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The Fifteen Best Episodes of TV in 2014

Every year, around this time, I make lists. About the year past and the year ahead. Last year, my television list focused on mostly new shows - shows you don't have to spend 200 hours catching up on. 2013 was a great year for new television, but 2014... wasn't. It was, however, a fantastic year for continuing television. Most of those continuing televisions were the same shows I picked out LAST YEAR. Most of the shows on that list only have two seasons, meaning it's possible to catch up before they begin their third. So check that out and go watch some television!


This year, instead of remixing that list, adding two or three new shows in the progress, I am going to do something different. I won't give you a list of the ten or twenty best shows this past year. I won't even give you a ranked list. What I will do is talk about the fifteen best episodes of television that aired in 2014, and I will do this alphabetically.


The Affair - "Episode Five" (Season 1, episode 5)

This was the one where everything got really, really complicated. The Affair is about a summer romance, an affair, between two married people. Each episode is divided in two, each part showing us one perspective: Noah or Alison. Earlier episodes had shown us the same events, or most of them, from these two perspectives. As we all know, memories are unreliable, and the truth depends on whom you're asking at a certain moment. We spin our tales and tell our stories, some making us look like the hero, others making us look like fools. Sometimes we're not even aware that we're doing it, but we still are. We have an idea of ourselves and it's in the stories we tell, not to mention our memories, whether we realise it or not.


The show's fifth episode had laid all the groundwork; the meet-cute had happened, Noah and Alison had gotten to know each other, and we'd gotten to know the setting, Montauk, not to mention all the other characters. This episode was where the focus of those other characters came into play, while the affair anchored the episode and showed us what's closest to the real reason Noah and Alison needed it, in the midst of their "ordinary" life. The episode mixed things up, fleshed out their spouses and families, and gave us a snapshot of how their lives - not the daily grind or the courting phase; not of becoming, but of being. It was fascinating and powerful and it snapped an already good show into a great one.


The rest of the season didn't quite live up to it, as the focus spun more and more toward the murder-mystery originally thought to be little more than a frame device, but it was one of the year's most emotional, interesting and beautiful series... That is, whenever it didn't feature said mystery.


The Americans - "Echo" (Season 2, Episode 13)

I feel a little dirty for picking this episode, because I'm sure there were other episodes this season of The Americans that were better, or at least as brilliant, but I've forgotten them. Since the show airs in the years' first months, by the time I wrote this list it's all just become a bit of a blur, and the only reason I remember this one the clearest might be beause it's the last one I saw.


Then there's the fact that this list (and no peeking!) has a lot of these season or series finales on it, which is something of a cheat. Endings are hard, yes, because they're what makes the journey worth it, and if they don't stack up to what came before, they can retroactively ruin a great show. Making all the pieces fit and everything fall into place is one thing; another is subtly and slowly moving said pieces, pushing them over certain cliffs to make them fall into the right place later, and there are few shows who does this better than The Americans.


This show is about undercover soviet spies and the FBI-agents (among others) hunting them in the 1980's. Our main characters are a married couple working for the Russians under the cold war; a war we know they will lose. There's a great sense of dramatic irony here, making the show very tense. It builds and builds and builds, and you know that anytime something goes wrong, it can go spectacularly wrong. If those dominoes begin to fall... What will happen? Needless to say, everyone - cast, characters and crew included - are balancing on a knife's edge.


But it's worked for two seasons, and it does not show signs of stopping. The show's second season finale is breathtaking, emotional, surprising, powerful, shocking, strange and brilliant. It's a show that's still on the height of its powers; one of the best shows on television and one of the best spy shows practically ever. If you're tired of Homeland's shenanigans and constant reinterpretations of itself, this is your new favorite show. Just try to keep up with who's spying for whom, why they think they're doing it, why they're really doing it and why they're in danger as the noose tightens ever so slowly. The Americans remains a complex tale of agents, both double, triple and maybe even quadruple, and when it's not hurting your head, it's hurting your heart.


Doctor Who - "Listen" (Season 8, episode 4)

Doctor Who is a show that can endlessly renew and reinvent itself, and after Steven Moffat's three-season (plus specials) run on the show, The Doctor went through a regeneration after putting an end to his three-season long plotline. Going into season 8, I was getting a little tired of Moffat's tricks and was hoping that he'd call it quits. He'd had his run on the show; it was time for someone else to step up, to complete the show's renewal and The Doctor's reinvention.


Then this episode came. I mean, the first episode was pretty good, the second was alright, and the third was fun. But this? This is a stone-cold classic.


