Best of television lists for any given year can be repetitive, so we chose to honor our favorites. They aren't always from the most critically lauded shows—Real Housewives makes an appearance here—but they are the episodes that made us laugh, cry, and cringe.
As for why TV episodes and not TV series? For one thing, the calendar-year restrictions mean we'd be judging a lot of half-seasons, and that doesn't make a ton of sense. Not as much sense as individual episodes, which gave us the freedom to look at shows that were maybe more uneven but managed to pull it together for one giant swing for the fences.
We limited ourselves to one episode (or two-part episode) per series, because sometimes it's more fun when there are more rules.
The 15 Best Episodes of Television in 2013 (in alphabetical order)
30 Rock, “Hogcock!”/”Last Lunch"
Season 7, Episode 7. Aired on January 31, 2013.
Perhaps the best thing about “Hogcock/Last Lunch” was that, even though the two episodes constituted the finale of 30 Rock, they also stand alone as just really good 30 Rock episodes—with, of course, an added bit of emotion. We teared up when Liz and Jack confessed their totally platonic love for one another, and when Tracy learned to say goodbye. But we were also delighted that the episodes answered some burning questions like no, Jenna never met Mickey Rourke. And that they gave some underappreciated characters their due. Lutz, for instance, against all odds, got his Blimpies. 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show structure alway allowed it to be strangely meta, and it was no different in its finale. The show’s last episode ended up being a comment on television finales, down to Kenneth’s immortality and the “revelation” that it was all a pitch from Lemon’s great great granddaughter. Also! Jenna’s performance of the “Rural Juror” song will go down in the TV moments history books. These truly were the best days of our flerm. — Esther Zuckerman
American Horror Story: Asylum, "Madness Ends"
Season 2, Episode 13. Aired on January 23, 2013.
Tasked with picking but one episode from American Horror Story’s perfect (yes, perfect) second season, it took all I had not to choose “The Name Game.” But while that episode included the season’s best singular moment, “Madness Ends” represents the show sticking its landing, and for a show that consistently went to the crazy places this one did, that’s no small achievement. It helped that the series had been tying off loose ends for several episodes before the finale, so that by the final hour, only the fates of Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude and Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters remained. Both stories were brought to extravagant but also rather moving conclusions, giving both Lange and Paulson fantastic showcases to go out on. — Joe Reid
Bob's Burgers, "Topsy"
Season 3, Episode 16. Aired on March 10, 2013.
So much of what's to love about Bob’s Burgers can be found in “Topsy,” an episode that sees the kids team up for a school play/hit-piece on Thomas Edison, in order to help Louise carry out her plan of revenge against her teacher. This is less an episode that towers over all other Bob’s Burgers episodes as it is the most representative of a series that was consistently at the top of its game all year. That said, any storyline that puts Tina, Gene, and Louise together for the same plot already has a leg up on everything else. Louise’s maniacal vindictiveness is on full, frightening display, and guest appearances by Megan Mulllally and Billy Eichner make this one of the season’s funniest episodes. All that, plus “Electric Love”! — JR
Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias"
Season 5, Episode 14. Aired on September 15, 2013.
For many, the end of Breaking Bad was not its finale. It was Walt, standing handcuffed at the spot where it started in the New Mexico desert, as his brother in law Hank is killed. It's when Walt learns what was obvious to everyone else: the plan he always said was there to save his family was a doomed one. After that, everything scatters, and that is 'Ozymandias.' "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" reads the Shelley sonnet from which the episode draws its name, "Nothing beside remains." If Breaking Bad were a show with gods—it is not—this would be the episode for Nemesis, or divine retribution, following years of a premise that, let's face it, was never really going to live up to Walt's imagination. During this one episode, Walt loses his money, or most of it; Jesse comes out on the losing end of virtually every previous betrayal; Skyler, for a time, loses her daughter and whatever sense of security she had left; and Walt Jr. loses his separation from his family's secret life. Then there's the astonishing phone call from Walt to Skyler, during which he articulates every ugly thought ever thrown at Anna Gunn's character, a phone call that fans of the show are likely still parsing. In the end, virtually every plot point disintegrates or transforms beyond recognition. Sometimes, television like "Ozymandias" can feel unnecessarily masochistic, but one of the episode's greatest feats is that every horrible turn feels justified. As punishing a moment in television as it was, 'Ozymandias' is also the only narrative reason viewers could accept, in the end, a handful of bittersweet mercies. — Abby Ohlheiser
Season 1, Episode 18. Aired on February 25, 2013.
Part of the sadness of Bunheads’ “Next” is in what might have been, since this season finale ended up being an untimely series finale. But it was also a great example of what made this nugget of a show so good. It, of course, had Amy Sherman Palladino’s fast-paced dialogue and the requisite singing and dancing, but it was the smaller moments that made it. Take for instance the final scene—before the ending dance number—bunhead Ginny (Bailey Buntain) confesses to her teacher and friend Michelle (Sutton Foster) that she slept with a boy named Frankie, a boy who has since ignored her. Earlier in the episode, the girls had set out to educate themselves about sex. The scene is funny—Ginny wrote him a thank you note—but also completely realistic in its depiction of heartbreak, teenage or otherwise, without being over the top. That moment was about the small, painful things that we just endure. And then there was a dance number to “Makin’ Whoopie.” If only we had gotten more. — EZ
Enlightened, "Agent of Change"
Season 2, Episode 8. Aired on March 3, 2013.
That Mike White and Laura Dern’s pristine creation only lasted two seasons (18 episodes! Fewer episodes than Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got!) is sad, but it would have been a whole lot sadder if the final episode didn’t end on the absolute correct note. In her own hard-charging, semi-collected way, Amy Jellicoe managed to win. She managed to march into that elevator and ride it all the way to the highest floor at Abbadon, the company that had so vexed and humiliated her. She got to explain to the very rich, very angry person in charge that she had fucked up his whole world. And then, in a bit of symmetry that made me feel like, even if I wasn’t going to see it, Amy would be okay, that CEO freaked out on her in the exact way she had freaked out in the show’s pilot. Full circle. — JR
Game of Thrones, "The Rains of Castamere"
Season 3, Episode 9. Aired on June 2, 2013.
When King Joffrey (or rather George R.R. Martin) took Ned Stark's head nine episodes into the first season, it sent a message that Game of Thrones would not be like most TV shows. For one: No character (or famous actor) was off limits for a quick death. Two: In Westeros, almost no one (good or bad) ever gets what they deserve. And Three: The producers are not afraid to use an entire season as the build up to a single, shocking punch in the gut. The story and song of "The Rains of Castemere" was planted in viewers' heads more than once during Season Three, so that when the first strains started playing over Catelyn Stark's knowing look, everyone knew something bad was about to go down. Even then, we weren't prepared for this. Despite knowing what we know about Martin's methods, most of us probably still believed our heroes would find a way to escape. That's what a more conventional show would do. But a more conventional show would never risk unnerving people quite this much. That's how you know it's the best. — Dashiell Bennett
Girls, "On All Fours"
Season 2, Episode 9. Aired on March 10, 2013.
I’ll never forget where I was when I first saw “On All Fours.” I was cramped on a couch with two friends in a Lower East Side apartment. As I watched the episode, my shoulders were at my ears, my hands were over my mouth, and my skin was crawling. By the end of the episode, none of us could speak. A lot of attention has been paid to “One Man’s Trash,” a beautiful, one-act play of an episode in Girls’ second season, but "On All Fours" was an example of just how dark this show was willing to go. It had a bevy of cringe-inducing moments, like Hannah getting the Q-tip stuck in her ear and Marnie singing Kanye West's "Stronger." The worst of it came at the very end when Adam made his new girlfriend crawl to his bed, had sex with her crudely from behind, and then came on her chest. It turned Adam from possible good guy in the beginning of the episode to a near sexual predator. The episode made us question all of the relationships we had with these characters up until this point, and for that it was bold. — EZ
The Good Wife, "Hitting the Fan"
Season 5, Episode 5. Aired on October 27, 2013.
Despite a fourth season that generated a bunch of bad press for how much fans did not appreciate the storyline with Kalinda’s ex, The Good Wife managed to finish up strong and left things on quite the intriguing note, with Alicia and Cary poised to defect from their firm and set out on their own. Season Five’s first few episodes methodically moved the pieces into place, until everything was poised so precariously that any big movements would send the whole operation crashing to the ground. And then Alicia and Cary did it. They left. Well, they got shoved out, actually, once Diane figured it out and told Will, but the immediate fallout made for the most deliciously intense hour in perhaps the show’s history, a sign that with the right ensemble and a slow burn, you can still make appointment television out of a five-year-old network semi-procedural. — JR
House of Cards, "Chapter 3"
Season 1, Episode 3. "Aired" on February 1, 2013.
Netflix's binge-worthy show is told in 13 unnamed "Chapters," and of those, the third episode highlighted the show's best quality: heavy doses of Kevin Spacey. Spacey, as Rep. Frank Underwood, heads to his South Carolina hometown to quell some local unrest related to the Peachoid, a giant water tower peach that looks like–well, you take a look. The political battle between Underwood and a local County Administrator is the most gleefully mischievous the show gets. Underwood spits bullshit, lies through his teeth, and feigns caring about a teen death, all while finagling his way into everyone's good graces and crushing his rival. That Underwood constantly outsmarted everything and everyone in D.C. in the series wasn't that believable; that he could so thoroughly outmaneuver a low-level wanna-be representative was pure fun.
