From early episodes to series finales, these were the best scenes on TV this year.
I say this every year, but I believe it each time: this was a great year for TV. Series we loved came to an end, while others came back for the first time in years. Miniseries were actually good, but most of them turned out to not actually be miniseries. Nobody really talked about reality TV because everyone was busy talking about the reality TV star president. And while the world changed for better and worse around us, our favorite shows were there to take the edge off, to transport us, to comfort us, and to wake us up to ideas and experiences we’ve never known.
The following are seventeen of the best TV scenes that aired this year. I only considered fiction shows and shows that aired new episodes in the U.S. sometime during the course of 2017. If a show is missing, I either haven’t seen it or didn’t find it memorable enough to include. As you might expect, there are massive spoilers below. Enjoy.
17. Search Party, “Hysteria”
After its hilarious first season ended on a shocking, pitch-black note, expectations for this Alia Shawkat-starring mystery-comedy were through the roof. The sophomore season more than delivered, with the core four amateur detectives tailspinning in different directions as they attempt to cope with their newfound role as accidental murderers. Dory (Shawkat) has never really fit in with her friends’ flashy New York lifestyle, and rather than attempt normalcy, she becomes increasingly paranoid and rash as the season unfolds. Her breakdown is perfectly captured in the eighth episode, during a dizzying Hitchcockian sequence that prophecies a terrible turn she’ll later take in the finale. As she watches a play about the Manson cult murders, Dory imagines the actors and audience turning toward her, their accusatory stares striking her like as harshly as the red lights that flash across her face. Then she’s falling, falling, falling Vertigo-style as a quick-cut background changes from a two-tone pinwheel to a deep, blue-black ocean. It’s a brief scene, but a jarring one, and it captures the tone of a bold season of television that wasn’t afraid to go full dark.
16. Insecure, “Hella Great”
Issa’s (Issa Rae) mini confidence-boosting raps-to-self were a lot of fun during Insecure’s first season, so it’s a treat to see them take front and center in the second season premiere’s opening scene, even if the context is bleak. As she sits through a series of dates, picturing herself with her ex while she’s really recycling conversations about where she’s from, her experience working with kids, and what she thinks of such-and-such dating app, Issa gets fed up. In an imagined sequence accompanied by a silverware beat, she delivers a short, brutal rap including lyrics like, “I’m a liar, sweetie/and I cheat on n—as too/probably shouldn’t trust me or I’ll hurt your feelings, boo.” In a rhyme so catchy you have to stop yourself from nodding along, she tells these men (and viewers) that she feels dead inside and to run from her while they can. Then, jolting back to reality, she accidentally spills her drink on a guy who tries to hold her hand. Cut to title card. Rae wrote the script for this episode and deserves plenty of credit for catching us up on Issa’s state of mind in a two minute cold open that’s equal parts funny and depressing.
15. The Deuce, “Au Reservoir”
David Simon’s latest project is all about selling sex, so the first season’s drought of actually sexy scenes might come as a surprise. Of course, the setting–the dirty streets of Times Square in the ‘70s, overflowing with territorial pimps and hardscrabble sex workers–isn’t exactly conducive to the mood for love. Yet when starry-eyed Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute weary of street life but unwilling to submit to a pimp, starts taking on more creative responsibilities on the set of a porn film, her enthusiasm is contagious. She works with Lori (Emily Meade), a Midwestern woman who’s new to the trade, and while the film’s male director treats his cast like products (he’s annoyed by Eileen’s idea that they might be underperforming because they’re hungry), Eileen sees them as real people deserving of pleasure. She suggests a lunch break, gives Lori tips for looking good on camera, and–in a moment of obvious discomfort for the latter–starts complimenting her performance from behind the camera, making her feel sexy and directing a better scene than her male counterpart ever could. Although it’s an explicit moment, it’s a sweet one too. James Franco’s character is framed as the series’ lead, but Eileen is its heart. This scene reminds us that her aspirations to become a real filmmaker are rooted in real talent and an intuitive understanding of what people want and need. Let’s hope Simon, notorious for his tragic worldbuilding, goes easy on her in season two.
