The Best Television Episodes of 2015

Staff selections from a year of great TV

AMC / ABC / Comedy Central / HBO / USA / IGN / Zak Bickel / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The Atlantic's editors and writers pick their favorite 2015 moments from Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, Broad City, Rick and Morty, Jessica Jones, and more. (Just to be clear, spoilers abound.)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “4,722 Hours


Marvel’s flagship show has shown more and more willingness to experiment in its third season, and the standout entry was “4,722 Hours,” which followed poor Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) as she lived alone for months on an alien planet where the sun never rose. The episode was a miniature take on The Martian, with a nightmarish monster and an astronaut love interest added in for good measure. It was pulp TV storytelling, presented in widescreen, with total confidence and plenty of visual flair, and it served as the emotional spine of the show’s larger season arc about the planet’s hidden mysteries.

American Horror Story: Hotel, “Room Service


Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has never quite recaptured the glory of its first two seasons, but I totally forgot this sad fact during “Room Service.” Two words: vampire children. Actually, two more: Liz Taylor. On the first note, Hotel took a ridiculous plot point (a vampire nurse transforming a child who was deathly sick with measles to save his life) and followed through with it: That vampire child went to school and manipulated his fellow classmates to kill their teachers and drink their blood. On the second note, the show took a fascinating secondary character, a glamorous trans hotel concierge named Liz Taylor, and told her backstory in a lovingly shot flashback sequence. The episode was equal parts original, poignant, and giddily gross (it ended with Kathy Bates murdering Blaine from Glee after serving him cat food as paté). Proof, in other words, that there’s no reason to check out any time soon.

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


For three seasons, The Americans has challenged the tight moral line its protagonists walk, and no episode this year was more wrenching than “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” Even for this thriller of a show it was a nerve-wracking hour, revolving around Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) ethical dilemma after Betty, an innocent woman (Lois Smith) stumbled across her trying to bug an FBI mail robot. Elizabeth withheld Betty’s heart medication and slowly watched her die, but the conversations about their life choices that unfolded over the next hour were among the most arresting TV drama of the year. All without a single bullet being fired.

Better Call Saul, “Mijo


In the second episode of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan conducted a lab-pure demonstration of how exactly this show would differ from Breaking Bad—and how, exactly, it could reach similarly amusing but nerve-wracking heights. The control in this experiment was the unhinged Albuquerque drug kingpin Tuco Salamanca; the variable was the man he wanted to kill. Instead of the chemistry teacher Walter White fighting for survival with science, we had the grubby lawyer Jimmy McGill using his skills as a shapeshifting, say-anything negotiator. The results: two skateboarders with broken legs—and a mild case of PTSD both for the man who would become Saul and for viewers who’d just seen what he could accomplish with words alone.

Black-ish, “The Word

Black-ish’s second-season opener focused entirely on one fraught issue, and in that it felt almost like the very special episodes of the ’80s and ’90s, only infinitely more poised and much, much funnier. When 6-year-old Jack was sent home from a school concert after rapping the n-word in a rendition of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” the rest of the family debated who had the right to use the word, and when. The various answers were riotous (don’t even think about it, white people, member of Menudo, or Don Lemon), but also nuanced, with Dre ultimately deciding that his son should think about the history of the word before he decided whether to use it. It’s hard to juggle social issues without coming across as preachy, but Black-ish offered a lesson in how to do so while staying entirely in character.

Broad City, “Wisdom Teeth

Comedy Central

One of the best aspects of Broad City—beyond its subtle skewering of the assorted smugnesses of the pop culture of 2015—is the friendship between Abbi and Ilana.

“Friendship,” actually, doesn’t seem like enough. They are platonic life partners. And no episode better captures their bond than “Wisdom Teeth,” whose plot was basically this: Abbi got her wisdom teeth out, and Ilana tried to take care of her. (This being Ilana: She tried to.) Ilana lost Abbi, and searched for her. Hijinx—involving, among other things, an enormous, tooth-shaped stuffed mascot and doomed trip to the froyo shop 42 Squirts—ensued. It was a hero’s journey that ended at a Whole Foods in Brooklyn, and, just like Broad City itself, it was weird and wonderful and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Carmichael Show, “Protest


Other sitcom episodes this year might have been more polished, but none felt as vital as “Protest,” only the second episode of the terrific Carmichael Show, a multi-camera sitcom about a black family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Centered around the various reactions to a Black Lives Matter protest and the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and set almost entirely in one room, the episode expertly interrogated the generational differences towards protesting and attitudes towards the police in African American families without ever forgetting to be funny. It also featured the unforgettable sight of Loretta Devine donning the coolest 1960s protest gear imaginable, complete with beret.

Catastrophe, “Episode 4


TV, in general, has not been terribly nuanced about covering pregnancy. Food-craving jokes, roller-coaster-hormone jokes, drunk-doctor-in-the-delivery-room jokes … yes, definitely. But what the smaller things, and the bigger? What about the fears? What about the hesitations? What about the things that could go wrong? “Episode 4,” which found Sharon (Sharon Horgan) considering the implications of older motherhood—including the elevated chance that her baby might have Downs Syndrome—explored the anxious side of pregnancy with Catastrophe’s trademark mix of nuance, realness, and humor.

Cristela, Gifted and Talented


The sadly-cancelled ABC sitcom Cristela got only one season to portray the lives of a middle-class Mexican American family, and it did so hilariously while essaying some of the real drama that arises in the immigrant family dynamic. In the show’s most expert and wrenching episode, Cristela’s niece applied to her school’s gifted and talented program, but only Cristela (an aspiring lawyer) seemed to want her to get in, while the rest of the family fretted that it might make her unpopular or raise her expectations too high. Like any great sitcom, Cristela took compelling family drama and made it consistently funny—and it’s a crying shame it didn’t come back for many more seasons of the same.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, “Finale

Comedy Central

For a show whose life force is sarcasm, The Daily Show episode that marked the end of the Jon Stewart Era was remarkably, refreshingly earnest. It brought back former correspondents—many of whose careers had been launched by the show—to make one last joke. It featured a seemingly off-the-cuff thank you from Stephen Colbert (without Stewart’s assistance, he confessed, he had no idea what might have become of “this son of a poor, Appalachian turd-miner”). And it made clear that The Daily Show’s audience isn’t just an audience; it’s also a community. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance,” Stewart reminded his viewers, signing off. “So, if you smell something, say something.”

Fargo, The Castle


With most television, it’s easy to pick out one or two clear standout episodes from a single season. Fargo’s second season was a rare beast that worked brilliantly as a whole while making each episode feel like a tiny work of art. “The Castle” might best be compared to Game of Thrones’ famously action-packed penultimate episodes—“The Rains of Castamere,” “Baelor,” “Blackwater”—for its bonkers showdown, which featured double-crossing, a bloody shootout, and a flying saucer. But to reduce the episode to its set piece is to ignore the million other things Fargo also nailed: the cheeky narration by Martin Freeman (who played season one’s Lester Nygaard); the emotional punch when Betsy Solverson appeared to die; the effortless plotting; the cathartic unleashing of Hanzdee Dent; Mike Milligan delivering the best “Okay, then!” in the history of TV; and, as always, the dark humor. In other words, it felt like Fargo in a nutshell.

The Flash, “Fast Enough


The Flash is part of the CW’s growing portfolio of superhero TV shows, with Supergirl becoming the latest edition this fall, but it stands competently on its own. The show, which follows the story of the fastest man alive, had its first-season finale in the spring of this year: The episode handily presented a nuanced resolution to its story arc while leaving enough material to bait its audience for season two. To top it off, its red-suited Barry Allen made the heart-wrenching but mature decision to allow his mother to die, effectively maintaining the course of history, even though he’d spent the entire season trying to save her. He, and the rest of the show’s delightful cast of characters, are what keep me coming back—at the end of the day, this is a coming-of-age story. With meta-humans.

