The 25 Best TV Episodes of 2018

TV Lists Best of 2018
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The 25 Best TV Episodes of 2018

Even compared to our wide-ranging lists of the 25 best TV shows and the 18 best new shows of 2018, Paste’s ranking of the year’s finest episodes covers a lot of ground: There are pilot episodes (two) and series finales (also two), “bottle” episodes and serial entries, animated series, actioners, and Random Acts. Still, within this variety, two trends stand out. First, it was an exceptionally strong year for comedies, which account for eight of the top 10. (Admittedly, a few of those episodes are pretty bleak—but that’s the state of TV comedy these days, rich with sorrow and anger in addition to laughs.) And, even more essential, it was an exceptionally strong year for women, both on and off-screen: Of the 25 episodes below, 20 are credited, in whole or in part, to women writers and directors.

Here are the 25 best TV episodes of 2018:

25. “Pilot,” 9-1-1

Writers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear
Director: Bradley Buecker

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When advocating for 9-1-1 to make this list, I said to my editor, “It’s nonsense, but it’s such well-done nonsense.” Ostensibly about how a 9-1-1 operator, the fire department, and the police come together to save lives in Los Angeles, what 9-1-1 truly offers is a magnificent escape from the world and its problems. At least once per episode, I scream at the TV, “I love this show so much!” And it all began here with the pilot episode, which found the LAFD rescuing a baby that was trapped inside a wall and, just a few minutes later, a woman who was being strangled by her pet snake. Creator Ryan Murphy has an eye for casting, and he’s filled the drama with a terrific line-up. The pilot introduced us to the quietly troubled Captain Bobby Nash (Peter Krause), hotshot fire fighter Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark), suffer-no-fools police officer Athena Grant (Angela Bassett), and the cool and calm Hen (Aisha Hinds, who truly shined in an episode devoted to her this season). The pilot established the blueprint for the drama: a series of fast-paced rescue snippets interspersed with equally dramatic glimpses at the characters’ personal lives. (In the pilot, Athena learns her husband is gay and is leaving her.) Murphy has a reputation of taking things too-too far (see Nip/Tuck or American Horror Story), but there’s no “too far” on 9-1-1. It’s deliciously over-the-top while somehow still pulling off real and heartfelt character development. This wonderful show is a gift from the TV gods. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: FOX)

24. “The Sincerest Form of Flattery,” Counterpart

Writers: Gianna Sobol
Director: Alik Sakharov

It isn’t the surprise twist in this episode that makes it memorable; that was fairly predictable to anyone who watches TV for a living (sorry). Rather, what has me still thinking about this particular chapter of creator Justin Marks’ complicated Cold War-style sci-fi/spy series these many months (and an obscene amount of TV) later is the humanity given to the backstory of the character involved in said reveal. At the risk of spoilers, I won’t give more specifics—if you want them, read my essay on the episode—but I will say that an attempt to emphasize and understand someone we thought to be the enemy should not be overlooked either on screen or in life. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Starz)

23. Dear White People, “Volume 2: Chapter IV”

Writer: Njeri Brown
Director: Kimberley Peirce

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Though it didn’t cause the stir of last season’s episode on police shootings (or, in its case, a tense near-miss) of young black men, Dear White People’s abortion-themed “Volume 2: Chapter IV” is as tightly constructed, as frankly political, and as impressively artful as its forebear. Following the high-strung, overachieving Coco Conners (Antoinette Robinson) and her high-pitched, overly supportive roommate, Kelsey (Nia Jervier), after Coco discovers that she’s pregnant, the episode uses its compact 29-minute running time to raise issues surrounding patriarchy, reproductive rights, and the gender wage gap; acknowledge that “choice” is scarcely available to women in certain states; delve into Coco’s determination to succeed; and weigh the potential consequences of her decision. But what elevates “Chapter IV” to the ranks of the year’s best episodes is a startling, beautiful, and surprisingly moving 18-year flash-forward, a potent reminder that the importance of “choice” isn’t what women choose—it’s the freedom of choosing. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

22. “Tried to Tell My Therapist About My Dreams / MARTIN HAD A DREEEEAAAAM,” Random Acts Of Flyness