14. Dear White People, “Chapter V”
Netflix’s adaptation of the 2014 film of the same name crammed a lot into its first season. The Justin Simien-created show sometimes felt like it was taking on the whole world, trying to address every issue facing Black youth in America in just ten half-hour episodes. But the show also dug deeper into the specifics and multitudes of African-American identity–following several characters of different income brackets, sexualities, and nationalities–than most other shows that have come before it. Despite all that, it’s a college campus comedy, so when Dear White People got really real near the end of its fifth episode (which was directed by Barry Jenkins), it was still a shock to the system. While dancing at a party, Reggie (Marque Richardson) comments on a white classmate’s use of the N-word, requesting he not say it while he sings along to a song. There’s some back and forth, with friends of both parties coming to their defense, but nothing gets too heated until a police officer arrives and pulls a gun on Reggie. The officer’s reasoning is racially motivated nonsense–he wants to see Reggie’s ID, and Reggie is resistant since there’s no legitimate reason to ask him without asking the other man involved. After a tense moment that some partygoers record on their phones, the officer leaves. With a single tonal shift, Simien and Jenkins transformed the scene to imply something deeply heartbreaking about the privilege of a carefree attitude, which Reggie’s classmate is afforded while he–for the sake of self-preservation–is not. It’s modern moral drama at its best: powerful, political, and personal.
13. Stranger Things, “The Mind Flayer”
This episode is otherwise known as the time Noah Schnapp went full Exorcist. Despite his constant misery at the hands of mysterious forces from the Upside Down, Will Byers (Schnapp) is the glue that holds the characters of Stranger Things together. That fact is never more apparent than it is during the two-episode-long second season climax, when a dark entity has taken over his body, making him forget who he is and become creepy and manipulative. Like most of the Stranger Things mythology, the exact nature of Will’s psychological parasite is vague, but we know that it’s hurting the boy as it fights for self-preservation. This struggle and its position within a larger race-against-the-clock plot help create one of the most emotionally intense scenes in the series to date. Fearing that Will no longer exists as anything besides a host for the monster, his mom Joyce (Winona Ryder), best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) take turns reminding him of significant memories they’ve shared. It’s a powerful moment, not only because Schnapp’s wide-eyed lost look as Will struggles against his restraints convinces us that he could really die here, but also because the cast’s all-around stellar delivery once and for all proves Will’s role as the heart of the group. Will isn’t just some kid with bad luck, his friends and family remind us–he’s creative and loving, drawing rainbows and sharing Tonka trucks on the playground and always saying yes to new friends. In the ‘80s-kid-adventure world of Stranger Things, he’s the pure-hearted hero Hawkins deserves. Hopefully, the writers know it too, because the kid deserves some peace.
12. Riverdale, “The Sweet Hereafter”
Can you believe that Riverdale has only ever aired in 2017? Though it seems like ages ago, the Archie comics based teen soap actually debuted its deliciously dramatic first season early this year, and is currently halfway through its maybe not-as-great second outing. Still, for one glorious season, we got everything: HAWF (“Hot Archie Who F—s”), quip-happy Veronica, Hitchcock blonde Betty, Pussycats of color, creepily close redheaded twins, moody Cole Sprouse voiceovers, a gay biker named Joaquin, and so much more. Riverdale was and sometimes still is the quintessential CW show: melodramatic, aesthetically pleasing, and against all logic, genuinely engrossing. The penultimate scene of season one was on brand in the best way, embodying everything fans love about the show. The two main couples–Betty and Jughead, and new lovers Archie and Veronica–get down for the first time to the tune of Imagine Dragon’s “Believer.” Jug and Betty are interrupted, however, by the Southside Serpents, the inexplicable biker gang his dad hung with before going to prison. They offer him a leather jacket, he puts it on, and Betty looks stressed as the briefly paused soundtrack resumes with a musical cue that’s much cooler than Imagine Dragons has any right to be. Meanwhile, drama queen Cheryl Blossom smugly watches her family’s mansion burn down as her mother yells and uselessly whacks at her hair in the background. What does it all mean? Not much, but like the rest of the show, it’s pretty and fun, two invaluable qualities to cling to in a year that mostly felt dead serious.