Listen is an episode of a show that's been around more than fifty years that manages to feel new. It's the first episode to get this new Doctor, its 12th incarnation, right, and use him to his full potential. It's a monster movie, a suspenseful investigation, an emotional character piece and all throughout it's a riveting, wonderful story. Moffat bends and breaks, using both the show's history and his own writing style to lull you in, to twist your expectations and to do something truly special. It was the first episode of the season to properly cement that there wouldn't really be an ongoing mystery; instead it would focus on The Doctor and Clara's relationship. What does it do to a person, to travel with The Doctor? How does it change you? And how do you change The Doctor? At times, season eight felt like a dysfunctional co-dependent relationship, where our two leads dragged each other further down into more and more danger. It was a wonderful new direction and none of it would've worked without this outstanding episode that made me lean back in relief and go "With episodes like this, Moffat can be in charge of the show for as long as he wants."


Fargo - "The Heap" (Season 1, episode 8)

No one thought Fargo would work. I remember I was intrigued, but I thought it would fail. It was a crazy idea, to make the Coen-brothers' movie into a ten-hour television series. But they did it - or, Noah Hawley did. And it was spectacular.


Most of all, it was surprising. Clearly set in the same place and with the same types of characters, the series revealed itself to be more inspired by the movie than anything else. It introduced us to wonderful characters like Lester and Malvo, it showed us a clockwork universe where every gun would, at some point, go off and it made us wait. And then it surprised us all by having said gun go off when we least expected it, but when it was right.


In addition to all this, it was also a fantastic character piece, plenty philosophical and a suspenseful investigation-story. Oh, and did I mention romantic? Because it had that too. And some tragedy. And some noir to boot.


But none of it was more surpising than what occurs in this episode. It's not even a big thing, but when it came... When I realised what they'd done... My jaw was on the floor.


Fargo featured great risk that pay off and spectacular storytelling. During this episode I thought it was all about to fall apart, but instead it just got better. It's not a spectacular episode, but it's an audacious one - one that I remember myself watching and thinking "how will this continue?" and being legitimately surprised, delighted and filled with wonder when I saw what they did and how they did it. That's a hard mix to achieve, but Fargo managed it again and again. Bravo, Noah Hawley. Bravo.


Girls - "Beach House" (Season 3, episode 7)

Girls has this weird modus operandi; its first third of a season is always good, but you're unsure of where it's going and you're kinda just not feeling it. Have they lost touch with their characters? You don't know, but somethin's not quite right. And then there's an episode where it all snaps into place, usually around halfway. After that it all starts spinning out of control, and you go "the house of cards is finally falling, falling, it was good while it lasted but now, this time, they're not going to turn it into a cohesive whole, it'll just be a mess" and then somehow, every year, in its last episode it always clicks together. Yes, it's messy, but delightfully so. Realistically, for lack of a better word.


In season three, "Beach House" was the halfway-episode that snapped things into place. The rest of the season explored the outcomes of that trip, with all its secrets revealed, hurtful things said and everything laid out on the table. It spurred some great episodes after it, particularly "Flo", and while its final episode wasn't as brilliant as the season two finale, it was close. It also opened up a lot of new possibilities, giving the fourth season a shake-up that they might not have needed, necesarily, but they can do a lot with it. Knowing Dunham, she most likely will; Girls is frequently one of the most interesting shows on television, and its brilliant messiness is a quality, not a drawback. Here's to more of it in 2015.


Hannibal - "Mizumono" (Season 2, episode 13)

This is one of my favorite episodes of television ever. Relentless tension, then gut-punch after gut-punch, that shot of Mads Mikkelsen in the rain before a final jaw-dropper... Rarely have I wanted a time machine more, and even rarer have I enjoyed a shocking season finale this much. To even talk about what happens in this episode would be to ruin it, so I won't. Just do yourself a favor and watch this show. It spends a little time to get all its pieces moving in the right direction, but it's a beautiful, horrifying, magical and terrible show. It's a psychological thriller inspired by greek tragedies, Twin Peaks and paintings, wrapped in a crime show. It's frequently the weirdest show on television and its dream sequences are bizarrely fantastic. It's disgusting and beautiful and completely its own thing, and its second season culminates in one of the best episodes I have ever seen - and I was convinced they'd never beat their fantastic first season finale. How wrong I was... And how completely, utterly overjoyed I was at being wrong.


How I Met Your Mother - Last Forever (Season 9, episode 23+24)

If there's one episode who's placement on this list will spark controversy, it's this. But I loved this ending. It was, I believe, the perfect ending to the show they were making. It was funny, emotional, heartfelt, cheesy and all over the place (in time and quality, somehow) - just like a good HIMYM-episode should be.


