Here’s part 2 of my favorite tv episodes of 2015. Out of the five, three of these shows were in their first season, showcasing just how good they each were right out of the gate. Two of these were also Netflix programs, which is evidence of the changing environment that television exists. Spoilers for any of these shows, if you haven’t seem them, so you’ve been warned.
5. “Hardhome” – Game of Thrones
I was down on Game of Thrones this season. I’m not one of those book purists that are up-in-arms about the many changes that the television show has made to the source material or anything like that. I just feel that this season, there was quite a bit of hanging around. Plus, I dislike the Daenerys storyline something fierce, and it seemed like there was much time spent on it this time around. All of this griping did not take away from the fact that “Hardhome” has the best battle scene in the show’s history, possibly the best battle scene in television history. After five seasons, the white walkers finally paid off, as the battle surprised book followers and television newbies alike. It was well-crafted and given the show’s willingness to kill anybody you love, genuinely tense.
4. “Five-O” – Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul, as a whole, is better than it should’ve been. What I mean is this: Breaking Bad left the airwaves as arguably the best drama in television history. There was no reason to revisit the universe, especially in a prequel centered on a goofy, shameless lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk. It turns out that Vince Gilligan is smarter than his doubters and that Better Call Saul was more or less exactly what we needed. We got to see Slippin’ Jimmy before he became Saul Goodman, back when he had the slightest sliver of integrity left as he struggled to make ends meet while sticking to the straight and narrow.
One of the many highlights of the show was the return of Johnathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, the retired cop from Philly that Saul fraternized with in Breaking Bad. In “Five-O”, we go even further back into the life of Mike and we see just exactly why he left Philadelphia in the first place. It’s a new side of Mike to see and it’s a heartbreaking episode (and one of the best acting performances of the year). In a series filled with standout performances, this is easily the best episode of the first season, and a nice showcase for Banks.
3. “International Assassin” – The Leftovers
In season two of The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof sends the entire series into full-blown fantasy, as Kevin Garvey spends an entire episode trying to pull himself out of the afterlife. Yes, it’s as strange as it sounds and an incredibly evocative episode that is entirely tangents from the overarching plot of the season.
As we left Kevin in the last episode, he was dying on the floor of the trailer of Virgil, the father of his neighbor that claims to know how to get rid of the proverbial monkey on Kevin’s back: visions of Patty, the leader of the Guilty Remnant that killed herself while in Kevin’s capture. For Kevin, death is a hotel, an odd place with kids drowning in the pool, his dad on the television, and assassins around every corner trying to kill him (again). It’s a trippy manifestation of death, as Kevin interacts with people that talk in riddles while he tries to decipher exactly what it all means and what exactly it is that he needs to do.
There’s nothing else quite like this episode anywhere in The Leftovers, and it’s one of the reasons I loved this episode so much. It lets us spend the entire episode with Kevin, easily the most dynamic character in the show and throws him into a world that doesn’t make sense and he’s left trying to piece any clue together that he could find. Justin Theroux is great in this show and this might be his best episode.
2. “AKA WWJD” – Jessica Jones
A late addition to this list (I just watched this episode as I hunkered down during the blizzard), “AKA WWJD” is the first extended moment we see Jessica come face-to-face with Kilgrave, the ultimate bad guy of the show, and quite possibly the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. The episode is like the tensest game of “House” ever imagined, as Kilgrave lures Jessica back to her childhood home in order to reconnect with her.
What I absolutely love about this show is how it works on multiple levels: both as a PI/superhero TV show and as a character study of someone reeling after escaping an abusive relationship. Even though Kilgrave doesn’t actually use his superpowers against Jessica in this episode, he never stops manipulating her. If you strip away his literal mind-control powers and her super strength, this story is an incredible piece of work. He’s a bossy, controlling sociopath, with the ability to shift from dedicated lover to spoiled child at the drop of a hat. It can most assuredly come with a trigger warning, because Kilgrave is a rapist that makes excuses for his actions and a domineering presence to every one he’s in a relationship with.
Jessica Jones is an incredible work of a comic book story with more to it than just good vs. evil; it’s a story of a survivor and in this, Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are at the top of their game to give the subject matter respect and substance.
1. “Mornings” – Master of None
I love when television series mess with format, especially sitcoms. Community and Scrubs seemed to do it a lot, and the episode “Mornings” of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, Master of None, is a perfect example of a concept episode that is just about perfect. It’s an honest look at the beginning and ending of a relationship, summed up in just a handful of mornings that highlight the ups-and-downs of a romantic relationship.
Immediately, the one episode from another series I think of with a similar structure is the first season episode of Scrubs, “My Bed, Banter, & Beyond”. In that episode, after 14 episodes of sexual tension, JD and Elliot finally have sex, and they spend an entire day in bed, with a pizza, and having sex (but not with the pizza). These scenes are the framing device of the rest of the episode, which shows, among other things, the ups-and-downs of the first attempt at a relationship JD and Elliot go through, but ultimately fizzles as soon as it started. It’s an interesting juxtaposition as the episode ends with a hopeful note of them parting ways after the long first day of fornication, even as we’ve already looked into the future and have seen that it’s more or less a disaster.
“Mornings” is a similar feeling, and one that is a tough pill to swallow. For one, Dev and Rachel are too incredibly likable characters and their beginnings are a sweet, almost utopian ideal of what everyone hopes for in a relationship that has progressed into cohabitation. They’re in love, can’t keep their hands off each other, and generally get along perfectly. But then, it isn’t long before a routine sets in, they start taking things (and each other) for granted, and the fights over laundry on the floor and other minor squabbles start to creep in. Everything occurs without animosity; no one cheats on anyone or abuses his or her loved one, but reality just slowly starts to extinguish the fire. Before long, they’re looking at the four walls they shared together, wondering, “Is this it?”
Aziz Ansari is a comedian of this generation, which is why this episode strikes such a perfect note. Comedians older than him are either married or are dealing with a completely different dating world than he is accustomed to. He, like most of the people his age, can relate to this cohabitation as a social norm, just like they can relate to spending hours on the internet trying to find the best place to eat or traversing the minefield that is flirting through texting. Each of these subjects he tackles with the same level of sincerity and honesty.
“Mornings” isn’t tragic; it’s bittersweet. Most shows choose to demonize one partner when a relationship fails. Either someone cheats or someone says something that is unforgiveable, but we’re not always allotted those circumstances in real life. Sometimes, two wonderful, caring, likeable people get together for a certain amount of time, and then they depart. The breakup in the following episode, “Finale”, but set up in this one, is a turning point for both characters; they both learn something about themselves and use it as motivation. So is it really a failed relationship just because it didn’t end in marriage? If you asked Dev and Rachel, I’m sure they wouldn’t look at it that way. They both spent some time, some good some bad, with a great person, but it just didn’t pan out the way they hoped. No one is left heartbroken and we’re sure that they’ll find someone again that they’ll fall madly in love with once more. Why? Because as Woody Allen would put it: they need the eggs.