In the latest installment of “Pick 3,” the team selects their favorite hours of dramatic television. This one was really, really hard.
***SPOILERS FOLLOW, OBVIOUSLY! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.***
LOST: “Through the Looking Glass” (S3E22, 2007)
While in production of the third season of LOST, after a somewhat disastrous, draggy Hydra Station storyline culminating in the all-time nadir of the series (the “Jack’s Tattoos” extravaganza “Stranger in a Strange Land”), producers Lindelof & Cuse struck a bold deal with ABC: set a firm end date on the network’s cash cow, for the good of the show. It had never really been done before, certainly not so publicly, but the result was a total creative resurgence for LOST, now able to hit the gas on its storytelling and make every episode count (though whether you like where it ultimately ended up is up for debate.) The Season Three finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” is a perfect hour+ of television, landing blows squarely in the hearts AND the brains of the viewers: the brutal, sacrificial death of Charlie, and the earth-shattering “flash-forward” that reset everything we knew about the show. And thanks to “Not Penny’s Boat” + “WE HAVE TO GO BACK,” the series would never again be as universally popular as it was that following summer. Michael Giacchino’s score still gets me misty-eyed.
BAND OF BROTHERS: “The Breaking Point” (Episode 7, 2001)
Also known as “the one where it all goes to hell,” the second BoB episode focusing on the Battle of the Bulge is a parade of horrors, where character after beloved character gets blown up. It’s narrated by Donnie Wahlberg’s Sgt. Lipton, who tries to affect a dry detachment, but is masking a frozen ocean of pain and frustration. And why not? In between bursts of German shells that take a physical and mental toll on every man (let’s drink to Guarnere’s leg), Easy Company’s current commander — the esteemed Lt. Dike — is an “empty uniform,” prone to wandering away from the front line and being entirely ineffectual in the field. It’s his god-awful leadership that gets the guys pinned down on the outskirts of Foy, casualties mounting, until Lt. Speirs — SPEIRS! — provides my favorite moment in the entire miniseries: his solo charge through the town (and the German line) connecting Easy with I Company, and back again. Good Lord, what an epically cool moment. But the episode as a whole is terrifying, and gorgeous, and deeply, deeply moving.
BREAKING BAD: “Ozymandias” (S5E14, 2013)
Also known as “the one where it all goes to hell,” — HEY, WAIT A MINUTE. (Wow, I wonder what that says about me.) But the de facto climax of Breaking Bad’s final season, in which Hank takes a bullet and Walt’s plans are laid to waste, is the stuff of nightmares, brilliantly directed by Rian Johnson. The thrill of the great train heist or the escapades of Vamonos Pest are long gone, and all that remains is wreckage and shock: the knife-swinging brawl on the White family kitchen floor; Walt coldly telling Jesse the truth about Jane; the kidnapping of Baby Holly and utter despair of Skyler. Hardest of all is the final phone conversation, where Walt finally, viciously shares his true feelings with his wife while simultaneously protecting her, so adamant is he about taking all the credit for his dealings. BrBa is one of only a handful of shows to achieve an entirely satisfying conclusion, but it’s “Ozymandias,” two episodes before, that does all of the heavy lifting. Top to bottom, opening shot to last, it’s Breaking Bad’s — and Bryan Cranston’s — finest hour.
*These are in no particular order…and I would like it on the record that I originally chose a Buffy episode…
MAD MEN: “The Suitcase” (S4E7, 2010)
A fine, quiet script bolstered by two of the best performances from the show’s leads Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss, “The Suitcase” details the deep love, loyalty, and respect between Don and Peggy, each the most important person in the other’s life. They open up to each other, peeling off the layers of deceit that surrounds so much of their existence; each can be truly themselves around the other. Culminating in a subtle changing of the guard as Don seeks Peggy’s approval for the first time, we see her give it not out of truth or pity but loyalty and grace. This episode was a breath of fresh air among dramas that push their leads into relationships that often make sense only in chemistry and on the page but not in the reality of the show; Don and Peggy share a deep love that goes so beyond romantic. It’s authentic. (Also, it gave us the immortal line: “That’s what the money is for!”)
