15. Unbelievable, “Episode 2”
The first two episodes of the impeccable Netflix true-crime series Unbelievable serve as a perfectly executed study in tension and release. In the first, a young woman (Kaitlyn Dever) reports her own rape to a pair of male detectives and is systematically undermined, retraumatized, and gaslit until, in a horrific real-life twist, she herself is charged with false reporting.
That first episode is a bleak and almost excruciating watch, meant to impress upon us the overwhelming feelings a survivor may feel when her case is mishandled. Then comes the second episode, directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Enter Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), who interviews a different rape victim, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), three years later. Duvall is calm and even, an active listener, and as the two sit in her car, she thoroughly explains procedures to Amber while consistently checking in with her about her comfort level.
The scene is incredibly simple, yet I found myself with tears streaming down my face by the end, and other women I know reported the same reaction. The contrast between the two survivors’ experiences is so stark and startling that Detective Duvall immediately becomes the hero in our eyes for her empathy-first approach to investigation. With this scene serving as the emotional linchpin, the two episodes are a plaintive and clear case for reform in the way America not only investigates rape but also in the way we talk to one another about it. Unbelievable is quietly revolutionary in every scene, but especially so in this one.
14. Sex Education, “Episode 5”
I never thought that the best Spartacus reference of the 21st century would come in the form of a British teen sex comedy, but then again, none of us saw Sex Education coming. The brilliant and endearing Netflix original follows Otis (Asa Butterfield) as he acts the part of a sex therapist to his high school peers. What could’ve been a lowbrow comedy transforms into something surprisingly emotional thanks to an authentic cast of characters, and no scene shines quite like the one in which one of Otis’ classmates is about to be outed for her leaked nudes.
At a school-wide assembly, a blackmailer has threatened to reveal mean girl Ruby (Mimi Keene) as the owner of a private photo that’s been circulating the school. Instead, the schoolgirls — along with some male classmates — stand up mid-announcement and declare, “It’s my vagina!” First one shouts it, then another, until a torrent of students is taking responsibility for the photo, saving Ruby, who ultimately joins the chorus as well, from the embarrassment and shame that comes with being a victim of revenge porn. Despite the implied crassness of the name, Sex Education is a class act, and this scene perfectly demonstrates what the brave new world of sex-positive TV could look like.
13. Catastrophe, “Episode 6”
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe has always been a bit meaner than one might expect, but it’s also more loving and gracious in its portrayal of marriage than it often gets credit for. The characters Rob and Sharon have considerable ups and downs across a span of four seasons that see them surprised by an accidental pregnancy and ultimately married with two children.
Season 4 took on Rob’s alcoholism along with the relentlessness of tragedy, and in the final episode, the two have it out in a horrible fight after Rob’s mother (Carrie Fisher) dies. By episode’s end, the two have made up, but that doesn’t mean everything’s easy; Sharon’s pregnant again, and Rob wants to move to America. Abandoning these conversations, the two stop on the beach and, leaving their kids sleeping in the car, swim deep into the ocean.
It’s a self-contained moment that offers us a glimmer of every big feeling the series has ever conveyed about marriage and parenting. There’s the certainty of following a partner anywhere, yet the massive uncertainty of leaning into a bad idea that could go wrong. There are tides pulling the couple in different directions, yet they don’t look scared, even as they drift further from the shore. Then there’s the water, cleansing and familiar all at once. For literalists, the ending is perhaps purposely unnerving, but as a metaphor, it’s nothing short of beautiful.
12. Stranger Things, “The Battle of Starcourt”
The third season of the Netflix sci-fi juggernaut took more creative risks than ever before, and although some plotlines were more entertaining than others, the Duffer brothers stuck the landing as always. The most emotional finale yet had several standout scenes — Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) psychically ripping a monster from her flesh and Billy (Dacre Montgomery) screaming and bleeding as he sacrifices himself are by far the two most metal moments in the series to date — but none are as devastating as the final goodbye.
As it becomes clear that Will (Noah Schnapp) really is moving and taking El with him, the childhood friends share tearful farewells, and after the tough losses they’ve experienced, it’s obvious that they’re saying goodbye to their innocence as well. As if the melancholy of youth’s end isn’t enough, Joyce (Winona Ryder) also finds a lost letter from supposedly dead Hopper (David Harbour) and shares it with El.
The show will return for another season, but if it didn’t, his final lines would have given a beautiful ending to a series that was always going to be about growing up. “[Life]’s moving. Always moving whether you like it or not,” Hopper writes. “So you know what? Keep on growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you. Make mistakes, learn from ’em, and when life hurts you — because it will — remember the hurt. The hurt is good.”
11. Barry, “ronny/lily”
Just like the vicious little girl at its center, “Ronny/Lily” came out of nowhere and bowled us over with its excellence. The HBO hitman series went fully surreal with this episode that saw assassin/amateur actor Barry (Bill Hader, also the episode’s director and co-writer with Alec Berg) walk into what he assumed would be a simple hit, only to be beaten to hell by a martial arts champion and his supernaturally strong and fast daughter (Jessie Giacomazzi).
Every highly choreographed action sequence in the episode unfolds in a mix of steadily building hilarity and awe, and they all lead up to Barry’s second showdown with Ronny (Daniel Bernhardt) in a grocery store. The scene is at once funny and surprisingly high stakes; it begins with two half-dead dudes knocking tampons and medicine off shelves as Ronny and his broken windpipe attempt to kill Barry (“You’re not a hundred percent right now,” Barry deadpans when a disoriented Ronny kicks through a shelf), and ends with Ronny going down in a blaze of gunfire after literally one-hit-killing the season’s presumed antagonist, Detective Loach (John Pirruccello).
Meanwhile, Barry’s getaway driver, hands super-glued to the steering wheel, puts the cherry on top of a botched night when he accidentally backs straight into a police car. The absurdity of the half-hour is almost deliriously palpable in the grocery store scene, a final face-off that elevates this unkillable family to something of near-mythical proportions.