2014 is fast approaching, and it’s that time of year where everyone looks back at the past 12 months and says ‘That was bloody good, wasn’t it?’. This sentiment is stretched out over hundreds of minutes and hundreds of words in numerous ‘Best BLANK of 2013’ programmes and news articles, including this one.
So, why not, let’s have a look back at the best episodes of the best television shows of the year*.
*(that I’ve seen. This leaves out plenty of shows that aired in 2013 which are probably really good, but I haven’t caught up on all of them yet. Anything I’ve missed? Mention it in the comments. Go on, it’ll be fun.)
Oh, by the way, be verrrrry careful, this article is going to be a spoiler minefield. If you haven’t caught up on some of the shows mentioned and want to avoid getting spoiled, heed the warnings, skip over a few paragraphs, and you should be fine. Anyway, in no particular order…
FRINGE – LIBERTY/AN ENEMY OF FATE
This feels like so long ago, I almost forgot that this aired in 2013. This bizarre, gruesome, heart-warming sci-fi drama ended in the first few weeks of the year with an instant-classic finale that concluded a fantastic final fifth season. Loose ends were wrapped up in a neat little bow, every character got one last moment to shine, and there was a tease of ambiguity in the final moments to leave just enough open for interpretation for fans who weren’t quite ready for the show to end.
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Walter Bishop (John Noble, best known for setting himself on fire and jumping off a cliff in Lord of the Rings) and the rest of the Fringe team face off against the Observers using a plethora of old Fringe cases, and attempt to change the future to stop the Observers invading the past. It’s all very wonderful and bittersweet and slightly insane, and there’s plenty of emotional final goodbyes, references to previous seasons, and moments where, for the first time in a long while, the team are actually winning against the bald, emotionless buggers. A surprise visit to the alternate universe is the icing on the cake. This is how you do a satisfying series finale.
BREAKING BAD – TO’HAJIILEE/OZYMANDIAS
This is how you do a satisfying series finale. Oh, sorry, I’m repeating myself, but it’s true in both cases. Breaking Bad had an enormous amount of hype and anticipation surrounding its final season, and the show’s writers pulled out all the stops to match the ludicrously high expectations everyone had. Its final eight episodes saw the show consistently trying – and succeeding – to better itself as it rocketed towards the grand finale it had been building to since the very first episode. Watching week-by-week, it would seem impossible for the show to get any better, then a week or two later, it would floor you by doing just that. And then it would do it again. And again. Several of these final eight episodes rank among the best the show ever did.
(SPOILERS AHEAD! LOADS OF ‘EM!) After an agonising cliffhanger, Breaking Bad returned with an episode that Dean Norris (who played Hank) must’ve been waiting for since he joined the show. Hank finally realised his brother-law was a drug dealer, all the pieces fell into place, and he even had the balls to confront this sociopath in his garage. Holy shit! Could this get any better? Yes! After an equally-good tenth episode, the show excelled once more and packed one episode with three incredible scenes. Walt, Skyler, Hank and Marie sit down for the most awkward family dinner ever, Walt gives a shocking, deviously clever confession tape to Hank (but it’s not the sort of confession Hank was expecting, or wanting), and Jesse figures out that Walt poisoned Brock and, in a fit of rage, he breaks into Walt’s house and douses the place in gasoline. Just one of these would have been enough to guarantee it a place in the top 10 episodes of the show, but all three? Vince Gilligan, you are spoiling us.
(MORE SPOILERS, BEWARE, BEWARE!) And then, and then, two episodes later the show packs a devastating one-two punch by giving the audience everything they’d been hoping for and expecting, but with a few nasty twists, then forces us to watch the horrific fallout. In the episodes ‘To’hajiilee’ and ‘Ozymandias’, everything we’d been waiting for happened. And it was devastating to watch. Jesse helps Hank! Walt gets arrested! Walt Jr finally found out about his father’s criminal behaviour! Todd and his uncle are here! Wait, no, that’s not what I wanted-SHIT Hank’s dead! Jesse’s been taken away by Todd, Skyler’s swinging a knife at Walt, Walt Jr’s crying, Walt’s yelling and screaming, what the hell this is horrible – OH SHIT he’s kidnapping Holly ohno ohno ohno. He’s driven away and Skyler’s crying hysterically on the road and Marie heard about Hank dying and now she’s crying and- I…Jesus.
