Making a list of the best television episodes of 2013 is a fool’s errand. We know that. There was just too much good television, between all the new contenders, returning favorites, and dramatic farewells. Even just starting the list was a daunting task, because after “Ozymandias” and “The Rains of Castamere” it was kind of a crapshoot, and we knew we’d have to leave off a bunch of very worthy episodes. Example: Mad Men, Eastbound and Down, and Orphan Black were all terrific this year, and none of their episodes made the list. That’s just ridiculous. I don’t even know why we tried.
But we did. Dustin, Josh, and I weeded through an entire year of excellent television and selected our nine favorite episodes (kind of), and each wrote up entries for three of them. There’s a pretty decent balance between comedy and drama, and network, cable, and streaming, which happened mostly by accident, and was a little surprising. I’m sure you have your own selections, and thoughts about ours, which you are free to share in the comments in all-caps, profanity-filled missives should you so desire. That’s half the fun of lists like these — everyone starts yelling at each other and no one ends up happy. We might as well be family.
Anyway, without further ado, here are our top nine episodes of the year.
Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere” — I spent as much time watching The Scene in “The Rains of Castamare” as I did watching my then-fiancée watch The Scene in “The Rains of Castamere.” I’ve read the books, so I was well aware of the horror to come, but I tried not to be smug about it to her — better for her to be surprised than to be met with a constant barrage of “HO HO HO JUST YOU WAIT” winks from me every time Robb did something dumb. Then The Scene happened, and holy sh*t, I still don’t think I’ve recovered. It takes approximately eight minutes for Cat Stark to go from party guest to lifeless clump on the floor, but watching The Scene live, it felt endless. It was one of those milestone TV moments, the ones where you’ll never forget where you were when it happened, and who you were watching it with. Slightly over a month later, “The Rains of Castamere,” both the episode and song, reappeared in my life: at my wedding, where I surprised my now-wife by playing the National’s version as our first dance. Only one person laughed. It was not my wife. — JK
Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” — As a movie critic, I see well over 100 films a year, but it says something about the Rian Johnson directed episode of Breaking Bad that it was better than any movie I’ve seen this year. Or last. The episode took its name from the haunting, despairing poem from Percy Shelley, and the episode — which saw the death of one major character, and saw Walter White ruthlessly turn Todd against his own former partner, Jesse Pinkman — may well survive as long as Shelley’s sonnet. The words of Ozymandias — “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” — could have also been the thoughts of every other television showrunner looking upon Vince Gilligan’s finest episode in a series full of fine episodes. “Ozymandias” wasn’t just the best episode of television in 2013, it may well be the best episode of television we will ever see. — DR
I’m sure there are more professional ways to start out a recap than by typing “holy crap” in all caps, but seriously, HOLY CRAP. How good was last night’s episode? The scene at the beginning with Nicky and Boyd, the whole standoff between Tim and Colt (especially the phone call), Drew telling Raylan about meeting Arlo in Vietnam, Ava going FULL Ava Crowder on Nicky and Johnny, Constable Bob turning an enforcer named Yolo into beef stew, all of it. Any of those scenes could have been the high point of another episode, but instead Graham Yost and crew stacked them on top of each other like a gun-toting, wise-cracking, 30-foot tall sentient totem pole, and the result was one of the most enjoyable hours of television in recent memory. — DG
Yup, I stand by all of that. If any episode of television approached the territory of the first two entries on this list, for my money, it was this one. Stay frosty, Justified.
