Welcome to the Tournament Of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here. Today’s competing shows include The Returned, Louie, Girls, Orange Is The New Black, Looking, and How I Met Your Mother.
Now it’s time for round one of the Tournament to begin. If you disagree with a choice, we’ve given you the option to vote for the other below each match.
Let’s lead off with the big match for the day, which pits Walter White’s darkest hour against Rust Cohle’s flat circle and is judged by Phil Dyess-Nugent.
Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” vs. True Detective, “The Secret Fate Of All Life”
Phil Dyess-Nugent: True Detective is a formalist’s dream show, and “The Secret Fate Of All Life” is the episode that perfects and explodes the form. For the viewer, who has known from the start that there’s something big and unsaid lurking behind the legend of whatever it is that Cohle and Hart did back in 1995, seeing Woody Harrelson march out of that shed and shoot that guy in the head is like scratching an inch that had remained just out of reach for five weeks. And when Matthew McConaughey is spraying the woods with automatic gunfire while his voiceover is describing a shootout that never happened, it’s the fullest realization of everything the show wants to say about the unreliability of storytelling, history, and the universe.
The episode still gets its clock cleaned by Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” whose strength is in its bluntness. It’s blunt in a way that plays to the nature of series TV, as if Vince Gilligan were saying, “If you’ve been watching all this time, you probably think you know who these people are. And if you haven’t been watching, there are box sets!” It shows in the way that Dean Norris’ Hank, a character who often seemed like a crude joke early in the series, is allowed to have a noble hero’s death and the best line of the episode, even as the show manages to find ever greater depths of pettiness in Walter White. I think True Detective hits its real climax early, and the more “real” the story becomes, with a face put to the monster, the less haunting it begins to feel. But Gilligan and Bryan Cranston create a monster I never want to stop watching.
Winner: Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”
Next up, two episodes centered on mysterious, almost ethereal women, in a match judged by Gwen Ihnat.
Louie, “Model” vs. The Returned, “Camille”
Gwen Ihnat: Louie is a stark, minimalist sitcom. The Returned, a French horror series. But the episodes “Model” and “Camille” unite the two in ethereal bleakness. Both Louie and Camille are strangers in an almost-strange land: Louie painfully fails to fit into the Hamptons social set, while Camille tries to re-enter the now-unfamiliar world she left four years before. Louie’s model is specter-like: We first only hear her voice, then see her converse with Louie from a distance. She continues to run as Louie chases after her dreamlike self. Louie’s time with the model seems so unreal; she even suggests their encounter isn’t actually happening. In true Louie fashion, he soon crashes back to Earth after he accidentally slugs the model in an ill-fated tickle fight. His price for these moments of bliss is $5,000 a month for the rest of his life, but the insane story intrigues the real girl he’s trying to court, and the Louie universe rights itself.
In The Returned, the reappearance of Camille and others turns the universe upside down. Like “Model,” “Camille” is exquisitely shot and scored: While Louie’s cocktail soundtrack indicates a lightheartedness Louie will never actually attain, Mogwai’s disturbingly hypnotic score suggests menace behind The Returned’s postcard-perfect mountain town. Domesticity turns to horror as a parent’s dream of a deceased child’s return could indicate an even worse nightmare: After Camille’s terrifying reunion with her sister, the family huddles together, with nowhere to turn and no possible explanations.
I have to side with The Returned. Louie’s diversion was fleeting, but The Returned’s creepiness pervaded my entire psyche. Doors transformed into thin barriers between this world and another as the suspense of the episode steeped over the hour, as the returned appeared in thresholds and mirrors and windows, looking for a way back in.
Winner: The Returned, “Camille”
Now it’s time for a couple of episodes filled with female togetherness—and its opposite, judged by Dennis Perkins.
Girls, “Beach House” vs. Orange Is The New Black, “Lesbian Request Denied”
Dennis Perkins: Not to SPOILER my own pick, but this competition pits two different kinds of ambition against one another, with the edge going to the episode more invested in the dramatic than the narrative.
Both shows are created by women, star women, and delve into the comedic potential of a decidedly female worldview. Girls has taken a lot of guff for its “lack of diversity” (although being truly informed by a female perspective is diversity itself on American television), while Orange, with its multi-ethnic, multi-gender-identity cast of characters isn’t. Fair enough—“Lesbian Request Denied” provides a showcase for Laverne Cox’s Sophia to reveal her story as a transgender prisoner coping with both her family and the challenges of retaining her identity behind bars. But the episode is also weighted with the extraneous business of Piper’s family (a catty mom visit and another chance for poor Jason Biggs to learn how to masturbate onscreen), and, in Sophia’s flashbacks, there’s a certain Lost-like programmatic quality. Plus, the audience-courting motif of filtering prison experience through a white character “who doesn’t belong there” remains a dramatic cheat.
“Beach House,” on the other hand, is a tightly structured, lived-in character piece. Like some of the best Girls episodes, it furthers the show’s ongoing narrative with the structure of a good short story. There’s no need to recap—the four main characters rent an isolated beach house for the weekend and their established characters and relationships collide, comically and painfully. For all its laughs—and there are many—“Beach House” is a snapshot of friendships expiring. Girls is invested in telling a narrower story, but that’s not a bad thing. “Beach House,” compressing as it does the serious and widening cracks in these characters’ relationships, reveals a lot with a little.
Winner: Girls, “Beach House”
In today’s final match, we have two episodes dedicated to getting us invested in the lives of important love interests for the protagonist (in very different ways), with a verdict from Caroline Framke.
How I Met Your Mother, “How Your Mother Met Me” vs. Looking, “Looking For The Future”
Caroline Framke: Deviating from a show’s formulas is risky, but these episodes pull it off. “Looking For The Future” leaves Looking’s interpersonal drama to follow one couple through one day, while “How Your Mother Met Me” leaves HIMYM’s cast to follow one woman through years. Both explore romances by showing how the characters need to be more open.
I hadn’t seen much Looking, but “Looking For The Future” is just a gorgeous episode of television. While Jonathan Groff and Raul Castillo’s easy chemistry is the anchor, Reed Morano’s stunning cinematography of San Francisco is key. Writer/director Andrew Haigh paints equally happy and nervous moments as the two men explore the city, opening up about their pasts and dreams. I kept waiting for something awful to shatter this idyllic novella, but I was thrilled to be wrong. It’s just a good day.
But the other shoe drops in “How Your Mother Met Me” when the cute Mother-centric credits end, and she hears her fiancé’s died. I had been scared that the Mother would be Female Ted, but this episode makes her journey unique. It’s a daunting task for just twenty-two minutes, but Cristin Miloti shines in Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ script. In fact, this episode might be too good—if they wanted us to like Ted with Robin, they messed up by making Miloti’s Mother this wonderful. I watched How I Met Your Mother since the beginning, but I was disappointed when the episode cut to the ensemble during “La Vie En Rose.” I just wanted to watch the Mother sing.
So while “Looking For The Future” is beautiful, I have to give it to “How Your Mother Met Me” for sheer degree of difficulty. Miloti, Bays, and Thomas had the impossible task of making the Mother worth a nine-year search, and they nailed it.
Winner: How I Met Your Mother, “How Your Mother Met Me”
Tomorrow: Round one concludes. Check out the complete bracket below: