Anyone who doubted that Grey's Anatomy could carry on without Derek Shepherd needs only to watch Season 12's fifth installment (and the show's 250th overall) to allay those fears. "Dinner" is Grey's at its finest -- with snappy writing, great performances (Ellen Pompeo and Caterina Scorsone in particular), tension that builds throughout the hour like a tightening noose, and yes, even a few hilarious moments thrown in for good measure (yay for drunk Arizona!). It also sets the stage for the new direction the show will take in its P.D. (Post-Derek) era, introducing us to Penny, Callie's new girlfriend who, coincidentally, is the same doctor who treated Derek after his car accident and whose mistakes likely cost him his life. Though Penny and Meredith are the only ones who realize the connection, when her secret comes out midway through the hour, it lands like a bomb. This is one dinner party we're happy to have watched from afar.
The Grinder is always fantastic showcasing Dean's ludicrous celebrity persona and nearly everyone's worship of him. But for the first time, it flashes back to his final months on his TV show to reveal a fraught, lost man who feels used and abused by the show's gratuitous shirtlessness -- a frustration not unlike Stewart's since Dean came back to Idaho. Dean's existential crisis is all the more effective because it's never discussed in the present-day arc, which features Stewart's parallel disillusionment with Thanksgiving. Timothy Olyphant also shines playing himself playing Mitch Grinder's wisdom-dispensing bro. Every new show is looking for that one episode where it all comes together. This was that one for The Grinder.
Instead of the shrill squawking of typical Real Housewives reunion episodes, this was a deeply sad, disturbing look at a woman so desperate to be loved, she chose to stand by a man who faked cancer multiple times, repeatedly tried to sleep with her daughter and who emotionally, verbally and physically abused her. Even as Brooks threw Vicki under the bus to explain all the inconsistencies in his alleged cancer diagnosis story, Vicki continued to defend him, admitting that she thought it'd be easier to stay with him than to find a new man. Vicki's interrogation by the other women and host Andy Cohen over Brooks' faking cancer may not have led to the mea culpa many were looking for, but it was far more real than most reality shows are ever willing to go.
In the unusually emotional Season 2 finale, Level 4 Drunk Jimmy decides to deal with his girlfriend Gretchen's debilitating clinical depression rather than run away scared. Gretchen makes a similar gesture of commitment: She will finally take medication for her illness. We cried when she confessed, "I love you too." His blink-and-you'll-miss-it reaction filled our hearts with so much joy that we rewound that scene six times. Edgar and Lindsay also have overdue epiphanies that actually made us believe that someday, they too could grow up -- even though Lindsay's crestfallen face when she realizes that she traded her newfound independence for the miserable security of a bad marriage made us weep. You're the Worst's ability to make us laugh and ugly-cry in the same breath is not just diabolical; it's masterful.
Closing out a season that was a mixed bag at best, Orange Is the New Black's Season 3 finale returned to strength. Piper's journey to the dark side that began in Season 1 is completed, as she exacts revenge on yet another lover and embraces her newfound "boss bitch" with a DIY prison tattoo, leaving the door open for an even wilder ride in Season 4. But the real heart of the episode is in its dialogue-free final sequence, which features what were once peripheral characters who have become the true soul of the show, splashing around in a lake like children to celebrate a small taste of freedom (and, in Black Cindy's case, finding religion). It's not real freedom, of course -- there's no doubt that the ladies will be swiftly returned to Litchfield and probably punished. But the scene is a touching indicator that it's these small, happy moments that keep these ladies going.
Despite its ill-timed airing one week after a major character's uncertain death, this flashback-heavy exploration of Lennie James' Morgan is one of The Walking Dead's finest moments. The 90-minute episode tracks Morgan's journey from wide-eyed murderer of anything that moves to the zen ninja we now know through Morgan's tutelage with a doughy forensic psychiatrist named Eastman (guest star John Carroll Lynch). Unlike other episodes that rely on herds of zombies to ratchet up the action, this two-hander (three, if you count the goat) hinges on long conversations between two men with radically different viewpoints. Both actors give subtle but strong performances that stay with you once the show flashes back to a reality in which Morgan's newly adopted "all life is precious" motto is seriously put to the test. It's nice to know that a show about the end of the world can still celebrate life.
