With the volume of television currently available and the way we often binge watch it, it can be difficult to single out favorite episodes. But 2021 (so far!) has delivered a surprising amount of unforgettable TV chapters. Some are premieres and finales, yes, but many others are just excellent stories within some of our favorite series. There is a lot of crossover with our Best TV Shows of 2021 (So Far) list, but not exclusively; one of the best parts of writing about the best episodes is giving kudos to stand-out moments from shows that might not have made other roundups. There’s a lot of great TV, and we love celebrating it.
Spoiler note: While we do try and keep big twists vague in the blurbs below, some spoilers can’t be avoided. If you haven’t caught up with a series and aren’t sure you want to know more, just scroll on past!
Written by: Zora Bikangaga
Directed by: Anya Adams
Last year’s protests around racial inequality and police brutality shook up the status quo in an important and meaningful way. The movement changed the way many of us view the fabric of society—from everyday interactions to corporate responsibility. It’s important that these conversations are also reflected in the art we consume, and in my opinion no show did it better than Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. In the midseason finale, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” Simon (John Clarence Stewart) is dealing with the immediate fallout of publicly revealing that the SPRQ Point software doesn’t accurately recognize Black and brown faces, and that the upper management at the company is almost entirely white. Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) also gets a moment of uncharacteristic seriousness when addressing microaggressions brought on by racially charged jokes in the office.
For both Simon and Tobin, this is a crossroads moment: either they can stand up for themselves and for POC everywhere, or they can back down and continue to live in an environment that doesn’t really see them. Through their characters we get a first-hand experience of how racism in the workplace manifests in subtle ways, and the episode is careful to also expose the blind spots of even the most well-meaning white “allies.” For a show that’s usually carefree and light, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” pulled off not only a tonal shift but also executed the concept with honesty and integrity. —Radhika Menon
Written by: Chelsea Devantez and Berkley Johnson
Directed by: LP
In many ways Girs5Eva is an outrageous farce. The comedy follows four now-middle-aged women trying to rekindle the fame they had in the ‘90s when they were going to be famous “5eva.” The show is hilarious and the jokes come so fast you might miss a few gems if you aren’t paying close attention. (It took me watching the episode for the second time to realize Girls5Eva was promoting “Perdue Zero,” the first chicken without bones or calories!) But what makes the show truly special is that underneath the hilarity, the mocking of the TRL/MTV era, and the ode to the questionable ‘90s fashion choices lies real emotions and real characters. In “Catskills,” the ladies take a trip to a remote cabin in the hopes of writing their next hit song. Gloria (Paula Pell) “accidentally” runs into her ex-wife Caroline (played by Pell’s real-life wife Janine Brito), and thinks they can rekindle their romance. But Gloria soon learns all the problems of their relationship are still there; she is a relentlessly hard worker because during the height of the group’s popularity she had to conceal the fact that she was gay, and hid her true self behind her work ethic. Wickie (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Dawn (Sara Bareilles) have similar epiphanies. They are all more than the one-note description Girls5Eva gave them. Not many shows can be this concurrently funny and profound. Come for the jokes (“Assembly requires four men, or nine daughters”), stay for the deep dive into living in your truth. —Amy Amatangelo
“Moments in Love, Chapter 4,” Master of None
Written by: Aziz Ansari, Lena Waithe
Directed by: Aziz Ansari
Master of None’s first two seasons centered on Aziz Ansari’s Dev, a drifting 30-something actor who romanticizes everything, so much so that his wanderlust eventually drags him from New York City to Italy. But Dev’s story was always intertwined with that of his friends, namely his childhood bestie Denise, who gets her own coming-out story episode in Season 2. The show’s magnificent third season, however, is devoted entirely to Denise and her wife Alicia. What begins as a pastoral glimpse into Denise and Alicia’s married bliss on a small farm in Upstate New York quickly veers into something much more complicated. Their relationship begins to unravel, but the show still somehow feels like a celebration of the love they shared, which is inextricably Black and queer. Alicia’s journey in particular is powerful, as she navigates the daunting and expensive world of trying to become a single parent via in vitro fertilization. Not only is IVF a costly and often inaccessible endeavor, but it’s also emotionally and physically taxing—especially without someone to help administer medication and give support. This beautiful episode cuts through the clinical barrier of a medical drama and drops you right next to Alicia through every round of shots, egg harvests, and ultrasounds. The result is a deeply human reminder of Black women’s strength. —Ellen Johnson