Writers: Terence Nance, Jamund Washington, Mariama Diallo, and Darius Clark Monroe
Director: Terence Nance, Mariama Diallo, Darius Clark Monroe, Naima Ramos-Chapman, and Jamund Washington

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A key theme in this masterful, artful series is how white people absorb, twist and commodify black culture, twisting it into almost unrecognizable forms or revealing their own deep-seated racism in their attempts to celebrate it. No scene clarified that more than a small moment in this late-season episode set at an auction, where a stand-in for Quentin Tarantino attempts to outbid another white dude for the right to use the “n” word. As with every installment of Random Acts, though, Terence Nance and his team delved even deeper. A running segment followed a Hollywood actor trying to make a movie about a white savior rescuing kids from a conflict in the Congo. In just about 10 minutes, it manages to be more devastating and ruefully funny than the much talked-about Sorry to Bother You. Nance even dares to bite the hand that feeds his show by calling out HBO for supporting series after series with a white antihero in the lead and with crystal-clear logic tying it directly to the election of our current President. No other fictional series on TV this year had its knives and judgment as sharp as Random Acts. —Robert Ham (Photo: Rog Walker/HBO)

21. “The Powerpoint of Death,” Corporate

Writer: Pat Bishop
Director: Pat Bishop

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While shows like The Office and Better Off Ted made light fun of the drudgery of the corporate life and took subtle shots at monolithic companies with their tendrils in every industry around the world, Corporate steered into the skid in its inaugural season. The emphasis was on existential dread, garnished with a strange desire to still climb the corporate ladder. The pitch blackness of the show was never darker than in its second episode, which tracks the fallout from Matt (Matt Ingebretson) using his remarkable Powerpoint skills to help sell Hampton DeVille to the C.I.A. as the weapons manufacturer of choice for an upcoming war with Bolivia. At a certain point, Matt’s guilt comes to the fore, and he attempts to leak his work to Anonymous—not to save lives so much as to get the higher-ups in trouble so he and his buddy, Jake (Jake Weisman), can take their jobs. The whole half-hour is also a storytelling marvel, with throwaway jokes coming back to play huge roles later in the episode and a cyclical structure that has a lot to say about how people around the world view products and people as essentially disposable. Harsh but entirely fair. —Robert Ham (Photo: Comedy Central)

20. “The Burrito,” The Good Place

Writers: Megan Amram and Joe Mande
Director: Dean Holland

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Let’s not overthink things: Sometimes a burrito is just lunch. And sometimes a TV episode is much more than a cameo by an SNL alum as a binge-watcher with food on her chin. (Although, that was pretty awesome—please cast Maya Rudolph more.) When Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) are told that they qualify for admittance to The Good Place even though their friends do not, it raise the question most everyone asks themselves: You think you’re a good person, but will you help others or go the easy route and save yourself if you’re ever staring down a gun barrel? —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

19. “Reunited,” Steven Universe

Writers: Miki Brewster, Jeff Liu, Katie Mitroff, and Paul Villeco
Story by: Matt Burnett, Ben Levin, Rebecca Sugar, Kat Morris, Joe Johnston, and Tom Herpich
Director: Joe Johnston

For a certain type of fan, “Reunited” is the most important TV episode of the year. It’s a triumph for LGBTQ representation—a two-part episode and a surrounding arc, in 2018, that was the first time a same-sex couple, Ruby and Sapphire, got engaged and married (sealed with a kiss!) in an all-ages cartoon. It might also wind up being the emotional climax of Steven Universe’s whole run. Everything goes downhill now, since the episode’s final minutes rapidly advance the show’s central conflict between the Crystal Gems of Earth and the Diamond Authority from the gems’ Homeworld. The joy of “Reunited” is that it reminds us those conflicts can also not matter for a moment—and that love and seeing different types of love matters all the time. Forever. —Eric Vilas-Boas