For all of The Americans' fantastic moments between its regular characters (see: "Stingers"), none was more compelling last season than Elizabeth's conversation with guest star Lois Smith's Betty, an elderly woman who Elizabeth forces to overdose on heart medication after she sees her undisguised. But the slow march toward death is more excruciating for Elizabeth. A surrogate for Elizabeth -- Betty is a nickname for Elizabeth after all -- Betty regales her with her life story, drawing her in and drawing empathy out of our typically robotic spy, beautifully captured by Keri Russell. Like Elizabeth's devotion to the cause, Betty accepts her fate, but she cannot accept Elizabeth's blind belief that all this will make the world a better place. "That's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things," she says. Never before has Elizabeth looked more in doubt -- or more human.
In its second season, Black-ish raised the stakes with tighter, funnier probes into cultural insights, and this episode is the standout. Jack drops the N-bomb while performing a Kanye West song at school, prompting his expulsion and an examination of the word's place in both black culture and culture at large. Mom Rainbow hates it, Dad Andre claims it as a term of endearment to be used by and among blacks only, while daughter Zoey is indifferent and cool with her white friends saying it. Tough questions -- who's "allowed" to say it, whatever that even means, how varying generations feel about it -- and a range of viewpoints get represented, even that of cringing, well-intentioned white people. It's provocative yet light-hearted, with a subplot about Andre Jr. suddenly becoming an eco-warrior forcing everyone to save water. "Nope -- not going to be the only black family in the neighborhood with a brown lawn," Rainbow says, a zinger that shows, like the conversation about "the word," the special attention minorities have to give to their presentation.
Broad City takes absurdity to a new level in "Knockoffs," featuring some unique advice on how to find the best knockoff purses in New York City that has Ilana and her mom (guest star Susie Essman) descending into the seamy underbelly of the world of counterfeit bags. The episode also memorably offers a valuable message in sex positivity and communication in relationships when Abbi finally hooks up with her longtime crush Jeremy, only to discover that he loves getting "pegged" (Google it). On other shows, the revelation would've been played for cheap, shaming laughs, but Broad City tackles it with amusing open-mindedness. And yes, the whole thing is ridiculous, but "Knockoffs" is the epitome of what Broad City does so well: It takes the real issues that no one talks about and wraps it in a save-on-your-DVR-forever package.
Ending a long-running show is hard, but Justified's final hour is just about perfect. After a final, bloodless showdown between lifelong frenemies Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens proves that Raylan can keep his gun holstered, the show jumps forward a few years. Ava, having escaped Raylan's custody, lives in fear for herself and (surprise!) Boyd's child, but Raylan -- also now a father in Florida -- decides to let Ava skate and even fulfills his titular promise to protect Ava by telling an imprisoned Boyd that his true love died in a car accident. Fittingly for a show that always celebrated juicy dialogue, the episode ends with one last battle of wits between Boyd and Raylan, who ultimately decide that no matter how many miles or years separate them, there is one universal truth: "We dug coal together." Our bond with Justified is just as strong.
After several episodes in gritty Hell's Kitchen, "AKA WWJD" moves the action into the sunny suburbs, where Kilgrave holds Jessica hostage in her childhood home. There, Jessica finally confronts Kilgrave about raping and abusing her for months on end, while he counters with his own story about his tortured childhood as a science experiment. The reveal explains why Kilgrave is who he is without justifying or absolving him (though Kilgrave definitely tries his hardest to do so with a litany of excuses) -- a powerful indictment of real-life abusers. By this point we'd already seen many deaths at Kilgrave's hand, but it is the way he evaded all responsibility for violating Jessica in this episode that truly cemented just how monstrous he was.
For its star-studded 40th anniversary special, SNL resurrected almost every legendary sketch, character and catchphrase in the show's history, from the "Super Bass-O-Matic 2150" and "Wayne's World" to "Celebrity Jeopardy" and a new, meta Digital Short "That's When You Break." Perhaps most exciting was audition footage of impossibly young-looking cast members and future stars who didn't make it on, like Stephen Colbert and Andy Kaufman -- proof that everyone wanted a piece of this pie. The special, like SNL itself, wasn't perfect (how do you cover 40 years in three-and-a-half hours?), but it's an entertaining, nostalgic reminder that the show is a culture-defining trailblazer -- and it's still going.
