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Halfway Mark: The Best TV Episodes of 2014 (So Far), Part 3

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Hannibal, “Mizumono”
Written by Steve Lightfoot and Bryan Fuller
Directed by David Slade
Aired May 23rd, 2014

“I let you know me… see me. I gave you a rare gift, but you didn’t want it.” – Hannibal Lecter

If there’s such thing as arthouse television, Hannibal‘s second season is it, a thirteen-hour fever dream of blood, orchestral music, and psychological mind games. Above all, it was a cinematic tragedy, a symbolically-rich tale of a man courting the devil and (most likely) living to tell about it, set against the backdrop of television’s most arresting visual palette.

“Mizumono” is the sweet, sweet cherry on the top of Hannibal‘s breathtaking sophomore effort, a dramatic crescendo catalyzed by one small mistake made on Will’s part: leaving the scent of Freddie Lounds on himself before visiting Hannibal. When Lecter realizes what Will has done, his heart breaks and Hannibal dares the audience to not feel empathy for the darkest of doctors. Even after messing with Will’s mind (and getting him sent to a mental institution), murdering Beverly Katz, toying with Jack Crawford and his family, and a million other heinous things, “Mizumono” is able to generate real sympathy for its antagonist, right before the rain starts falling and the blood starts spilling. Everywhere.

And I mean everywhere: by the time Hannibal‘s fifteen-minute climax concludes, the lives of every single main character (save for Hannibal) lies in the balance. Abigail (who turns out wasn’t dead after all) is murdered in front of Will, gutted like a fish by Hannibal so he could feel the deep pain Hannibal felt when his former protege turned on him. Jack is bleeding out in Hannibal’s wine cellar, and Alana lies on the front porch with a broken back: Hannibal’s wrath is so swift and so severe, it sends the audience into shock, only able to process what they’ve just seen when Hannibal walks past the carnage in his house and into the cleansing rain falling outside.

“Mizumono” is not only one of the best episodes of television this year: it’s one of the finest season finales I’ve ever watched, a near-flawless culmination of the show’s previous 25 episodes, full of emotionally devastating moments and topped off with an anxiety-inducing, truly shocking (and that’s not a word us TV critics get to use often) cliffhanger. Hats off to Fuller and company: “Mizumono” is dramatic television at its absolute finest. — Randy D. 

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Silicon Valley, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”
Written by Alec Berg
Directed by Mike Judge
Aired June 1st, 2014

Even though its first season has only eight episodes, Silicon Valley proved over its short run just how great of a show it is. The season finale “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” fired on all cylinders delivering one satisfying, surprisingly heartwarming, and incredibly rewarding capper that allows all of the threads of the season to coalesce into one giant payoff. Yes this is a series with crass jokes, satire, and awkward characters, but it is also an underdog story following a posse of neurotic geeks as they attempt to maneuver their way through the tech world and battle evil corporations who try to buy, steal or replicate their start-up business. Silicon Valley is a show that balances stupidity with smarts and never tips too far on either side of the scale. “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency” provides a phenomenal and hilarious finale to a very strong first season. And while this critic’s vote went to episode five, “Signaling Risk,” it seems our team of critics felt the scene that the title of this episode refers to was just too funny to pass on. — Ricky D.

Louie S04E11, "In the Woods"

Louie, “In the Woods”
Written and directed by Louis C.K.
Aired June 9th, 2014

Louie returned for its fourth season this year after taking 2013 off—Louis C.K. wanted to recharge his creative batteries and the result was a season of formal experimentation. One such experiment, “In the Woods” breaks from Louie’s traditional approach by sidelining C.K. for most of the 66-minute story. Told almost exclusively in flashback and spurred by Louie’s discovery that his daughter Lilly is smoking pot, the audience follows a teenaged Louie as he goes through a difficult few months and experiments with drugs. Having a bit of a hard time, Louie winds up in over his head and must choose between disappointing two very different father figures. His decision helps make him the man he grows to be and reflecting on it helps the adult Louie once more as he decides what kind of parent to be to Lilly. It’s a lovely departure for the show that beautifully captures the confusion that so often comes with being a teenager and respects the lingering impact these years can have throughout one’s life.

C.K. is in top form as a director and the guest stars who fill most of the two-parter are tremendous, particularly Devin Druid as Young Louie and Amy Landecker, who returns as Louie’s Mom. Skipp Sudduth and Jeremy Renner are great as the competing influences in Louie’s life, but “In the Woods” belongs to Druid, who as the teenaged Louie veers believably from happy and relaxed to detached to viscerally angry, surprising even himself. The inexperience of youth, the fear and responsibility that come with parenting, and the lingering damage an emotional trauma can cause—each of these ideas are explored by C.K., who refrains from answers, besides Louie’s final response of love and support for his daughter. The introspective and truthful “In the Woods” is one of the highlights of a compelling season of Louie, and it’s without a doubt one of the best episodes of the year so far. — K.K.

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Game of Thrones, “The Children”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
Aired June 15th, 2014

When Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss promised the season four finale would be their finest yet, they weren’t lying. Some very huge, notable moments sent the show out of the year in style, but more importantly, “The Children” changed the playing field dramatically. It is such a big episode (with extra time allotted) that it features three of the best scenes of the series so far. A Storm of Swords is full of many surprises, but Tyrion’s murderous rampage ranks among the most unexpected. It starts with him exacting revenge on Shae, after the revelation that she has been sleeping with his father, and ends with him putting two arrows right in his father’s chest. The most emotional moment of the two, is with Shae, for whom Tyrion has always loved as evidenced by the emotional resonance in his face when she betrayed him at his trial. Tyrion killing Shae was a crime of passion, and a moment born out of pure revenge. Hearing her call out for his father as “My Lion”, was the final nail in the coffin. After an entire life of being mistreated, Tyrion finally snapped. Deep down, it destroyed him, and in true Tyrion Lannister form, he apologizes even after strangling her to death. It’s not every day you feel bad for a cold-blooded murderer. And there’s an overwhelming amount of joy in watching Tywin’s children lashing out against their father, beginning with Cersei who throws her relationship with Jaime in his face, and ending with Tyrion who escapes to settle all family business, and end Tywin’s life with Joffrey’s weapon of choice. Tyrion’s detour left viewers at the edge of their seat, biting on to their finger nails, in knowing that the show tends to chasten those characters who deviate from safety. Thankfully, that didn’t happen this time around as Tyrion and Varys make it out of Kings Landing once and for all.

Meanwhile, “The Children” has the honour of having the season’s best single combat sequences, which is saying a lot considering what happens in “The Mountain and The Viper” and “The Watchers On The Wall”. The confrontation between Brienne and The Hound is framed with breathtaking shots set against the rocky cliffs just outside the Bloody Gate. It begins with the two soldiers showing off their swordsmanship and technique, and soon becomes something completely outrageous. “There’s no safety,” Sandor tells Brienne who tries to convince Arya to come back with her. “You don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her,” he continues as he calls her out in carrying valerian steel. What follows is several minutes of exceptional fight choreography directed by Alex Graves and his stunt doubles. Season four goes out with plenty of ends tied, yet so many new paths being forged. — Ricky D.

Rectify

Rectify, “Running with the Bull”
Written by Ray McKinnon
Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal
Aired June 19th, 2014

The story of a recently released convict and the aftermath of his release may sound like the premise to an action feature. However, with Rectify, creator Ray McKinnon managed to take this very idea to create a thought-provoking character portrait of a small town and its inhabitants, including those directly affected by the release. With a powerful first season that many ranked among the year’s best, the pressure was on for the show to bring about a second season as good as the first. The second season premiere, against all odds, managed to exceed high expectatiosn to unequivocally end up as one of the top episodes of television.

In many ways, the episode feels like a continuation of the first season, as it picks up just moments after the first season finale’s closing. However, the difference becomes apparent between the seasons as the episode continues. While the first season was downbeat in its exploration of how Daniel had difficulty adjusting to post-prison life, this episode wonderfully delves into his mind, going down to some of his darkest hours on death row before swinging upwards into finding the beauty of being out of prison. In an episode where Daniel lays comatose for the entire runtime, the show gives us the best look yet at his psyche, and what lies at the root of his difficulty adjusting.

Which doesn’t mean the episode neglects the other characters. Melvin’s “Regrets grow tiresome” is a wonderfully poignant moment, and the manner in which Amantha slowly realises that he is, in fact, a kindred spirit, is a wonderful one. Sheriff Daggett’s investigation of the beating also manages to effectively explore his conflicted feelings about Daniel’s release, illustrating how they’ve muddied since the first season premiere. The interactions between Ted and Janet serve to once again show the bond the two share, and it’s a great contrast to the bond between Bobby Dean and Judy Dean. While these seem great individually, the episode as a whole manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, reminding viewers of the show’s high calibre while also setting itself above other episodes of television in the year. — D.S.

****

Individual picks: The critics at SoS TV watch a lot of television, but even we can’t see everything. After compiling the above list, the panel felt strongly that several essential episodes were missing, ineligible because not enough of the panel had seen them, due to the happy problem that there’s too much great TV to keep up with all of it. Below, each panelist makes the case for one more of the year’s best episodes.

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Ricky’s Pick- Archer, “White Elephant”
Written by Adam Reed
Directed by Bryan Fordney and Adam Reed
Aired January 13, 2014

For four seasons, Archer was one of the best-written animated shows on television, and at the height of its popularity, Adam Reed decided to turn it upside down, even if risking alienating some portion of its audience. Like it or not, you got to respect Reed’s decision and in all honesty, Archer needed a big change. “White Elephant” acts as a glorified table-setter, serving primarily to segue into Archer Vice, with the Twitter hashtag #GoVice even appearing before the credits role. But the sudden left turn works so brilliantly. Changing from an espionage setting to a drug-dealing one and placing the characters in a new context is an ingenious way to move forward. In addition, the show addresses the giant hole in its own premise by announcing that what what Malory has been doing all this time isn’t strictly legal.

“White Elephant” (named because of the ‘elephant’ in the room) is essentially a 20-minute advertisement for the new season. The final five minutes are geared so strongly toward selling new fans, that they actually give us a montage of clips from future episodes. While many old fans felt a little betrayed by this decision, this critic couldn’t help but eat it up. In short, “White Elephant” did not disappoint; and much like the best episodes of the series, it is sexy, exciting and down-right hilarious. Long live Archer Vice! — Ricky D.

The Good Wife, "The Last Call"

Kate’s Pick- The Good Wife, “The Last Call”
Written by Robert King and Michelle King
Directed by Jim McKay
Aired March 30th, 2014

The Good Wife shocked viewers with an uncharacteristic move towards the end of the season (which will remain unspoiled in this blurb, for those TV fans who still have yet to catch up with the series). “The Last Call” deals with the immediate fall-out in an emotional, artistic, and creative way, capturing the uncertainty that comes with much of life, not to mention the untrustworthiness of memory. This episode is beautiful, building off of long-standing relationships and pushing characters forward while simultaneously dwelling in the past and exploring the pain and pleasure reminiscence can bring. Julianna Margulies is fantastic in the episode, as are Josh Charles and guest star Matthew Goode, but what separates the episode and earns it its place on this list are the varied and equally powerful moments given each of the supporting cast.

From its first moments through to its last, “The Last Call” is moving, an episode that prompts reflection and moves the series to a new place while taking viewers gently by the hand to smooth the transition. While other series go for shock, The Good Wife champions restraint and measure. In this episode, it achieves the impressive feat of changing everything while changing almost nothing, and it does so with a deft hand. This is absolutely one of the best episodes of 2014, but unfortunately The Good Wife remains underseen by fans of quality TV, some of whom balk at watching a legal procedural on CBS. However, great television comes in every shape and form and the emotional honesty of this series and this episode in particular place it among the best on television. — K.K.

PoI

Deepayan’s Pick- Person of Interest, “Death Benefit”
Written by Erik Mountain and Lucas O’Connor
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Aired April 15th, 2014

Over the course of the series, Person of Interest has delved into the numerous ramifications of its premise, from the groups that would take umbrage to the disruption of their illegal services, to the larger entities interested in controlling the Machine at the heart of the show. The second half of the third season saw the latter interests loom large as their power grew, throwing our heroes into increasingly complex moral situations. This culminated in an episode where the group was faced with their biggest concern yet, leading to one of the best episodes of an already great season and one of the top episodes on television for the year.

