The 50 Best TV Episodes of the Decade

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Best TV Episodes of the Decade

10. “Mizumono” – Hannibal

Hannibal Mizumono

Hannibal was a hell of a show. It was the reason I got into writing about TV in the first place. (If you dig enough on the internet you’ll find some very long essays I wrote about it). Hannibal was a bizarre, beautiful unicorn, often more art piece than NBC primetime series. Beloved by critics but suffering from middling ratings, it held on by the skin of its teeth before being canceled after three seasons. But, God, were those three seasons something. And because of its tenuous position on the network, we got the bonus of some truly phenomenal season finales that could, if need be, double as a satisfying conclusion to the series. The season three finale, “The Wrath of the Lamb,” which is itself astoundingly good, wound up functioning as the series finale. And it’s perfect as such. But it’s the season 2 finale, “Mizumono,” which is truly breathtaking. Having found out he’s been betrayed by Will Graham, in whom he thought he’d finally found a kindred spirit, Hannibal Lecter (played heart and soul by the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen) carves a swathe of rage and blood through his kitchen that’ll shock even the most seasoned (yes this is a cannibal pun) viewer. Set to a hauntingly slowed down rendition of the Goldberg Variations, it’s a final scene that, like everything gruesome in this show, is utterly and grotesquely beautiful. (Liz Baessler)


9. “Episode #2.4” – Fleabag

Fleabag

Season two, episode four of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece series is a heart-in-throat turning point for a story that we thought we’d figured out, one that became something entirely different and even more satisfying in its eleventh hour. Waller-Bridge employs her playwright’s penchant for quickly shifting emotional beats, making every second of the episode count. A day out with the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) — trying on robes, attending a Quaker meeting, and petting guinea pigs — sees our lead character’s infatuation grow, only to be cut short by her inability to be fully vulnerable with him. Afterward, flashbacks to the protagonist’s mother’s funeral (without a fourth wall break in sight) perhaps reveal the subtly conveyed and deeply felt through-line of the entire series. Finally, in a scene that takes up nearly half of the episode’s runtime, Waller-Bridge’s character has a charged conversation with the priest that leads to a teary confession, a hungry makeout session, and a sign from God. Fleabag’s entire second season is a balm for the soul of anyone who’s ever thought they were too broken to connect, and episode four is the boldest and most integral piece of that message. (Valerie Ettenhofer)


8. “International Assassin” – The Leftovers

International Assassin

A sudden break in reason and logic that somehow still surprised in a show about the aftermath of the rapture, “International Assassin” was the most experimental episode of The Leftovers at that point, only to be topped by another collaboration between writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, and director Craig Zobel. It’s a wild, unpredictable, dreamlike ride through purgatory where nothing is as it seems. The episode is told through Justin Theroux’s perspective as he wanders around the afterlife on a mission, but it’s Ann Dowd who commands every scene she’s in with confidence, power, and ease. This episode affirms both of them as some of the most capable, dynamic and committed actors of the twenty-first century, regardless of what it is they’re tasked with. “International Assassin” unfolds more like a poem than a typical action thriller, continually defying our expectations of it and setting a new standard for onscreen imagination and visual storytelling. (Cyrus Cohen)


7. “Winner” – Better Call Saul

Beter Call Saul Winner

There are a lot of exceptional episodes in Better Call Saul. It’s an exceptional show. But as far as the best of the decade goes, I’m going to have to go with “Winner,” my choice for one of the very best episodes of the year in 2018.  “Winner” stands out from the pack for a lot of reasons. There’s the gut-wrenching return of Michael McKean as a younger Chuck, duking it out with Jimmy in a karaoke duet of ABBA’s song “The Winner Takes It All”. The episode’s namesake, it’s a cold open window to a simpler but portentous time. There is Jimmy’s riveting, emotional reading of Chuck’s letter before the bar association that seems to show him, finally, letting out some of his grief. But best of all is the final minute, in which Kim, as sure as we are that Jimmy is finally owning his emotions, is completely blindsided by his detachment, his cool calculated flippancy. “Winner” is the episode that shows us the largest piece yet of Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman. And even though we know what Jimmy’s future holds, the sudden gear shift is jarring and devastating, and we’re left feeling just as floored and sorry as poor Kim, all alone and peering down the hallway at the man she thought she knew and loved. (Liz Baessler)


6. “Blackwater” – Game of Thrones

Tyrion Blackwater

So let’s just address the elephant in the room: we all went through a bad breakup earlier this year. Maybe you’ve made peace with your grief; maybe you’re still processing. Either way, it might feel a little too soon to be reminiscing about the good times. But the end of the 2010s is nigh, meaning we’ve gotta put on a brave face and take this difficult trip down memory lane. Yes, we ended up in the dumpster, but we fell from an incredible height, and “Blackwater” was the moment Game of Thrones went from a great show to something truly special. It’s also, in a sense, the reason I started watching the series in the first place; a devotee of The National, I encountered their recording of “The Rains of Castamere” — which plays over the end credits of “Blackwater” — and my curiosity was piqued. I came for Matt Berninger’s grumbly melodies and stayed for Tyrion’s legendary “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them” speech.

“Blackwater” was in several regards a major first for Game of Thrones — the first major on-screen battle, the first episode to stay contained in one location — and in hindsight, stands among the series’ crowning glories. Penned by George R. R. Martin himself, the script of “Blackwater” is a brilliant balance of hefty character moments and explosive set pieces. Honestly, if I played one of the characters unfortunate enough to be absent from King’s Landing at the time, I would’ve been miffed, because every star here gets a chance to shine. From Cersei (Lena Heady), who shows off the vilest yet compelling version of herself, to Varys (Conleth Hill), just beginning to clue us in to his hidden depths, and of course Peter Dinklage, the MVP of season 2 in every episode but here most of all. Let us remember Game of Thrones not how we left it, but the way it was when it captured our hearts—a fantasy anchored with such compelling gravity you can’t help but be sucked into its orbit. (Ciara Wardlow)


5. “The Suitcase” – Mad Men

Mad Men The Suitcase

Everyone has a different second-favorite episode of Mad Men. You can make the case for the palpable energy of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” (which aired last decade, believe it or not), the tragic one-two punch of “The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees,” or even the complex optimism of series-ender “Person to Person,” if you’re into that. Our second-favorite Mad Men episode is up to us, but we’re lying to ourselves if we think the top spot belongs to anything but “The Suitcase.” Don (Jon Hamm) is Mad Men‘s protagonist, but Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) is the show’s stealth hero, an ambitious, angry woman whose evolution from meek assistant to competent ad woman is consistently — and purposely — more interesting than Don’s brooding. This season four episode is the exact halfway point of the series, and over the course of an hour, the tension between the duo explodes and dissipates in a beautiful, precisely planned arc. A bottle episode in the best way, “The Suitcase” follows the two as they spend a night at the office, arguing about work, skirting around the topic of Peggy’s baby, and missing out on important moments — a romantic dinner for her, a deathbed phone call for him — to instead embrace their dysfunctional relationship and the constant pull of perfectionism. (Valerie Ettenhofer)


4. “Ozymandias” – Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

“Ozymandias” has every element that made Breaking Bad great rolled into a concise yet intensely grueling 48 minutes. Starting on a nostalgic flashback to the first time Walt and Jesse took the iconic Fleetwood Bounder out to the boonies for a cook, we snap back quickly to a much more grim reality. Now, rather than the naive Walter White we once knew, the one who stripped down to his tighty-whiteys to cook and was “doing it all for the family,” we see a gruff, weathered Heisenberg in his place. Despite his constant declarations of putting his family first, Walt’s greed was always driving the growth of his empire — he knew it, Jesse knew it, Skylar damn well knew it. For the first time, one of his family members will pay the ultimate price for his sins.

