Game Of Thrones, "Hardhome"

The 2014-15 TV Club Awards already covered much of the TV Club that The A.V. Club has loved so far this year, so when it comes to looking at the year that’s been, we opted to tighten the focus. Even in this binge-watching age, a single episode of television can have a tremendous impact on an audience, stories and performances captured perfectly in increments of 15, 30, or 60 minutes. Here are the episodes that best captured our attention in the first half of 2015.

Adventure Time, “The Comet”

Adventure Time got denser and weirder than ever before in its sixth season. Finn’s dad turns out to be a deadbeat space pirate, Finn loses an arm, Gunter’s head sprouts an anthropomorphic brain, Glob dies, and all the while a prophesied comet is heading straight for Ooo. It was a lot to keep up with, but the season finale makes sense of all the moving parts in the simple, clarifying story of Finn drifting through space. With a touch of 1970s sci-fi design, “The Comet” explores randomness versus intention, but it never loses sight of the pathos or humor of Finn’s saga. “I’m pretty sure I can take you, bro,” he says to a giant cosmic creature. Back on Ooo, away from all the drama and completely unaware of Finn’s heroism, Peppermint Butler comically lands the episode’s lesson in scale and perspective. “See?” he says. “Problem took care of itself.” [Brandon Nowalk]

The Americans, “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?”

For most of its time on air, The Americans has done its best to withhold judgement on its protagonists. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings do horrible things, but those horrible things are done in service of their Mother Russia; the show has avoided overtly choosing sides between the Soviet Union and the United States, presenting the intrigue and violence in clinical, if despairing, fashion. All this changed at the turning point of the show’s third season, when Elizabeth is confronted by a woman who understands real evil, and believes Elizabeth is a part of it. The arc of the season pointed toward the Jennings’ eldest daughter learning the truth about her parents, and in order for that discovery to be as devastating as possible, the show underlined that, whatever their motives, Philip and Elizabeth’s actions have moral consequences. By drawing a line in the simplest, most direct way possible, The Americans tipped its hand, and committed itself to a tragedy. [Zack Handlen]

Banshee, “Tribal”

As an episode-long fight scene in the first season can attest, Cinemax’s Banshee has a reputation for putting its characters through the ringer while being dramatically thrilling and technically ambitious. Banshee hit its stride this season, delivering a string of episodes that rival anything else on TV in 2015. “Tribal,” the best of the bunch, is Banshee’s version of Assault On Precinct 13. The episode sees Chayton, in full red and black body paint, locking down the Banshee P.D. and threatening immense violence. The result is a tense bottle episode, one that not only delivers Banshee’s signature action in tight spaces but also ends on an emotionally devastating note. “Tribal” is all blood and tears, and Banshee at its best. [Kyle Fowle]

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Better Call Saul, “Five-O”

“You know what happened. The question is, can you live with it?” These words, uttered by Mike Ehrmantraut at the end of the fantastic “Five-O,” handily serve as a mission statement of sorts for both Mike’s character and for Better Call Saul as a series. A prequel filling in the blanks of a story we already know the end of shouldn’t work this well—especially in an episode essentially divorced from the greater storytelling arc of the season—but the enticement of learning Mike’s backstory, coupled with Jonathan Banks’ tour de force performance, simply can’t be denied. There are other excellent episodes of Better Call Saul, ones that better exemplify the show’s tone and breadth of ambition, but “Five-O” captures that lightning-in-a-bottle quality of essential television. Now someone give Banks an Emmy, already. [Carrie Raisler]

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Big Time In Hollywood, FL, “Monkey Largo”

As the Dolfe brothers dug themselves in deeper with every passing episode of Big Time In Hollywood, FL, it was often a coked up, manic Cuba Gooding Jr. that steered the direction of the show. The twisted Dolfe/Gooding alliance eventually turned into an Argo situation to smuggle drugs, resulting in the 578-page buddy cop screenplay, Monkey Largo. The first half of “Monkey Largo” is a behind-the-scenes feature, with the Dolfes’ “meteoric” rise to stardom and a budget of millions somehow turning them into even worse people, truly believing their own hype. The exception is their love of their star, Rico the chimp, which only makes the second half even more hilariously heartbreaking, as their misunderstanding of RICO charges causes them to sob as they douse the poor primate’s trailer with gasoline. The highs and lows within this episode make it feel as though it’s as coked up as Cuba, and it’s the most beautiful 20 minutes possible because of it. [LaToya Ferguson]