M*A*S*H*: “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (Episode 256, 1983)
More of a television movie than a one-off episode, the finale of one of the most iconic shows ever to grace primetime ended with a scene that still haunts me today. M*A*S*H* — a show based on a film that was based on a book – lasted longer than the Korean War it portrayed, but served eloquently as an allegory to the ongoing Vietnam War and intimately examined both the viciousness and humor of dying for someone else’s cause. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” as written (collaboratively among the myriad frequent showrunners), and directed by Alan Alda, not only toyed with that patented gallows humor but also served as a powerful treatise on PTSD and the bonds formed in war. As Hawkeye flies over the 4077th one last time, a message from best pal B.J. Hunnicutt laid out in rocks sends the message home to the troubled surgeon, and to all who tuned in (still the largest audience in both numbers and demographics for a television series): “Goodbye.”
DOCTOR WHO: “Blink” (Episode 186, 2007)
The quintessential Doctor Who episode, introducing audiences to Carey Mulligan as protagonist Sally Sparrow, time as a “big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff,” and the Weeping Angels: the stuff of nightmares. “Don’t blink! Blink and you’re dead!” Writer (and future showrunner) Steven Moffat penned the lightening-quick horror mystery surrounding an intriguing young woman, a dilapidated estate inhabited by creepy statues, and time travel, natch. For one moment in time, Sally is the most important person in the Doctor’s life, and he in hers, each changing the path of the other though they only share a single scene. Like a Cliff’s Notes version of the series, “Blink” basically sums up Doctor Who in just over forty-five minutes, even with the Doctor barely getting real screen time. Though “Blink” appears in the third series of the retooled Who, it is the perfect episode to watch before diving into the most brilliant science fiction…er fantasy…drama show on television.
THE X-FILES: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (S3E4, 1995)
“Final Repose” has all the standard X-Files themes going for it, but it’s also surprisingly funny – a hallmark of episodes written by Darin Morgan. Someone is murdering psychics, and Mulder and Scully conscript reluctant clairvoyant Clyde Bruckman to help solve the case. Bruckman, an Emmy-winning performance by Peter Boyle, only has one psychic ability: he can see how people will die. Everyone, that is, but himself. Tortured by his gift, he’d much rather be able to see winning lottery numbers. His only moments of peace are when he dreams about his body decomposing in a field. Complicating matters, many of Bruckman’s revelations describe a man much like himself as the killer. Does he possess psychic abilities or is he the real murderer? Featuring humorous references to Mulder eventually dying of autoerotic asphyxiation, and Bruckman’s revelation about the murderer’s motivation (he’s a homicidal maniac!) future TV pilot expert David Nutter strikes a perfect funny/serious balance and ultimately ends “Repose” with a touchingly tender moment, as Scully cradles Bruckman’s body after he commits suicide to escape his gift.
THE WIRE: “Middle Ground” (S3E11, 2004)
At heart, The Wire is a show about how institutions fail their members as leaders scapegoat problems down the line. Stringer Bell has spent years getting legitimate business ventures off the ground to elevate himself and drug kingpin Avon Barksdale above the mire, but he’s straddled both worlds for a long time. Now, several bad decisions have caught up to him, and two men damaged by Stringer’s dealings, Omar Little and Brother Mouzone, have leveraged Avon against him. After a final conversation celebrating their joint successes, Avon bids Stringer farewell for what he knows is the last time and struggles to choke back tears. When Omar and Mouzone catch up to him the next day and his bargaining attempts fail, there’s a quiet calm before Stringer demands that the two men “get on with it,” and he’s cut down in a hail of gunfire. This episode’s script was, criminally, only the show’s first Emmy nomination, as it also deftly touches on slippery issues in the police department and city politics. It’s hard to not feel an unspoken “There is no” lingering in front of the episode’s title.
