3. "Mad Men" - "In Care Of" (Season 6, Episode 13)
Because people are crazy, and because "Breaking Bad" took most of the limelight this year, there's seems to be a view among fans that "Mad Men" didn't have a particularly memorable season. As usual, the show took a slow-burn approach to storytelling, but that's one of the reasons we love it, and when a slow-burn can build up to an explosion like the one in season finale "In Care Of," we don't mind one iota. Season 6 was about the implosion of Don Draper, a thirteen-episode slide that saw the style icon that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with, complete his transformation into a rather pathetic, pleading alcoholic. And it's here that he reaches rock bottom (we hope—we'll see where the show's final season takes him): having looked like he might turn around his decline with a new life in L.A., he goes into a meeting with Hershey and self-destructs, finally revealing his dark past to his co-workers. He's left, essentially fired from Sterling Cooper Draper Price (who are presumably going to be dropping the D), and with his marriage very much on the rocks. And yet, it might mean that he's finally coming to terms with his past, taking his children to see the whorehouse in which he grew up. No one has a great time in the finale—Pete's mother dies, falling overboard on a cruise ship, and the mysterious Bob Benson screws him over, partly in self-defense, while Peggy's career is on the up, but her lover Ted is moving to the other coast rather than staying to be with her. It's the show at its richest and most novelistic, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Bring on season 7.
2. "Game of Thrones" - "The Rains of Castamere" (Season 3, Episode 9)
We couldn’t have seen it coming. (Well, in fairness, there’s an obvious way we could, but we’re enjoying this show so much we only allow ourselves to read the George R.R. Martin books up to the point that we’ve already seen.) The “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones,” because that’s what it’s called in our seared brains, despite it being hidden behind the spoiler-free official title of “The Rains of Castamere,” was simply one of the most dramatic, unexpected and traumatic viewing experiences of the year, as one by one, characters that every storytelling instinct we had had lulled us into thinking were going to be around for a while, were offed in an orgy of throat-slittings, stabbings and perfidious betrayals. But in retrospect, we suppose the signs were there: Robb Stark (Richard Madden), despite being King in the North, was one of the less interesting characters now that his personal conflict over Talisa (Oona Chaplin) had been resolved; Talisa herself had no bearing on the wider plots bar her relationship with Robb, though her pregnancy was an extra, literal, twist of the knife; and with so much of the series dealing with parentage, bastardy, ancestor worship and family names, perhaps Catelyn’s (Michelle Fairley) days had always been numbered as a way to make the Stark children and Jon Snow even more self-reliant. But it would be disingenuous to say that this last death, especially, came as anything but a total shock. Even the rhythm of the scene is played in such a way to make you think that you’re going to be given some space, and maybe a cut away to action elsewhere to absorb this new Robb-less, Talisa-less world, and that Catelyn’s awful torture is actually to live on, knowing it was largely at her bidding that Robb, his bride and unborn child were lured to their deaths. But no, and bravo to everyone involved for squeezing one more shock, and probably the biggest, into a series of shocks, yet still making it feel totally unexpected, even capped with the death of Catelyn's "goodness" as she pointlessly murders Walder Frey's young wife in retribution. What’s also impressive about this particular installment, is that despite being eclipsed completely by the splatter and horror of that grisly wedding (apparently Martin was inspired by a 15th Century historical event called the “Black Dinner” in Scotland), the rest of the episode is pretty great too, with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) revealing his true Crow colors and leaving Ygritte (Rose Leslie); Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) discovering that his Warg powers allow him to enter other minds; Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) now controlling an entire city; and our beloved Arya (Maisie Williams) coming so heartbreakingly close to a reunion with her family, while her relationship with the Hound grows ever more thornily ambivalent. All that would easily have made for an above-par episode anyway, but then to round it out with this gloriously gory operatic moment…
It’s said that the scene was the reason that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss sought the rights to the books in the first place, and that Martin himself referred to it as the hardest thing he’s ever written, even joking that he’d move “to a country with no television” when the episode aired. Yet despite massive pressure, therefore, not to fuck this one scene up, and even despite the huge following that the books have, so that many viewers would already have an inkling of what’s in store, “The Rains of Castamere” is an extraordinary piece of television that eclipses even the series’ own death of Ned Stark in terms of surprise, and, as all great TV episodes should, fundamentally changes and reinvigorates the way we think of the show.
