Forget Hannibal. Forget American Horror Story. Forget “The Rains of Castamere.” You want harrowing? You want soul-crushing blackness with a side of trauma? You want pure, unforgiving narrative nihilism? Try on the penultimate episode of sadly-departed cop drama Southland. Whereas the typical episode hones in on a few plotlines between seven or eight characters, “Chaos” revolves mostly around a single, nightmare-inducing act: the kidnapping of two of our principal characters by a pair of deranged meth-heads. On paper, it sounds like your average “Very Special Episode” of… really, any cop show ever. The “team member(s) get nabbed and have to be rescued by the rest of the team” setup is well-worn territory. “Chaos”, however, is a different beast entirely. Based loosely on a real incident, “Chaos” earns its title honestly, unfolding seemingly without rhyme or reason, but certainly without pity. This is truly gritty, not “gritty”, storytelling. The early-episode prologue of Cooper and Lucero’s visit to a gay bar (exposing the latter’s homophobia and wider insecurities) would seem to pave the way for a redemptive story of male bonding, but that turns out to be a cruel headfake. There’s no redemption here, only survival – and even then, only in the strictest sense of the word. –Simon
Love, destiny, inevitability… for a show about Russian spies living on American soil during the Cold War, The Americans had surprisingly headier ambitions in its freshman season. These ideas shine through in many episodes (“Trust Me” and “Duty and Honor” being two terrific examples), but “Only You” captures just how difficult life can be when all of these feelings, ideas, and loyalties become fatally intertwined. “Only You” focuses on the death of CIA agent Stan Beeman’s (Noah Emmerich) partner, killed in an altercation with undercover KGB agent Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) in the previous episode. But it’s not just about the cat-and-mouse chase between domestic intelligence agent and foreign spy: slowly, “Only You” transforms into a bittersweet farewell for Gregory (a fantastic Derek Luke), a loyal soldier to the KGB’s cause whose impending death is telegraphed multiple times throughout the hour.
The emotional impact of Gregory’s inevitable death is heightened by his connection to Philip’s wife and fellow agent, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), whose love for Gregory far exceeds that of the man she was arranged to marry and move to America with a decade earlier. As the episode shifts away from the suggestion of moving Gregory to Moscow (what would a black revolutionary enjoy in Russia?) and towards eliminating him, “Only You” shows just how emotionally conflicted even the strongest, most passionate people can be, even when faced with a forgone conclusion. And as Roberta Flack’s “To Love Somebody” plays over the episode’s climatic scene, Gregory sacrifices himself to keep Philip and Elizabeth’s identities protected, a reminder that in the end, we fight for who we love, not what we love or might think we believe in. –Randy
It’s hard to believe that a series that suffered as many struggles as Spartacus would grow to become one of the most consistently entertaining, well-written shows of the year – culminating with 2013’s best finale (sorry, Breaking Bad fans). The problem with final episodes is that you only get one chance to get it right, and while “Victory” doesn’t soar to the heights of “Ozymandias” (Breaking Bad‘s shoulda-been finale), it left its fans unmistakeably pleased. The sheer amount of people who wrote Spartacus off, thanks to its surface-level similarity to Zack Snyder’s 300 (myself among them), makes it one of the most underrated programs in television history.
Creating “Victory” was no easy feat. The final hour of Spartacus has an enormous amount of heavy lifting to do, but thankfully writer/showrunner Steven S. DeKnight and director Rick Jacobson rise to the challenge. From the opening sequence (which serves as a nice homage to another Spartacus) to the closing credits (which feature a ghostly cameo by Andy Whitfield), “Victory” comes full circle, demonstrating just how much progress the series had made since its inauspicious beginnings. Every emotional beat and combat sequence is carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The episode boasts a wave of glorious action that mercilessly toys with viewers’ expectations. The phenomenal final stand between Spartacus and his forces and the strength of the Roman Empire is just one of the many highlights found here, but amidst the gladiatorial combat, it is the small, quieter moments we remember best; “Victory” is one series finale that can make any grown man cry. Kudos to a series that makes us believe – or at least hope – that history can and will be rewritten. –Ricky D
2013 marked the arrival of the Sundance Channel as a serious competitor in the cable drama game, delivering fantastic new series like Top of the Lake, The Returned, and the haunting Rectify, which explores the life of a man exonerated from death row after a technicality stained his conviction. A quiet, contemplative, and surprisingly literal series, the fourth episode examines protagonist Daniel Holden through the lens of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, in which a man sentenced to a lifetime of watching shadows dance on the wall is given the freedom to walk into the light. From Daniel’s glasses (which give him the “vision” he lacked in the cave of prison walls) to his journey through the sun-lit fields of his hometown, “Plato’s Cave” is a mediation on faith and reason, best shown when the episode’s already-meandering pace pauses for a conversation about God and salvation between Daniel and Tawney, his hyper-religious sister-in-law. It captures the complicated mind of a man lost in the shadows, talking about everything from seeking human connection to being rebirthed into a new, pure life and whether faith and reason can be contemplative, rather than contradictory. It’s symbolism-rich television at its very best – which isn’t going to be for everyone, but for the philosophic TV viewer (like this one), there weren’t many episodes of television in 2013 more engaging or rewarding than “Plato’s Cave”. –Randy
Choosing which episode of Hannibal to include on this list was no easy task. In terms of plot, characterization, scientific research, dialogue, acting, editing and cinematography, Hannibal is in a class of its own. There is no other network series as daring or masterfully crafted. With each and every episode, Hannibal moves one step closer to becoming a small screen masterpiece.