Jaime Camil's Rogelio is the most lovable narcissist on TV, but his mystique grows richer when we learn who his nemesis is: Britney Spears. Jane utilizes Spears' performance skills and cheeky humor in all the right ways. Backup-dancer minions unleash choreographed dance numbers at her beck and call, and Brit and Rogelio's argument over who sabotaged whom first is quotable perfection and too ridiculous to be real. Balancing out the Brit-palooza are some grounded, moving arcs involving Alba's green card issues, Jane and Petra bonding for the first time, and Jane being forced to break up with Michael. The hour is hilarious, heartbreaking and classic Jane.
What do you do after serving up "Peeno Noir"? Put on one helluva dinner party. Setting the nutso tone in the cold open -- with the funniest pronunciation of "Beyonce" ever -- "Party" is the purest display of Kimmy Schmidt at its most joyfully absurd. The basic premise: Jacqueline tries to catch her cheating husband red-handed during a dinner party (using talcum powder?). But the episode employs the totally game ensemble to deftly weave together stories about a too-friendly robot, a marriage-counseling shame puppet and more quick-cut genre spoofs than you can shake a stick at (Cinderella makeover! Robot murder! Horror-themed restaurant!). Tina Fey's characteristically dense writing also smartly skewers the 1 percent and relays a message of identity and belonging. You can't help but admire it -- like an item at the Beekman Institute for Art That Actually Looks Like Something.
This Breaking Bad spin-off might be the story of Jimmy McGill's descent into Saul Goodman, but the episode that stole the season was all about Jonathan Banks' Mike. The hour reveals how a tough, dirty Philadelphia cop ended up in Albuquerque working in a courthouse tollbooth. The episode slowly reveals the tragic circumstances surrounding Mike's son's death, allowing viewers to see the surprisingly soft heart beneath Mike's steely façade. Banks' masterful performance reaches a crescendo as he delivers Mike's guilt-ridden confession. "I broke my boy," he croaks, and our hearts break right along with Mike's.
The battle between the hopelessly ill-equipped humans and the skeletal, undead wights is the series' most artistically cinematic tableau to date. CGI supernatural foes seamlessly blend with the actors, all while it's snowing, creating awe-inspiring images worthy of every award. Beyond the stunning visuals, though, is the beautifully orchestrated storytelling that combine the carnage and chaos with poignant moments of despair. Game of Thrones is at its best when it's cruel to its characters and the audience, as this terrifying, tragic episode demonstrates
The ratings juggernaut and cultural phenomenon began with this episode: a little bit Shakespeare, a little bit Dynasty and a whole lotta crazy. Hip-hop impresario Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), just diagnosed with ALS, announces his successor will either be: Andre, his business-minded bipolar son; Hakeem, a brash, hot-headed rapper; or Jamal, the sensitive singer son whose sexuality puts him at odds with his homophobic dad. But then Lucious' ex-wife Cookie is released from prison and she's hell-bent on getting her share, storming about in outrageous leopard and fur outfits and dropping one-liners that instantly turned her into an icon. Their past hurts and new agendas make betrayal, blackmail and even murder the family way -- all this amid sets luxe enough to include real Kehinde Wiley paintings and a soundtrack of thumping hip-hop beats from A-list musical director Timbaland. Like nothing else we'd ever seen on TV, Empire came out swinging in full force.
Spanning nearly a year in the life of Dev and Rachel's relationship, "Mornings" condenses an entire romantic comedy into a 30-minute episode of television -- and all without leaving Dev's apartment. As time goes by, we witness the usual ups and downs of new relationships: arguing over clothes on the floor, a dwindling enthusiasm for sex, the challenges of interracial dating and how to sensitively communicate these issues. But while "Morning" demonstrates how the passing of time affects any relationship, it never loses sight of the very present and specific connection between Dev and Rachel that keeps them together.
The show's first episode delightfully skewers the well-trodden Bachelor franchise of manufactured romance, but really digs its talons into viewers by confirming our absolute worst suspicions about how fake reality TV is. The declaration that "This job is Satan's a--hole!" reflects just how horrible the humans on UnREAL's faux dating show "Everlasting" are paid to be in the name of good TV -- and none more so than Shiri Appleby's soulful-eyed Rachel, un unassuming producer who nevertheless is a master architect of drama and despair. Her boss Quinn (a brilliant Constance Zimmer) may be the worst though -- bribing her talent wranglers to elicit "nudity, 911 calls and catfights" while also having an affair. Or maybe it's the on-set psychologist, who uses the contestants' past trauma to manipulate them. This race to the bottom totally had us hooked, and in a way had us questioning whether our schadenfreude made us complicit in the deception.