“Andante,” All Creatures Great and Small
Written by: Lisa Holdsworth
Directed by: Metin Hüseyin
One of the most affecting episodes of an already emotionally strong series, “Andante” explores the fallout from a decision that young Yorkshire vet James made to put a prized racehorse down in order to relieve it from its pain. That moment puts the practice where he works in jeopardy, including a contract that his boss—the icy Siegfried Farnon—is hoping to get with the racetrack. Elsewhere, a more uplifting subplot regarding Siegfried’s always mischievous brother Tristan and his method of debt collection is as charming as expected, not to mention a sweet moment spent with the lovely Mrs. Hall and her invaluable advice. But what really makes “Andante” stand out is us seeing a different side to Siegfried, who not only defends James in no uncertain terms, but also explains why he became a veterinarian and will always put the animals first—even if it means losing out on a dream job. His difficult, moving story about what happened to cavalry horses in WWI is haunting enough, but it’s the way Samuel West delivers the lines that is unforgettable. Here we see the frosty Farnon show just a hint of emotional depth like never before to champion the protection of animals, and it was simply beautiful. —Allison Keene
“December 19,” Cobra Kai
Written by: Bob Dearden
Directed by: Josh Heald
Cobra Kai’s Season 3 finale stitched together all the disparate storylines into the climax we’ve been oddly rooting for since we were reintroduced to these knuckleheads of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). We get Kreese’s (Martin Kove) history fully revealed, which reinforces how dangerous he is being in charge of anyone, much less kids. And then Ali’s (Elizabeth Shue) mini-arc pays off beautifully with her reunion/memory lane time with both her exes giving everyone closure and a huge dose of “grow up!” to Daniel & Johnny. All of it ends with the two frenemies finally coming together against Kreese. It sets up an intriguing path forward on just how they’ll work together and in any way successfully mix their karate philosophies. And the episode gracefully and excitingly uses all the characters, the dojo faction players and their world views towards what we always knew was inevitable: Danny and Johnny kicking ass for the same cause together. —Tara Bennett
“All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” WandaVision
Written by: Chuck Hayward and Peter Cameron
Directed by: Matt Shakman
One of the most wonderful things about WandaVision was just how episodically constructed it was. It seems a funny thing to say about TV, but in this binge-watch era it can be hard to pinpoint what happened between the premiere and finale as it all passes by in one big blur. WandaVision was an homage and celebration of classic television, and its themed episodes and references to various sitcom eras were pitch-perfect reminders of the best those formats can offer. “All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” however, was also when we really started to see Wanda’s false reality glitch around her, as she nearly loses Vision a second time. The manifestation of powers in her children, as well as the strange return of “Pietro” were all great moments, but it was also exceptionally creepy to be reminded that the people Wanda is controlling have no agency. On the outskirts of the town she has created, time moves slowly, and tears roll down the cheeks of frozen residents who are unable to move or call for help. The horror is only magnified when Vision finds Agnes and she tells him he’s been dead this whole time, really making its undertones of horror overt. But Wanda in that Halloween costume? Aspirational. —Allison Keene
“True,” The Nevers
Written by: Jane Espenson
Directed by: Zetna Fuentes
HBO’s Victorian steampunk fantasy drama The Nevers struggled in its initial episodes: to get out from under the icky shadow cast by creator and known-dirtbag Joss Whedon, to figure out what kind of story it was telling, to make viewers care about the plight of The Touched, a group of (predominantly female) individuals with special abilities that may or may not have been bestowed upon them by a fish-shaped alien spacecraft. But its wildly ambitious sixth episode, “True,” pulls the rug out from under everything we thought we understood about the series, revealing that The Nevers was always a show about the future, masquerading in a costume of the past.
