12. "Justified" - "Decoy" (Season 4, Episode 11)
For a show that could have just been a rote police procedural, "Justified" has done a remarkable job at frequently reinventing itself. Having dealt with yearly big-bads in the shape of Margo Martindale and Neal McDonough across season 2 or 3, the show changed tack a little to become a mystery, with Timothy Olyphant spending much of season four searching for Drew Thompson, a criminal once associated with his dad who faked his own death after shooting Detroit crime boss Theo Tonin. It was an involving and twisty tale, but it was only once it was revealed that the local sheriff (Jim Beaver) was Thompson himself that the show kicked into gear, with "Decoy" marking perhaps the high watermark of the series to date. Thompson is in custody, awaiting transfer, but Tonin's henchman Nick Augustine (a colorfully nasty performance from "Glee" star Mike O'Malley) isn't going to let that happen, enlisting a semi-reluctant Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, exemplary as ever) to kill the former sheriff. The result is an impossibly taut episode that moves like an top-notch Walter Hill action/western, despite there only being one real action sequence of note (and that one features Patton Oswalt as the hero). It's fat-free, nail-biting stuff, but still finds time for the characterful and textured dialogue that's made the show one of the finest-ever adaptations of the work of the late Elmore Leonard, who passed this year (the exchange between Marshall Tim and Ron Eldard's Colt is a piece of writing so good that is should be taught in screenwriting courses). Every character gets a key moment, from a worthy goodbye for Jim Beaver's fine performance to the unlikely heroics of Oswalt's Constable Bob, and the only problem is that the following two episodes couldn't help but feel like an anti-climax as a result. Dutch would be proud.
11. “Veep”- “Helsinki” (Season 2, Episode 5)
“Veep” is just such a fantastically great show that it’s extremely difficult to pick just one episode as a standout, but “Helsinki” is an example of how when this show is firing on all cylinders, it is unstoppable. When the Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) goes on a trip to Helsinki for some sort of “agreement,” she also ends up having to do damage control after a mildly offensive song about Europe that she sings at a private dinner is posted online (thanks, Jonah). “Helsinki” demonstrates perfectly what “Veep” does best: melding the serious and the absurd. The Veep ends up having to deal not only with the awkwardness of Finnish humor—guest star Sally Phillips is spot on as the Finnish Prime Minister—but she also receives word that POTUS knew one of the hostages from an earlier crisis in Uzbekistan was a spy, putting Selina in a tough place, as she’s already been on record saying the opposite. To top it off, the Finnish Prime Minister’s husband, portrayed impeccably by Dave Foley (he “looks like a Disney villain,” Selina’s bag man Gary hisses), gropes her breast during a smoke break at a state reception. As Gary (Tony Hale) describes it, it’s a “sexual 9/11… or at least a sexual Cuban Missile Crisis.” Every performer hits it out of the park, in even the smallest of appearances, from secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) working from her bed, on Helsinki time, to Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) showing up to hurl a few of his patented insults (“Laurel and Retardy”). But the episode basically wins Louis-Dreyfus and Hale their Emmys, as they are the MVPs, landing every tossed-off line, side-eye and gesture with laser accuracy. When Selina complains to chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) about the “axis of DICK,” it’s funny, but it’s also a moment of Selina showing her true feelings about being a high powered woman in government. The groping is played for silly laughs, but this moment shows the reality of sexual harassment in this particular workplace, especially when they decide they can’t say anything about it for fear for her legacy. You can be the most powerful woman in the world, but some creep can still remind you of your status as a woman. It’s an important message embedded in one of the funniest episodes of TV of the year, and that’s what “Veep” does best.
10. "Orange Is the New Black" - "Lesbian Request Denied" (Season 1, Episode 3)
Aside from being a potential game-changer in terms of its delivery system, "Orange Is the New Black" feels positively revolutionary when it comes to the stories it's telling. The show might center on an upper-middle-class WASP woman, but creator Jenji Kohan has been upfront that she's using Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as a gateway to tell stories about people otherwise ignored on television: poor women, African-American women, gay women, Latino women, old women, forgotten women. It does so with wit, warmth and compassion, and perhaps does it most effectively in the third episode of the series, "Lesbian Request Denied." About the point at which the show really starts to hit its stride (and directed, interestingly enough, by Jodie Foster, which is almost enough to make up for her performance in "Elysium" this year), it sees Chapman trying to fend off the attentions of her admirer, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), while focusing its flashbacks on Laverne Cox's Sophia, the prison hairdresser who was once a male firefighter, who committed credit card fraud in order to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. It's almost impossible to think of a TV series giving this prominent a role to a transgender character (let alone one played by an actual trans actor), but Sophia isn't simply a symbol: she's a flawed, selfish person who, nevertheless, is hugely sympathetic. We wish the show made better use of her later in the season, but here's hoping she's more present in season two, because "Lesbian Request Denied" is certainly a highpoint of an excellent show so far.
9. "House Of Cards" - "Chapter 8" (Season 1, Episode 8)
We’ve been TV binge-watchers for quite some time now, but the concept of gorging oneself on an entire season’s television in one or two sittings really made it into the public consciousness at large with “House of Cards,” the first original program from streaming-service-turned-content-provider Netflix. And since it’s a show that was seemingly devised with binging in mind (note the absence of top-of-the-hour recaps), and largely consumed that way, it seems more difficult to select an individually great episode—what, you mean it wasn’t all part of a single, seamless continuum? But for us, the episode that really changed up what was already a deliciously dark, sinuous story of greed and corruption and power, was the eighth, in which actually almost all the trappings of the traditional TV show format are jettisoned in favor of exploring a dual-character background that doesn’t do much to further any of the many season arcs in play, but does, in one fell swoop, give us a gargantuan dose of context, for Spacey’s Frank Underwood especially.
Frank journeys to his alma mater to attend a ceremony for the opening of a library in his name, and is therefore outside his natural, poisonous element—Washington D.C. And this time the scene is not even of a triumph of his conniving ways outside of those support structures (like, say the Giant Peach episode had been), no, here the revelations are internal to Frank’s psychology and feel as instantly, retroactively truthful as they are unexpected. And it’s a mark of the sophistication of the script and performances that the most surprising element is not that Frank had a homosexual relationship, it’s that he is capable of loving anyone, of pining for anyone at all. Elsewhere Peter Russo (2013 breakout Corey Stoll) returns to the constituency he sold out to try and shill for support and we see him too, in a new light; he’s the Cowardly Lion gaining some nerve while Frank’s Tin Man reveals that he once had a heart. Within the framework of a tightly-plotted show of twists and turns and malleable loyalties, “Chapter 8” might feel like a digression, and we’re certain that were we watching the show week-to-week it would have felt minor. But in this newly forged context it’s in fact a terrific example of what elevates “House of Cards” above its traditional TV show brethren: we’re not just caught up in what is going to happen to these men; we are encouraged to consider what made them the way they are.