What makes this truly horrible to watch is that it was all totally inevitable. Of course everyone was going to find out about Walt. Of course Walt’s arrogance and stupidity would lead to his family and Jesse getting hurt. Of course this would lead to the nice, happy family he had breaking down into misery and despair. This was always going to happen. Hell, I was even looking forward to it. Everyone was. After watching it, I just felt like a horrible person for doing such a thing. The next two episodes are both brilliant – the moment where the theme music plays over the ending of the penultimate episode is fantastic, and the finale in general is damn near perfect and completely satisfying – but they are the wrap-up, the resolution. These two episodes are the big climax, where a lot of shit hits a colossal fan and everything gets covered. No-one is safe, no-one is happy, and it’s all Walt’s fault. Masterfully done.
DOCTOR WHO – THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR
Gritty, dark, complex dramas are good in moderation, but sometimes, after a particularly emotionally harrowing episode (see above), you need a bit of laughter, a bit of fun, a bit of well-crafted nonsense. Enter Doctor Who, with its big, bold, jubilant 50th anniversary special. It couldn’t be more different to Breaking Bad in tone, genre, intended audience or subject matter, but I enjoy it just as much. Breaking Bad gave us, objectively, the best television this year. Doctor Who gave us, objectively, the most fun television this year, so it still deserves a place in this list.
A common theme so far in this list has been a show excelling in the face of lofty expectations – Fringe‘s finale was much-anticipated amongst its small but loyal fanbase, the lead-up to Breaking Bad‘s ending was so well-publicised and feverishly looked-forward-to that you couldn’t go on any website without it being mentioned somewhere, and the secrecy around Doctor Who’s big special lead to the Internet being awash with speculation, theories and general ‘OMG I CAN’T WAIT’ hype. All three lived up to, or surpassed, expectations, and in doing so they each earned a place on this list. I’ve written enough about this super-long episode already, so let’s move on.
GAME OF THRONES – THE RAINS OF CASTAMERE
Ah yes. The episode that spawned a thousand reaction videos. The episode that the show had been building to all season. The episode that book-readers seemed to be looking forward to an awful lot but, when asked why, coyly replied ‘You’ll see’, with a creepy smile.
The ninth episode of a Game of Thrones season now has a reputation for being That Episode, the one where something earth-shatteringly important happens, something that changes the narrative of the series forever and causes cries of ‘Holy Shit!’ and “I can’t believe they just did that!’ across the Internet, and the world. Any episode of Game of Thrones is likely to cause such a reaction, but the ninth episode of the season, especially, tends to make fans go particularly apeshit. (SPOILERS BEYOND! WATCH OUT!) Season one’s ninth episode ended with the most prominent ‘good guy’ character in the show being executed in front of two of his daughters and a booing crowd, and season two’s ninth episode had a budget-destroying, episode-long battle which was epic in every sense of the word, so what could they possibly do to make something equally shocking and memorable for season three?
(NOT SEEN THE EPISODE? STILL READING? SKIP TO THE NEXT ENTRY. SERIOUSLY.) Well. they could gruesomely kill off most of the remaining Stark family. That would be quite a surprise,even to book-readers, who probably weren’t expecting to see a pregnant woman being repeatedly stabbed in the belly, as that isn’t in the books. It is absolutely horrific. Sometimes, I worry that I’ve become slightly desensitised to fictional violence, then something like that comes along to reassure me that no, no I most certainly have not. Walder Frey’s ruthless, calculated slaughter of his wedding guests (and even their direwolves!) is the most violent seven minutes of television I’ve seen all year.
(YEP, MORE SPOILERS.) Robb’s dead-eyed stare as he pleads to his mother, with arrows buried in his back, before being stabbed in the chest is heart-breaking. So is his mother’s anguished wail after he dies, during which she slices her useless hostage’s throat, goes completely limp, all life seems to drain out of her and she looks completely defeated. Then a random guard steps in from off-camera, slices her throat, then steps back out of shot. Blood gushes. She collapses to the floor. Thud. Darkness. Silence. Millions of people stare at the screen, slack-jawed in horror, unable to process what they just witnessed.
With this, the ‘Red Wedding’, Walder Frey did the impossible, leaping to the top of everyone’s Character I Most Want To See Die A Slow Painful Death list, knocking smarmy little shit Joffrey off the top spot.
The most remarkable thing is, this is just one of several big events that happens during the episode. Jon and Bran come close to actually reuniting, for the first time in three seasons, Bran finally uses his powers to control the minds of wolves (and Hodor) after doing very little, Dany invades and takes over a city in less than ten minutes, Jon blows his cover and rides away from a very angry Ygritte, Rickon actually gets something to do for the first time in, like, ever, but then leaves with Osha, presumably never to be seen again. Oh Rickon, we hardly knew ye.
Of course, the ending is what everyone remembers, and quite rightly so. It’s shocking, horrific and hope-crushing, as the family of the noble and good is almost wiped out in one bloody scene. Don’t bother getting attached to a Game of Thrones character- all the nice, likeable ones seem to get murdered.
BLACK MIRROR – BE RIGHT BACK
February seems like so long ago, but it featured the return of Charlie Brooker’s trilogy of twisted, terrifying technological tales, Black Mirror. Just like the first time, there was a broad political satire, a futuristic sci-fi/horror and a small-scale, intimate personal drama, all based around a similar theme – the advance of technology and its effect on society and the way we behave. The sci-fi horror episode was brilliantly brutal and the political satire was…alright. But the clear highlight, standing head and shoulders above the others, was the first episode, ‘Be Right Back’.
The episode has a strange, uncomfortably morbid premise – What if, after a loved one died, you could use all their phone recordings, photos, social media posts, their entire online presence, to make a version of them that you could still interact with? This is the question facing Martha (Hayley Atwell), who is overwhelmed with grief after her partner Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) is killed in a car accident. (VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD!) A friend of hers informs her that a company can actually provide this service, as it can apparently help people in times of grief. It’s sick. It’s wrong. It’s…tempting.
(SPOILERS.) After some hesitation, Martha finds that her friend has signed her up for the service anyway. At first it’s quite nice, receiving cheery emails from ‘Ash’, then upgrading to hear ‘his’ voice over the phone. Then ‘he’ informs her that there’s another, more advanced option if she’s interested, but it’s expensive, and crosses so many lines. She accepts, and the episode takes a very unsettling, dark turn, as all Black Mirror episodes do, but this one is particularly chilling. Though the plot of the next episode, ‘White Bear’, has a nasty and disturbing development which gives the one in this episode a run for its money, this episode is better overall. More emotional, more personal, just better.
Want to know the strangest thing of all? This sort of thing exists. Not the phone-conversation stuff, or the creepy, expensive upgrade, thankfully, just the first part dealing with the online presence. A company with the cheery slogan ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting’ analyses your tweets so that an AI bot can learn what you’re like what you’re alive, suggest stuff to you, then keep tweeting like you after you’ve gone. It seems to be a light-hearted experiment. Apparently you really can’t make this stuff up.
Oh, the worst TV of 2013? Well, I don’t intentionally watch bad TV, but there have been a couple of big disappointments this year.
WORST OF 2013
agents of s.h.i.e.l.d.
This was the first thing I wrote about on this blog. I wish it had been something good instead. I was expecting it to be. There was no real reason it shouldn’t have been. It’s got that funny secret agent from The Avengers, it’s set in the same universe, it’s created by Joss Whedon, how it could it possibly be bad?
It should be a crime to waste this much amazing potential – you have the entire Marvel universe at your disposal, and you stick to dull, case-of-the-week crap with the occasional reference to Thor or Iron Man or whatever to tell us that hey, it’s Marvel, you like Marvel, you should like this show, keep watching! Please? Please keep watching… NO.
I didn’t keep watching. I didn’t like it. I didn’t care. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are worth giving the tiniest possible shit about, and week after week the show found new ways to make a world of infinite possibility and excitement seem tremendously boring. What a waste.
community season 4
Oof, it hurts to put this here. My favourite comedy of the past few years turned into a rubbish mockery of itself after the show’s creator was very publicly fired. Two decent episodes and a few good ideas badly executed can’t make up for the poor characterisation, lame jokes and pointless rehashes which made up this sub-par season.
And the finale, oh Lord, the finale. The most important episode of the show, the episode the show has been building to since episode one, what should have be a funny, heart-warming episode about Jeff’s graduation from community college, is botched horribly. It’s awful. To think, that could have been the show’s series finale. That. Thank goodness, then, for the unlikely but welcome re-hiring of show creator Dan Harmon for an equally-unlikely fifth season. There is light at the end of this crappy little tunnel, after all.