GAME OF THRONES: “Blackwater” (S2E9, 2012)
I know, I know. I can hear people pleading for the Red Wedding episode “The Rains of Castamere,” but the Battle of the Blackwater is every bit its equal. The early minutes teem with pre-battle jitters. Some men party, whore, and spout false bravado. The Hound extols his love of killing, and Cersei drinks in the holdfast. Gallows humor abounds in the ranks as Stannis’s fleet approaches King’s Landing on Blackwater Bay. But when Bronn’s fire arrow ignites Stannis’s ships in a green wildfire blaze (one of show’s best ever visuals), “Blackwater” launches into some of the most elaborate battle sequences ever filmed for television. The focus shifts between an infantryman’s perspective portraying the fog of war, and the helpless, nervous women sequestered inside the castle’s Red Keep. The battle is only saved when Tyrion, a dwarf, leads troops in a flanking maneuver that allows reinforcements enough time to arrive. He deserves acclaim that he’ll never get for reviving his disheartened men, saying, “They call me half a man. What does that make the lot of you?” It’s perfect.
THE SOPRANOS: “Soprano Home Movies” (S6E13, 2007)
This episode of the groundbreaking television series (most dramas on television today owe their existence to The Sopranos) marked the beginning of the end. For the better part of the final season we watched Tony Soprano become the monster we always feared he would be as his humanity was painfully stripped away. It was hard to watch such a beloved character wind down this path, even if his true nature was never really in question. The show’s focus on family and its twisting of that dynamic through the gaze of the mafia had duped many a viewer and it was here that showrunner David Chase began to pull out the rug from under us, as a family birthday celebration at Tony’s sister Janice’s lake house turns viciously violent. Who knew a game of drunken monopoly could bring out so much rage from all sides? The first half hour is all talk, imbedded with philosophical meditations on death (the series’s controversial ending is foreshadowed in this very episode) while the second half leaves the audience in suspense as to whether Tony will kill his own brother in law and leave his sister a widow. “Soprano Home Movies” exemplified much of what the show was famous for while also bracing its audience for the bleakness that was to come.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE: “To the Lost” (S2E12, 2011)
Boardwalk Empire has remained an acquired taste throughout its airing on HBO. The prestige drama created by Sopranos alum Terrence Winter has maintained its slow burn plot buildup, subtle character interactions, sparse moments of brutal violence, and commitment to overwhelming period authenticity during its run — much to the chagrin of casual viewers. But it has also followed its narrative to logical conclusions, even if that meant killing off one of its most beloved characters. In its second season Boardwalk Empire had elevated the character of Jimmy Darmody to co-lead, alongside series protagonist Nucky Thompson. Watching these two battle it out was one of the highlights of the show since its inception and the showrunners went out of their way to make the audience fall in love with Jimmy. But the writing was on the wall for all to see, and SOMEONE had to lose the war…and that someone certainly wasn’t going to be Nucky. Jimmy’s death was inevitable, and his final scene unforgettable as seen through a blanket of rain and darkness. Nucky could no longer be half a gangster and so he pulled the trigger himself. Many fans were still shocked by the outcome, which is a testament to the power of the show’s writing. This Season 2 finale forever changed the show’s dynamic and it has only gotten better with each passing season.
THE WEST WING: “In Excelsis Deo” (S1E10, 1999)
The West Wing was possibly never better than it was in its first season, and the show’s first Christmas episode set a precedent for all that followed. “In Excelsis Deo” was a mixture of good-natured fluff and dramatic gravitas, as it followed the fate of a homeless veteran who died on a park bench wearing a coat donated by loveable grump Toby Ziegler. Ziegler takes it upon himself to ensure that the veteran is given a proper military burial, even going so far as to invoke the President’s name to make it happen. The episode provides crucial insight into both Ziegler’s character and, to an even greater extent, Mrs. Landingham, who lost her twin sons in Vietnam. The episode was about honoring all of those who serve and addressed an ongoing problem in this country where servicemen and women are continually forgotten and abandoned. In the episode’s final moments, set to a children’s choir singing “The Little Dummer Boy,” it is all but impossible to hold back the wall of tears. The spirit of Christmas has never been so well defined on network television.