It’s hard to think of a recent episode of television that so thoroughly upends its series’ premise, particularly so late in its run. And, moreover, “True” pulls off the rather remarkable feat of retroactively improving the episodes that came before it, bestowing a method to The Nevers’ madness that wasn’t always apparent. How the show will continue in the wake of this hour is anyone’s guess, and something we’ll likely have to wait some time to see thanks to the production shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But I can’t wait to find out. —Lacy Baugher Milas
“New Eyes,” Hacks
Written by: Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, Jen Statsky
Directed by: Lucia Aniello
Network: HBO Max
Starring Jean Smart as a caustic, aging stand-up comedian and newcomer Hannah Einbinder as the canceled Twitter comedian sent to write new material with her, Hacks is the unexpected buddy comedy you need to be watching. Deborah and Ava butt heads on nearly everything relating to what is and isn’t funny, and the series is built on their generational tension. Both of the women are hilarious in their own ways—Ava, a cannabis-dependent, self-deprecating, chronic oversharer, and Deborah, a comedy legend always quick with a cutting remark to hit the most sensitive nerve—but it isn’t until Episode 6, “New Eyes,” that the connection developing between them finally breaks through their respective issues and insecurities. After recovering from an emotionally devastating morning, Ava is quickly whisked away for “writer’s retreat.” In reality, Deborah is getting plastic surgery at an over-the-top spa where the two will stay as she recovers. “New Eyes” is Hacks at its best, oscillating between heartfelt moments shared by two women who don’t have many other people in their lives, and dark jokes about anything from suicide to disordered eating (“It’s a classic for a reason,” Deborah retorts when Ava calls her out). Over the course of their stay, Ava and Deborah get genuinely close, surprising them both. This episode is a defining moment in the season, allowing the two to finally find common ground and set the tone for the final four episodes where their bond is developed even further.—Kristen Reid
“Sanctuary,” Kung Fu
Written by: A.C. Allen
Directed by: R.T. Thorne
Network: The CW
Showrunners Christina M. Kim and Robert Berens’ reboot of the David Carradine martial arts drama was already under a lot of pressure to stick the landing. One of the few current shows with a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast, this version of Kung Fu tells a story of a female martial arts ace who emerges from a monastery both on the hunt for a sacred sword and at odds with her demanding mother—a plot that must be done while making absolutely sure not to delve into stereotypes. In the fifth episode of the show’s freshman season, the program went beyond that. Not only does “Sanctuary” cover the prejudices and violence inflicted upon Asian immigrant communities, but by also incorporating police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, it discusses the oft-debated topic of whether it’s better (and safer) to say nothing and keep your head down, or speak up and help a greater cause. —Whitney Friedlander
“No Mourners,” Shadow and Bone
Written by: Eric Heisserer & Daegan Fryklind
Directed by: Jeremy Webb
Netfilx’s Shadow and Bone was a combination of two book series and therefore two disparate sets of characters. That worked for some (like me!) and not as well for others, but the finale, “No Mourners,” brought them all together in a way that sets a very exciting stage for Season 2. It wasn’t only about moving characters around, though; “No Mourners” was a deeply emotional episode that both solidified certain alliances and broke apart others. Instead of ridding itself of a Big Bad, it actually augmented some of the powers in play to create even higher stakes for Ravka moving forward. And yet, the episode’s best moments were more often its quiet ones, like loving someone more than waffles, or reuniting with a beloved goat companion. The epic fantasy series could have ended there, but thank the Saints it’s not—there’s so much more ahead, and I can’t wait to see where our gang of misfits goes next. —Allison Keene
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Dickinson
Written by: Alena Smith, Ayo Edebiri
Directed by: Stacie Passon
Network: Apple TV+
The second season of Alena Smith’s raucously weird Emily Dickinson bio-series places Hailee Steinfeld’s Amherstian poet in a wild, fraught dance with the tantalizing draw—and implicit dark power—of fame from the jump. What does it mean to really be seen, she spends the season asking anyone who might be willing to even half-listen (Timothy Simons’ Frederick Law Olmsted included). What does it mean to want fame (or not)? What does it mean to NEED it? Is seeking fame a matter of pure ego, or can it mean something more? If you really, truly have something to say, is getting famous the best way to have your message heard, or will the spotlight end up blinding people to everything but the shine of your name?