11. Master of None, “Thanksgiving”
For a lot of people, coming out isn’t a moment but a process. Aziz Ansari’s show devoted a whole episode to this process when it followed Dev’s (Ansari) friend Denise (Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the episode with Ansari) through years of Thanksgiving dinners with her mother, aunt, grandma, and Dev. Beginning in 1995 and ending in the present day, each scene navigates the complicated dynamic of her Black, female-led, religious family coming to terms with Denise’s sexuality. Though the episode is bookended by positive scenes–the first Dev and Denise as kids, with her, just beginning to realize she’s gay, and the last with the whole family accepting her girlfriend–it’s the tense center that really makes the episode work. When Denise first comes out to her mom (Angela Bassett), they’re alone in a diner, and the sense of denial and disappointment is palpable. First, Denise’s mother plays dumb, forcing her daughter to explicitly state that she’s gay. Then she goes through a series of quick micro-reactions, ranging from fear (“I don’t want life to be hard for you”) to blame (“It is hard enough being a Black woman in this world. Now you want to add something else to that?”) to shame (“You know you can’t tell your grandmother”). We see soon after that this relationship will heal, but it’s a painful moment and a real one. The episode was based in part on Waithe’s experiences with her own family, and her Emmy win was well-deserved.
10. The Good Place, “Dance Dance Resolution”
It’s a testament to the series’ adaptability that Mike Schur’s follow-up to Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 has sometimes felt like an exercise in acrobatic joke-writing, an excuse to try anything and everything and see what sticks. So far, miraculously, everything sticks. An all-time-great comedic ensemble and a wildly unique premise couldn’t completely ease my concern that the first season’s clever eleventh-hour twist–that the characters who thought they were in heaven were actually trapped in a highly-curated, faux-paradise version of hell–would turn into a disheartening example of writing oneself into a corner. I’ve never been happier about being wrong. Season two picks up with Eleanor (Kristen Bell) reset and reliving a slightly different version of the heaven simulation she went through in season one, but it doesn’t take her long to experience the same epiphany (“Holy mother-forking shirtballs!”). No matter how many times Michael (Ted Danson) erases her and her friends’ memories, and no matter how subtly he tortures them, they always seem to discover the truth. Enter a delightfully silly montage of Eleanor coming to the good place, meeting her soulmate, ragging on Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and eventually realizing the truth. It happens again and again, and the tweaks we see Michael make to the narrative–at one point her soulmate is a golden retriever, and at another, she realizes the truth while stuck holding a bunch of balloons in a field of cacti–make each time feel more inspired and hilarious. Any lingering fears about The Good Place’s ability to reinvent itself dissipated quickly as it piled on joke after joke, fearlessly running through a whole season’s worth of potential plot in a matter of minutes.
9. Bojack Horseman, “Time’s Arrow”
Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s existential cartoon horse show has been devastatingly depressing and side-splittingly funny, but until “Time’s Arrow” it had never been frightening. The story contained in this half hour, which was written by Kate Purdy, is downright harrowing. Told through the hazy memories of Bojack’s dementia-stricken mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick), it details the birth of both Bojack (Will Arnett) and his half-sister Hollyhock. An earlier episode shared fragments of Beatrice’s traumatic childhood, including her brother’s untimely death and her mother’s forced lobotomy. This episode further posits that trauma is inherited and cyclical, as it reveals the extent of Beatrice’s own unhappy marriage along with her husband’s affair with a young housekeeper. In the final scene, Beatrice’s memories blend together in a frenetic, disturbing way. She’s a child, and her father is throwing her baby doll on the fire, and then she’s an adult, taking Hollyhock away from the housekeeper in the delivery room. The woman’s face is a mess of black scribbles, unseeable to Beatrice’s failing memory, and the scratchy lines of one memory and enveloping flames of another mix freakishly in her mind’s eye. Finally, Beatrice is pulled back to lucidity, where she sits at a retirement home her son disdainfully put her in. Sensing her fragility but not knowing the extent of her trauma, Bojack hesitantly sits with her for a moment and helps her imagine a peaceful scene. Beatrice’s story is so heavy that it threatens to break her and us both, but Bojack’s momentary act of kindness–after so many years of anger toward her–instead breaks the spell of past trauma for both characters, taking the show for the first time in the direction of healing.