The episode is a high octane rollercoaster, refusing to allow more than a moment of grief before barreling through the second half of the episode. In the midst of the heart-stopping twists and turns of “Ozymandias,” Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn deliver career-best performances in the single most stressful yet simultaneously relieving onscreen phone call I’ve ever seen. After five seasons of relatively smooth sailing for Walt, “Ozymandias” is a brutal antepenultimate episode, forcing him to stare the consequences of his wrongdoings in the eye. In general, Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season is regarded as a near-perfect conclusion to one of the last great cable series before the streaming boom, but “Ozymandias” stands out even from the rest; and though others have come close, it’s still the only episode of television ever to be rated with a perfect 10/10 on IMDb to this day. (Kristen Reid)


3. “Teddy Perkins” – Atlanta

Teddy Perkins

Donald Glover’s loss at the Emmys in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2018 will go down as one of the all-time greatest snubs. His performance as the titular Mr. Perkins is undeniably iconic and reminded viewers why Atlanta is such a particularly resonant show today. Each episode is unpredictable, but “Teddy Perkins” was uniquely so. It follows Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) as he stumbles upon an advertisement for a piano online and goes to an eerie mansion in search of it. There he finds an unsettling, aging white man named Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover) and his wheelchair-bound brother Benny Hope (Derrick Haywood). The story goes in surprisingly dark directions for the usually comedic show, but it’s just as politically salient as ever. It’s a landmark episode of the series and of 2010s television as a whole, evoking its era while redefining the show’s limits. (Cyrus Cohen)


2. “Finding Frances” – Nathan for You

Nathan For You Finding Frances

For as long as it graced our screens, Nathan for You was a masterclass in comedy. Part cringe humor, part exceptionally clever writing, it was never entirely clear how real the show actually was. And it was never explicit how in on the joke the people involved were, except of course for Nathan Fielder himself, with his blank eyes, deadened voice, and willingness to do anything to help a struggling business succeed. But with “Finding Frances,” the series finale that clocks in as long as a feature-length movie, the show gathers up all the bits and pieces that made is so original, and it mixes them together, shaking out a superb episode in which a past “real” character is proved to be a fraud, but then engages in a long, bizarre journey with Nathan, who himself has never felt more like an actual person. It’s a confusing but unnervingly forward examination of the nature of truth, that for all its chicanery culminates in one of the most heart-stoppingly genuine scenes on television, inadvertently some 50 years in the making. “Nathan For You” has been over for two years now, and I miss it dearly. But I’m at peace with its absence, since it gave us such a sublime and unexpected ending that frankly could probably never be topped. (Liz Baessler)


1. “Time’s Arrow” – BoJack Horseman

Time's Arrow

This is it. The number one episode. Are you surprised? I hope not. BoJack Horseman is one of the finest shows we’ve been gifted with this decade, not least of all because of its uncanny ability to fare uncharted waters of what’s possible in storytelling and TV in general. In the show that also brought us a completely silent underwater episode (with a delicious punchline at the end) and a stark, emotive eulogy that lasted almost the entire episode’s runtime, “Time’s Arrow” still stands a head above. Told from the perspective of Beatrice Horseman, BoJack’s mother who’s suffering from dementia, the episode fosters a huge amount of empathy for a character who before was just a source of extreme frustration in BoJack’s life. Tethered to Beatrice’s wandering mind, the focus of the episode ricochets through time and space, transforming objects, faces, and places without a moment’s notice and breeding an atmosphere of confusion and terror that’s so oppressive it won’t be until you come out gasping on the other side that you’ll start to come to terms with your admiration for it. And, just for good measure, it tops things off with the answer to a huge mystery we never even knew we should be concerned about, as well as a small moment of tenderness between Beatrice and BoJack, something we’ve never seen but feel, at the end of it all, to have finally earned. The episode is a game-changer, unique from start to finish, and utterly terrifying for just how relatable and grounded in reality it is. We’re going to be talking about and trying to emulate this episode for a long long time. (Liz Baessler)

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