1. "Breaking Bad" – "Ozymandias" (Season 5, Episode 14)
There are many who would argue that this episode of "Breaking Bad" and not the series finale is where the show really ended. Everything came together: the episode began with a flashback to right after Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walter (Bryan Cranston) first cooked meth, with Walter calling his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and telling what would become the first lie in a whole laundry list of deceptions. In the present, in the same spot, Gomez (Michael Quezada) is dead after the desert shootout, with Hank (Dean Norris) being held at gunpoint by the psychotic neo-Nazis led by Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen). It's Hank's death, and Walter's absolute devastation that follows, that might have been the single most poignant moment of the last handful of episodes. But "Ozymandias," dazzlingly directed by "Looper" filmmaker Rian Johnson and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, is the type of episode littered with searing moments just like this: Walter confessing to Jesse that he was present for Jane's death; Jesse's imprisonment; the confrontation at home between Walt, Walt Jr. and Skyler; and Walt abducting Holly, a moment that's almost as shocking as Hank's execution at the start of the episode. There's a palpable level of sadness that hovers over every scene, oftentimes threatening to choke it. Thankfully, there's a slight hint of optimism to even the darkest moments. When Walt makes the rage-filled, confessional phone call to Skyler, he's trying to set her free even though he knows he's permanently damned her (and the entire family). It's a moment where Walt tries to do what's best for his family, which was his supposed reason for building his meth empire in the first place, although he accomplishes it through incredibly selfish actions (again: a constant). Walt doesn't stick around and try to sort things out with the authorities in an attempt to get his wife and family off the hook. No. He looks out for himself. As described at the show's outset, it was designed to be the journey of how Mr. Chips turned into Scarface. What "Ozymandias" made very clear was that Walter was always Scarface. The closing moments of the episode, with Walt getting into Saul's fixer's van, are as quietly haunting as anything the show has ever delivered, and in some ways act as a more fitting resolution than the final episode we received, with Walt's comic book assassination of the neo-Nazis and Jesse tearfully driving to freedom. It's a testament to the episode's power that Vince Gilligan, the show's creator and writer/director of the series finale, called "Ozymandias" and not his episode, the very best in the show's history. Quite frankly, it's hard to argue.
The last two episodes of "Arrested Development" season 4 were the most satisfying, but its hard to tell if they're stand-alone good or if we were just relieved the show had gotten good after a disappointing run prior; "New Girl" has won a surprising number of us over despite the potential detestability of its premise—and whatever about Nick and Jess, for this writer's money, any episode that shows thin Schmidt battling his inner fat Schmidt is a winner; "Doctor Who" had a strong episode with "Hide" but the season hasn't reached the heights of some previous seasons; "Bob's Burgers" is maturing nicely into one of the funniest, oddest shows on TV (and "They're gonna say 'Aw, Topsy' at your autopsy" is probably the best TV song of the year); the premiere and finale of "Rectify" were both strong; episode one of "Broadchurch" has its fans (and, agreed, it's before the show goes a bit silly later on); "The Mindy Project" entry "Weiner Night" and "Christmas Party Sex Trap" episode got a few votes; "American Horror Story" was mentioned though how we'd pick one simmering gumbo of an episode over another is kind of beyond us; while A Certain Contributor will never forgive us if we fail to shout out the Season 3 premiere of "Scandal," which, to be fair, is a guilty pleasure for many of us.
Elsewhere "Archer," "Sleepy Hollow," "Gravity Falls," "Brooklyn Nine Nine," "Comedy Bang Bang," "Getting On" and "Eastbound & Down" had their cases made but more perhaps as shows than individual episodes, while even we were a little surprised by the lack of showing for "The Killing," "Homeland" and "The Walking Dead." Let us know what you think, about our choices and your year in TV, below. -- Oli Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers, Cory Everett