Bob’s Burgers, “Hawk And Chick”

It’s long been established within the Bob’s Burgers mythos that, despite their differences, Bob and younger daughter Louise share a love of certain films. In this instance, the films in questions are the (fictional) martial arts franchise, Hawk And Chick, which is about—coincidentally enough—a father and daughter. Better yet, they’re played by an actual father and daughter! When Bob and Louise spot a man they’re convinced is Shinji Kojima, the actor who played Hawk, they basically stalk him through the streets, and after discovering that their theory is correct, they also learn that Kojima is now estranged from his daughter. Naturally, Bob and Louise attempt to reunite them, but the bolstering of their own relationship in the process is what makes this such a sweet, touching, and consistently hilarious installment. [Will Harris]

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Broad City, “Knockoffs”

When it begins, “Knockoffs” seems like a straightforward, promising episode of Broad City, centered around Abbi finally going out with her neighbor Jeremy while Ilana sits shivah for her grandmother. Paying off Abbi’s series-long crush on Jeremy and introducing Ilana’s parents—Susie Essman and Bob Balaban, an inspired bit of casting—would be more than enough to fuel an interesting, fun episode of Broad City, but instead of following a more traditional route, “Knockoffs” challenges Abbi and the audience by revealing Jeremy is into pegging. This opens up a conversation about sexuality and trust that’s entirely new for Abbi. This is usually the purview of Ilana, whose enthusiasm at the news, particularly in the context of her post-funeral handbag shopping/retail therapy trip with her mother, is delightful. “Knockoffs” is subtly emotional, refreshingly sex positive, and absolutely hilarious, giving viewers one of the most surprising and memorable episodes of the year. [Kate Kulzick]

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Childrens Hospital, “Me, Owen”

Key & Peele took on the True Detective credits and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia paid tribute to the anthology series’ single-take action sequence, but Childrens Hospital has the richest riff yet with a dual-timeline serial killer case involving secret backstories, baboon language, and inappropriate puns galore. With a sparse regular cast these days, the skeleton crew is supplemented by Nick Offerman’s Detective Chance Briggs, Brian Huskey’s Chet, and guest star Tony Hale showing some range (and skin) in a standout performance as the one-time head paramedic of Childrens Hospital. But it’s Rob Huebel who steals the show, expertly playing the same man at three different ages. With jokes about toupees, pissing, drag, and more, “Me, Owen” even plays in the same sandbox as its inspiration, breaking down manhood one banana at a time. [Brandon Nowalk]

Community, “Emotional Consequences Of Broadcast Television”

During its improbable six-season run, Community swapped showrunners, shed cast members, and transitioned from the warm cocoon of network television to the cold, unforgiving expanse of the internet. Community’s sixth season wears the show’s tumultuous history as a badge of honor, and creator Dan Harmon seems rightfully proud of his ability to vitally reinvent the show even as it drifts farther from its roots. But as Harmon tinkered, the show saw its emotional through-line diminish, and it started to look as though a satisfying conclusion might not be possible. Luckily, Harmon thrives on being underestimated, and with “Emotional Consequences Of Broadcast Television,” he delivers a poignant, hilarious, dense episode that puts a bold period on Community’s run-on sentence. Most impressively, “Emotional Consequences” cranks the meta-humor up to 11 and retains Community’s darker shades rather than pulling the tonal retcon most acerbic sitcoms do in their finales. With a season six finale this terrific, who needs a movie? [Joshua Alston]

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Empire, “Pilot”

Empire became the most gravity-defying broadcast television success in decades, a somewhat confounding achievement considering the show’s quality was nowhere near as consistent as its audience growth. But to revisit the pilot is to be reminded why Empire blossomed into a cultural phenomenon. The pilot arguably delivers more unadulterated fun than any other drama episode in 2015. Writers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong construct an intricate web of characters and lay the groundwork for Empire’s King Lear riff, all while making room for original songs and commercial breaks. Most importantly, Empire’s pilot introduced the country to Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), a tiger mom in leopard print who, upon her release from prison, returns to upend the life of her estranged husband Lucious (Terrence Howard). Henson and Howard have the most explosive chemistry anywhere on the dial, and paired with embodying characters as complex and contradictory as Cookie and Lucious, they make Empire impossible to look away from. [Joshua Alston]

The Flash, “Fast Enough”

While superheroes might just be the most overrepresented group on television these days, The Flash quickly made a case for itself with its debut season. It was confident, almost matched the pace of its speedster star, and most importantly, after a glut of grim television comic adaptations, The Flash was fun. Getting to know Barry Allen, his friends, and his enemies was a joy, not least because of a strong cast led by the incredibly charming Grant Gustin (the Flash we need and deserve). The season finale “Fast Enough” was a runaway train that paid off on a full season of backstory, betrayals, and time warps, delivering wisecracks and heartbreaks in equal measure. There’s no telling what next season will bring, but The Flash will be in great shape if it follows in the streak of light of “Fast Enough.” [Caroline Framke]

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Fresh Off The Boat, “Fajita Man”

It might not be the version of a ’90s childhood that the real Eddie Huang recognizes, but Fresh Off The Boat doesn’t isn’t cheap with its period details: The funniest episode of the show’s first season revolves around the notorious 16-bit bust Shaq Fu and the decade’s insatiable fast-casual appetite for fajitas. But those elements are merely the sizzle in the skillet of “Fajita Man,” an episode that finds Huang’s sitcom counterpart and his tough-as-nails mother (breakout star of the year Constance Wu) overcoming the alienation of their move from Washington, D.C. and forging their own paths in suburban Florida. Working from a classically sitcom foundation—the heatwave episode—“Fajita Man” tracks personal victories far more triumphant than any depicted in the arena of Shaq Fu. [Erik Adams]

Game Of Thrones, “Hardhome”

How Game Of Thrones would deal with moving ahead of George R.R. Martin’s novels was an open question, and while the fifth season had growing pains—particularly another poorly received rape subplot—the eighth episode proved it could grow into something even better. The long-awaited meeting of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen was every bit as fun and compelling as expected, and both Arya and Sansa took distinct steps on their quest for survival. And the action set piece of Hardhome, pitting Jon Snow against an endless horde of wights, eclipsed any prior production effort by the show. Packed with resonant scenes—Jon’s victory over a White Walker, a giant smashing wights away, the final gesture of the Night’s King—and balanced with human elements like the Wilding Karsi, “Hardhome” was simply a grand technical and narrative achievement. [Les Chappell]

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Girls, “Sit-In”

Girls’ third season ended with Hannah (Lena Dunham) clutching her acceptance letter into a prestigious writers’ workshop in Iowa at the risk of losing her boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). The cliffhanger seemed like a feint, because how could the show survive with Hannah so far away from the New York City borough that lends so much of its flavor? It came as no surprise that Hannah soon quit the program and headed home to Gotham, but what is surprising is what she came back to: Adam holed up in her apartment with his new girlfriend (Gillian Jacobs). “Sit-In,” the finest episode of Girls’ fourth season, finds Hannah sitting shivah in her bedroom after the bombshell is dropped as friends visit to assist her mourning process. It’s not only one of the season’s funniest episodes, it’s the one that most delivered on the promise of season three’s cliffhanger. Just when it seemed like Girls was abandoning an effort to shake up its status quo, the show was actually doing exactly that. [Joshua Alston]

Gravity Falls, “Not What He Seems”

As it enters year three of random, haphazard Disney Channel and Disney XD scheduling, Gravity Falls finally came to a head with its midseason finale, “Not What He Seems.” After years of wondering about the author behind the journals and what Grunkle Stan was really up to, we finally find out, and in the most dramatically satisfying way possible. Faced with the opportunity to stop sneaky Stan’s mysterious and explosive plan, Mabel decides to trust the man who lovingly lets her play with illegal fireworks and water balloons, leading to an unexpected reveal: The journal author is Stan’s six-fingered twin brother. So the twins have another Grunkle, and Gravity Falls shows that what resonates even more than the town’s compelling mysteries is the love and trust the Pines family has for each other. This dynamic combination makes Gravity Falls not just a great kids’ show, but one of the best shows on TV today, period. Now to count the days until its July 13 return. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Hannibal, “Antipasto”

A sweeping, romantic fantasy, “Antipasto” kicks off Hannibal’s third season with style, leaving behind the baggage of season two as Hannibal and Bedelia start their new life in Florence. Hannibal is always stylish and dreamlike, but the premiere takes this to new levels, using flashbacks, playing with aspect ratios and black and white, and returning to the series’ fondness for water imagery to give viewers a glimpse into Hannibal and Bedelia’s experiences. The episode is funny and fabulous and by the end, just as dark as one would expect, with Hannibal reaching out to Will as only he could. From the direction to the performances to the costuming to the score, “Antipasto” is Hannibal firing on all cylinders, finding beauty in horror and tempting viewers with another (and possibly final?) season at Dr. Lecter’s table. [Kate Kulzick]

Inside Amy Schumer, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”

The second season of Inside Amy Schumer is to sketch comedy as Mad Max: Fury Road is to summer action blockbusters, a feminist manifesto dressed up as an innocuous pop-culture trifle. “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” is the season’s most elaborate set piece, devoting its entire length to an ingenious riff on Reginald Rose’s play about an all-male jury pool deciding someone’s fate. Here, Schumer is the one on trial, and the men are tasked with determining whether or not she’s hot enough to be on TV. The men of the jury—played by Jeff Goldblum and Paul Giamatti, among others—go at each other’s throats as they adjudicate whether Schumer gives them a “reasonable chub.” The episode is hilarious and clever, and it’s packed with sharp barbs about Hollywood’s sexist double standards. There’s no reasonable doubt that Schumer has figured out how to deliver potent feminist satire in a format that feels like too much fun to be as groundbreaking as it is. [Joshua Alston]

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iZombie, “Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat”

One of the greatest strengths of iZombie is the way it juggles horror and humor within the same hour, and the penultimate episode of its first season was the best execution of that strength. Liv Moore’s investigative efforts go to new heights as she swaps between cheerleader and stoner brains/personas, at the same time a scar-faced zombie killer is stalking her through Seattle. Horror eventually wins out, leading to a tremendous close-quarters battle in the kitchen where knives are sticking out of everyone to no effect. That the fight exposes Liv’s zombie nature to best friend Peyton is only icing on the brain cake, her petrified look validating all of Liv’s reasons for keeping it hidden in the first place. That, as well as cliffhangers over the fates of several characters, was final confirmation that iZombie was not playing around. [Les Chappell]

Jane The Virgin, “Chapter Twenty”

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It’s become routine to praise Jane The Virgin for being so consistently good over its first season, but that doesn’t make it less true. Jane The Virgin’s first season was astonishing, burning through story at a telenovela’s breakneck pace while a steady heart beat underneath. The sprawling cast—led by the truly spectacular Gina Rodriguez—only got better as the season progressed. There are several episodes that could have made this list, but “Chapter Twenty” is one of the best showcases for the entire ensemble. When the hotel hosts a wrestling tournament (because why not?), the one-on-one tensions among the characters explode in a series of hilarious fantasy wrestling matchups. Then, when it looks like it might all be fun and games with “The Pregnant Punisher” taking down “The Cold Warrior,” Jane’s bubbling panic in the face of single motherhood boils over in yet another acting triumph for Rodriguez. This ease with which Jane The Virgin swings from joy to devastation is exactly what makes this unlikely show so special. [Caroline Framke]

The Jinx, “Chapter 6”

