This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.
Is it cheap to start this list by saying it’s been another great year for TV? Does that go without saying at this point?
Is there so much TV by now that it’d be downright impossible not to find nineteen exemplary episodes? Possibly.
So, instead, I’m going to say this was a great year for finales. My colleague Valerie Ettenhofer said the same thing in a dedicated piece earlier this year. And as I went through my list and realized just how many of my picks were finales (both season and series), I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing.
Of course, the biggest finale of the year cast a certain pall over the whole concept, and over the TV landscape in general. But we’re not here to talk about that. (Fair warning: that show that must not be named does make the list, but it’s with arguably the season’s only truly good episode).
By my count, there are eight finales here. Out of nineteen that is a sizeable chunk. But each packs its own unique punch, tying up ends, leaving mysteries open, paving the way for more or arresting a final note. Interestingly, a good number of them (and some of the highest-rated of them) have to do with love, all of them steering satisfyingly clear of the tried and true happily ever after love story ending. There’s a theme to be found there, for sure, though why it coalesced this year, in particular, is beyond me. Maybe it was just time.
Of course, eight finales means eleven non-finales, and those episodes are a hearty mix of technical skill, clever writing, and out-and-out hilarity. Maybe your favorite episode isn’t on here, and I’m sorry about that. Next year there’ll be twenty spots to fill, and yours might make the cut. But this is 2019, and these are the nineteen episodes that most spoke to me, ranked in descending order for the sake of excitement.
19. “Freaky Tuesday” – GLOW
GLOW is a great ensemble show (with a formidably large ensemble) that manages to give a laudable amount of development to its vast character list. But enjoyable as it is to watch GLOW’s interpersonal relationships and struggles, it’s extremely gratifying to get a glimpse into the creative side of the show (and by this I mean the Las Vegas show, not the Netflix one). Even if that creativity is born out of boredom, monotony, and terrible back pain. Last year’s best episode was the one in which we finally got to see what exactly an episode of the wrestling show GLOW looked like, once it’d been moved to the graveyard slot and all bets were off. And “Freaky Tuesday” is this year’s equivalent, a great, freewheeling spectacular in which not caring about the results is actually a marvelous creative impetus. And poor Bash’s exasperated announcing, always a source of joy, is the perfect thread to string it all together.
18. “Episode #2.5” – Mindhunter
One of the most interesting elements of Mindhunter has always been its interviews with “real” historical serial killers. The king of these interviewees still remains the skin-crawlingly charming Ed Kemper, but this season’s finest is, unsurprisingly, the holy grail whose name has been whispered throughout the show’s two seasons: Charles Manson. With Damon Herriman looking the spitting image of him and exuding a manic charm that could be easily seen as appealing, it’s a scene that’s pure entertainment and feels almost like a privileged look into the past. But the real winner of the scene is Manson’s confrontation with Bill, whose home tragedy touches far too close to Manson’s own story for comfort at the best of times, let alone in a privileged conversation with a master manipulator.“. The episode is a perfect confluence of tawdry entertainment and grim reality, two things the show does well but tends to keep separate.
17. “An Endless Cycle” – Dark
If you’ve been sleeping on this German-language Netflix original, you shouldn’t. The show is a complex, twisting spider’s web of time travel that only gets more satisfying the more convoluted it becomes. But after a season and a half of mounting time loops and betrayal and confusion, the best episode is the one that strips that all away and shows the population of Winden in a way we haven’t seen them in so long — blissfully unaware of the trouble that surrounds them. Set just before the events of the series premiere that kicked everything into gear, the episode shows our usually tortured and desperate characters happy, uncomplicated, and caught up in life’s normal petty problems. It’s a case of serious emotional whiplash for the audience, and even more so for poor Jonas — our time traveling fish out of water — as he confronts the simple past he’s left behind, as well as the magnitude of the role he plays in its ultimate loss.
16. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” – Game of Thrones
Say what you will about the final season of Game of Thrones (and there are a lot of things to say). There’s at least one episode that genuinely deserves a position on this list, and that’s “A Knight of Seven Kingdoms.” Imbued with the subdued tensions of the night before battle, a less kind critic could argue that in rewatching, the audience experiences similar emotions waiting in anticipatory dread for the sun to rise on the following episode and the show to lose its soul. But that would be something for an unkind critic to say. The rest of the season notwithstanding, the quasi-bottle episode is a lovely, tense, bleak character study, capped off with a hauntingly beautiful song “Jenny of Oldstones” sung by Pod and again, in the credits, by Florence + the Machine. If that song had been in any other episode this season (out of place though it may have been), it would probably knocked its rating up a tick. It’s just that beautiful.