Does every 2018 list have to need to have 18 entries? Gosh, I hope not. I watched a lot of TV this year, and 15 episodes really floored me. If this were three years ago, I’d be set.
But it’s not, and I’m going to buck the rules a little bit. Because sadly a few shows that I loved (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Baskets, The End of the F***ing World…) and several that I liked well enough (Killing Eve, Maniac, Homecoming…) just didn’t have a strong single episode that stood out to me.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. I’m so sorry but no, I haven’t finished The Americans. I’m sure that, just like The Leftovers before it, I’ll rapturously watch it all on my own in the spring when nobody cares. And then I’ll wish I could go back and make this list 16 entries long. Oh well.
The best episodes of this year surprised me, devastated me, gave me hope, or just plain bowled me over with their technical skill. The very best did all of that and more. So rather than picking an arbitrary three more arbitrary episodes to round things out, here are my absolute favorites: the 15 best episodes of 2018. (With spoilers!)
EDIT: I’m not just wishing I could have 16 entries. I’m doing it. No, it’s not The Americans, but there’s a new number two on this list. Go check it out.
Kiksuya – Westworld
“Mi cante ki yu ha ya ye.”
A lot of people lost patience with Westworld this season, and I was one of them… until it delivered something utterly surprising: a straightforward story of humanity and emotion told from beginning to end by a single narrator. For a show that’s made such a name for itself in complex twists and highfalutin plots, it was the ultimate shock, and maybe a bit of a power play. Of course, the show can’t help but reveal one sly little trick at the end. (I noticed an unusually placed “you” in Akecheta’s narration part-way through that made me narrow my eyes). Also, this is the Golden Age of Television, and stories of humanity and emotion are tripping over each other trying to get you to watch them. Should Westworld get extra credit for devoting one episode to something so common elsewhere? Should we even come to it for these kinds of stories, when its usual fare (however wearying it can sometimes get) is at least unique? I say it yes on both counts. I love a good departure from the norm, and I reward it heavily in some of the entries below. So while “Kiksuya” may not be the bravest leap of faith on this list, it is certainly a break from expectations, and a remarkably well-done episode, to boot.
Janet(s) – The Good Place
“Okay. That one’s Jason.”
Janet has always been one of the best things about The Good Place, a show that’s chock full of best things. But “Janet(s)” gives wonder woman D’Arcy Carden the chance to shine even more brightly than usual by imitating not one but four of her castmates. Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahanai have been tucked away for safekeeping in Janet’s void with only one hiccup… they all look exactly like her. It’s a wonderfully fun setup, and Carden’s uncanny ability to embody each character means that even before they’re dressed up differently for ease of identification, you know exactly who everyone is. I don’t know if Jason is the easiest character to impersonate or just the funniest, but either way, Carden’s assumption of his stance, wide eyes, and especially his voice is far and away the most entertaining. It’s such a mesmerizing series of performances that poor Stephen Merchant’s great guest spot as The Accountant is forced to play second (or fifth) fiddle, but as long as Stephen Merchant doesn’t mind, I don’t. The episode is a great performance showcase for Carden that culminates in a fascinating, sweet, and unprecedented (I think?) four-way kiss. It’s a lovely mid-season finale that assures The Good Place will always have a place in my heart.
The Box – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
“Oh damn. Oh damn! Oh DAMN!”
There are two hallmarks of every Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode: pure, unadulterated sweetness, and an A/B/C storyline structure that showcases the entire cast. “The Box” throws one of those things out the window, and the result is lovely. A brilliant and cocky dentist (This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown) is suspected of murder, and Jake and Captain Holt have one night in the interrogation room to get him to confess. A locked room with a ticking clock and a clear conflict between two parties, it’s a marvelously simple setup, and a wonderful opportunity for the tightly woven script to speak for itself. There are some beautiful comedic moments (I maintain that Holt spelling out his own last name over the phone to his husband is one of the best throwaway jokes in human history), but the real star is the expertly crafted linear progression of the night. With the three players talking at breakneck speed, it’s a fantastic, steadily more frenzied battle of wits with a climax that’s satisfying both for Brown’s explosive confession and for Jake and Holt’s quietly exhilarated moment of camaraderie afterward. “The Box” is a special episode, not one the show could do too often, but the fact that it’s done it at all, and pulled it off so well, makes me very excited for the artistic stretches it might be willing to take in the future.
Episode 2 – A Very English Scandal
“After all that you still haven’t got your National Insurance card?”