18. “A Random Killing,” The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

Writer: Tom Rob Smith
Director: Gwyneth Horder-Payton

As great as Darren Criss’ performance as spree killer Andrew Cunanan is, “A Random Killing,” which depicts his murder of Chicago real-estate magnate Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), belongs to Judith Light. As Marilyn Miglin, she is incredibly nuanced. Obsessed with appearances, yet unapologetic about what’s underneath. Cold, but brimming over with barely containable emotion. Defensive, but wide-open. Dignified and brave and oblique and sad, prideful and angry yet strangely resigned. It’s a beautiful performance, and she absolutely owns the camera in every scene she’s in. Especially the last one, in which she goes back to her shopping-channel TV program (she’s created a perfume called “Pheromone,” which has a whole twisted poetry of its own if we consider her as a woman whose marriage might have been extremely perfunctory at the sexual level) and says she wants to go back to work because her husband was and still is part of everything she does. She says a friend of hers who had a TV program had once given her some advice about being in front of a camera: “Imagine that little red light is the man you love,” she says, staring straight at the lens, faintly smiling, eyes lit with unshed tears. It’s a phenomenal cut-to-black ending. —Amy Glynn (Photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX)

17. “Blindsided,” Daredevil

Writer: Lewaa Nasserdeen
Director: Alex Garcia Lopez

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Marvel’s dearly departed Daredevil, recently axed by Netflix, at least went out on a high note: The series’ third season was a return to form, bolstered in large part by the reintroduction of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. That said, the season’s zenith is “Blindsided,” built around a stunning, one-take prison brawl/escape sequence that stretches 11 thrilling minutes, making Daredevil’s famed Season One hallway fight look like a glorified thumb war. Director Alex Garcia Lopez (who also helmed “Karen,” another Season Three standout) and writer and co-producer Lewaa Nasserdeen, both of whom make their Daredevil debuts, ably juggle the episode’s other foundation-laying narrative threads, but it’s Matt Murdock’s (Charlie Cox) prison infiltration that makes “Blindsided” a must-see—it’s a white-knuckle set piece that lulls the viewer into a false sense of security before turning punishingly violent on a dime, then swerving back into suspense for a dialogue-heavy interlude, only to crank the action back up to 11. Most impressive of all, the sequence was actually shot in one take, free of any Birdman-style fudging, according to showrunner Erik Oleson—that, if nothing else, is an accomplishment the Daredevil team ought to look back on with pride. —Scott Russell (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)

16. “Day 492,” The Good Fight

Writer: Michelle King
Director: Robert King

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This is how much I loved the glorious Season Two finale of The Good Fight: It didn’t even bother me that after 14-plus hours of labor, Lucca’s (Cush Jumbo) make-up and hair were still in pristine condition. She seemed to deliver her baby with only one medical professional and a room full of family and friends. But that is the smallest of small quibbles, as the finale, written and directed by the series creators, brought together all the terrific plot lines that weaved in and out of the season. There was Diane (Christine Barankski) in a fabulous outfit (naturally) and back with Kurt (Gary Cole), realizing it wasn’t enough to protect her corner of the world from Trump—she needed to start fighting back. There was a cliffhanger involving a Stormy Daniels-type character that should lead us right into Season Three. There was a fully recovered Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) outsmarting the Republican task force charged with protecting the lawyers from attacks. There was social commentary on the news cycle and another appearance by the ever-fabulous Margo Martindale. The freedom of being on CBS All Access and having a shortened season gave the Kings a creative surge leading right up to the breathtaking final hour. The series is a much-needed salve in the current political climate, a weekly respite from Trump’s daily onslaught. Bring on Season Three! —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: CBS All Access)

15. “Nice Face,” Kiling Eve

Writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Harry Bradbeer

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I truly believe no new hour-long show this season had quite as strong a premiere as Killing Eve’s “Nice Face.” (I made the hour-long distinction because you know my feelings on Sally4Ever.) I’ve honestly read Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script for this pilot way too many times, and the way Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, and the rest of the cast translate her words to the screen, it’s apparent from very early on in “Nice Face” (perhaps from the first scene) just how special Killing Eve is. —LaToya Ferguson (Photo: BBC America)

