Now that we’ve looked at the top TV shows of 2012, it’s time to turn our attention to the top TV episodes. While figuring out what makes a show great and separating those great shows from the rest of the pack can be difficult, parceling out the best episodes of the year is even more so. In addition to pilots, premieres, and finales, there are the pivotal in-season episodes that are either the result of a building narrative, offer up plenty of action, or stand alone while keeping the spirit of the season alive; you have the formula-breaking episodes that showcase a different perspective of something we already know, as well as the occasionally tremendous episode of a show that isn’t at its creative peak (anymore), which can sometimes slip out of mind when the calendar hits December.
In creating my list of the top TV episodes of the calendar year, I decided to institute a one-episode-per-show cap. Doing so would allow for a better variety of programs to be given recognition and frankly, it’s boring seeing the same small group of shows mixed and matched on a list like this.
10. Archer S03E08 “Lo Scandalo” (FX)
Air Date: February 16th
Episode Description: Malory turns to Archer and Lana for help when she finds herself in a compromising situation with the Italian prime minister.
Why?: Archer has managed to successfully lampoon and pay tribute to the spy genre for three seasons, but it was a dip into the world of the closed-room murder mystery that was even more impressive. Taking a cue from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, “Lo Scandalo” finds Malory alone in her apartment with the body of the Italian Prime Minister, who had been shot to death. The only thing is that there were no signs of a break-in and Malory had the only gun in the place, a gun that she said she fired at three intruders before getting hit herself. Although piecing together what happened provided great framework for the episode, it more importantly got every character together in one location and allowed them to bounce their crazy off of one another, climaxing in a wonderfully Archer-ian dinner party and a shrug of an ending is all the funnier for its apathy.
9. Treme S03E10 “Tipitina” (HBO)
Air Date: November 25th
Episode Description: In the Season 3 finale, Janette clashes with Tim over an unauthorized benefit for a local institution. Meanwhile, Davis orchestrates his exit from the music business, but not before one more gig with an old friend; Delmond reconsiders his participation in the jazz center’s plans; Terry vents his frustration over his colleagues’ ostracism; Toni sees a chance for justice in an important case; and Annie’s album gets released.
Why?: The third season finale of Treme could have made for a moving, enormously satisfying series finale. Many of the characters had their stories tied off through departures (Sofia going to college), new beginnings (Sonny getting married), or answers that they had been chasing all season long (Toni and the murder case), and there was enough emotional closure to things like LaDonna’s trial to where it felt like The End. However, on a show like Treme, there’s never really an end; nothing gets wrapped up neatly and tidily, nor will there be any fairy tale conclusions to speak of. Rather, Treme is a story about picking up the pieces following a disaster and surviving, something that will continue no matter how far in the rearview mirror Katrina appears to be.
8. Suburgatory S02E05 “The Wishbone” (ABC)
Air Date: November 14th
Episode Description: Tessa wants to spend Thanksgiving in New York City with her mother, who’s en route from Berlin, and her grandmother, though the holiday doesn’t turn out like she planned. Meanwhile, Dallas recruits George to prepare a feast, but he’s going to need help from a professional.
Why?: Suburgatory has problems deciding if it wants to be a day-glo cartoon satire of the suburban experience or a fairly mellow look at what it means to be an outsider. Its tonal inconsistency can be equally frustrating and exciting, in that you don’t know what shade of the show you’re going to get that week, particularly as it has all the bones to be truly great. The fifth episode of the season was the closest the show’s gotten to greatness and to do so, it had to strip away some of the sheen and amp up the earnestness. While not the funniest episode of the show to date, “The Wishbone” thoughtfully, carefully, and lovingly showcased the first meeting between Tessa and her birth mother, paying mind to the reaction of her father and all the conflicting emotions running in her head. It was sweet, it allowed the supporting cast to feel as real as they’ve ever been (particularly Dallas, whose heart is as big as her closet), and it used the “family holiday” to explore what it means for a family to change shape unexpectedly.
7. Awake S01E01 “Pilot” (NBC)
Air Date: March 1st
Episode Description: In the premiere of this drama, a detective awakens after his family’s car accident to discover he’s living in two parallel worlds. In one, his wife survived the crash and his son perished. In the other, his son continues to live but his wife was killed. While trying to regain footing in his complex double lives, he continues his efforts to crack cases in both worlds.
Why?: The pilot for Awake managed to make a complex premise and the use of two different realities digestible, immediately compelling, and devastatingly beautiful. Through the use of subtle stylistic choices (notably color, but also editing and wardrobe), the episode made both realities distinct places for Detective Michael Britten to try and navigate. The dual therapists, the crossover of tidbits from one world into the next, the grief that Britten has to overcome in order to figure out what’s real – it all should have been convoluted and overly melancholy, but it works outstandingly well in the Awake pilot and made it one of the more exciting shows to debut in 2012. The series as a whole leaned too hard on the cop-drama elements at times, though the cinematic, meditative first episode was as good of a start as they could have hoped for.
6. Californication S05E06 “Love Song” (Showtime)
Air Date: February 12th
Episode Description: Samurai comes down with a case of songwriter’s block and seeks Hank’s help in getting unblocked. So Hank teams with Kali to compose a tune, which harkens back to his first sojourn to Los Angeles with Karen and other happier times with Charlie and Marcy.
Why?: Californication is known for being rude, crude, and unapologetically lewd, a comedy dripping in machismo and reeking of beer and lost opportunity. It can be equal parts offensive and awesome, powerful and pungent, but no episode from the entire run matches “Love Song,” a romantic flashback-heavy installment that actually fleshed out the Karen/Hank dynamic while letting Hank be creative. We’re told that he’s this brilliant writer and that multiple industries (music, film, book) all want to work with the mad scientist, though “Love Song” is one of the few times where the hype and the results have matched one another. Hank is someone who is always capital-O On and doesn’t let down his guard that easily, making the choice to frame a songwriting session bent on producing a love song with the happier times of his marriage all the more poignant.
5. Veep S01E08 “Tears” (HBO)
Air Date: June 10th
Episode Description: In the Season 1 finale, a Ohio gubernatorial candidate balks at Selina’s endorsement due to her current unpopularity, but Mike and Amy try to make the best of the vice president’s emotions during their meeting. Meanwhile, Dan can’t shake the clean-jobs bill debacle, especially when it could be the subject of a Congressional hearing.
Why?: Throughout the cynical first season of Veep, VP Selina Meyer dealt with an onslaught of bad press and poor professional breaks that led her to become frustrated with the position. It’s a wonder that, after going so long without an unqualified win and seeing any political clout she had in this country vanish, she didn’t cry sooner, really. “Tears”, darkly acidic and cleverly plotted, finds the Veep on the campaign trail once again and attempting to turn a bad event into something she can use to her advantage, which shockingly works – for a while, at least. If there’s one lesson to learn from Veep, it’s that nothing ever changes in politics; all people like Selina, Dan, and Amy are faceless cogs in the machine that serve their purpose before being replaced by a newer, fresher model. If Selina can’t halt the inquiry into the Macauley amendment next season, her replacement will be coming sooner rather than later.
4. Justified S03E10 “Guy Walks into a Bar” (FX)
Air Date: March 20th
Episode Description: Raylan struggles to keep Dickie Bennett in prison while also contending with the increasingly violent and unpredictable Quarles. Meanwhile, Boyd’s election in Harlan is approaching.
Why?: No other Justified villain will ever match up to the presence of Mags Bennett, but Robert Quarles was a damn good replacement nonetheless. His friendly persona among the Harlan residents masked a troubled man inside, a man who continued to struggle in moving on from childhood trauma and a man who would stop at nothing to fill the hole within himself with power, land, and money. In addition to a chillingly acted, impressively directed altercation between Quarles and Raylan at a local bar, the episode featured an unpacking of the man Robert Quarles is and the type of demons he had to fight to get this far. It made the man sympathetic for the first time by revealing how disturbed he was, which also raised the stakes for the rest of the season; once you knew what Quarles was capable of, he became more of a threat to Raylan and someone who needed to be put down before he got anyone else hurt.
3. Boardwalk Empire S03E11 “Two Impostors” (HBO)
Air Date: November 25th
Episode Description: Nucky and Eddie hide out with Chalky when Gyp descends on Atlantic City, where his band of thugs takes over the Artemis Club, forcing Gillian to reconsider her business model. Meanwhile, Luciano makes a risky move; and Richard suffers a setback.
Why?: For the past two seasons, Boardwalk Empire has managed to take its dangling plot threads and weave them together seamlessly during the final episodes, bringing enemies crashing against one another and paying off long-standing tension. Like the sublime “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”, “Two Impostors” was a highlight of its respective season, managing to make enthralling action (Nucky escaping his residence with Mr. Kessler after having to gun down three of Masseria’s men), political chess (Eli striking a deal with Capone and Torrio, Chalky backing Nucky rather than defecting to Gyp), and an impending sense of dread (Gillian being boxed in by Gyp, Owen’s ill-fated trip to the baths) coalesce into the sprawling, deeply satisfying hour of television.
2. Homeland S02E04 “Q&A” (Showtime)
Air Date: October 28th
Episode Description: Brody finds himself imprisoned again, only this time it’s in the United States. Meanwhile, Carrie’s rash judgment call at the hotel results in Estes trying to keep Jessica off their trail; and Dana’s relationship with Finn heats up as their date night takes an unexpected turn.
Why?: Once Carrie pulled the trigger on bringing Brody in for interrogation, I figured that Homeland would take a breath and feel out the next move it would make; the show had already executed several major plot twists in a row by this point and, in the interest of not burning through too much story, it seemed likely that they would slow down before revving up again. Not so. While the car accident was jarring and felt out-of-place at the time, it eventually tied in thematically with the rest of the season, casting Walden as a victim and pulling Dana farther from her father, and the nearly 15-minute uninterrupted interrogation of Brody by Carrie might’ve contained the best acting you’ll see in any episode of television from 2012.
1. Spartacus: Vengeance S03E05 “Libertus” (Starz)
Air Date: February 24th
Episode Description: Spartacus undertakes a mission to rescue Crixus from the Romans, but a famous gladiator from the House of Atiatus interferes with the plan; Ilithyia’s scheming begins to affect her marriage to Glaber.
Why?: The arena was the centerpiece of the Spartacus world, the culmination of the gladiators’ training and a source of entertainment to the bored Capuan masses. So much of the drama either took place in the arena or was focused on the different Houses jockeying for position that it seemed likely that it would be a part of the show’s DNA until the series finale, but in one breathtaking sequence Spartacus and his men destroyed the place they once felt most at home in. It was the final symbol of the season-long rebellion, it stirred the pot with Glaber, and it was only the fifth episode of the season.
The Next 10:
11. Childrens Hospital S04E07 “British Hospital”
12. Scandal S01E06 “The Trail”
13. Nashville S01E01 “Pilot”
14. Damages S05E10 “But You Don’t Do That Anymore”
15. The Borgias S02E09 “World of Wonders”
16. The League S04E02 “The Hoodie”
17. Cougar Town S03E05 “A One Story Town”
18. Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 S01E02 “Daddy’s Girl”
19. Parks and Recreation S04E22 “Win, Lose, or Draw”
20. Bob’s Burgers S02E02 “Bob Day Afternoon”