8. Halt and Catch Fire, “Ten of Swords”
There’s Cam and Joe, and there’s Donna and Gordon, but the real love story of Halt and Catch Fire has always been between Donna Emerson (Kerry Bishe) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Theirs is a love of ideas, of partnership, and of kicking ass in the male-dominated tech industry. In this now-ended AMC drama, the two women shared a working relationship that spanned ten years, although they were estranged for most of that time over creative differences and general stubbornness. The under-the-radar series, like its characters, thrived on reinvention. If one big idea didn’t work, it wasn’t afraid to do a hard reboot and try something different, just as its characters did while working on the cutting edge developing laptops, online games, internet, and more. The open-ended series finale exemplifies this attitude of adaptability perfectly, especially when it came to closing the gap that had developed between Donna and Cam. In the characters’ last scene, Cam is poised to leave for a road trip to Florida in the wake of her latest breakup with Joe (Lee Pace). Donna, who has mostly been swimming in the pool since her ex-husband died, is living the executive life but missing the days when she could get her hands dirty. The two meet one last time at a local diner, and in a beautifully ambiguous moment, Donna goes to pay the check and looks around with the expression of someone who has just realized something huge. We don’t see what she does–is it related to the cash register? The jukebox?–but when she bursts out the door to tell her best friend, “I have an idea,” we’re already behind it 100%.
7. Big Little Lies, “You Get What You Need”
David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the Liane Moriarty rich-mommy mystery of the same name isn’t notable for its silences. The characters fill each scene to the brim with words–words that jab or show off, reassure or fail to explain–but the most powerful moment in the series is dead silent. It comes late in the season finale, when horribly abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) confronts his wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) at an elementary school trivia night. The whole series–from the Elvis and Audrey Hepburn themed party that becomes the scene of a crime, to one character’s obsession with the play Avenue Q–seems to be begging us to not take it seriously, and yet, by the end, it’s as deeply felt and sincerely performed as anything that deserves to be called Peak TV. When Perry yells at Celeste, it triggers a memory in Jane (Shailene Woodley), and she realizes that he’s the rapist who has haunted her dreams for years. From here, the women communicate quickly and silently in a language that is both familiar and foreign, known to almost all women but rarely if ever shown on screen. With a tug on Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) arm and a jolt of fear, Jane alerts her friend to the danger. Celeste needs only a second to catch on, and until-this-moment antagonist Renata (Laura Dern) knows no context but understands nonetheless. Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) realizes even from a distance, based on posture alone, that these women are in danger. These silent signals are remarkable and instinctual, as is Bonnie’s primal scream which finally pierces the silence as she pushes Perry to his death.