A Very English Scandal is delightful. From start to finish the three-part miniseries is in turns tragic, wistful, and unbelievably funny, with a dark witty tone that puts you more than a little in mind of Fargo. (Like with Fargo, we’re told this story is based on real events. Unlike with Fargo, that’s actually true). All three episodes are superb, but it’s the middle of the trilogy that really stands out. When is that ever the case? No mere setup for the finale, Episode 2 is remarkably complete, and honestly much more engaging than the following episode, which is bound mostly to courtroom monologues. Instead, it details the parallel lives of MP Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and troubled total sweetie Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), two men whose long-ago affair weighs heavily on both their minds. Remarkably, the two never meet during the entire episode — only once locking eyes as they pass each other in an intersection — and all the drama takes place in their solitary perception of the other’s motives, and their attempts to both get ahead of the other and live their own lives. And of course, the best part comes from the wildest part of the true story — Thorpe’s plot to have Norman murdered by a man you’d be hard-pressed to call Britain’s top assassin. The end of the episode plays out with incredible tenseness and comedy, and the climax of events is so tremendously satisfying it could serve as a finale in and of itself.
The Good Twin – GLOW
“I say we do whatever the hell we wanna do. Let’s just set the weirdos free and see what the fuck happens.”
GLOW is an absolute gem. Based on a real tv phenomenon, it’s a character study with an enormous, mostly female ensemble cast. Betty Gilpin is staggeringly good, Alison Brie is beyond charming, and Marc Maron might just be playing himself, but who wouldn’t want to see that? The show is adept at balancing serious drama with comedy in a way that feels completely normal — there are no real jokes, just naturally funny people. And that fact shines best in “The Good Twin,” when those naturally funny people (with Brie’s Ruth at the helm) get together to produce an unprecedented half hour of television. “The Good Twin” is what you always wanted but were too scared to hope for: an uninterrupted episode of GLOW, the in-universe wrestling show in all its 1980s low-budget glory. And since it’s been moved to a 2 am timeslot where no one’s watching anyway, it gets weird. There are dance dream sequences. There are music videos. A mannequin comes to life and the Quilting B Easy ladies finally make an appearance. Alison Brie eats ice cream with a goat. The entire cast (with camera guy on guitar) perform a moving charity song urging kidnappers not to kidnap and just… find something else to do. There is a minimal amount of actual wrestling. It’s gold from start to finish, and possibly the most unadulterated fun you can have watching tv this year.
Two Storms – The Haunting of Hill House
“I was right here the whole time. None of you could see me. Nobody could see me.”
Deftly exploring trauma through horror and interweaving an exciting Where’s Waldo ghost hunt, The Haunting of Hill House is so good that even I, a certified weenie, watched the entire thing. But it’s the sixth episode, “Two Storms,” that stands out not just for its storytelling abilities, but for its sheer technical achievement. After five episodes devoted to each of the five Crain children, this sixth sees them all together with their father possibly for the first time since the night they left Hill House, 25 years ago. The episode is a series of single, ultralong shots of meticulously choreographed movement performed by the entire Crain family on two very different stormy nights. It’s an unabashed flex of creative and technical ability, but it’s one that’s executed exquisitely, and rather than fighting against or defying the television format, it celebrates it, stirring together information parceled out over the past five episodes and holding itself to a single episode’s runtime. It expands the bounds of what tv can accomplish while reminding you, again and again, that it is tv. It’s beautifully done, and the way it draws out the Crains’ tension and grief, stretching it unbearably thin until it finally snaps with the first visible cut in 50 minutes, is incredible. I may have found myself less scared and more in awe of the show’s ability to pull this episode off, but I’m more than okay with that. I don’t like being scared anyway.
Milk – Sharp Objects
“Don’t tell mama.”
Sharp Objects accomplished a lot in its short run, but holding off its twist until literally the final seconds of the season, even burying some of it in the credits, is the gutsiest, most impressive of its achievements. One of Sharp Objects’ most deftly performed feats is its explosion of perceived womanhood, and Amma’s journey through the finale is a veritable roller coaster that explodes our perceptions all over again. Amma may genuinely come close to death, it’s true, but she’s more in control of her hometown than anyone, including us, has given her credit for. The women of Sharp Objects are damaged, yes, but it’s a mistake to assume that they’re victims. Camille thinks she understands Amma’s damage better than anyone, and her efforts to protect her from repeating her own trauma are excruciatingly tense. The final shot of Camille’s face, when she’s confronted with the reality of how grossly she’s misjudged her sister, is a sublime note to end on, and one that makes you wonder what else you’ve been lulled into believing.