14. “The Witchfinders,” Doctor Who

Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Sallie Aprahamian

It’s fitting that the finest episode of Doctor Who’s latest iteration, starring the winsome Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor (and first woman in the role), should be the hour written by a woman, directed by a woman, and focused on one of the most infamous forms of violence against women in history’s annals: witch trials. When the Doctor and her three companions land in 17th-century England, this is played, at first, for laughs: “We’re being patronized to death,” the Doctor quips, after King James I (wickedly funny guest star Alan Cumming) claims that a woman could never serve as “witchfinder general.” Soon enough, though, “The Witchfinders” emerges as an enthralling treatment of the effort “to silence foolish women who talk too much,” and, in turn, their ferocious resistance. Aided by Siobhan Finneran’s terrifying performance as the villainous Becka Savage—using the mores of a patriarchal culture against other women, to her own advantage—the episode suggests that the series’ success, in the Whittaker years, will depend on embracing gender as a subject, rather than ignoring it. When the pieces snap into place, as in “The Witchfinders,” this Doctor Who promises to be “poetry under pressure” indeed. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Ben Blackall/BBC America)

13. “Chapter Seventy-Seven,” Jane the Virgin

Writers: Deirdre Shaw and Chantelle Wells
Director: Gina Lamar

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In a season lacking a twist as big and bold as [REDACTED] dying, trying to pick out any single episode of Jane the Virgin as better than any other is a Sisyphean endeavor that wouldn’t even be worth attempting, were the “research” not so deliciously joyous. And yet, when Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) literally fell into an unglamourously long breast cancer arc late last spring—at the same time that Alba (Ivonne Coll) was in the middle of her arc to gain American citizenship, at the same time that Petra (Yael Grobglas) was in the middle of her arc discovering a new facet of her sexual identity, at the same time that Rogelio (Jaime Camil) was in the middle of his arc menacing/wooing/sabotaging/collaborating with television megastar River Fields (Brooke Shields) on The Passions of Steve (the Hollywood adaptation of his hit telenovela, The Passions of Santos, naturally), at the same time that he was also in the middle of a second arc realizing the magnitude of Xo’s importance in his life, and the fragility of her own was suddenly brought to the fore—that convergence seemed worth making note of.

Later chapters saw those arcs weave together with Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Raf’s (Justin Baldoni) romance in equally nuanced and compelling ways, but it was in “Chapter Seventy-Seven,” which consisted almost entirely of romantic pratfalls, slapstick eyebrow torching and Tooth Fairy-based tomfoolery until the final minutes, when Xo at last revealed the results of her biopsy and Alba, Jane, and Rogelio dropped to their knees beside her to say the Lord’s Prayer together, in Spanish, that those arcs’ uniquely potent brand of combined magic first blossomed. Not every show can give you Yael Grobglas in a silver-haired, lace-masked Tooth Fairy costume and Brooke Shields flambéed in eyebrowless drag and still send you away a weeping, heartsick wreck, but then again, not every show is Jane the Virgin. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Greg Gayne/The CW)

12. “Milk,” Sharp Objects

Writers: Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

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First and foremost: Consider yourself spoiler-warned. The finale of HBO’s Sharp Objects hinges on what is arguably 2018’s single most quotable line of dialogue, courtesy of Eliza Scanlen’s Amma: “Don’t tell Mama.” (Smash cut to credits.) That bloodcurdling bombshell is one in a series of big reveals that make up “Milk,” a shocking denouement that slowly and steadily ratchets up the tension that sustained Sharp Objects’ eight-episode run, only to douse that slow-burning fire in gasoline. Marti Noxon and Jean-Marc Vallee’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel has far more to offer than its twists and turns—led by a triumvirate of lights-out performances from Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson and the aforementioned Scanlen, the limited series is a chilling portrait of what happens when the deep roots of family and community turn rotten. But it’s the bitter end of “Milk” that sticks with you long after the credits roll, as even they reveal—via the same, near-subliminal flashes of memory that appear throughout the show, shards of trauma puncturing the membrane of the mind—just how macabre and compelling Sharp Objects always was, if you only knew where to look. —Scott Russell (Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

