50 Greatest TV Episodes of the 21st Century

Conclusion: The Top 5

BONUS #1 — Justified — The Promise — 6.13

Of all the series I ignored in my original list — and I left some doozies behind — the one that I feel the greatest regret for not including was Justified. It was one of the great series of the last ten years, perhaps the finest triumph of any work adapted from the late Elmore Leonard, and unlike a lot of people, I actually thought it maintained its level of excellence for almost its entire run. (Well, maybe not Season 5.) And while, initially, I had problems with how the series ended, in retrospect, it’s one of the more perfectly done endings of any series in the new Golden Age. Raylan finally manages to slap cuffs on Boyd Crowder, the man he’s been chasing since the Pilot. He gets the white hat he’s been wearing shot off in one final confrontation with the bad guy. He leaves for a happy ending with his ex-wife — except in the final flashforward, we find that, in typical Raylan fashion, he’s messed that up, too. Then he finally manages to track down Ava, just like he did in the first episode, and found out what’s she been up to. And then, he has one more conversation with Boyd in prison — and the series protagonist and antagonist once again reveal how much they had in common. A lot of good series were shafted by the Emmys over the last decade, but the near complete shutout of the series, Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins was completely, well, unjustified. Goggins has hinted that he would be willing to do one more season of Boyd and Raylan, and as much as I’d love to see them get the band back together, its hard to imagine any revisit ending as symmetrically as this series did.

5. Six Feet Under — ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ — 5.12

Admittedly this series, while often brilliant, could also be incredibly erratic. But its hard to deny that the last episode is one of the greatest series finales ever. From the opening moment, where the series begins with a birth, unlike every other one, we get are final glimpses at the Fisher family. They finally seem to be resolving the conflicts that have plagued them throughout the series, as well as the ones that arose with Nate’s death just a few episodes earlier. Then, there are the moving goodbyes between Claire and the rest of the Fisher clan, as she prepares to leave for New York. And then, she turns on the car radio, and we enter one of the great ten minutes sequences in TV history. Set to Sia’s ‘I’m Falling’, we see the lives of the Fishers play out in montage — Keith and David finally getting married, Ruth adjusting to her new life, Brenda raising her family. And then, we start seeing them die. Simultaneously, its emotionally devastating seeing all the characters we’ve come to love die, and yet strangely fitting — this was a series about death, after all. And after everything that’s happened to the Fisher clan, there’s something satisfying about most of them finally getting what was taken from so many — a long, satisfying life. This is one of the most unforgettable moments TV has ever done, and I think it will be the most powerful for decades to come.

4. Lost — ‘The Constant’ — 4.5

Regardless of how much it got bogged down in the final season, one can’t deny that this was one of the great television experiences of all time. So choosing an episode that best represents it is always going to be difficult. Do we go with ‘Walkabout’, the episode that cemented in many just how remarkable a ride we were in for? ‘The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham’, where John Locke’s journey came to an end? Or ‘Ab Aeterno’, the episode which was almost good enough at answering every question we had about the island? All great choices, but really, the one that still resonates, that makes your head and your heart ache is ‘The Constant’. Desmond finds himself unstuck in time as he leaves the island, and keeps shifting from 1996 London to the present, unable to remember anything from the latter. Eventually, he finds that the only way to fix himself in time is find something that exists in both time periods — and that’s his soulmate, Penny. Not an easy task, considering he just broke her heart in 1996. Everything comes down to him getting the phone number for her London flat, and her never changing. The last few minutes of the episodes are the most effective the series ever did, as Desmond finally manages to make contact with the woman he loves, and then spent the next couple of minutes, reaffirming their devotion to each other, and that they will find each other. Lost was at its best when it tried to throw a mythos aside, and deal with matters of the heart, and in that sense the Desmond-Penny story worked perfectly because it ended up being one of the few moments of pure joy in a series proliferated with heartbreak. The only thing that made this episode better was that by the end of the season Des and Penny would finally be reunited, and that this episode put it all together.