As fans of Serial know, it’s incredibly hard to provide a satisfying conclusion to a case that’s still in limbo—unless your documentary happens to accidentally record what sounds an awful lot like a total confession. The Jinx built up plenty of tension over six episodes on HBO, and it sure seemed to be pointing toward a multiple murderer getting away with his crimes. But when confronted with damning handwriting evidence, Robert Durst kept his cool and headed to the bathroom—while still wearing a live body microphone. He didn’t have to say anything at all—he was alone!—but when he muttered, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst sunk his own ship and created some of the most breathtaking documentary television ever. [Josh Modell]

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Justified, “The Promise”

The beauty of Justified’s series finale is that it manages to subvert expectations while also crafting an ending that feels true to the characters we’ve spent six seasons with. Much of the final season was spent teasing a final, deadly confrontation between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. In fact, most of the series was about how violence is inevitable in Harlan, a symptom of poverty but also baked into the soil: Harlan’s history is violence. “The Promise” suggests with great confidence and poignancy that the only way to break the cycle of violence is through the efforts of individual people. When Raylan tells Boyd that Ava died shortly after taking off with the money, he’s not protecting her, but rather letting Boyd, and by extension himself, escape his past and potentially start anew. It’s a fitting, touching end for two men who dug coal together. [Kyle Fowle]

Kroll Show, “Pleep Ploop”

The third and final season of Kroll Show pulls the sketch series’ ongoing threads into such satisfying loops, it’s difficult to pick a single standout strand. “Pleep Ploop” makes that task slightly easier through a pair of musical highlights: The eponymous nonsense number from Angela Mackenzie-Ng and Bryan LaCroix’s tantrum opus, “Ottawanna Go To Bed.” In true Kroll Show fashion, the latter song builds on a punchline from the former, but the interwoven nature of the series is on fine display elsewhere within the episode. Disgraced animal plastic surgeon Dr. Armond is pulled into the tennis-themed dating series Loser’s Bracket, while hateful Upper West Side pranksters Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland say “Oh, goodbye” to New York City. Kroll Show’s conclusion wasn’t just the end of a fine sketch series—it was the closing of an entire universe. [Erik Adams]

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The Last Man On Earth, “Alive In Tucson”

Comedy pilots are traditionally the hardest television episodes to pull off because writers need to spend more time establishing a premise and a cast of characters and less time making people laugh, all while hoping none of the audience gets bored. The Last Man On Earth pulls off one of the best comedy pilots in recent memory by succinctly establishing both a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the existential depression of protagonist Phil Miller. Desperate for companionship and intimacy, Miller spends the episode causing minor destruction (and getting drunk and talking to different sports balls, à la Wilson from Cast Away), all the while begging God to bring him other people. Just when he’s about to kill himself out of loneliness and despair, God grants him a sign of life, giving him a second chance—though the rest of The Last Man On Earth’s debut season argues that a second chance is no guarantee for long-lasting happiness. [Vikram Murthi]

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, April 5, 2015

John Oliver and the Last Week Tonight team have pulled off some incredible feats, bringing under-reported and shocking stories to the public’s attention on a regular basis. Yet this didn’t prepare viewers who tuned in on April 5, 2015 to discover that Oliver had quietly flown to Russia to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The segment itself is fantastic—Oliver gives Snowden a harder time than many of his previous interviewers—as is the damning juxtaposition of their conversation with man-on-the-street segments in which regular Americans reveal they’re completely unaware of the information Snowden sacrificed his citizenship to reveal. By the end, Oliver and company find a brilliant, hilarious way to bring Snowden’s message to the populace, taking the episode full circle. [Kate Kulzick]

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Looking, “Looking For A Plot”

Looking spent most of its run sitting with and exploring the lives of its mostly gay male protagonists, showing their nuances and flaws with depth such figures rarely receive on television. Unfortunately, that often left little time for Doris, Dom’s best friend. That changed in “Looking For A Plot,” which brought Doris front and center as she learned of her father’s death and drove home for his funeral. Lauren Weedman gives an emotional but subtle performance as Doris and the episode does a wonderful job marrying the humor of a trip home with the complicated emotions of such a loss. The episode is lovely and personal, putting aside the relationship drama with Patrick that fueled much of the second season and giving viewers a glimpse into Doris and Dom’s past. Looking may be gone, but episodes like “Looking For A Plot” ensure it won’t soon be forgotten. [Kate Kulzick]

Louie, “Untitled”

Louie has already expanded past its designation as “sitcom” so far that viewers are prepared for the show to take on whatever new form Louis CK needs it to. That’s part of what makes “Untitled” so effective—no one could have been prepared for this. Like a lot of Louie, “Untitled” fancifully externalizes its creator’s anxieties, only this time what it finds there is less self-loathing angst and more bladder-spasming terror, as the accumulated fears and regrets of a typical day coalesce into one of the most skillfully designed and deployed television monsters since the days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Gentlemen. (It’s like season-three guest star David Lynch left Louie a little something behind.) Drawing us into a nightmare we don’t realize is happening until it’s too late, “Untitled” is an impeccably orchestrated trip into the place where creativity curdles to horrors. [Dennis Perkins]

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Mad Men, “Lost Horizon”

“Lost Horizon” is a crescendo of inevitability, remarkable even in a series that specializes in inevitability. From the envelope Meredith hands Don to the roller skates glimpsed in a corner when Peggy spills her coffee to Roger giving Peggy Bert Cooper’s Hokusai print (and the freeing advice that comes with it), every piece, large and small, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. When Don pockets the envelope (stuffed with cash, the real Don Draper’s Social Security card, and Anna Draper’s ring) and performs his last disappearing act, when Peggy swaggers into McCann-Erickson, when Roger mourns SC&P by playing Phantom Of The Opera to Peggy’s roller-skate ballet, it all feels like the perfect interlocking of character, fate, and choice. [Emily L. Stephens]

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New Girl, “Spiderhunt”

A series of bottle episodes helped New Girl jump past its season-three slump this year, and none was more fun than “Spiderhunt.” A search for arachnophobe Schmidt’s arch-nemesis and the preparation of Nick’s signature sauce establish an effectively absurdist backdrop for a variety of romantic miscommunications. The bottle episode condenses this ensemble’s fizzy chemistry, making it exponentially more powerful as a whole. The New Girl cast excels at playing off of one another, and tracking the spider in teams of two (one smoosher, one jar man), offers any number of winning combinations. Just a few in a long series of highlights: Schmidt’s many freak-outs about the spider and its “butt rope,” the always-welcome Fawn Moscato (“Vote Moscato!”), and a beyond-hilarious Nick and Jess conversation in which Jess thinks he’s talking about a woman but he’s actually taking about a popcorn machine. “Spiderhunt” proves that New Girl is a lot more inventive than most give it credit for. [Gwen Ihnat]

Orange Is The New Black, “Trust No Bitch”

Season three of Orange Is The New Black feels a bit ungainly at times, like it knows where it wants to go but can only find circuitous ways to get there. This somewhat meandering journey leaves a lot of ground for the show to cover in the finale, and at first it seems like the extended running time is only there to make sure every character’s story gets its own little moment. Thankfully, “Trust No Bitch” has much greater ambitions. When a negligent grounds crew leaves the prison yard fence wide open, the women of Litchfield see this not as a chance to escape, but to feel the freedom they miss so much by jumping in the lake they can always see but cannot touch. In a luxuriously long, joyous sequence drenched with humanity (and lake water), the show puts an emotional bow on its season and reminds us exactly why these characters matter. [Carrie Raisler]

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Orphan Black, “Ruthless In Purpose, And Insidious In Method”

The last time Orphan Black tried to introduce a new Project Leda clone, it resulted in a stilted episode that focused more on its message than its characters. Thankfully, “Ruthless In Purpose, And Insidious In Method” is a far more successful attempt at adding a new familiar face to the series. The episode first presents Krystal Goderitch as a blond bimbo and then slowly deepens her into a multifaceted human being. Beneath her perky exterior Krystal is an openhearted, resourceful woman using the skills she has to figure out why her life doesn’t make sense. Not only does her debut let stars Tatiana Maslany and Jordan Gavaris flex their acting muscles, she also furthers Orphan Black’s thesis: The female experience is full of complexities. [Caroline Siede]

