The 50 Best TV Episodes of the Decade

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Best TV Episodes of the Decade

40. “The Queen” – Castle Rock

Castle Rock The Queen

“The Queen” fit like a missing puzzle piece into the first season of Castle Rock. Ruth (Sissy Spacek) was often a confusing presence in the show up to this point. Here, we’re finally given insight and clarity into her perception of time, space, and reality. Spacek delicately guides us through her character’s life and loves over the years, sowing seeds that will become devastating by the episode’s end. It’s a tremendous performance that deserved much more acknowledgment during awards season, but it will always be remembered as a highlight both of the show and of her career. André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, and Scott Glenn are all great in their roles, but the episode is all about the Oscar-winning actress, and she’s more than capable of holding an audience’s attention for sixty minutes. It’s a reminder of just how good Spacek is, and that’s something we could always use more of. (Cyrus Cohen)


39. “Assassins” – The Crown

The Crown Assassins

“Assassins” served as the climax for two storylines of the first season: Elizabeth’s marriage woes and the twilight of Churchill’s reign as Prime Minister. As a gift for his 80th birthday, the Houses of Parliament commissioned a portrait of Winston Churchill by artist Graham Sutherland. John Lithgow shows profound frailty in this episode, both when divulging tragic family history to Sutherland and when the final painting is presented to him. After refusing to step down for the whole of the first season, citing poor timing and other excuses, and brushing off concerns about his health, Churchill is slapped in the face with a harsh image of his own infirmity. The Elizabeth subplot is no less compelling as Elizabeth stands up to Phillip, calling him out on his hypocrisy and finally getting a well-earned apology. The tense dynamic between Matthew Smith and Claire Foy as Phillip and Elizabeth vacillates between fondness and irritation in a way that feels brutally honest. All around, this episode shows some of the best acting The Crown has to offer; unsurprisingly, this episode’s farewell to Churchill earned John Lithgow a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. (Samantha Olthof)


38. “American Bitch” – Girls

Girls American Bitch

In February 2017, eight months before allegations against Harvey Weinstein led to the #MeToo movement as we know it, Girls aired an episode of television that revealed – slowly and deliberately, through a constantly shifting relationship – what a moment of sexual misconduct looks like in real-time. Matthew Rhys guest stars as a revered author whose home Hannah (Lena Dunham) visits after he objects to an article she wrote about him allegedly coercing college students for sex. Dunham herself has rightfully faced scrutiny for several past controversies, and this story is firmly told through a privileged lens, but it’s nonetheless groundbreaking and powerful in its willingness to explore the dark edges of a topic we all wish could be simple. The less that’s said about the episode’s contents, the more its clever highwire act works, but it’s worth mentioning that this is the only episode of television that I’ve ever finished and – mouth and eyes wide in recognition of a dynamic that’s so commonplace, yet so unexplored – started over again the second it ended. (Valerie Ettenhofer)


37. “Queen of Jordan” – 30 Rock

Queen Of Jordan

Over seven seasons, 30 Rock‘s brand of comedy found the most cohesion when lampooning, and lambasting, whatever was the pop culture du jour. They ribbed everything from reality competitions (Milf Island) to primetime game shows (Homonym, Gold Case), but they were at their best when setting their sights on the rising popularity of The Real Housewives in the fifth season’s Queen of Jordan. Presented as an episode of the show-within-a-show, the title Queen is Angie Jordan (Sherri Shepherd), the no-nonsense independent wife of Tracy Jordan, Tracy Morgan’s Eddie Murphy proxy. It features all the hallmarks of a Bravo show – soft lighting, perky editing, copious wine throwing – but rather than critique it, they allow the humor from its inanity to come naturally. The episode doesn’t have to work hard to show how ridiculous the bickering of privileged One-Percenters are, they just have to turn your attention to it. The episode is also a prime example of everything that 30 Rock does best, like aural sight gags (www.jennasside.com), comic wordplay (“My single is called ‘My Single is Dropping’. And it’s dropping“), relatable sophomoric humor (Jack’s quest to prove a fart was merely a squeaky chair), and mining comedy from the abominable (Susan Sarandon, in the series’ second Mary Kay Letourneau joke). But more than anything, it’s Sherri Shepherd that makes this episode. Her Angie is committed, amiable, and drop-dead hilarious, a perfect amalgamation of what gives the show such binge-able longevity. (Jacob Trussell)


36. “The Choice” – Homeland

Homeland The Choice

At the height of its powers, Homeland was just about as good as they come. The show climbs to an exhilarating climax in the season finale, “The Choice,” an epic stand-off (pun intended) of an episode, in which each character is faced with an impossible, high stakes decision. Will Carrie jeopardize her career with the CIA? Will Quinn carry out his mission to kill Brody? There are plenty of factors that go into each of these internal conflicts, and you can pretty much only be sure of one thing when watching Homeland: it’s best to expect the unexpected. (Aurora Amidon)