3. The Americans — ‘START’ — 6.10

Even in the age of Peak TV, there are still very few series that managed to stick the landing. Far too many of the series I’ve listed here would have extraordinary runs, and then fall short when it came to wrapping things up. I spent most of the final season of this extraordinary Cold War drama, worrying that the writers would fall short. Instead, they did everything right. With Philip and Elizabeth Jennings cover finally burned, they realize that they have to get out of the country. A series of horrible decision lay ahead, and the writers manage to get every note — the decision to leave their son, Henry, the one person in the series who is completely innocent behind, so he can have a normal life, the heartbreaking goodbye call that they try to make to him, desperately trying to sound normal, the sequence on a train ride to Canada, where their disguises pass muster one last time, and as the train pulls out, they see that their daughter Paige has decided to leave them behind. But the sequence that will assure this series a place in TV history comes in the one-act play where Stan Beaman, the FBI agent who has been their next door neighbor, and who only now has realized just what his neighbors do — confronts them all with a gun. Everything about their relationship comes out, including an exchange that is absolutely heartbreaking: Stan: “You were my best friend.” Philip: “You were mine, too.” I’m still not sure what was the most incredible thing about that sequence, the fact that Stan, after the horror of the confrontation, decides to let the Jennings’ go, or the fact that Philip voices his suspicion that Stan’s second wife might very well be another KGB sleeper. The episode never resolved that issue, and maybe that’s just as well. This series was undervalued its entire run by the Emmys. They have one last chance to make it right. Don’t screw it up.

2. The Wire — ‘Middle Ground’ — 3.12

Yes, I know this was on TV Guide’s list earlier this year, but it wasn’t in their last list, and technically, I know that it was in mine. That said, its very hard to consider any single episode of The Wire as one of the great episodes of TV, considering how ‘all the pieces’ had to fit together for the series to work. But I do remember the reason that I chose this one: it seemed to encapsulate everything David Simon and the rest of his writers did perfectly. Stringer Bell, who has spent all of Season 3 trying for legitimacy, finds that he has been played and that he never will fit in the world he’s in. Desperate to try and change things, he goes to Bunny Colvin, and betrays his brother in arms Avon Barksdale, not knowing that Avon has done the same by selling him out to Omar. One of the perfect moments in the series comes in the moment where they celebrate everything they’ve achieved, each knowing that they’ve betrayed the other. “To us, mother — -”, Stringer memorably says. Meanwhile, the task force, after months of trying to get around insurmountable obstacles, finally finds a way to get Avon on tape. They don’t know that mere hours after they do Stringer will meet his end, as boldly as any character in this series will, even when confronted with the inevitable. Idris Elba has done some magnificent work on television, but nothing can compare with his final act: its small wonder that so many people were up in arms when Stringer died. As was always the case, the penultimate episode was always the great one for each season. And in many ways, The Wire would never do a greater moment than this one.

  1. Breaking Bad — Ozymandias — 6.6

It really seems pointless that after all this hard work that I reach the same conclusion that TV Guide does: that this episode of Breaking Bad is the finest hour TV has produced so far this century. But anyone who watched the series — which is one of the greatest creations in the medium — would find it hard to argue with that decision. There are the final moments of Hank, who even in his dying minutes, refuses to negotiate. There’s the way that Walter tells Jesse about how he let his girlfriend die, and never told him. There’s the way that Flynn reacts to learning about what his parents have been doing for the past year by telling Skyler that “if its true, you’re just as bad as him” There’s the moment Walter yells at Skyler, trying to paint her as innocent, and yet not holding back on twisting the knife. But we all know what makes this episode the greatest ever. Its when Walter comes to the house, trying to get them to run away, Skyler realizing what horrible might have happened, goes for a kitchen knife and stabs her husband. There’s a struggle, and seems certain that Skyler will end up another casualty, and then Walter Jr. attacks his father. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WE’RE A FAMILY?” Walter screams. And then, in ten of the longest seconds in TV history, “We’re a family.” That’s what Breaking Bad spent 59 episodes building up to: Walter realizing that all of the self-justifications he has made for becoming a meth kingpin have now been dowsed in acid. Then, he grabs his baby daughter, and runs. I’d like to say its Bryan Cranston’s finest hour, but that could be said for almost any episode he’s in. It was Anna Gunn’s finest hour, and I really hope that second Emmy made up for all the abuse she took on message boards for six seasons. Don’t get me wrong, the last couple of episodes were in their own way, just as incredible (Breaking Bad is the Gold standard for how a series should end) but this was a monument that will stand longer than the title reference did.

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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