11. “Come Along With Me,” Adventure Time

Writers: Tom Herpich, Steve Wolfhard, Somvilay Xayaphone, Seo Jung Kim,
Aleks Sennwald, Hanna K. Nyström, Sam Alden and Graham Falk
Story by: Kent Osborne, Jack Pendarvis, Julia Pott, Ashly Burch, Pendleton Ward, Tom Herpich, Steve Wolfhard, and Adam Muto
Directors: Diana Lafyatis and Cole Sanchez

The four-part series finale of one of the most impactful modern animated shows lived up to the hype. The episode’s time-displaced framing device, heartbreakingly cute song, and symbolic narrative hurdles all conspired to yank tears down loyal fans’ faces and make first-time viewers wonder what in the world had been hiding beneath this seemingly silly show about a boy and his magical dog. Ending a series with finality means making your hero deal with the consequences of his actions. Adventure Time has Looney Tunes actions with realistic emotions, as well as a huge cast of characters (all of whom get their pieces of closure), so “Come Along With Me” is a complex piece of fan service that also acts as a funeral service. We may mourn the end of Finn and Jake’s adventures, but “Come Along With Me”—and Adventure Time’s impressive industry impact—mean we haven’t seen the last of those like them. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Cartoon Network)

10. “Kiksuya,” Westworld

Writers: Carly Wray and Dan Dietz
Director: Uta Briesewitz

“Kiksuya” feels like a bottle episode, yet tells a better, more complex, and more interconnected story than Westworld’s entire first season. It’s also the best episode of Westworld’s second season. Let’s be honest, it’s the best the show has to offer. Breakout star Zahn McClarnon’s Akecheta becomes Prometheus to an entire tribe of manufactured Others, telling an origin story and love story almost entirely in Lakota. Wray and Dietz layer everything precisely, allowing the audience to unpack, gasp, and mourn without their heads spinning from twists, while Briesewitz finds intimacy everywhere. Westworld may have a reputation for being a mindfuck, but “Kiksuya” proves that within its universe’s sweeping philosophizing, there are plenty of worthy stories to tell. —Jacob Oller (Photo: HBO)

9. “A Heck of a Ride,” The Middle

Writers: Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline
Director: Lee Shallat Chemel

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One last bite of nightstand cookies. One concluding car ride. One closing ballad from Reverend TimTom. One more trip to the Frugal Hoosier and Bed Bath and Between. One final and absolutely impeccable whisper. Few shows have the chance to go out like The Middle—on their own terms, with their ratings still strong. Even fewer long-running series end so pitch perfectly. The Middle understood and celebrated the family unit. After nine strong seasons, the final episode will go down as one of the best of all time (whispers: all time). The show was so wonderful and so rare in the current TV landscape that it makes the news that ABC is not moving forward with the planned Sue (Eden Sher) spin-off all the more devastating. “For all the things we didn’t have, we sure did have a lot,” Frankie (Patricia Heaton) said as the camera panned to her tattered house, broken washing machine and fading wallpaper. Yes, they did—and viewers did, too. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: ABC)

8. “Globo,” High Maintenance

Writers: Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair
Directors: Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair

Set in the immediate aftermath of an unspecified disaster, the Season Two premiere of HBO’s High Maintenance follows its usual structure—The Guy (Ben Sinclair) criss-crosses New York on his bicycle, delivering weed—in the brittle heart of modern life. That the crisis at hand could be a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, even the election of Donald Trump says more about the zeitgeist than any “ripped from the headlines” drama, as does the fact that the ordinary people The Guy encounters are going on with their lives as the world lay in tatters: working out, bussing tables, riding the subway, having sex. And though it ends on an optimistic note, with the smiles generated by a happy-go-lucky, blissfully ignorant child, the episode is run through with distant sirens, smart-phone alerts, escape plans, exclamations. It is indeed a phantasmagoria of despair out there, and “Globo” captures the acute and formless anxiety of our historical moment better than any episode I saw this year. —Matt Brennan (Photo: David Giesbrecht/HBO)

