It was a year of strong TV. We had character-driven dramas find their footing in The Leftovers and Black Sails, Penny Dreadful and Game of Thrones remained consistently epic, and socially relevant comedies like Inside Amy Schumer and Master of None became powerhouses.
But which of their individual episodes was the best of the year? Break these shows down to their very elements, and lo, some of the brightest hours of the year emerge.
Character development is the most crucial element. After all, what’s the point in investing hours of your time in watching people you don’t care about? The greatest here might have been Penny Dreadful, as its second season saw its characters continue to wrestle with their monstrous natures — which scored Eva Green a long-deserved Golden Globe nod. Unfortunately, awards season failed to recognize the equally fascinating character turn Lily/ Brona (played by Billie Piper) took.
In the eighth episode (“Memento Mori”), this culminates in one of the most powerful TV monologues of 2015 where — spoiler alert — she reveals that her innocent demure facade has been an act, she does in fact remember her life as a prostitute before Victor Frankenstein murdered and resurrected her, and she’s out for blood.
Equally impressive was the way the highly underrated pirate drama Black Sails managed to rebound off an unremarkable first season into a dazzling second season that dove into its characters psychologies and made us care about people who had previously been too enigmatic (Captain Flint), too annoying (John Silver), or too baffling (Charles Vane and his escapades at Lumberjack island). No longer could Black Sails be dismissed for not spending enough time exploring its characters’ motives — crucial in a story with enough schemes and betrayals to give Game of Thrones a run for its money.
Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) ruminating on his own identity in the ninth episode (XVII) is one of 2015’s best quiet character moments — all the more so because it turns out to be the calm before a spectacular storm.
Social commentary isn’t crucial to crafting a good episode of television, but when it’s present and handled in a smart way, it can elevate good TV to greatness. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the third episode of Inside Amy Schumer’s third season. “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” took a seemingly simple silly concept — using the play 12 Angry Men as a launchpad for a sketch about whether Amy Schumer is hot enough to be on TV — to deliver a skit that embodied incisive, disarming feminist television.
The word “feminism” too often evokes bewilderment or ridicule. This 20-minute episode presented a feminist argument that transcended Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj squabbles and the latest Lena Dunham dustups. This episode of television proved that a polarizing issue can be deeply funny to those all over the spectrum — whether they spend a lot of time thinking about it or not.
Edge of Your Seat-itude
Edge of Your Seat-itude might not be an official category as recognized by the Emmys, but it’s a quality that certainly helps distinguish great TV from pretenders. That edge-of-your-seat quality can be literal life-or-death tension, like in Black Sails’s Season 2 finale, or it can be something quieter like The Leftovers “International Assassin” or Outlander’s “The Garrison Commander.”
Scottish highland period drama Outlander had a first season that was too unevenly paced to be excellent as a whole, but it provided enough standout episodes and performances to score a few Golden Globe nods. It’s no accident that the two actors central to its sixth episode (Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies) were among the nods.
“The Garrison Commander” is an hour of TV that is primarily just two people in a room having a conversation — and it’s one of the tensest hours of TV that happened this year. Every exchange is fraught with danger; every expression hides as much as it reveals; every minor pause is stressful. “The Garrison Commander” singlehandedly proves that Edge-of-Your-Seat-itude need not rest on epic battles.
Universal appeal is a tricky category, because what the hell does that even mean?Duck Dynasty and Real Housewives have high ratings, and those aren’t exactly a study in stellar TV writing, acting, and performing. When something is popular, it’s easy to assume it might not be quality, because it often isn’t. But the second episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None shows just how affecting universality can be. If you have immigrant parents, you connected to this episode, which explores the immigrant narrative more deeply than nearly any show has to date.
Even if you don’t have immigrant parents, the prospect of being accidentally, thoughtlessly ungrateful and unaware of your parents’ achievements resonates. “Parents” achieves that intangible quality of universality by telling a specific story — Dev and Brian’s relationships with their parents — in a fresh and relatable way.
The Best Episode of TV This Year Is…
All of the above episodes are among the best 2015 had to offer. But only one true king can rule, and that title falls to an hour of TV that will go down as one of the most stunning of any year: Game of Thrones’s “Hardhome,” which chronicles Jon Snow’s efforts to convince the Wildlings to ally with the Night’s Watch in the upcoming war against the White Walkers.
This was already going to be a tough political dance, as the two sides are notorious enemies and nobody even believed the White Walkers were a real threat. On top of that, Jon is many things, but a skilled diplomat the boy is not. It also doesn’t help that his second in command casually beats a guy to death the instant they arrive.
And, oh yeah, halfway through the episode, there’s the minor matter of an army of White Walkers showing up unexpectedly, forcing Jon, his men, and the Wildlings to put aside their differences and fight in some frantic, tense, epic sequences.
“Hardhome” wasn’t necessarily better than the other best episodes of 2015. Inside Amy Schumer’s “12 Angry Men” and Master of None’s “Parents” were more topical (Although, in “Hardhome,” convincing skeptics that White Walkers are real isn’t much different than global warming, is it?)
Still, Penny Dreadful and Black Sails offered more stirring monologues, and The Leftovers’s International Assassin beats “Hardhome” in sheer audacity. But “Hardhome” is the one hour of TV that hits all the sweet spots simultaneously.
In character development, Karsi the Wildling might not have had a slow-burn multi episode buildup like Black Sails’ Captain Flint or Penny Dreadful’s Lily, but her abbreviated character arc was all the more impressive for the emotion it managed to stir in such a limited timeframe.
“Hardhome” managed to capture the quiet tension Outlander had in “The Garrison Commander” in the calm before the storm, as the wind changes, Jon’s hangdog face changes to an “oh, shit” face, and viewers realizes alongside him that something is afoot. The quiet tension then culminates the large scale tension of an epic fight for their lives.
Most importantly, the fighting isn’t just clashing swords for the sake of it: Jon Snow is at the center of it all, furthering the development of his uneven reign as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The camera stays tight on his face as we feel his panic, his desperation. We wonder, along with him, how he can possibly get out of this. To be able to weave that kind of character work alongside breakneck action sequences is universally great television.
Game of Thrones is the biggest show in the universe, but in a strange way, it’s an underdog contender for the best episode of the year, as Season 5 was widely criticized among even the most ardent fans. But on every level — character work, tension both large and small — its eighth episode provided the finest hour 2015 had to offer. As long as it delivers episodes like “Hardhome” once a season, it will remain amongst the best shows on TV in spite of its faults — even if it did perpetuate the trend in protagonist death fakeouts. Maybe there will be a new contender to the throne in 2016 — but at any rate, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these episodes.