The question of right and wrong, and what should be done for the greater good, is one that had loomed over the show for a long time. As the threats got bigger, the question of extreme action came up more and more often, but the big difference was that it was action the characters were thinking of taking, not action the Machine sanctioned. The realisation that Reese and Shaw are meant to kill the Congressman, rather than save him, thus not only comes as a major shock, but the ensuing debate over whether it should be done or not is a great illustration of the characters and, by extension, the various viewpoints that would surround such an issue. It’s a great dive into philosophy for the show that nonetheless doesn’t give out any easy answers, with the pros and cons of either possibility laid out for the audience to see.

The buildup to this quandary within the episode itself, as well as the aftermath of the decision, is also fantastically portrayed. The show doesn’t’ shy away from thrilling gunfights, and every performer, including Sarah Shahi, gets their moments to shine. It’s a great example of the depths of the show, and the way television is able to build up to, and tackle, issues that are relevant to the viewers’ lives, and the show’s ability to portray such an issue with nuance makes this one of the best television episodes of the year. — D.S.

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Sean’s Pick- Mad Men, “The Strategy”
Written by Semi Chellas
Directed by Phil Abraham
Aired May 25th, 2014

With newer, shinier shows out there (and ones that, really, are just as good, like Hannibal and Rectify), it’s easy to forget to acknowledge that Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is still putting out some of the best television of the past decade. Even more than 80 episodes in, Mad Men delivers episodes like this season’s “A Day’s Work,” which infused the Don-Sally relationship with enough vibrant life to bring a tear to your eye. There was also the season finale, “Waterloo”–an episode structured perfectly around the moon landing, leading to one of the series’ best musical numbers.

But it is “The Strategy” that will remain most memorable for viewers (especially viewers trying to recall why they used to enjoy Mad Men so much). After setting both characters on different paths in recent years, the series brings Don and Peggy together in this episode, showing how vital they are to one another. Although Don is often portrayed as a father figure when it comes to this relationship, consider Wordsworth’s observation that “The Child is father of the Man” and see how Peggy teaches Don just as much as Don teaches Peggy throughout this series’ run.

The episode is of course full of rich material, including a conversation between Bob Benson and Joan that outlines what Joan has learned about love and making concessions in her life to this point. But few things in any given year of television are as powerful as witnessing Don and Peggy dance, as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” creeps up into the SC&P offices from down on the streets of Manhattan. — S.C.

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Randy’s Pick- Orange is the New Black, “A Whole Other Hole”
Written by Sian Heder
Directed by Phil Abraham
Aired June 6th, 2014

Admittedly, I haven’t quite finished Orange is the New Black‘s second season yet: but there’s no doubting the awesome-ness of “A Whole New Hole”, which uses the urethra as a metaphor for the women and world of Litchfield. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s centered on one of my favorite characters: Lorna Morello, who drives Rosa to her chemotherapy treatment – and then ditches it to go spend a day in the life she always wanted, one where Christopher actually wanted her to be his wife.

Piggybacking on Lorna’s realization last season that she wouldn’t be getting married, “A Whole New Hole” adds new depth to Lorna, revealing her mental instability and unhealthy attachment to a dream that’s never going to come true. She may be in jail for mail fraud, but to understand this slight, heavily-accented woman, you’ve got to look a lot deeper – just like Sophia suggests to Taystee and her friends as they look for the infamous second vaginal hole in the bathroom showers.

Slightly vulgar, darkly hilarious (I still crack up thinking about Sophia’s diagram and “Girl, I designed one” comment), and anything but subtle, “A Whole New Hole” is everything that’s great about Orange is the New Black – right down to the slowly-building conflict between Red and Vee, not to mention the racially-charged undercurrent already building in the first act of OitNB‘s sophomore effort. Highlighted by Rosa telling a boy in chemo what sent her to prison (again: finding new depth within an existing character), “A Whole New Hole” is the first standout episode of Orange is the New Black‘s second season, and one of my favorite hours of 2014 so far. — Randy D.

Come back December 26th for the second half of this list! 

Part One Part Two / Part Three / Part Four / Part Five 


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