Parks And Recreation, “Leslie And Ron”

When Ben recruits his colleagues and friends to lock up Leslie and Ron overnight, forcing them to hash out their feud, Ron finally discharges his Claymore mine in an attempt to escape. The conversation that follows perfectly sums up the gap that’s always loomed between them. “You mean to tell me I have had a toy on my desk for 10 years?” Ron asks, aghast, when it explodes into a shower of confetti. “You mean to tell me you thought you had an actual land mine on your desk?” Leslie retorts. But the gap between them has never been a barrier; it’s a space where they challenge each other to be their best selves. “Leslie And Ron” shows Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman at their best, fierce and silly by turns, in an episode that pays loving respect to the Parks And Recreation’s history while it sets a course for its brief future. [Emily L. Stephens]

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Penny Dreadful, “Nightcomers”

Penny Dreadful writer John Logan doesn’t hesitate to reach for the theatrical when he’s trying to spin a theme, so it’s no wonder “Nightcomers” feels like a stage play—in the best way. Essentially a two-hander between Eva Green and Patti Lupone (delivering a career-best performance as the Cut-Wife), it’s a direct hit about women, power, and sacrifice. Making the most of Penny Dreadful’s often-stylized dialogue and distinctly Victorian sensibilities, there’s even a streak of dark humor amid the stiflingly unfair (and notably modern) patriarchal villains. It’s a fascinating character study, a near-stand-alone episode that still provides a thematic touchstone for the season, and a reminder that TV can create a whole world in 55 minutes. [Genevieve Valentine]

Silicon Valley, “Two Days Of The Condor”

On the same night that Game Of Thrones visited doom-and-gloom upon a majority of its regular cast, the gravest HBO tragedy befell Richard Hendricks. In the span of 30 tense minutes, Thomas Middleditch’s twitchy Silicon Valley protagonist lost, regained, and then lost (again) control of his tech start-up, which stumbled upon a viral sensation when the nature cam it sponsored became the global window into a zoologist’s 27 Hours-style nightmare. A model of comedic suspense, “Two Days Of The Condor” moves with ruthless precision, as epic a season finale as possible for a show in which frantic typing and panicked server construction represent the height of action—give or take more dramatic developments like fire and light home demolition. [Erik Adams]

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Togetherness, “Kick The Can”

The Duplass brothers’ HBO sitcom turned out to be deceptively titled, as Togetherness was not just about the ties that bind people, but what happens to those ties when they start to fray. In the best episode of its debut season, main couple Michelle and Brett stagger out of a devastating therapy session, and wonder what in the world they can do next. The different ways in which they deal depict why their marriage is in trouble: Michelle wants to round up the old gang and pay kickball, and Brett just can’t get on board despite the mountain of cans of beer available. Sure, it’s gratifying to watch the middle-aged friends take down a group of hipsters in a kick-the-can-based turf war, but Togetherness’ insight shows that the way Michelle and Brett play kick the can is the way they’re living their lives: Michelle ferociously, Brett in hiding. In the end, Michelle may win the game, but she’s on her way to losing her life’s central relationship. [Gwen Ihnat]

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes Outside!”

The story of a woman escaping an underground bunker after being held against her will for 15 years doesn’t exactly sound like fodder for a sitcom, especially not an overtly goofy one from co-creator Tina Fey. But the pilot episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt immediately sets the tone for the series: Relentlessly optimistic Kimmy doesn’t want to be seen as a victim (or an Indiana Mole Woman) so she decides to start over in New York City, reclaiming the life that was stolen from her. There are a ton of great gags as Kimmy gets an apartment, a roommate, a job, and some scene-stealing supporting characters to interact with, but it’s the fact that the episode never turns its leading lady into a punchline that elevates it to great television. Kimmy may be inexperienced, but she’s not dumb. “We’re the strong ones,” she explains, “and you can’t break us.” [Caroline Siede]