But the biggest reason why I liked it is this; it changes the value of the entire show. Which, I believe, is why so many people didn't like it - but it had to be done. And now, the show is all the better for it.


I grew up with this show. I was, essentially, raised on it. As Ted and his friends went through their twenties, I went through my teenage years. I fell in love and things didn't go my way. And, having been raised on Disney- and Hollywood-movies, I belived in "the one". That he was out there somewhere. That everyone had one, just waiting for them. That I just had to find him.


This is, of course, bullshit. There's no "the one". There's just people you like and people you don't, not to mention people you really like. Love is all about timing. It's about finding someone you really like, and who really likes you, and then getting to know each other. To spend insane amounts of time together. You're not going to fall madly in love with someone at a party that will change your entire life, then disappear and only leave behind his/her shoe (cue someone saying that this really happened to them, but whatever. They're the exception. Besides, they might also, on returning the shoe, find that said person is a horrible human being with really shitty opinions and a vulgar world-view that only seemed interesting when you were really, really drunk, so my point still stands). Love takes time, is essentially what I'm trying to say. And if you don't have that time, if you don't put in the hours, it's not going to work.


Sometimes you will meet the perfect man or woman. Sometimes you fall head over heels from the first word or the sight of an umbrella on the train station in the rain. Sometimes you fall in love slowly, with a good friend that turns into something more over the years. Sometimes you grow apart and come together again. There are different types of love, of relationships and of partners. The point is, there's more than one "the one".


This is the lesson Ted needed to learn at the end of this story; that he should stop obsessing over "the one" and be with the woman he loves. This idea of "the one" is ruining generations of men, and throughout the latter seasons of this show I was growing tired of Ted's romantically optimistic bullshit thoughts on this. I wasn't buying it anymore. It was too much of a fantasy, and I wished Ted would grow up a little and see the world for what it really is.


And then he did. The show revealed to have grown up with him. It's really just the audience left, but they instead threw a temper tantrum and turned off the television angrily.


Oh well. At least I enjoyed it. That's enough for me.


The Leftovers - "Two Boats and a Helicopter" (Season 1, episode 3)

The Leftovers takes place a year after a certain percentage of the people on Earth have just... disappeared. No one knows where they are or what happened, and if you don't know anyone who's disappered, you definitely know someone who's had someone disappear.


It's a pretty grim show, interested in its central premise more as a metaphor for depression than anything else. Its characters are searching for meaning in a meaningless world, and never was that more clear than in this episode, focusing on Christopher Eccleston's character Matt, a priest in a world where God seems to have punished us and everyone's waiting for the end-times to begin.


Matt needs money to save his church. He follows a series of signs, or at least what he sees as signs, that take him... well, either to safety or despair. Does he finds his way or lose it entirely? Are the signs he sees placed there by God, or another external force, or is it just his mind playing tricks on him? His desperate need to believe in a God, in a path, in a sense of righteousness, that his belief is strong and right. And yet he doubts.


A fantastically written episode that had me on the edge of my seat. The Leftovers is a difficult, harrowing show, but it's also very rewarding, emotional and one that'll make you think.


Louie - "In the Woods" (Season 4, episode 11+12)

Louie always does strange things, but with this two-parter he made a little mini-movie inside his most serialised season yet. A coming-of-age story about teenagers and the people they look up to and, in one way or another, disappoint - or are disappointed by.


It was funny, it was suspenseful, it was the television version of Boyhood, told in an hour and it featured Jeremy Renner as a drug-dealer. What's not to love?


Mad Men - "Waterloo" (Season 7, episode 7)

I almost wish this was the final episode of Mad Men. I cannot imagine how they will top this magnificent hour of television, or find a more perfect ending. I watched the entire series last year, most of the time thinking "how do you end a show like this?". Then I saw this episode and holy hell, this is how you end this show.


Mad Men is about the day after you get what you want. It's about happiness, and what makes us happy. Sometimes it's a new car, sometimes it's a cup of tea, sometimes it's our families or friends. But most times, it's getting what we want. So how do you end a show that's about the day after? Sure, that new car feels good, but in a few more weeks that happiness will fade, and you'll want something else. That cup of tea might be delicious, but you'll have to drink it before it gets cold, and when it's gone, that specific liquid is gone forever. You may never achieve that perfect brew again. And time spent with friends or family is lovely, but at some point you'll have to go to sleep. Days end, replaced by other days.


Matthew Wiener and his writers can't end the story of these characters on a happy ending where they get what they want, because we know that eventually that want is going to fade. These people are going to struggle forth, they're going to want something else and they're going to crack.


