The Best Television Episodes of 2013

Staff selections from a year of great TV

The Atlantic's editors and writers pick their favorite moments from Breaking BadThe Office, Orange is the New Black, and more from the past year. (And episode hoarders, beware: Spoilers abound.)


FX

American Horror Story: Coven, “Burn, Witch. Burn!”

Actual spookiness is off the menu for the third season of Ryan Murphy’s gloriously gruesome genre experiment. Instead, in New Orleans, we’ve gotten to binge on camp, cattiness, and heady riffs on the cruelty in America’s history. The fifth episode offered all of these elements in fine form, but also with a dose of action-movie glee when the voodoo queen’s corpse army lays siege to the titular coven’s manor. Kathy Bates’s seemingly callous, immortal governess heartbreakingly encounters the zombified daughter she’d abused more than a century earlier; the demure young sorceress Zoe goes Resident Evil by taking a chainsaw to the undead horde.

In the aftermath, the coven’s quip-happy overseeing council tries to prosecute Jessica Lange’s fabulously self-centered headmistress for crimes against witchkind, but decades-old secret loyalties upend the trial, and the wrong woman ends up burnt at the stake. A twist in the final shot offers yet another deliciously entertaining reminder that injustice never stays buried.

Spencer Kornhaber


Netflix

Arrested Development, "Colony Collapse"

Watching the defiantly experimental Netflix revival of Mitchell Hurwitz’s beloved sitcom was, at first, disheartening: Is this ever going to get good? Happily, the answer turned out to be “yes.” Episode Seven, the first one centered around Gob, triggers nearly as many laughs and quotables as anything in the original three seasons.

You’ll remember it as the one with ridiculous set piece after ridiculous set piece—the Entourage sendup, the “Getaway” earworm, the Jesus illusion, the bee swarm, Gob’s morning-after meal/marriage proposal to Egg, er, Ann. Unlike so much else with Season Four, it works as a standalone, mixing absurdity and dark satire—anyone else gasp at the blasphemy on display at the Veal-Bluth wedding?

Spencer Kornhaber


HBO

Boardwalk Empire, “Farewell Daddy Blues”

Boardwalk Empire is many things, but it isn't slow. For all of its style and focus on setting a mood, Boardwalk Empire is more like deliberate: Every event matters and will come back to affect someone's schemes down the road.

The show’s fourth season was perhaps even more deliberate than its predecessors, so in true Boardwalk fashion, the finale wasn't a neat wrap-up of the season's plots. Rather, it was a forward-looking episode that established long-term divisions and motivations for the future.

At the heart of “Farewell Daddy Blues” is the conflict between Michael K. Williams’s Chalky White and Jeffrey Wright’s Doctor Narcisse. The two are electric together, and it’s terrifying and exciting when their power struggle comes to a head. Shots are fired, one innocent gets killed, and most intriguingly, their battle for control over Atlantic City’s north side remains unresolved. And then there's Jack Huston as the noble, disfigured assassin Richard Harrow, who manages to be a romantic and tragic hero as everyone's world collapses in the episode. His death is perhaps the biggest shock of the episode, and the season, but a fitting end for a moral character in an immoral world.

Nicholas Slayton


AMC

Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias"

The end of Breaking Bad bothers me. I didn't like it when it aired in September, and I really don't like it now. It's an artful, thrilling conclusion to Walter White's perverse story, but it just wasn't for me. That's why I prefer to believe "Ozymandias" is the true finale to one of the greatest shows ever. (Those next two episodes? Just an extended epilogue I choose to ignore.)

Think about it. Walter is banished to New Hampshire, unable to "save" his family with the drug money he squirreled away. Jesse, forever the victim, lives out his last days as a meth-cooking slave for the neo-Nazis. Nobody is saved and everybody suffers. That's the ending Breaking Bad needed. Bleak, merciless, and tragic.

Chris Heller


BBC

Doctor Who,“The Night of the Doctor”

At its best, Doctor Who can provide complex science-fiction concepts, comedy, drama, existential discussion, adventure, and a bit of horror, all in one episode. “The Night of the Doctor,” the webisode prequel to Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special, not only did that, but it did it in seven minutes.

The actual special, “The Day of the Doctor,” was a fun (and flawed) adventure and tribute to the show, but it failed to follow up on the excellent  setup provided in “Night.” The webisode managed to bring back almost 40-year-old plotlines and created one of the best conflicts of morality the show has seen: The Doctor has to decide whether or not to become a killer in order to save the universe. But what truly makes “Night” work is Paul McGann who returns to reprise his role as the Eighth Doctor. McGann turns in a masterful performance as the Doctor, encompassing the character’s many aspects—clever, determined, and tragic—all in less than 10 minutes, and ultimately showcasing what makes the Doctor one of the most iconic characters in fiction.

Nicholas Slayton


HBO

Enlightened, “Agent of Change”

It’s tough to say goodbye to any beloved TV show, especially one as criminally underrated—or at least as under-watched—as Enlightened. But with the axe looming over the ratings-challenged second season, creator Mike White made parting with Amy Jellicoe as painless as possible.

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