Every episode of Season 2 gives Emily new ways to ask these questions, and new ways to frame the answers she finds, but it isn’t until she finally publishes her first poem in the eighth episode—and subsequently finds herself rendered invisible to everyone in Amherst but the ghost of Nobody (Will Pullen), her brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), and the dual spectres of Death (Wiz Khalifa) and a horny Edgar Allan Poe (Nick Kroll)—that she finally starts to get answers that hold any personal weight. In another of the series’ many nods to the fact that what we think of as the quirks and tensions of modern public life are really just contemporary twists on enduring themes, Emily’s inexplicable invisibility allows her to run a nineteenth century version of the twenty-first century’s social media gauntlet. She both tortures herself by listening in on the town’s first-blush reactions to her poem (hashtag never read the comments) and reframes her own perspective by slipping into the clandestine victory party being hosted by Hattie (Ayo Edebiri) and Henry (Chinasa Uche) in Austin’s barn to celebrate the success of the abolitionist newspaper they and other Black Amherstians have been publishing in secret to raise funds to send to John Brown.
Juxtaposing Emily’s self-centered tango with personal fame with The Constellation’s barnburner of a campaign against the very concept isn’t just a clever way to move Emily deeper into her own understanding of what value fame might have to her—it gives the season’s central argument some much needed historical self-awareness. That it just so happens to also give us a killer set piece featuring Hattie, Henry and the rest of their Constellation crew voguing to “Gon Blow” by Cakes Da Killa Feat. Rye Rye, well, that’s just a bonus. —Alexis Gunderson
“Happy Birthday, Jeannette Turner,” Cruel Summer
Written by: Bert V. Royal
Directed by: Max Winkler
If you can watch the Cruel Summer pilot—heck even the episode’s cold open—and not find yourself immediately obsessed with this twisty, triple-timelined mystery, then I’m pretty sure we can’t be friends.
The story, which ostensibly follows the aftermath of a kidnapping in a small Texas town, features multiple unreliable narrators, a nostalgia-heavy 1990s setting, a banging soundtrack, and a pair of great young actresses at its center. And “Happy Birthday, Jeanette Turner,” is a wildly watchable introduction to their world, an hour that shows us three distinctly different versions of the titular Jeanette, one deeply dorky in 1993, one a popular queen bee in 1994, and one an angry young woman who has been accused of a terrible crime in 1995. What really happened is a mystery that will take the rest of the season will solve, but the incredibly effective pilot will leave you desperate for more.—Lacy Baugher Milas
“Breaking the Fourth Wall,” WandaVision
Written by: Cameron Squires
Directed by: Matt Shakman
No other series was allowed to have two episodes on this list, but exceptions simply must be made for WandaVision, our #1 show of 2021 (so far). “Breaking the Fourth Wall” was an exceptional episode for a number of reasons (Monica gets her powers, Vision learns the truth about everything from Darcy), but where it really excelled was in its quietest moments—ones that explored Wanda’s grief and depression. Those two things really were the Big Bads of WandaVision, the result of so much trauma that Wanda had faced and which spurred her to create this false reality where she and Vision could be happy together. But the cracks have been getting bigger and bigger, and at this point, Wanda is feeling out of control with both her emotions and her magic. Just when it seemed like things might not get worse, we were bestowed with one of the most iconic moments in the MCU so far: “It Was Agatha All Along.” Not only a shocking revelation and a bumpin’ tune, it steered the rest of the season in a new direction. But before that major moment, it was Wanda confronting her inner darkness that made everything come together with blistering vulnerability. —Allison Keene
“The Ex-Factor,” Legends of Tomorrow
Written by: Grainne Godfree and Tyron B. Carter
Directed by: David A. Geddes
Network: The CW
Legends of Tomorrow is the superhero series known for its utterly fearless storytelling and ridiculous episode premises, whether that means anthropomorphizing a blue plush toy to defeat an evil demon, visiting the set of Lord of the Rings, trapping the Legends in classic TV genres, or making them all (admittedly adorable) puppets as part of a children’s program. Truly, there’s nothing this show can’t do.