THE WONDER YEARS: “Good-Bye” (S3E20, 1990)
In the annals of pop culture TV, The Wonder Years stands out as an anomaly, a sepia-tinged bit of nostalgia that somehow avoided becoming a bland mess of family ratings bait. Few series have been able to get that balance right, and of all the episodes in The Wonder Years’ celebrated six-season run, “Good-Bye” stands out as the perfect encapsulation of what made the show so great. Frustrated by the perceived harshness of his math teacher Mr. Collins, Kevin Arnold purposely throws an exam, a decision he comes to regret — the following week, Kevin is informed that Mr. Collins has died. Overcome with grief, Kevin later finds out that the teacher had thrown away the test on purpose before he passed away, leaving an opportunity for redemption: a blank test with Kevin’s name on it to complete. In less capable hands, this episode could have devolved into saccharine nonsense, but Michael Dinner and Bob Brush (who were awarded Directing and Writing Emmys for the episode) strike the perfect balance of sweetness and sadness. Even today, it’s difficult not to hear Kevin’s confident goodbye without recalling what it’s like to experience loss at such a young age. Over two decades since the episode aired, it has not lost one bit of its emotional power.
JUSTIFIED: “Bloody Harlan” (S2E13, 2011)
I’ve written on here before about my love for FX’s Justified, a show that continues to evade the “Greatest Shows on TV” discussion despite five seasons of fantastic, broiling suspense. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is probably the most charismatic character on television, a flawed, arrogant man caught between his duties as a US Marshal and his history he can’t escape in a town he can’t leave. The finale of Justified’s phenomenal second season, “Bloody Harlan” might be the show’s peak, a tense explosion of expertly drawn dramatic storylines carried by an absolutely breathtaking performance from Margo Martindale, who plays a family matriarch looking to expand her narcotics business into new territory. Showrunner Graham Yost and his writers always do a great job of building up and then twisting viewers’ expectations, and “Bloody Harlan” is surely their grandest design. In one hour, the show geniusly weaves in three major storylines, introduces major news for Raylan, and pushes three characters to the brink of death. Even under such grim circumstances, Justified never loses its heart, and as the episode winds down to its closing seconds, Martindale’s character gives the perfect snapshot of the show, as she sips poisoned moonshine with a hopeful, defiant smile.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: “Always” (S5E13, 2011)
I believe it was our own David McGinnis who best placed Friday Night Lights’ “Always” in the pantheon of great series finales: While the last season of the show is not the greatest final season ever, its finale might be TV’s most satisfying. In five short seasons, FNL managed to transcend what seemed like elementary source material – a small town consumed by high school football – to create a rich environment full of incredibly compelling characters. The heart of the show was the Taylor family, outsiders attempting to break into the obstinate, often frustrating world of Dillon, Texas. And while the show revolved around Eric Taylor’s experience coaching, it was his relationship with his family that made you care. When the show’s final run came down to the family facing a major decision – moving to Florida for Eric’s dream coaching job or to Pennsylvania for his wife Tami’s dream counseling job – there was legitimate suspense about where the show would land. That the family ultimately ended up moving up north simultaneously confirmed your faith in Coach Taylor as a father and husband and your faith in the show for recognizing the potential it had been pushing to. That a football championship was merely the icing on the cake says more about the show than I ever could. Series finales don’t get any better than “Always.”
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: “33” (S1E1, 2005)
War is hell.
