9. Barry, “Make Your Mark”
Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s half-hour hitman-turned-actor comedy is cable TV at its most high-concept, and the risk pays off from episode one. The titular mercenary has a lot going on in his life; he’s juggling his post-military assassin career with his newfound love for acting, at which he is hilariously horrible. The final moments of the episode, which Hader directed, are at once pulse-pounding and ironic, all while setting up sufficient intrigue for the rest of what turns out to be a stunning first season. After confiding in acting teacher Gene (Henry Winkler) in a confession that the latter takes as an improvised audition, Barry heads to his next hit, only to discover his acting classmate has already been taken out. The action picks up quickly here, with Barry deftly dispatching a carload of Chechen mobsters before leaving the scene with the brisk but professional pace of a man who never gets caught. He ends up at a diner backlit by the emergency lights of the police cars rushing to the murder scene, but he’s more preoccupied with the script pages in his waitress’ pocket. “I’m an actor,” she says. “So am I,” he answers. These final scenes are masterful pilot episode material, written with wit, irony, and nimble, authentic action. They solidify Barry as a character worth investing in, even if his acting is world-record-level bad.
8. Killing Eve, “I Have A Thing About Bathrooms”
Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are TV’s power couple of the year. Sure, their characters in BBC’s Killing Eve–international psychopathic assassin Villanelle and bubbly British intelligence agent Eve Polastri–are more enemies than lovers, but just barely. The series’ breakout first season followed the magnetic pair through a tense, funny, and captivating cat-and-mouse game that reached its height with their midseason confrontation. Up to this point, Villanelle has been showing her infatuation with Eve in unorthodox ways, like by stabbing her friend Bill to death or sending her a perfectly tailored dress and sexy perfume. Now, she’s graduated to face-to-face mind games, breaking into Eve’s house in an extended sequence that’s, in turn, scary, playful, and exhilarating. Villanelle chases Eve around the house, shoves her in the shower, forces her to serve dinner (Tupperware leftovers), and both flirts with and threatens her before finally making an exit. The first season lingers on Eve’s complicated curiosity toward Villanelle, and that’s on full display here along with her persistent hero streak. By the end of dinner, there’s been knife-play and crocodile tears and the employment of a fake British accent, and the two have earned the title of the most captivating duo of same-sex murder frenemies since Hannibal.
7. GLOW, “Rosalie”
Bash Howard (Chis Lowell) is the last character fans of GLOW would expect to take the spotlight in the women-wrestling series’ second season, but his incredibly touching and subtle arc is a welcome surprise all the same. Before this season, all we really knew was that Bash is GLOW’s producer, a wealthy playboy with a friend-slash-manservant named Florian. This time around, Florian’s missing and Bash’s search for him leads him to, among other places, a gay bar that obviously gives the guy a lot to consider. Still, it’s an absolute shock to him and us both when the season’s penultimate episode ends with Bash receiving a phone call, not from a potential business partner as he’d expected, but from a hospital notifying him that Florian has died of AIDS (“well, technically pneumonia,” the nurse says, as if the name of the illness is taboo). Lowell imbues the character with such deep denial for his own feelings, as well as the reality of his Florian’s sexuality, that each phrase delivered by phone hits like a punch to the gut. You were his emergency contact. He’s dead. He had AIDS. Funeral homes may not take the body. The heightened reality that GLOW manufactures is suddenly gone here and, after a season full of theatrical highs and comedic moments, we’ve crash-landed back on earth. After Bash hastily hangs up the phone, he sees the bar-goers around him in slow motion, their celebration miles away from his own sudden mourning. As Genesis’ “Man on the Corner” underscores the closing shot of his isolation, it’s clear that his world–and the show itself–will never be quite as bright again.