6. Legion, “Chapter 7”
Explaining any given scene from Noah Hawley’s psychedelic X-men series is like explaining, well, an experience with psychedelics: it’s worth a try but you really need to be there for yourself. For better or worse, every aspect of this Dan Stevens-starring series is experimental, each angle and shot chosen for maximum strangeness and audacity. It is an epically strange and at times fantastic journey, never more so than in this seventh episode. Much of “Chapter 7” takes place somewhere inside David’s (Stevens) head, but it also serves as the climax of a mind-bending first season. The scene in question features Jemaine Clement’s character–himself a real person who David pulled from an ice cave within his mind–slo-mo weaving shields out of music (Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” to be exact) to protect the main characters from real bullets as they work their way through some kind of astral plane. Meanwhile, David angrily bursts through the same door, again and again, trapped in his own psyche in a physical demonstration of the mental discord he’s felt all season. The highlight, though–of this scene and the whole season–is Aubrey Plaza, playing a sinister character who has about five names but who it’s easiest to just call Lenny. Plaza’s physicality is tremendous here as she bears down on a group of main characters with a wicked grin and a crazed gleam in her eye. Lenny appears as if within a silent movie, and the combination of Ravel’s strings, the black-and-white titles cards, and Plaza’s serpentine dance-like motion is enough to make us wish for many more seasons of whatever the hell this is.
5. Girls, “American Bitch”
If a flawless episode of television was made in 2017, it may have been this one. As a show, Girls has a lot of baggage, but “American Bitch” is pretty much a standalone episode. It’s also a bottle episode, taking place entirely at the apartment of a famed writer named Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys in a one-off role). Hannah (Lena Dunham) wrote about Palmer online, specifically about allegations of sexual assault that she found posted on Tumblr, and he’s asked to meet her to clear the air. While Hannah feels she’s given a voice to someone whose story is important, Palmer thinks she’s targeting him for something harmless, a misunderstanding that his accuser blew up out of some misguided need to feel special. This surely sounds familiar, but the episode aired in February, long before the recent explosion of sexual assault allegations rocked Hollywood. “American Bitch” is a terse tete-a-tete between opposing generations and genders, one that makes masterful use of everything at its disposal, including an exceptional set (in one room a framed Woody Allen print hangs on the wall, and in the hall there’s a disorienting photo of the room itself) and script (Palmer constantly talks down to Hannah, but so slyly and with such skill that it sounds like a compliment). He eventually wins Hannah over, but immediately after gaining her favor–once their antagonism died down, he gave her a signed Philip Roth book!–he exposes himself to her. She’s confused and shocked, impulsively touching him before jumping up and shouting her disbelief. Palmer looks at her like a choice cut of meat, something he picked out and paid for, and then, to add insult to injury, his teenage daughter comes home–a moment he had discreetly planned earlier in the episode. As the situation would in real life, the episode leaves us feeling disgusted and helpless. But since it’s TV, we also get to come away in awe of its skillful, layered take on a vital topic.
4. Game of Thrones, “The Spoils of War”
Until its seventh season, the great battles of Game of Thrones all had names. First there was Blackwater, then Hardhome, then the Battle of the Bastards. “The Spoils of War” threw away that rulebook, delivering a dynamic, high-stakes battle scene that quite literally came out of nowhere. Retroactively titled the “Loot Train Attack,” the scene was just over ten minutes long and took eighteen days to film. Action sequences aren’t automatically good because they’re big-budget, just as Game of Thrones scenes aren’t always good because they feature dragons. However, this scene, which sees Jaime Lannister and Bronn facing off against Daenerys and her dragons (with some helpful sideline commentary from Tyrion Lannister), has both of those things and so much more going for it. In a season that was bogged down by compressed plot points and forced character dynamics, the loot train attack delivered a thoroughly exciting, constantly surprising diversion from the series’ increasingly convoluted politics. By its end, a dragon has been wounded, the Dothraki have made their first strike in Westeros, and Jaime appears to be sinking to the bottom of a lake, thwarted by his own heavy armor. This is a fakeout, and his instant rescue in the next episode cheapens the scene, but on its own, this battle is an exhilarating midseason set-piece that proves that even seven seasons in, the show still has new tricks up its sleeve.