"Waterloo" brings Mad Men into the future. Its characters look at the moonlanding, at the future, and in the same shot, at us. The world at this point is split into cynicism and optimism. "We're wasting all this money just to visit a rock in space.", someone says (I'm paraphrasing). So much of the show is about discussing our present through the prism of the past, but never has this been done better in the moonlanding sequence, where these characters are looking at us accusingly. We didn't live up to this. We let them down. We're not optimistical, we don't see the possibilities. We see the waste. We're cynical. We failed them all.


Then they all become rich. Our beloved characters get better control of their company. Roger grows up a little and becomes useful. Don owns up to reality. Bert Cooper dies, and the last link to the past is severed. And then Don Draper has an epiphany, a vision; Cooper appears, singing and dancing. "The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free." Don is floored by the realisation. The door closes. The chatter of the office resumes. And everything moves forward. Into the future. From optimism to realism to cynicism in an hour. From the past and back again, to the future. I hope it won't let them down. It's better to be happy and see a little thing that's wrong, than to be surrounded by defeat and see a little hope that things might change. Isn't it?


Of course, they always do. The world moves on, with or without you. Still the moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free. When will they learn? When will we learn? How many times do we have to make the same mistakes?


Till we get it right. Till it's over.

Seven episodes left. If they're anywhere close to this... I don't even dare to hope. But I trust in Matthew Weiner and his team. If anyone can bring us into the future, it's them.


Masters of Sex - "Fight" (Season 2, episode 4)

"I want to see how it ends."

A television show is essentially a collection of shorter stories that add up to a bigger narrative. There are different ways of doing this; you can follow the Twin Peaks-formula, where every episode brings every plotline slowly a little further, or you can do the Mad Men-version, which is essentially (at least in the beginning) a collection of short stories, each episode focusing on one character, one theme, one relationship. Both work, but for different reasons, and for different stories.


Nevertheless, it's always fascinating to see an episode that stops and focuses on something small. Where the plot doesn't matter as much as that evening, one relationship, a particular goal in a particular narrative. These episodes tend to go deeper into characters and relationships instead of bringing the plot forward (though the best do both), and some of them take place mostly in a single location.


These are called bottle episodes. Some of televisions best episodes are bottle episodes; "Fly" in Breaking Bad, "The Suitcase" in Mad Men, "Cooperative Calligraphy" in Community. "Fly" is an especially great one, capturing the entire epic in forty minutes; the show in a microcosm.


"Fight" does the same. Featuring Bill and Virginia in a hotel room, with a legendary boxing fight going on in the background, it left me shaken and sent me reeling. It was mesmerizing. "Fight" is about Bill and Virginias relationship. It's about what sex does to you, both physically and emotionally. It's about the difference between men and women, between sex and love, between violence and communication. It's about how we deal with our past, how we become who we are, and how we live with it. It's about masculinity and feminity, about what it means to be strong.


It's one of the best bottle episodes I have ever seen. The rest of the show doesn't quite reach this height, at least not weekly (that would be insanity), but it's a very good show - even if its second season is a little uneven. But it tries some audacious things, and it features great performances. It's worth it, is what I'm trying to say.


Mozart in the Jungle - "Opening Night" (Season 1, Episode 10)

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players"

The easiest way to describe Mozart in the Jungle is that it's Slings & Arrows, only set in the world of classical music instead of the theater. The only problem with that description is that very few people have heard about, and even fewer have actually seen what is one of televisions best shows - a Canadian gem about art and commerce, about life and love, and about why we should suffer everything we do when, in the end, it's all pointless. Its theme is crystalized in its title, referring to Hamlet's most famous monologue.


Mozart in the Jungle isn't about that. Watching its strong and confident, though a little uneven first season, I thought more and more about what kind of a story this is. As the episodes roll by (five hours' worth of them, which I watched in a single day - essentially a long movie, a feeling the structure plays into) and I enjoyed them, but the closer we came to the end, it started to feel a little too predictable and just a little bit empty. Convenient. Too easy, too... (dare I say it?) classically. But then this last episode came along and revealed a different game, one that was there all along, in its very title.


This show isn't about art vs. commerce, or how we life through our suffering. It's not discussing if you need to suffer to make art, or even what art is. When I watched the first episode for its second time (without having seen the rest of the show), I commented that the show was "like Girls, if its characters knew what they wanted". That statement turned out to be a little prophetic, as its last episode makes clear the theme of the series, the season and the episode in one clear swoop; Mozart in the Jungle is about finding your place, and then acting it out. All the world's a stage, and we are all players... But who are we playing? What place does Mozart, and thus all of classical music, have in the jungle that is New York?


In this last half-hour, every character finds his or her place - at least a little bit. At least enough to get a taste, to remind themselves of who they are and what they want. And in a season where both they, and I, was questioning where they were going and where they wanted to go, who they wanted to be, to have it all stacked on top of each other in its finale was nothing short of beautiful. I cried tears of joy, I grinned from ear to ear and I cannot wait to see what they do with these characters, and this cast, in their second season.


Orange is the New Black - "You Also Have a Pizza" (Season 2, Episode 6)

Valentine's Day comes to Litchfield and prompts changes, relisations and emotions as everyone ruminates on love.


In its second season, OITNB seemed to try to tell the story of not just everyone in Litchfield, but about everyone tangentially connected to it. It was inspiring and brave. It payed off and mostly worked. The show became Dickensian in the best sense of the word, and in no episode did that work better than this hour. It was beautiful, tragic, suspenseful, sad and wonderful. It brought the narrative forward while showing us how these people became who they are, and why they made the choices they did, and continue to. I have no idea what stories they'll tell in season three, but if the two first seasons are anything to go by, these people know what they're doing. I can't wait to go back to Litchfield sometime in 2015.


Rectify - "Running with the Bull" (Season 2, episode 1)

Rectify seems to be out to prove that the best things exist in the smallest moments in life. So far, it's mostly succeeding.


The show is about Daniel Holden, who's spent twenty years of his life on death row for the rape and murder of a girl. Then he gets out as some new DNA-evidence calls his conviction into question.


"Has he done it?" is a central question of the show. But also, and maybe even more, if he has done it, can he make it right? And if the state, or the cops, or the lawyers did a wrong putting him away, can they make it right? Can anything be rectified?




The first season ended with Daniel getting beat up in a graveyard. The second season picks right up minutes later, with Daniel in a coma in the hospital. In Daniel's coma dreams, a dead character comes to life and gives Daniel a choice. It showed that this was still the same show, that it wouldn't turn into an investigation thriller all of a sudden, that it would be slow and strange and philosophical and staggeringly beautiful, and that it would continue to care for all its characters. It's metaphorical and weird and sure of itself, it's understated and wonderful and it has some of the best characters on television today; certainly the most emotional complex.


The episode also showed that the series still celebrates life, in all its absurdity and glory - something that's easy to forget with all these bleak post-apocalyptic (and not) shows spreading in all directions. (for another great show of 2014 that celebrates life, see HBO's "Olive Kitteridge"-miniseries.)


True Detective - "Form and Void" (Season 1, episode 8)

True Detective's run early this year was insane. It was like six seasons of LOST packed together for nine weeks. Theories were all over the place, picking up on every (and I do mean every) detail, reading the inspirations, diving into the philosophy... For eight or nine weeks, everyone was talking about this show. And, naturally, the final episode created a divided audience. Was it shit? Was it great?


To be honest, the best episode of True Detective is probably its fifth, "The Secret Fate of All Life". It was a toss-up between that and its final episode, and I chose the last one mostly because I wanted to talk about it.


Because damn near no one saw this one coming. That True Detective, the darkest, nihilistic show on television, a show about two bad men hunting a worse one. I don't know of a single person who saw this and thought "It's going to end on an emotional moment where Cohl finds something that gives his life meaning." The words most frequent in my mind during this show were those about the abyss staring back; these bad men would be corrupted. They might get their man, but they'd have to pay with their lives - if not more. Other theories were much stranger, and a part of me kinda wanted them; those were the world ended, they awoke The Yellow King or something. That the show would go full-on supernatural.


Instead it ended with Cohl, our favorite nihilist, saying "If you ask me, the light is winning." And it was beautiful.


There was nothing supernatural; at least nothing that can't be explained away with, for instance, Cohl's hallucinations. It walked that line fantastically, and while I like to think that what he saw in "Carcosa" was real, I get people who say "it was all in his head". And sure, all the real bad guys got away; Cohl and Hart only got one part of a much bigger animal. But they earned it, with blood and sweat and tears. The show revealed itself to be about Hart and Cohle, and their way out of the dark. Into the light.


That's a thought we'd do well to keep in mind in 2015. The world is filled with soul-crushing darkness. It's probably all meaningless, and there's no god or other being who makes sure the bad ones get punished and the good ones get rewarded. There's only the meaning you create for yourself. There's only these people, these wonderfully complex people, around you - some assholes, some nice ones and some tiresome. There's only the future; you can't do anything about your past. Our actions have consequences, and not all of them are positive - but there's light in all this darkness. There's love and relationships and laughs. There's friends and family, no matter how tiresome they can be, how many conflicts they bring and secrets they keep. You just have to find your place. And remember, always remember; the best things in life are free.

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