35. “Flu Season” – Parks and Recreation

Parks And Rec Flu Season

Season 3 of NBC’s Parks and Recreation is perhaps one of my favorite seasons of television. It is when the wholesome comedy series finally hits its stride and delves into its iconic lineup of characters, from Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope to Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson. But the season’s best episode and one of the decade’s best episodes of television is “Flu Season,” when Leslie, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) all contract the flu. Health-obsessed Chris mutters, “Stop. Pooping,” at himself in the bathroom mirror. Leslie explains she’s not sick, it’s just allergies, but also warns everyone that the floor and ceiling switched. Leslie and Chris’s flu-induced haze delivers some of the decade’s funniest scenes and best lines. Full disclosure, I say “Stop. Pooping” more often than is probably appropriate. Funny flu-themed humor aside, it also shows Ron’s softer side as he brings April a bag of lipstick and magazines. He has no idea what to buy a sick woman, but the fact that he even tries brings up his less intimidating side. “Flu Season” illustrates what Parks and Rec does best: comedy with heart. It is an episode packed with jokes, but also tender moments of relationship-building that make viewers care for its characters. (Mary Beth McAndrews)


34. “Stories” – Broad City

Broadcity

Kicking off the fifth and final season of Broad City is “Stories.” It’s Abbi’s 30th birthday and she and Ilana set off on a daylong journey: walking from the tippity top to the tippity bottom of Manhattan. The girls set off across the city, stopping along the way at iconic landmarks and to get brunch with Jaime and Lincoln. New York City has always acted as a character in Broad City so it feels fitting to kick off their farewell season paying homage. Of course, typical shenanigans ensue on their journey, like Ilana falling into an uncovered manhole or Abbi accidentally kidnapping her college friend’s child, all while Ilana documents and posts every moment to her stories. Generally a pretty silly episode (besides Abbi momentarily suffering from the extremely real birthday blues), it takes a more serious turn in the final scene as the girls recap their day and neither can really remember the details. “It feels like because we were filming it,” Abbi remarks. “It’s like, not even our story anymore.” Is that the fictional Abbi Abrams talking or the real Abbi Jacobson? The duo behind Broad City spent so long creating and being alternate versions of themselves that maybe they feel a bit robbed of their own identities. It’s a surprisingly poignant wallop from the irreverent comedy, but it’s the perfect start to a strong final season that tackles more complicated emotional obstacles than ever. (Kristen Reid)


33. “Vichnaya Pamyat” – Chernobyl

Valery Trial Chernobyl

Who saw Chernobyl becoming a massive success? I didn’t. It made in on my anticipated TV of 2019 list, but only just barely. The truth is the five-part miniseries dramatizing the 1986 disaster came out of nowhere and blew us all out of the water with its stupendous acting, empathetic characters, and stark brutal look at the human failings before and after tragedy. Each of its five episodes is riveting, but it’s the final one, “Vichnaya Pamyat,” that’s the crown jewel. Showing the trial of the three men held accountable for the disaster, staged in the abandoned radioactive ruins of the town of Chernobyl itself of all places, the episode is by far the most human; with a beautiful, rueful speech by an already-failing Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and a shaking, determined testimony by Valery Legasov (a magnetic Jared Harris) as he decides, on the stand, whether or not to reveal key information about what really happened. It’s a hell of a capstone to a phenomenal series that none of us were expecting. (Liz Baessler)


32. “A Single Pale Rose” – Steven Universe

Steven Universe

This isn’t the highest-rated Steven Universe episode on IMDb, but for my money, it’s the best. The show has several big surprises that you might have guessed if you’d been watching closely enough, but the one that truly takes the cake is the one revealed in “A Single Pale Rose.” I won’t say what it is, because it would be a crying shame to spoil it, but suffice it to say it is a doozy. And the way that it’s told – an Inception-esque dive deeper and deeper into Pearl’s mind as she tries to bypass her own consciousness to tell Steven something she’s never been able to – is a double-whammy privileged glimpse into the past and desperate expression of love that’s beautifully, artfully done. Nothing is the same after this episode, and it’s a gorgeous introduction into greater understanding of the darker, more complex currents running beneath the surface of the show. (Liz Baessler)


31. “White Tulip” – Fringe

Fringe White Tulip

As fun as it is to watch mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) dose bugs with LSD, mix up Astrid’s name, or grow human ears in an omelet, the emotional core of Fringe comes from Walter’s slow arc of redemption. In “White Tulip,” Walter confesses and warns a fellow scientist just how much it cost him when he tried to play God – he not only broke the universe, he lost his family in the process, and himself to madness. It becomes clear that Walter has been torturing himself waiting for a sign of forgiveness from God that will never come. For a show so firmly rooted in science (or at least science fiction), this intense turn to faith was unexpected. Perhaps it is only right that Walter’s forgiveness, his white tulip, comes through reality-twisting technology, from a man who listened to his counsel and swallowed his own hubris. (Samantha Olthof)


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Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.