The Best TV Scenes of 2019

5. When They See Us, “Part Four”

Ava DuVernay’s humanizing look at the cost of wrongful conviction takes a familiar story — the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case — and rebuilds it from the ground up. DuVernay worked closely with the five men, then teenage boys, who went to prison for the crime, and the result is a stunning work of activist art. Each of the four miniseries episodes brings something unique to the table, but it’s the fourth episode, which focuses on Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), that really cracks open the soul of the story.

The oldest of the convicted group, Wise is sent to adult prison, where he endures unimaginable hardships that test his sanity. As portrayed by Jerome, he’s also the most vulnerable of the bunch, a naive kid with a gentle heart. At one point, as he wastes away in solitary confinement, Wise imagines a version of that fateful day during which he decides not to go to Central Park and instead takes his girlfriend (Storm Reid) to Coney Island.

The walls of his cell open up to reveal a sun-dappled amusement park, where the couple play games, snack on fair food, and share a chaste kiss. It’s a simple dream, one that reveals Wise’s heart, and it’s also tragically, bitterly impossible. The scene shows not only the imagination necessary to survive injustice but also the obvious failure of a system that condemned a boy like Wise in the first place.


4. You’re the Worst, “Pancakes”

Few series have tackled depression and mental illness as gutsily as You’re the Worst, a which embraces the rough edges of life at every turn. The original premise followed two nasty, self-centered people as they attempted to date, but Aya Cash’s Gretchen and Chris Geere’s Jimmy quickly grew beyond their archetypes into something much more interesting. Even after growing up some, the two will never be easy to love, an idea the fantastic one-two punch of the series’ final scenes reiterates perfectly.

After the two run away from their own wedding and make private vows to one another, we’re given a surprisingly emotional glimpse into their future — they end up being parents! — set to The Mountain Goats’ appropriately cynical “No Children.” Then the scene cuts back to the two in a diner, still in their wedding dress and suit, as their pancakes arrive. “Hey,” Gretchen says at the last second, turning to Jimmy, “You know there’s always a possibility that someday I might leave my phone and keys at home and step in front of a train. You know that, right?” Jimmy answers her with a sweet joke that lets her know he knows, and the two dig into their pancakes.

It’s a moment that feels in some ways like a reversal of The Graduate‘s credits scene. The still-unmarried bride and groom sit side by side, knowing full well that love’s a gamble, the end of which could be worse than anything you’ve ever imagined. They’re aware of the worst things about one another and well aware of the huge risks they’re taking, yet they still jump in, eyes open and plates full of breakfast food, because they also know it’s worth it.


3. Watchmen, “This Extraordinary Being”

This time last year, no one in the world could have guessed that Damon Lindelof’s adaption of the classic superhero comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would systematically dismantle the illusion of racial equality in America one episode at a time. And yet, here we are, still reeling from the sixth chapter of Watchmen, which saw Angela Abar (Regina King) relive her grandfather’s memories and discover that the first-ever superhero was actually a Black man who survived at least two different white supremacist attacks.

Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo) was first a policeman named Will Reeves, the only African-American graduate in his academy class and a frequent target of racism of both the thinly veiled and openly spat varieties. The memory of his origin story is relayed in sleek black and white, with unnervingly beautiful period-era melodies in the background, all of which contrasts starkly with a sense of creeping dread.

One day as he leaves work, Reeves is cut off by a car full of white cops who ask him to go out with them. He says no, they needle at him, and when they finally drive away, we see that two Black bodies are dragging behind their vehicle, the blood a reddish smear on a colorless landscape. Our stomachs haven’t even finished sinking when Reeves is cornered by the men yet again, and this time they capture him and hang him from a tree. It’s a harrowing turn of circumstance with no root cause other than Reeves’ skin color, and when he is cut down and gasping for air, Angela is momentarily shown in his place, experiencing the memory firsthand.

Later, as Reeves walks home, he witnesses a mugging, and with a noose still hanging heavy around his neck and a mask still ready to be pulled over his head, he quickly intervenes and saves the day. This is Hooded Justice. This is inherited trauma. This is a radical and vital reassessment of who America chooses to call a hero.


2. Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Before Game of Thrones broke our hearts six ways from Sunday, it gave us this one pure moment of payoff that was better than we ever could’ve imagined. Final episodes notwithstanding, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) were one of Westeros’ most interesting pairs. He, a dishonorable knight whose heart is softer than he lets on. She, a supremely honorable woman whose knightly ambitions have always been curbed by her gender. Scenes between the two always crackled with a kind of kinetic energy, so when the pair — along with fan favorites Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Davos (Liam Cunningham), Pod (Daniel Portman), and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) — tipsily bullshit by the fire before a battle that means almost certain death, we know something vital is about to happen.

A genial conversation quickly snowballs into a breaking of centuries of tradition as Jaime, Brienne’s unlikely idol and partner, bestows knighthood upon her in a golden, glowing moment. It would’ve been easy for the group to make fun of Brienne’s unladylike dreams, but as she flashes a teary, triumphant smile, they instead clap for her.

It’s tough to believe in fate in the cruel world of Game of Thrones, but it’s also tough not to imagine that this moment of mutual understanding and joy between two wandering heroes, of Jaime’s redemption and Brienne’s recognition, isn’t the reason the two met in the first place. Whatever else the show did, it’s worth remembering that it also gave us this: a true night of the Seven Kingdoms.


1. Fleabag, “Episode 4”

The most profound moment in television this year is also, somehow, the sexiest. Before the aforementioned priest (see number eight on this list) parts ways with Fleabag’s titular character, the two engage in an intense encounter that lasts nearly half the length of the season’s fourth episode, one that captured the zeitgeist along with viewers’ hearts.

After dwelling on memories of her mother’s funeral and her late friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), Waller-Bridge’s character goes to church and tries earnestly to pray. She’s interrupted by the priest, who’s feeling drunk and saucy, starting off a firecracker of a conversation by asserting, “Fuck you, calling me Father like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.”

The scene juggles tonal shifts expertly while maintaining a highwire of sexual and emotional tension, and at some point soon after, the protagonist ends up in a confessional booth. Her jokey listing of sins gives way almost immediately to a tearful plea for some basic type of guidance, and it’s Waller-Bridge’s most finely acted moment to date. Our hero may not want a god, but she wants intimacy, something she’s clearly held at arm’s length since the deaths of her mother and best friend.

“Kneel,” the priest insists (and listen, if you didn’t get chills just thinking about that line right now, you should have your pulse checked). He’s telling her what to do, which she just said she wanted, yet when he meets her, it’s gently and with reverence, as if her honesty was the key needed to finally unlock the piece of him she’d been seeking. Four episodes worth of bated breath can finally be let go as the two finally kiss — hungrily and clumsily — in a shot that moves across the church along with the motion of their eager bodies. Suddenly, a painting falls down, breaking the momentum and indicating, according to the flustered priest, a definitive sign from God.

This extended church-set scene is clever, propulsive, and profound, perhaps the emotional centerpiece of the entire series, but it’s also stylistically unforgettable to boot. The camera moves and settles down in rhythm with the characters’ ever-changing energies, while Isobel Waller-Bridge’s Catholicism-inspired score reminds us that the passion can be holy, and honesty divine.


Even more great scenes:

Teeth pulling in The Act, the hotel death in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sally’s brutally honest monologue in Barry, Renata’s roadside blow up in Big Little Lies, the final pan out on the broads in Broad City, young Annie and baby Joy’s bloody origin story in Castle Rock, the 90-second roof cleanup on Chernobyl, the ceasefire news/prom scene in Derry Girls, Rue and Jules’ kiss and Kat’s cold open in Euphoria, “There is no answer but the answer is Eleanor” in The Good Place, Villanelle’s lovesick Amsterdam kill in Killing Eve, the SLAPP suit musical number in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a car on the bridge in Mindhunter, #MyDadFroze in The Other Two, the glass shard and the final scene in Russian Doll, the abortion clinic waiting room in Sex Education, Boar on the Floor and Logan and Kendall’s blood sacrifice scene in Succession, the diner scene in The End of the F***ing World, two old men on a porch in True Detective, Alma’s accident in Undone, Selena’s death announcement on Veep, and the Black Wall Street massacre, squid attack, and Hooded Justice’s massacre in Watchmen.

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Valerie Ettenhofer: Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.