The "superhero's identity is discovered" trope is played for shock, but rarely is its story potential maximized and thoughtfully handled the way it was on Daredevil. After Foggy learns Matt's masked vigilante alter ego, he's rightfully confused and angry, leading to a tense confrontation and an even more rare examination of male friendships. Flashbacks to happier times when they met in college provide extra emotional heft, illuminating the depths and dimensions of their bond as it breaks before our eyes. Foggy's anger, wonderfully modulated by Elden Henson, is less about Matt keeping his other life secret, but more about his willful deception and violation -- Matt's powers means he's always known when Foggy was lying -- in their relationship. "Was anything ever real between us?" he asks. The pain of betrayal and futility of Matt's remorse hurt more than the cuts and bruises on his body.
It would be another two episodes before Don Draper got his grand send-off atop a grassy hill, dreaming up a Coca-Cola jingle, but "Lost Horizon" gives us what would arguably become the most iconic image of Mad Men's final season: Peggy Olson strutting into her new office hungover, smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses, and casually carrying a erotic painting under her arm. Because let's face it: Mad Men has always really been about Peggy and the other women on the show. For her part, Joan takes a 50-cents-on-the-dollar buyout to avoid working in an office where she'll be continually sexually harassed, giving us a harsh reminder that, despite the social progress we've seen over the course of the show, feminism still had (and has) a long way to go.
All season Mr. Robot toyed with the concept of reality -- implying, yet never quite confirming, that Mr. Robot didn't exist. But in this episode, we get to see the real world for the first time without filtering everything through Elliot's point of view. That's why when Darlene reveals that she's Elliot's sister, the twist doesn't feel cheap or all that shocking; it almost feels inevitable. "Did you forget who I am?" asks Darlene, when the real question she should be asking is, "Did you forget who you are?" For all the conspiracies running through Mr. Robot, this is what the show is truly about: seeing how Elliot navigates and untangles the reality he constructed for himself. And because the show never made a habit of hiding these blurred boundaries, it made the moment we finally peeked under the veil all the more satisfying.
A 12 Angry Men parody in 2015 is, on paper, a bad idea. The iconic teleplay-turned-film is not exactly a touchstone for Amy Schumer's millennial feminist audience, you know? But familiarity with the old black-and-white, people-talking-to-each-other-in-a-room drama isn't necessary to enjoy this brilliant, biting bit of social commentary as a group of men debate whether Schumer is hot enough to be on TV. All that's needed is an awareness of the cruel double standards women face and an appreciation for a good Paul Giamatti meltdown. Schumer's barely even onscreen -- just talked about endlessly, Third Man-style (see what we did there?) in a pitch-perfect, hilarious evisceration of the patriarchy and male gaze.
It wasn't until this episode that we got confirmation that Kirsten Dunst's Peggy Blumquist was truly unhinged, when she has imaginary conversations with a motivational speaker who isn't present. ("Loplop" is also the name of artist Max Ernst's fantastical alter ego who appeared in much of his work.) After that, her kind cruelty to hostage Dodd Gerhardt -- alternately stabbing him and then feeding him beans -- hilariously horrified us, but led to one of the best lines of the episode: "Honey, you've got to stop stabbing him." Not only is this episode a spotlight on Peggy's volatile viciousness, but also on hatchet man Hanzee's curious vulnerability -- when he asks Peggy to give him a "professional" haircut. The episode plays as a microcosm for the brutal, absurd and ultimately heartbreaking ways that we treat each other and ourselves. Thanks, Fargo, for always going beyond mere entertainment and reaching for the sublime reflection of our human nature.
If you're looking for the best example of what The Leftovers' Season 2 creative reinvention was all about, look no further than this insanely bold, ambitious hour. Picking up immediately after Kevin Garvey's potentially misguided suicide, the episode envisions purgatory as a hotel full of David Lynch-ian weirdness and danger. Justin Theroux has never been better as Kevin moves from utter confusion to acceptance of his hitman mission to kill his nemesis Patti Levin in order to exorcise her from his consciousness. Is Kevin dead? Why is his father communicating through the TV? The Leftovers rarely gives us answers, but when the mysteries are presented this compellingly, who needs them? By the time Kevin comes crawling out of his burial plot, only two words suffice. "Holy sh--" indeed.