7. “The Planned Parenthood Show,” Big Mouth

Writers: Emily Altman
Director: Bryan Francis

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A show about how disgusting, oversexed, and disgustingly oversexed puberty is? Pushing boundaries? You don’t say. This particular boundary—crafting an entire episode dedicated to explaining how Planned Parenthood isn’t just an “abortion factory”—really shouldn’t be much of a boundary, but this is America, where the culture wars are never-ending, baby! It’s an anthology episode, which are often allow TV shows coming into their own to flex their chops, and animated shows, less bound by the strictures of live-action filmmaking, tend to handle them particularly well. That’s definitely the case here, where the ever-stellar, ridiculously stacked cast of stars (plus Nathan Fillion, as himself) enter a series of fourth wall-breaking, Planned Parenthood function-explaining skits modeled on pop culture touchstones to their clueless man-child of a gym and sex-ed teacher. Star Trek and Star Wars, but with ovarian cancer screenings! The Bachelorette, but with contraceptive methods! Woody Allen movies, but with vasectomies! It’s a superb combination of humor and public service, with just the right number of self-knowing nods, and an appropriately childish-yet-accurate description of the largest reproductive health care service provider in the country: “They do medicine for your bathing suit parts.” Yes. Yes they do. —John Maher (Photo: Netflix)

6. “The Good Twin,” GLOW

Writers: Nick Jones and Rachel Shukert
Director: Meera Menon

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GLOW’s second season was not only funnier than its (admittedly, pretty funny) first, it also actually featured more professional wrestling from its G.L.O.W. Girls. This culminates in the season’s eighth episode, “The Good Twin.” Functioning as an episode-within-an-episode, it finally showed what an episode of G.L.O.W. looks like, instead of just giving us bits and pieces of preparation. If Netflix’s GLOW is a series that feels very much like it exists within the 1980s world in which its set (instead of remaining just a parody), “The Good Twin” is the height of that feeling, so very much like a lost episode of the actual G.L.O.W. that it never ceases to be amazing. Plus, with catchy jams like “Makeover” and “Don’t Kidnap,” and endless gags with every scene, it instantly became the most re-watchable episode in an already re-watchable season and series. —LaToya Ferguson (Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix)

5. ”Andre and Sarah,” Forever

Writers: Matt Hubbard, Colleen McGuinness, and Alan Yang
Director: Alan Yang

Let me start off with a confession: I didn’t love Forever. In fact, I didn’t even finish the series, as it grew more tedious and more odd—and not in a good way—with each passing episode. But I adored the sixth episode, which was a stand-alone or “bottle” episode, as they say in the biz. You just have to watch this one episode—not what comes before or after it. You need to know nothing of the series to delight in this beautiful story. Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau) meet cute at an open house and are instantly attracted to one another. They weave in and out of each other’s lives for years after, but their timing is never right. I won’t say more than that, because you deserve to discover this gem on your own. Chau and Mitchell are phenomenal as they create two characters we care about deeply and know intimately in just 35 minutes. As the episode explores the long-term ramifications of both our actions and inactions, this duo will break your heart. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

4. “The Box,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Writer: Luke Del Tredici
Director: Claire Scanlon

In celebrating Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s ninety-ninth episode last year, I argued that the workplace comedy’s greatest strength was in its ability to establish a few solid stories—be they plot- or character-based—and to then iterate endlessly and with ever-increasing, ingenious absurdity on those themes. See: the Halloween Heists. See: the Pontiac Bandit. See: Jake (Andy Samberg) and Holt’s (Andre Braugher) quasi-combative, quasi-paternal bantering bond. Where other comedies might stale with so much repetition, the depth of the characterization and the true-north moral precision of the B99 world only grows. Unless one is bingeing highlight reels of each of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s most satisfyingly iterated stories, though, the payoff of all that hard-fought growth can be hard to see. That’s why there’s so much value in the totally unique episodes, like this year’s “The Box,” which cast all the elements that make a Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode a Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode aside in favor of drilling down into a single novelty conceit: Jake and Holt trapped by their own hubris in an all-night interrogation.

“The Box” is terrific on its own, of course: Guest star Sterling K. Brown murders as the slick dentist under all-night interrogation for, you know, actual murder, and the cinematic starkness with which director Claire Scanlon shot it is dramatic and exhilarating. But it’s in the episode’s divergence from the B99 form that the brilliance of the whole series shines. In isolation, and with Brown’s smug dentist as a handsome, dramatically lit narrative foil, Jake Peralta can ascend to Peak Jake Peralta, Captain Holt can ascend to Peak Captain Holt, and the basic conceit of the show—that the 9-9 is full of decent, clever people who enact more justice in the world when they understand and trust each other—can ascend to Peak Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Yes, the 2018 half of Season Five saw Jake and Amy finally get married, and yes, that was an absurdly ingenious iteration a long time coming. But it was “The Box,” that stayed with me as a model of what Brooklyn Nine-Nine does best, and a promise of all the creative paths it has still to tread. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: FOX)

3. “Free Churro,” BoJack Horseman

Writers: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Director: Amy Winfrey

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Animation, unreliant as it is on the physical presence of actors or props or scenery, has a remarkable toolbox available to it: Anything that can be imagined and then drawn or digitally generated is fair game. And BoJack Horseman, like The Venture Bros. and Archer before it, has taken advantage of that flexibility to push against the typical constraints of a TV episode—setting an entire, dialogue-free episode in an underwater city, for instance, or using a framing device to tell two overlapping stories in two time periods in the same location. “Free Churro” is no exception, but with a catch: It breaks the limits by setting them. The whole episode is a single monologue performed by Will Arnett, not counting the cold open (which is also a single monologue performed by Will Arnett). BoJack, at his mother’s funeral, delivers his version of a eulogy… and keeps delivering… and keeps delivering… and keeps delivering, with only a puckish funerary organ player to trade jabs with and barely a break in perspective. By the time viewers realize there’s nothing to this episode but 26 minutes of psychological breakdown wrapped in a self-centered rant masquerading as a flat, joke-stuffed memorial, it’s already over—almost. It may be the most polarizing, least funny episode of a comedy that already tends more toward emotional brutality than humor. And it’s absolutely magnificent. —John Maher (Photo: Netflix)

2. “Teddy Perkins,” Atlanta

Writers: Donald Glover
Director: Hiro Murai

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It’s rare that an actor gives two similarly memorable performances within mere months of each other, but Lakeith Stanfield pulls it off with Sorry to Bother You and his turn as Darius in “Teddy Perkins”—arguably Atlanta’s best episode yet. This extended entry in Donald Glover’s FX series plays like a sequel to Jordan Peele’s horrific Get Out (another Stanfield credit), even though its setup is deceptively simple: Darius visits a famous musician’s house to acquire a funky piano. Shit goes sideways, of course, and what results is 41 minutes of tension, terror, and turnabout. This whole season tested the Atlanta leads’ respective breaking points, and putting Darius, the show’s philosopher, in a situation that tested the limits of his cool, his wordplay, and his powers of comprehension proved a true masterstroke. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

1. “START,” The Americans

Writers: Joe Wesiberg and Joel Fields
Director: Chris Long

From the moment in “START” that Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) decide to flee the country—which means abandoning their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), in New Hampshire—The Americans’ final episode registers as its most boldly emotional, an hour of impossible choices and awful surprises, of chaos, confusion, fear, regret. Indeed, though no one dies, “START” carries the force of a funeral procession, mourning the lives the characters might’ve led, or did, before accepting the loss as irrevocable: As Elizabeth says in the closing moments, surveying the lights of Moscow for the first time in ages, “Who knows what would have happened here?” The result is an episode spring-loaded with six seasons’ worth of terse, coded language, which finally bursts forth in an eruption of feeling. When Philip’s best friend, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), uncoils his wrath, and his sorrow, in that stunning parking-garage sequence, or when Philip, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), place one last phone call to Henry, one cannot help but remember the Gregorys and Marthas and Young Hees collected and discarded along the way. By the time The Americans delivers Philip and Elizabeth’s comeuppance, in a moment of stomach-dropping, breath-taking, palms-on-the-window astonishment, it’s completed the grandest and maybe the rarest of the medium’s feats, which is to go out, incontrovertibly, on top. “START” isn’t simply the TV episode of the year: It’s one of the greatest series finales of all time. —Matt Brennan (Photo: FX)