent moments that depict Walter White’s downfall, “Granite State” is about his growing sense of hopelessness and alienation from his family. At the episode’s start, he still thinks he can salvage something from his situation, asking Saul for the names of hitmen even as he’s heading for isolation in New Hampshire. By the end, though, he realizes his son wants nothing from him, that his money can’t buy him anything of value, and that he might as well turn himself in.
And all that still leads to a stunning end, in which the thing that brings him back, the thing that leads to the events of the finale, is the same perverse vanity that started his downfall in the beginning. The one thing Walter cannot abide is the idea that he will be remembered as a failure—drug dealer and murderer, so be it, but not a failure.
Plus, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium…