50 Greatest Episodes of the 21st Century
Part 4: 35–31
35. Better Call Saul — ‘Five-O’ — 1.6
This series is not as good as Breaking Bad, but if we are to be honest, there are few series in history that were as good. And with each successive year, it achieves something rather remarkable: it almost makes you forget that nearly every character we meet will be laid waste to by Walter White. And the first time this series truly touched greatness was when it gave a look into the backstory of Mike Ehrmantraut, arguably Bad’s most frightening and efficient character. You wouldn’t think it possible that Mike had a soul, but this episode more than demonstrated that there was blood that could be drawn from a stone. When Mike confessed (tearfully) to his daughter-n-law what happened to his son, Jonathan Banks gave what was arguably his finest turn in the Breaking-verse… so far. It was a revelation that made you feel sympathy for one of the most cold-blooded characters in the series.
34. The Crown — ‘Dear Mrs. Kennedy’ — 2.8
One of the greatest accomplishments in Netflix’s already formidable lineup, there have been many examples of true excellence in its run so far. One leans towards recognizing any episode in the first season that focused on John Lithgow’s remarkable work as a too old Winston Churchill, but there was some more superb work in the second season when Churchill left the stage. Few episodes have been more astonishing that the one that featured John and Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Europe in 1963. When American royalty met English royalty, one would be surprised how much the real thing suffered compared to artificial one, and yet you come away feeling sympathy both for Jackie and Elizabeth, both forced into roles neither wanted, both being manipulated by forces larger then themselves. Even the inevitable scene at the end involving JFK’s assassination seemed novel, because it was coming from an angle we hadn’t seen before. Claire Foy remains one of the true talents of the medium. It will be hard to succeed her, but I am convinced Peter Morgan can.
33. The Big Bang Theory — ‘The Robotic Manipulation’ — ‘4.1’
I’ll be honest, it took a lot to win me over with this sitcom. But something that’s happened on that almost never happens on a series, much less a network comedy. The characters evolved. At the beginning of the series Sheldon Cooper was so insulated and robotic that one could hardly imagine him working successfully outside the confines of his apartment. Now, he’s married. To a woman he actually admits he loves! And if one can calculate the moment when this series went from typical network fare to work of genius, it is our first true addiction to neurologist Amy Farrah-Fowler. Mayim Bialik has created one of the most indelible female characters in the history of comedies, and turned from ‘a female version of Sheldon to someone with her own behaviorism and quirks. And in her debut episode where she detachedly dissects Penny (the woman who will become her best friend) sexual history, you knew this was Sheldon’s soulmate. Bialik has been robbed repeatedly by the Emmys, but I guess when you’ve got a bioscience degree from Harvard, awards seem trivial.
32. Person of Interest — ‘The Crossing’ — 3.9
One of the more fascinating broadcast series of the last decade, it had much more potential than it ended eventually realizing. That said, it still had some truly extraordinary moment, and none were more effective than the climactic battle The Machine and the team had with the sinister police-backed crime organization known as HR. Its biggest confluence of evil was more satisfying because it was visible, and because there was no way this war could end without some kind of casualty. What made this was resonate was the way it set up, as the series would do far so many times, the death of beloved corrupt cop Fusco. When he managed to get through the war alive, it seemed that we’d been wrong — which made the final moments when Joss Carter was gunned down in front of Reese, all the more painful. The fact that the writers had planned this moment since the Pilot made it more effective. Person would never be quite the same after Taraj Henson left — but considering she has gone on to even more fame at the center of Empire, you can’t argue it was a bad career decision for her.
31. Alias — ‘Phase One’ -2.13
This was a criminally undervalued series, even considering it helped launch J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner into the stratosphere. It featured a heroine who was as close to the female James Bond as we will ever get. And the series was on the cusp of the network television revolution in a way that so many of its fellow shows were not. Never was this more evident in the episode that aired just after the Super Bowl, when Abrams decided to take what many might have considered the series overriding plot — bringing down the Alliance — and completely end it. With a new head of SD-6 on the scene, it quickly becomes clear that Sydney Bristow has to save her father. The only way she can do that is tell her colleague that she’s been acting as a double agent all this time, and then everything he’s been working for the last twenty years is a lie. Abrams manages to mine every bit of tension that he can out of the moment, before the CIA breaks the doors down. And the final moment, when Vaughn runs into Syd’s arms and kisses her, also demonstrated a new reliance to resolve sexual tension sooner rather than later. Alias would make many changes over its all too brief run, and never more brilliantly than it would here.
Bonus #4: The Good Place — Janets — 3.9
This may be one of the most remarkable comedies of the 2010s, and with each successive season, it keeps getting more and more remarkable. One can definitely argue that the 1st season finale, which had one of the greatest twist endings period, is one of the towering achievements of television. But in my opinion, one of the greatest moments in the history of this series came with ‘Janets’. On the run from the bad place, our four heroes have jumped inside the AI known as Janet while Michael and the real Janet go see the accountants to tell them that the numbers behind getting people into the Good Place may be rigged. The scenes with Michael and Janet in this world are brilliant, but they pale in comparison to the scenes where all four heroes have turned into Janet, and D’Arcy Carden gives one of the great performances in the history of the medium, as she tries to adjust to the fact that Eleanor and Chidi are starting to realize their feelings. The climax of the episode when Eleanor ‘finally’ kiss is one of the great triumphs in this brilliant visual and written series. It deserves to be at the forefront of the Emmy discussions this year.