6. One Day At A Time, “What Happened?”
Don’t let this show’s sitcom structure or its status as just one in a sea of approximately a million Netflix Originals mislead you; the acting on One Day At A Time is some of the best on TV right now. Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez, in particular, give unforgettable, multifaceted performances as tenacious single mom Penelope and lesbian activist daughter Elena, respectively. The series’ second season has plenty of should-be-classic episodes, but it’s decades-spanning and largely laugh-track-free “What Happened?” that sears in the memory. The episode tells the story of Elena’s birth, which was soon followed by the 9/11 attacks and her parents’ subsequent re-enrollment in the military. Flash-forward to the present day, when the family is split apart by PTSD as well as Elena’s father Victor’s inability to accept his daughter as gay. Elena’s coming out storyline has cultivated a lot of tear-jerking moments over the show’s short run, but this one is the most powerful. Elena confronts her father–who abandoned her at her quinceanera last season after she came out to him–in a moment of self-definition so empowering and raw that Gomez’s prop glasses fog up from the tears. Her character’s fragility and hurt are on full display, but her strength is as well when she says, “I learned some really cool stuff about myself. Like I’m tough. I’m really tough….I’m gonna be fine. I’m just really bummed out for you. You’re gonna miss a lot of stuff and that sucks because I’m pretty great.” The tentative reconciliation that ends the scene is less important than the speech that precedes it, a powerhouse moment for Gomez and a heartfelt bit of catharsis for every kid who’s ever felt abandoned by a parent. The unfiltered emotional impact of this scene can’t be overstated–you’ve got to see it (and the rest of this great series) to believe it.
5. Sharp Objects, “Milk”
On an objective level, it’s completely maddening for a slow-burn miniseries to meander through eight episodes of bramble-thick American Gothic aesthetics and murky psychological drama before answering its central mystery in the very last seconds of its very last scene. In practice, it’s also one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever seen a show pull off. Damaged journalist Camille’s (Amy Adams) kid sister Amma (showstopper Eliza Scanlen) was always the most mesmerizing and chilling character on the show, imbued with a distinctly female type of danger, so it makes sense that she killed Natalie Keene and Ann Nash. Still, the way it all plays out, with a semi-happy ending suspiciously relayed to us with several minutes left of the episode, is as dread-inducing as it is darkly comic. Writers Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn bring their A-game, and with Jean-Marc Vallée’s impressionistic direction, Camille’s discovery of a dollhouse floor made of human teeth–a callback to Munchausen mom Adora’s ivory floor–is a dreamy (or nightmarish) feat of storytelling. The fact that Camille catches on right after Amma claims her latest victim is almost as much of a macabre mind-fuck as Amma’s immediate, child-like response: “Don’t tell mama.” Stay tuned through the credits.
4. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Mac Finds His Pride”
If there was a left-field surprise that fell into place even more perfectly than Sharp Objects’ final twist this year, it was Rob McElhenney’s absolutely jaw-dropping five-minute interpretive dance performance in “Mac Finds His Pride.” I wouldn’t expect any show to undergo significant changes in its 13th season, yet that’s exactly what Always Sunny did this year, deliberately questioning its characters’ historically unethical status quo before throwing out the rulebook altogether with this stark, breathtaking, and inexplicably cinematic dance sequence. The performance is intended as Mac’s (McElhenney) coming out to his father but ends up imparting a lesson upon Frank (Danny Devito) instead. My colleague and FSR’s resident Always Sunny expert Liz Baessler says it best in her essay on the episode: “The dance, performed in the rain with the outstanding Kylie Shea and set to “Varúð” by Sigur Rós, is a sight to behold, and not just because of McElhenney’s body. It’s spare and emotive, and gorgeously shot. It’s a balm of visual and aural beauty that gathers up a decade and a half of jokes and insinuations and transcends them into something raw and fiercely human.”