On paper, Season 6’s “The Ex-Factor” isn’t even close to the weirdest story this show has told, with a plot that sees social media influencer Zari Tarazi battle an alien in a reality singing competition. But the true wonder of this hour is the way that Legends uses hilariously awkward pop routines to explore deeper truths about how this version of Zari sees herself and her place on the team. Plus, she and John Constantine finally admit their no-strings relationship is something more serious, delighting Hellstar fans everywhere. Truly, when you find a man who will endure public humiliation for you, keep him. —Lacy Baugher Milas
“Illusions,” Mare of Easttown
Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Mare of Easttown’s short, seven-episode run meant that every hour was carefully calculated, delivering exactly what we needed in each chapter’s crime plot and emotional narrative. From start to finish, it was exceptional. But it was its fifth episode, “Illusions,” that really changed the game. It was bleak—especially those terrifying final minutes—and yet it also found time for one of the show’s better jokes earlier in the episode. As I wrote at the time, that is the balance that Mare gets so right. It was quiet and action-packed, it was sad and funny, it was plot-heavy and emotionally devastating. To say more would be to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but “Illusions” saw Mare shaking up the genre in exciting ways. —Allison Keene
“What About Gary?” Black-ish
Written by: Edgar Momplaisir
Directed by: Natalia Anderson
Since its inception, ABC’s long-running comedy has been an outlet for some Black Americans to articulate their feelings on race and classism. Usually through narrator/lead Dre Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) voiceover, audiences learn about systemic oppression in our country and elsewhere as troubling images flash onto the screen. Episodes that have discussed everything from Juneteenth to the Trump inauguration and police brutality to colorism have served as teaching tools masked as entertainment.
This season, as the world was still reeling from the deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and as mainstream media was just beginning to cover the concept of many Black Americans feeling exhausted, Black-ish sought to explore what it’s like to routinely have to explain these issues to white people. In “What About Gary?” Rob Huebel guest stars as the titular progressive and well-meaning cousin to Dre’s wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). Wondering if he, himself, is racist, Gary asks Dre to educate him on everything from redlining to correctly identifying similarly named celebrities. What follows is an abridged, half-hour response to everyone who has sent a “check in” text to their Black friends and family that was really meant to absolve themselves. —Whitney Friedlander
“Angrepet,” Atlantic Crossing
Written by: Alexander Eik, Linda May Kallestein
Directed by: Alexander Eik, Janic Heen
Though the rest of Atlantic Crossing didn’t quite live up to expectations, its quietly harrowing premiere, “Angrepet,” did initially set the stage for greatness. It introduced a theater of World War II many are unfamiliar with: the 1940 Nazi invasion of Norway. What “Angrepet” does so effectively is give viewers the same confused and claustrophobic view of the events as those experiencing them. Would alliances hold? Would Hitler be bold enough to go beyond sniping at Norwegian ships and mount a full-fledged land war? What hope did Norway have to stave off the German machine without the help of the UK and others who were suddenly not really answering their phones? The threat of aerial attacks and an encroaching army culminated in two deeply affecting scenes, one of which showed passengers hoping to escape via train taking shelter as they were bombed from overhead because their leaders didn’t take things seriously enough up until that point. But the second, more triumphantly, it’s when we see Crown Princess Märtha attempting to abscond to safety in Sweden (or so she thought) and realizing that their car had been followed the entire time… by gun-toting Norwegian patriots on skis, making sure they were protected. Now give me a series about them. —Allison Keene
“Spirit of the Ducks,” The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers
Written by: Todd Linden
Directed by: Steve Brill