The first real episode of Battlestar Galactica (post-post-apocalyptic-series-premiere-miniseries … read it again, it works) takes science fiction to heights few Sci-Fi shows manage. When “33” begins, the remainder of the galaxy’s humans find themselves in a never-ending game of cat and mouse, being attacked every 33 minutes by the murderous, robotic Cylons, who are mysteriously able to track the refugees. The humans are tired, weakened by a lack of sleep, especially the military crew of the titular Battlestar Galactica, as they maintain ever-vigilant security for a fleet that is getting progressively slower and less functional, unlike their robotic enemies. Filled with darkness, and lots of running clocks, this premiere is a wonderful display of all of our new characters at breaking point and a continuation of the season premiere’s “at all costs” tone. This is further evidenced by the crew’s choice to destroy a suspicious civilian ship, even though it holds 1300 souls (of humanity’s remaining 50,000). Despite it being the right choice, and freeing the fleet from their constant torment, the grim reality of this new war sets in on our brave humans. Sadly, the rest of the series takes a slow dive from dark, serious, hard science fiction military opera into a crazy, twisty, magical mystery tour that pretty much lets down everyone.
ROME: “The Spoils” (S1E11, 2005)
Winning a war can be hell.
The short-lived, but much-respected, HBO series Rome was a gorgeous historical fiction following the rise and fall of Emperor Julius Caesar and the aftermath of his brief rule in the Republic. The episode opens as Caesar works to cement his reign after winning a war. There is talk of dissent in the senate, and Brutus, whom he mentored, is touted as the face of the dissenters and Caesar’s enemies plot to turn him against his long-time father figure. Caesar, meanwhile, much to his own dismay but for his own safety, is forced to try to remove the dangerous boy from the capitol, in a scene that is layered and dramatic in a way that can only reasonably play out in an ancient Roman context. Meanwhile, former soldier Vorenus, quickly climbing the political ranks thanks to Caesar’s personal interest in him, is asked to betray the men of his legion and sell them short in the reparations Caesar promised them for fighting in the eight-year war. It’s a cold reality that Vorenus accepts to maintain his family’s current societal windfall and his relationship with the powerful Caesar. Pullo, however, Vorenus’s troublemaking, estranged comrade, has taken up the mortality profession and is killing citizens for coin to feed his self-destructive habits. Pullo ends up sentenced to death in the arena, and after an undoubtedly expensive action sequence Vorenus intervenes in the most stand-up-and-cheer moment of the entire series. The plebians, their lives forever changed by war, band together to support one another, while the elite splinter and work to kill one another. It’s an episode more powerful than the historically-based (read: predictable) finale that follows, and it also manages to make every character their most relatable and enjoyable before tragedy strikes.
GENERATION KILL: “A Bomb in the Garden” (Episode 7, 2008)
War? Aw, hell.
Generation Kill is a beautifully written (props to David Simon and Ed Burns), delightfully gritty miniseries that follows the elite soldiers of the United States Marines’ First Recon Battalion as they run and gun their way through the entirety of Operation Iraqi Freedom (which is why it’s only seven episodes). The final hour is an abrupt shift from all of it – the war is already over, and the role of every American soldier is about to change, diving even farther into the unprepared, unplanned void that the series depicts. When the episode opens, the men stand on the edge of the Tigris river looking into the ruins of the sprawling metropolis of Baghdad. In a sad bit of foreshadowing Sgt. Brad Colbert states “That’s a lot of city,” to which Sgt. “Gunny” Wynn replies “We’re not careful, we’ll get lost in there,” — and, in an instant, a force that has spent six episodes scooting and shooting with impunity is suddenly on occupation detail. With that assignment, the men find themselves in the unusual role of peacekeepers in a land they do not understand, and the rest of the finale is a slow spiral into an even MORE headshakingly frustrating demonstration of the failings of an unprepared military, nay, government — the warriors are told to take off their war paint, and they are unprepared for what follows. The men get their first tastes of home as mail arrives for the first time, with tragic personal consequences (divorces, mostly), and all the meanwhile the locals are anything but kind, or predictable to their new “liberators”. The breakdown of order and brotherhood culminates in a cringe-worthy football match that results in fisticuffs and then ends with the buzzkill of a lifetime for the war-weary Marines, as they watch a video recap of their time in the war, all set to Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around”. Cheering quickly deteriorates into somber expressions, head-shaking, and desertion, as the men of First Recon, now reconnected with their outside lives, give up on watching their “glorious exploits” and file out the door to return to their new reality.
What are your favorite episodes? What series did we leave out that you want to rake us over the coals for?