3. The Haunting of Hill House, “Two Storms”
Mike Flanagan’s ultra-loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson classic builds up its mythology and pathos steadily so that by the time all of the Crains are together for the first time since they were run out of their house by malevolent forces a quarter of a century earlier, the suspense exists in its very fabric. The episode itself is a film fan’s dream, a highwire act of anxiety achieved through the appearance of a continuous, uninterrupted shot a la Hitchcock’s Rope. The camera is almost constantly moving, lending energy to the Crains’ cyclical sense of unease and conflict. As expected, the episode follows two storms; the first takes place at Hill House during the kids’ childhood, while the second is in the present day, at the funeral home where Nell’s (Victoria Pedretti) body is being held. This outing mostly forgoes the jump scares of its predecessors, instead opting for lower-key freakouts that deliver deeper chills. Technically it’s all one big scene, but it’s the power outage during the last fifteen minute that sticks the landing and is the series-best sequence. There are unnerving ghosts in the backgrounds of shots, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shifting statues, and finally, the supernatural collapse of Nell’s coffin, which marks the first visible cut to a new shot–the first break in tension–over 50 minutes into the episode.
2. Atlanta, “Teddy Perkins”
Speaking of unbearable tension, meet Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover in whiteface, although the end credits listed only “Teddy Perkins as himself”). Atlanta pulled out all the stops for this episode, which quickly became one of the most-discussed TV moments of the year after airing in April. To say that Perkins is an amalgam of Michael Jackson and Baby Jane may be accurate, but it also does a disservice to a script that is so twisted and psychologically heavy that it avoids being pinned down as a simple homage. The episode clocked in well over the series’ usual 30 minutes runtime and aired without commercials, making the airless, decaying mansion that houses former star Teddy and his brother Benny all the more claustrophobic. Atlanta’s first foray into full horror comes after two seasons of horror-tinged episodes and feels like a natural extension of peerless director Hiro Murai’s craftsmanship. The final bloody showdown scene between creepy Teddy, his wheelchair-bound brother Benny, and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) is executed with obvious precision, from Darius’ apprehensive steps into the room where Teddy is playing old family footage, to the opening notes of Stevie Wonder’s “Evil” which play as he leaves the scene with nothing to show for his traumatizing side quest. Like everything in Atlanta, it’s at once dense with unspoken meaning and tinged with the absurdist idea that it might not matter at all. No other TV moment from 2018 has left audiences quite as speechless as this one.
1. Castle Rock, “The Queen”
In a year overflowing with bold moments of TV filmmaking, an understated scene stole our hearts and the top spot. “The Queen” is an impeccable piece of art, an hour of television that falls somewhere between Inception, Away From Her, and Lost’s “The Constant” while still managing to feel thoroughly unique and bittersweet. The episode sidelines the more supernatural elements of the Stephen King-inspired series to instead focus on Ruth (Sissy Spacek), our hero’s dementia-stricken mother. As we follow her through a blur of memories, including scenes of her controlling, mentally unstable late husband, we get the sense that this episode will be some sort of farewell. It’s only in the last moments, when Ruth’s act of courage backfires and she accidentally kills her true love Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn, an alumni of last year’s top scene titleholder The Leftovers) instead of the false image of her long-dead husband, that we realize to whom we’ll be saying our goodbyes. Pangborn was never the series’ most fleshed-out character, but in his final scene–the two lovebirds’ reintroduction, reenacted by their now-elderly selves–we see why she fell for the man who always had her best interests in mind. As the two embrace (to Max Richter‘s consistently sob-inducing soundtrack piece “On the Nature of Daylight”), we see her queen chess piece, which she’d earlier explained was a totem that helped her keep track of reality. Only now, buried in Alan’s arms, she’s not looking at it. This denouement isn’t real at all, but simply a happy ending Ruth wrote for herself.
The flipped-script cold open of The Deuce‘s “There’s An Art to This,” the D’Arcy Carden showcase in The Good Place‘s “Janet(s)” and the fight sequence in “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” the chop shop run by Mr. Pickles fans in Kidding‘s “Pusillanimous,” the titular scene from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s “The Dark Baptism,” a montage of Mel Gibson-esque celebrity bad behavior (and public forgiveness) in Bojack Horseman‘s “Bojack the Feminist,” the aspect ratio change in Homecoming‘s “Work” and the finale reunion scene in “Stop,” the dentist’s confession in “The Box” on Brooklyn 99, and Midge’s male comedian roast in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s “Midway to Midtown.”