At this point, it’s become clear Hannibal won’t hold back in its depictions of violence and gore. Some unforgettable moments this season include the gruesome operation as Doctor Gideon keeps Doctor Chilton awake while he removes his organs, and the opening of “Trou Normand,” the show’s biggest WTF moment: a beautifully twisted and disturbing crime scene in which a totem pole of bodies in various stages of decay stand upon a West Virginia beach. And of course episode eight, “Fromage”, offers the season’s most elegant murder, in which the killer exposes the victim’s vocal cords to literally play them like a cello. But of all thirteen brilliant installments, we decided upon episode seven, “Sorbet”. This is truly an opulent feast for the eyes and the first episode which attempts to get into Hannibal’s headspace, slowly peeling back the layers to reveal a heart buried within our favourite cannibal. Take, for instance, the elegant operatic performance during which Hannibal actually shows genuine emotion and is brought to tears by Emily Klassen’s rendition of Handel’s “Piangero.” Hannibal’s most unforgettable scenes are those steeped in a triumph of atmosphere and nightmarish imaginings, but often the best scenes are those far away from the crime scenes. –Ricky D
Mad Men, “The Crash”
Written by Jason Grote & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Aired May 19th, 2013 on AMC
In a season filled with memorable (and GIF-able) moments, no episode of Mad Men stood out as clearly as “The Crash”, which follows the office over a long weekend of “vitamin”-induced frenzy. Despite the absence of season highlight Bob Benson (James Wolk), we’re treated to scene after scene of character study, both dramatic and comedic. There’s Ken Cosgrove’s manic and angry tap dance, Stan’s William Tell/Deer Hunter moment and touching scene with Peggy, a twist on Don’s usual inspirational speeches, and of course the bizarre Grandma Ida. Though the flashbacks to Don’s adolescence rear their ugly head, they’re paired with many scenes continuing the season’s exploration of Don’s psyche and slipping grasp on the façade he holds so dear. The episode looks great, giving Tom and Lorenzo plenty to discuss, as usual, but its tone and dream-like haziness are particularly effective, tying Don’s time-loss in with his confusion and general listlessness. “The Crash” is odd, episodic, and frankly confusing, but these are the very elements that make it great and have kept it fresh in our memory six months later. –Kate
Tatiana Maslany burst onto the scene this year as most of the lead characters on Orphan Black, as anyone who’s followed television criticism this year probably noticed (and yes, she’s as good as everyone’s been saying). Orphan Black isn’t just a one-woman show, however. It succeeds thanks to its clever writing, strong world-building, and excellent handling of tone. “Unconscious Selection” stands out in particular for this last element, jumping between action (Sarah and Helena), romance (Cosima), suspense (Kira), family drama (Mrs. S and Amelia), and, most notably, comedy (Alison and Felix). The odd couple of Alison and Felix (Jordan Gavaris) is particularly compelling and Maslany and Gavaris have excellent chemistry. The intervention the two of them walk in on is delightful and works well to both ground the more fanciful elements of the show with a touch of reality and provide a bit of comic satire at suburbia’s expense. Sarah is a lot of fun in full Mama Bear mode and Helena is shown to be far more intriguing than the stock Evil Twin. By the time we get to the twist reveal with Amelia, her connection to Sarah and Helena feels natural, a testament to the faith the writers have built up with the audience. “Unconscious Selection” deftly manages these disparate elements, presenting not only one of the year’s best performances, but developing one of its best friendships. –Kate
Lord Bolton: “The Lannisters send their regards.”
HBO’s hit fantasy series Game of Thrones aired what may wind up as the most shocking, or at least most-talked about, episode in the history of television. Written by the show’s head writers (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and directed by David Nutter (his third episode of the series), “The Rains of Castamere” (a.k.a. “The Red Wedding”) lays it on heavy with two themes: the unnerving sense that the Starks will never again be reunited, and the mounting cruelty that exists in the world of Westeros. The Red Wedding had been foreshadowed for a while, especially throughout this episode, but non-book-readers couldn’t anticipate that the season’s biggest moment would come not in the finale, but the penultimate episode instead. From the moment the Freys close the doors to the hall and the music starts playing, something just doesn’t feel right. Then the music changes to “The Rains of Castamere” and Michelle Fairley’s performance takes over. How can we ever forget Catelyn’s realization of what’s about to happen – the utter defeat in her eyes – her desperate plea to save her son’s life – her realization that she has lost her sons, lost her husband, lost her grandchild, and may never see her two daughters again. When Catelyn’s throat is cut and the credits roll, the silence over the credits says it all: no one is safe. Winter is coming. –Ricky D
The long breaks between seasons may be a source of understandable frustration, but The Venture Bros. really benefits from having seen the entire run to date in order to fully appreciate the way the series pays off long-running gags, develops even the most obscure of peripheral characters, and constantly expands its history and mythology – so why not catch up while we wait another 16 to 24 months for the next run? If you require a recent shortcut to prove it’s worth youur while though, you could do plenty worse than “Spanikopita!”, a relatively self-contained affair (“self-contained” doesn’t really exist when it comes to Venture Bros. continuity) centered around a Greek vacation spot that doubles as one of the few places on Earth where Doc Venture gets to safeguard his long-faded memories of a time when he wasn’t a miserable prick. Besides nailing the series’ unique balance of carefully cloaked sentimentality and labyrinthine gags, “Spanakopita!” is also a fine example of the way the series can concoct a whole new setting and set of characters (and backstories) in a very limited timeframe without feeling rushed or half-baked. Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick might take their sweet-ass time, but every ounce of effort winds up on the screen. –Simon