3. The Leftovers, “The Book of Nora”
It feels sacrilegious to compare The Leftovers to Damon Lindelof’s earlier series when it’s an utterly different animal, but like that little desert island show, The Leftovers’ series finale brings together disparate plots and lingering questions in a way that all but requires multiple viewings. Carrie Coon’s series-ending speech is gut-wrenching in a different way each time you see it, and terrifically acted even on the tenth viewing. Like some of the best great art, The Leftovers made us ask big questions–Why are we here? What do we feel? Can we ever be okay?–and by the end of its ambitious third season, it seemed to answer some as well. The question that framed the series (what happened to the people who disappeared in the Sudden Departure?) was one of technicalities, not one of philosophy, so it could never be answered to our satisfaction. Nora (Coon) tries nonetheless. In an unadorned scene set years after the rest of the series, Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora sit at a table and she tells him her story, the book of Nora. Her story involves alternate realities and mysterious machines, and yet it’s believable. When it’s over, Kevin says he believes her, and with tears in their eyes, they take each other’s hands. Within minutes of the end credits rolling, the internet began debating the truth of Nora’s explanation of the Sudden Departure, noting that there must have been a reason Lindelof showed us her telling the story rather than letting us see it unfold in front of our eyes. I suppose that like everything else in this beautiful, mystical, puzzling series, it requires a leap of faith.
2. American Gods, “The Secret of Spoons”
If the pilot of American Gods somehow failed to convince you that it’d be Bryan Fuller’s grandest project yet, the opening sequence of episode two should do the trick. The series, adapted from the much-loved, supposedly unfilmable Neil Gaiman novel, follows a man named Shadow (Ricky Whittle) as he navigates a world of old and new gods living secretly in the United States. Gaiman’s novel includes several chapters which tell the history of the old gods coming to America, and Fuller takes on that daunting task with aplomb. “The Secret of Spoons” opens on a Dutch slave ship transporting men to America. One man, Okoye, cries out in his native tongue to Anansi, who in reality is a folktale character said to be the master of storytelling and patron of slaves. In the unequivocally stylish and brutal world of American Gods, Anansi turns from a spider into a modern man in a plaid purple suit (Orlando Jones, on fire in this role) who spins a story of centuries of oppression for Black people. He tells the enslaved men the true story of their future, from slavery to police brutality, with all the suspense of a campfire ghost story and all the fervor of a traveling preacher. It’s a moment that is both huge in its scope and narrow in its impact, as he cannot alleviate the plight of all slaves, but can convince these ones to revolt and burn the ship. Every second that Jones speaks is riveting, each luxuriously shot glint of candlelight and slice of shadow captivating. Anansi’s spell, for us and his audience alike, is a strong kind of magic.
1. The Leftovers, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”
A famous lion, a man named God, and a priest walk onto a cruise ship. I’m guessing you haven’t heard that one before. The Leftovers’ final season was a grab-bag of absurdism and predeterminism, during which characters who had once felt moved by fate succumbed to the idea of meaninglessness, while those who had pegged life as a series of random events finally considered the bigger picture. The answer to the unasked question–is there a reason to it all?–is never given with any certainty, but we should take solace, since along the way we get episodes like this one. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) has long since been the most zealous character in The Leftovers, determined to find religious meaning in the chaos and emptiness left by the Sudden Departure. Here he boards a ship to Australia, alongside some other supporting characters, feeling destined to help set up a series of heaven-ordained events. The only problem is that it’s a cruise ship set up for a lion-themed orgy that he will be forced to take part in by the end of the night. And there’s a guy on board who calls himself God and murders someone in front of Matt, only to disappear and leave Matt appearing unhinged. Also, Matt’s dying. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the final scene perfectly sums up the exhaustion–the priest’s and our own–that comes with searching for meaning in all things. After spending a full night trying to convince the boat staff that God’s a killer and having a crisis of faith or two of his own, Matt is vindicated by an official who tells him that they’ll be arresting God once they hit dry land. No longer invested in his religious calling, he admits to his friends that he has cancer. Meanwhile, some conservationists are plotting to free the orgy-centerpiece lion. They do, just as God makes a run for it, and as God is torn apart by the newly freed beast, Matt turns to his friends and says in perfect deadpan, “That’s the guy I was telling you about.”