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UnREAL, “Return”

Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s “Return” is one of the best pilots in years, introducing a dozen characters and their stories in five minutes, like the fast-paced, fanged, behind-the-scenes spawn of Dead Set and Burning Love. Noxon and Shapiro approach the traditional Bachelor premiere activities—humiliating first impressions followed by a mass dismissal—with an eye on the ways the individual contestants succumb to and rebel against the trappings of the show. Meanwhile, they delve into Rachel, a producer with profoundly mixed feelings about her work who is nonetheless a master manipulator. She finds a conspiratorial spark with the season’s “suitor,” but her real foil is spiky showrunner Quinn, a mix of ally, master, and mark. “Return” is a model of economy and summer soap, the perfect first taste of our new addiction. [Brandon Nowalk]

The Vampire Diaries, “I’m Thinking Of You All The While”

With star Nina Dobrev moving on from the show, The Vampire Diaries’ sixth season finale was faced with a seemingly impossible task: Saying goodbye to its main character in a way that not only made sense for the show’s past, but also for its future. The solution—to put Elena in a magic-induced coma of sorts, easily poised to awaken should a series finale conveniently allow her to arise—might play fast and loose with the show’s supernatural rules, but it gets everything right when it comes to nailing the emotional resonance of her departure. The Vampire Diaries’ crazy twists and turns only work if the characters’ emotional connections are strong, and the finale intrinsically understands this import, giving each of Elena’s relationships a sense of closure before allowing her to literally dance off into the sunset with her true love. Cheesy? Maybe. Perfect? Definitely. [Carrie Raisler]

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Veep, “Testimony”

Veep has made the the tedium and downright incompetence of the political process not just interesting, but absolutely hilarious and vulgar (and hilariously vulgar). Somehow, Selina Meyer and company had been able to dance around having to answer for their actions… until “Testimony,” that is. Taking the biggest mistakes of the administration—the data breach and the internal lobbying to kill their own bill—and calling them into question on C-SPAN and through deposition footage, the show steps outside its (and the character’s) comfort zone for the most inventive episode of the series. Even outside the framing device, the episode features some of the most memorable moments of the series: From Amy’s demure hearing dress to Jonah’s nicknames courtesy of “the Jonad files” to Leigh the fired intern’s testimony (“They thought I was a mouse. Well this mouse will roar”) to the difference between “snowballing” and “scapegoating”—it all leaves an impression. [LaToya Ferguson]

Wolf Hall, “Anna Regina”

“If Thomas More came anywhere near you,” Wolf Hall’s political mastermind Thomas Cromwell tells his son, “I’d drag him out of his court in Westminster and beat his head on the cobbles until I’ve knocked some of God’s love into it.” After two episodes of Cromwell’s tentative rise to power on a show as measured as its star, it’s a trip to see Mark Rylance’s conservative Cromwell finally throwing his weight around in “Anna Regina.” He isn’t acting solo, either: “Anna Regina” is the blossoming of Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn, from their bonding over a shared approach to politics (“People should say whatever will keep them alive”) to a flirtatious fantasy as they oversee a political divorce to, as the title suggests, the successful coronation of Queen Anne. The weight of the series rests on their relationship, and it reaches its conspiratorial peak in “Anna Regina.” [Brandon Nowalk]

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Younger, “The Old Ma’am And The C”

TV Land isn’t known as a source for great original television (sorry Hot In Cleveland), which makes it even more impressive that the channel produced a series as funny and engaging as Younger. In order to jump back into the workforce after taking time off to raise her daughter, 40-year-old Liza Miller (a perfectly cast Sutton Foster) poses as a 26-year-old and lands a job as a publishing assistant. Despite its sitcom-ready premise, Younger is full of humanity and character-based stakes; that’s especially true in its excellent first season finale, in which Liza’s carefully managed world starts to fall apart thanks to some molly and a guest appearance from Martha Plimpton. All she can do is try to maintain her dignity as she figures out how to pick up the pieces. [Caroline Siede]