Veep, “Running” — The episode of Veep that snagged Julia Louis Dreyfus yet another Emmy may have been the finest, funniest episode of the series’ run. Taking its inspiration from a similar incident in which series creator Armando Iannucci walked into a glass door and shattered it with his face, Vice President Selena Meyers does so at one of the more crucial moments in her career, the day before she decides to resign from the ticket and run for presidency, though in her chemically imbalanced state (hopped up on anti-depressants and St. John’s Wart), she inadvertently misleads the press into thinking she’s running sooner than she meant to suggest, after she announces she’s “running” in a 10K the next day. The entire episode smartly mixed slapstick, the show’s cutting verbal insults, drug-humor, the honesty that comes from intoxication, and the biggest plot turn of the series run in brilliant, hilarious fashion. — DR
Parks and Recreation, “Leslie and Ben” — Few shows strike the balance between sweet and funny as expertly and consistently as Parks and Recreation, and Leslie and Ben’s wedding was a prime example. Building off the foundation of the previous episode (Leslie and Ben decide to get married in a spur-of-the-moment ceremony during a big gala for the town), the episode somehow took me on an emotional journey from giggling like an idiot about a drunken city councilman interrupting the festivities with stink bombs he smuggled in inside what appeared to be a version of Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket from Drive, to real, actual tears as the two of them said their vows. “I love you and I like you.” Damn. The Ghost of Lil Sebastian approves. — DG
Rectify, “Jacob’s Ladder” — No episode of television in 2013 gut-punched me as hard as the season finale of the little-seen, too-little appreciated Sundance Channel series, Rectify, which comes from character actor Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy) and, not coincidentally, two producers of Breaking Bad. The series follows Daniel Holden (Aiden Young) in the weeks after he was released from death row after DNA evidence called into question his conviction for rape and murder of his girlfriend 19 years prior, and the trick the series pulls off is in never letting us know whether he actually was guilty or not, making us deeply sympathize with him but with some reservation. At a certain point, it almost doesn’t seem to matter whether he was guilty or not: He’s a gentle, kind soul, and what the people of his small town do to him in the wake of his release is harrowing, traumatic, and unforgivable. The final moments of “Jacob’s Ladder” are as close as I have ever felt to experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. — DR
Orange Is the New Black, Every episode — House of Cards premiered and Arrested Development returned this year with a flood of hype that threatened to drown the Internet with Kevin Spacey fourth-wall-breaking and Fantastic Four musical GIFs. But it was Orange Is the New Black, the show that people were less excited for than even the horrific (and not in a good way) Hemlock Grove, that ended up being Netflix’s greatest triumph. The reasons have been well covered — the mix of comedy and drama, the diverse cast, the number of minor characters who an entire series could be built around, the chicken, etc. — but I don’t recall any individual episodes that stood out (they were all good), only moments, like Crazy Eyes’s pissing on the floor. And the chicken. So I’m saying the best episode of Orange Is the New Black is, all of them. They were all watched in one big sleepless blur, anyway. — JK
Nathan for You, “The Claw of Shame” — Nathan for You made me laugh harder than any show on television this year. I could have selected almost any episode for this list and felt totally justified. The only reason I’m going with “The Claw of Shame” is because it was the only one centered in on a single unifying idea, which, as a reminder, was that the show’s star created a huge robotic contraption that would remove his pants in front of a group of children — and a police officer who was prepared to arrest him and charge him with crimes that would result in him having to register as a sex offender — unless he was able to free himself from handcuffs to shut it off. The “Gas Station Rebate/Caricature Artist” episode was probably funnier from beginning to end, but, I mean, I feel like we should give this one bonus points for originality and gusto, if only for the stakes. — DG
Archer, “Fugue and Riffs” — To be honest, this selection’s kind of a cop-out. There was so much great TV this year — a partial list of excellent shows not included on this list: Mad Men, Orphan Black, New Girl, The Returned, Top of the Lake, Masters of Sex, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Middle, that scene from Dexter with the treadmill — that our top-10 could have been a top-50. Hence, “Fugue and Riffs,” which combined two of the best shows on TV, animated or otherwise: the salty Archer and the sweet Bob’s Burgers. Is it the best episode either series aired in 2013? Probably not, but it did have Ron Cadillac and the most violently funny fight scene in the show’s history and Cheryl tripping bear balls and the Bob’s Burgers kids in the premiere and the voice of the Bob’s Burgers kids in the equally excellent finale and … what I’m saying is, H. Jon Benjamin is everything. — JK