Importantly, the episode is light on Zoe Barnes's escapades—a big positive for those who found her junior-league maneuverings a bit repetitive—and provides one of the most notable of Underwood's many asides: "Choosing money over power is a mistake almost everyone makes. Money is the big mansion in Saratoga that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is that old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference." Consider that the modus operandi of the entire show. — Eric Levenson
New Girl, "Virgins"
Season 2, Episode 23. Aired on April 30, 2013.
The last moments of New Girl’s “Virgins” could be the moment the show went off the rails. Will they/won’t they couple Nick and Jess, who had kissed earlier in the season, slept together. But no matter what you think about the show’s decision to couple these two nutcases, “Virgins” was a great example of how this zany comedy had developed over the course of its two seasons. The episode was structured around each member of the loft telling their virginity-loss stories. That allowed for slapstick—Schmidt’s first time involved a fat suit, lube, an extremely high Nick, and a dorm room bunk bed. It allowed for character development—Jess’s awkwardness is explained in her aborted attempts to get laid. It allowed for Winston ... well, this show never really knows what to do with Winston. Regardless, the episode was a near-perfect example of mining a standard sitcom structure to wonderful effect. — EZ
Orange Is the New Black, "Tall Men With Feelings"
Season 1, Episode 11. "Aired" on July 11, 2013.
The tension that drives Orange Is the New Black lies in watching how Piper, the protagonist played by Taylor Schilling, cultivates her relationships with the other women of Litchfield prison. Those relationships have the power to save her life or wreck it, to make prison tolerable or unbearable, and to control whether or not she has food to eat. Part of the odd beauty of the show is that Piper isn't exactly deft or really great at building these relationships. Part of that is driven by the belief that she's not one of these women. But by the end of the season, Piper has managed to patch together a peaceful semblance of a nest—all but setting the stage for the final minutes of this episode, when her fiance Larry blows it all up from the smarmy comfort of an NPR studio. Piper's reluctance to actually come to terms with the fact that she isn't that different from the women she's belittling leads her to to bungle on all the bridge-building she's done over the past few weeks. — Alexander Abad-Santos
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, “Home Is Where the Art Is”
Season 3, Episode 10. Aired on January 21, 2013.
Though every episode of RHOBH is kind of amazing, this one is especially so because it does not have a plot. You may argue that no episode of any reality television show ever has a plot, but you are incorrect, at least in comparison to “Home Is Where the Art Is,” because this one really doesn't have a plot, like at all. To clarify: Off-air, cast-member Brandi Glanville accused fellow cast-member Adrienne Maloof of using a surrogate to carry her three children. The Maloofs were outraged by this (apparently true) claim and threatened to sue Brandi for her “defamatory” words. CafeMom reports that Maloof has a clause in her contract preventing Bravo from airing any footage related to her children - so the actual accusation could not be aired, or referenced, on the show. Bravo still decided to broadcast the argument, its aftermath, cast reactions and the rest, but without ever explaining to viewers what anyone was talking about.
The result is insane. The housewives emote, and yell, and scold, and judge each other for no reason - literally no reason, as far as the viewer can tell - and even the husbands get involved. It’s like watching the show in abstract, or a vague whodunnit where the crime is undefined, or like having a fever dream starring the members of the cast. It’s utterly ridiculous that Bravo aired the episode(s - the next episode refers back to the argument), and even more so that we all watched it. Bravo bet on our willingness to watch these ladies fight over anything (or in this case, nothing), and they won. — Danielle Wiener-Bronner
RuPaul's Drag Race, "Drama Queens"
Season 5, Episode 9. Aired on April 1, 2013.
The fifth season of Drag Race had its fair share of frustrations, from the drawn-out (and often fake-seeming) Coco-Alyssa feud to the one-note and sour-grapes-y bitchery of Roxxxy Andrews (and to a lesser extent, Detox) when it came to the comedy chops of Jinkx Monsoon. But you can’t keep a show like this down for very long, and once the chaff was separated from the wheat (byeee, Serena Chacha), you got an episode like this one, with some fantastic over-the-top telenovela acting, an unforgettable Dia de los Muertos runway look from Jinkx, and the final Coco-Alyssa lip-synch showdown that was actually pretty dramatic, but most importantly, it was final.
Scandal, "Nobody Likes Babies"
Season 2, Episode 13. Aired on February 7, 2013.
As Scandal goes on it's hard to think of Fitz—aka POTUS, played by Tony Goldwyn—as anything other than a smarmy, incompetent and manipulative jerk. But there was a time when he was just a boy and Olivia was just a girl, and he was going to divorce his wife and marry and move her to the boonies in Vermont to make butter. Then "Nobody Likes Babies" happened. The most scandalous moment of that episode wasn't that Fitz killed a Supreme Court justice (honestly), or that he finally found out America never wanted him to be president (that election was rigged). No, the most scandalous takeaway was that we now had definitive proof that Fitz is a horrible person, and that's why he and Olivia don't belong together. — Arit John