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers might be an underdog story for a new generation, but it succeeds because it knows where it came from and how to deploy its nostalgia-inducing moments for maximum effect. So it’s no surprise the episode featuring the return of six OG cast members was the best of the season—and one of the best episodes across TV this year. Set against the backdrop of Evan (Brady Noon) considering leaving his team, the Don’t Bothers, for the Mighty Ducks and a swanky gala celebrating the history of the Ducks as a team, the episode sees Elden Henson (Fulton Reed), Garette Ratliff Henson (Guy Germaine), Vincent LaRusso (Adam Banks), Marguerite Moreau (Connie Moreau), Matt Doherty (Lester Averman), and Justin Wong (Ken Wu) reprise their roles from the beloved film franchise. They reunite with Emilio Estevez’s Gordon Bombay in an emotional outing full of callbacks that hits you right in the heart and reminds everyone why this show exists. It reveals who Bombay once was—how formative a presence he was in the lives of the kids he coached—but it also highlights how the Ducks have lost sight of who they are: they’re now the cake eaters. In other words, it’s a perfect bridging of the past and present, so the episode works no matter your age (though everyone over 30 probably enjoyed it more). Honestly, the only thing that could have made it better would have been an appearance from Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) himself. But hey, there’s always Season 2. —Kaitlin Thomas
“Milk,” The Handmaid’s Tale
Written by: Jacey Heldrich
Directed by: Christina Choe
Picking up right after the ending of the third, and most preposterous, episode of the dystopian drama’s fourth season, “Milk” finds Janine (Madeline Brewer) and June (Elisabeth Moss) stranded in the woods with no supplies, no allies and with big, red cloaks on their backs. June’s gumption and shocking amount of luck lead them on a new course. But this episode isn’t memorable for what happens to further the plot, but for the backstory it develops: Janine’s.
Brewer’s character is one of the most abused and battered of the group of handmaids in June’s crew (she’s missing an eye, for God’s sake, and was almost stoned to death). Presumably as a survival technique, she often uses a cover of childlike innocence to mask her rage. June, along with their control-obsessed warden Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), treat her as if she is incapable of making decisions on her own and must be protected and spoken for.
But in this episode, we learn that Janine has long been the target of manipulation. Before the current political revolt left her a sex prisoner of the state, Janine found herself unexpectedly pregnant while raising her toddler son, Caleb. Looking to get an abortion, she finds herself guilt-laden at crisis pregnancy center. But Janine knows what she wants to do. And when she finally finds an actual doctor who can help her, the woman confirms her decision by saying “you already did the hard part.” —Whitney Friedlander
“Carolina Sphinx Moth,” Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
Written by: Allison Lyman, Josh Thomas
Directed by: Rachael Holder
Despite featuring American television’s first autistic lead played by an autistic actor (Kayla Cromer), nuanced queer representation across the board, and a plethora of compelling performances from a raft of fizzy young talent, Josh Thomas’ family dramedy Everything’s Gonna Be Okay has more or less spent its first two exceptional seasons flying under the mainstream radar.
This is a shame for a thousand reasons, not least of which is the fact that, even in a TV landscape as packed to the gills with the kind of big, creative swings our current one is, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’s vibe is nevertheless wholly singular. But while Thomas’ portrait of young siblings in grief has been worth falling into since Season 1, the slow build-up to a surprise autism diagnosis—a diagnosis that finally hit in “Carolina Sphinx Moth,” and which mirrored Thomas’ own in real life—made the case for anyone wanting to catch up on this series to get on it already. Of course, the fact that it’s Maria Bamford’s Suze who gets the diagnosis ball rolling is a solid opening move. (The addition of her and Richard Kind as Matilda’s girlfriend’s parents this season was a stroke of casting genius.) But in the end, it’s the fact that the show knows both itself and its cast well enough that it can be dead confident in taking on such a complex storyline and handling it with absolute care that makes “Carolina Sphinx Moth” such a standout episode. I mean, it’s unsurprising that the family’s (and audience’s) gradual understanding of Nicholas’ new reality is handled as deftly as it is. As is the fact that—even on the precipice of accepting that his capacity to conceive of others’ interiority is different from most people’s—Nicholas nevertheless knows his own sisters well enough that he implicitly understands both when and how to pull them each into this particular circle of trust. But just because a thing is unsurprising doesn’t mean it can’t also be astounding, and with “Carolina Sphinx Moth,” I was just that: astounded. —Alexis Gunderson
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