Fresh off the Boat, “Boy II Man


Fresh off the Boat has been funny and sweet from the start, but “Boy II Man” was the first episode that floored me. It teased out a stunning number of LOLs while seamlessly weaving together its main storylines—Louis wanting a daughter, Eddie refusing to play the piccolo, Jessica and Honey’s parenting dilemmas, the other Huang boys’ fears about a new baby. Not only was it the show’s funniest thus far, it felt like the fullest realization of Fresh off the Boat’s promise as a smart, touching, big-hearted family sitcom. The awkward family singalong of Boyz II Men's “End of the Road” would have been too maudlin on virtually any other show, but on this one, it was perfect.

Game of Thrones, “Hardhome


The latest season of Game of Thrones had some big flaws—can we forget about the Sand Snakes forever, please?—but one half-hour sequence rendered insignificant all problems both within the show and about it. Who cares about the occupant of the Iron Throne when there’s an undead horde bearing down from the north? And who cares about plot holes when the set pieces are this good? David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have staged epic battles before, but the onslaught here was less a Lord of the Rings blowout than the precipitating fright in a Night of the Living Dead. Viewers even met a new and very cool-seeming Wildling chieftain named Karsi—though this being Thrones, how do you think she ended up?

Homeland, “The Tradition of Hospitality

No show has oscillated more giddily between low and high (actually high) than Homeland, but the fifth season, perhaps through a combination of effort and dumb luck, has seen it return to form, largely because the business of the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts is so timely. In the second episode, Carrie’s new job as security director for a German billionaire put her back in familiar danger when she escorted him to a Syrian refugee camp (with interesting graffiti) unofficially run by Hezbollah. In Berlin, Peter Quinn tracked a woman who was recruiting young girls to join the Islamic State. The episode’s combination of knife-edge suspense (a suicide-bomber opening up his vest, a dramatic car chase, a hacker leaking surveillance info) and geopolitics emphasized how relevant the show can be when it isn’t hung up on its lead’s personal frailty.

Jessica Jones, “AKA WWJD


Up until “AKA WWJD,” it seemed as though Kilgrave was going to be the kind of villain who always remained just out of arm’s reach, with the exception of the time Jessica and the gang threw him unconscious into the back of a van for a few minutes. “AKA WWJD” disrupted this arc: Not only did Jessica choose to live in Kilgrave’s reconstructed horror-house of memories, but she also briefly considered trying to harness his powers for good. The episode managed the unthinkable in humanizing Kilgrave by explaining how he got his powers—suddenly, he felt less like an unfathomable evil and more like a petulant child used to getting what he wants. Of course, just as it seemed like the show might turn into a twisted redemption story, Jessica revealed that she wasn’t going to let her antagonist get off so easily.

Key and Peele, Airplane Showdown

Comedy Central

The term “embarrassment of riches” applied to most Key and Peele episodes this year, but “Airplane Showdown” was, in the best way, especially embarrassing. There was the “Menstruation Orientation” sketch, which found Shaboots Michaels (Key) and T-Ray Tombstone (Peele) offering a lesson to fellow men about how to handle women's periods (“Be sensitive to that shit!”). There was “Spoiler Alert,” a laconic answer to the frenetic spoof on spoilers that Portlandia did in 2013. And there was the eponymous “Airplane Showdown,” a delightfully dada exploration of all that can go wrong when a fellow plane passenger makes the following declaration: “I read on the Internet that it’s not against the law for me to go to the bathroom when the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is on.”

The Leftovers, “Axis Mundi

The first season of The Leftovers ended in September 2014, and the series didn’t return until October of this year, by which time many viewers had largely forgotten much of the show’s sharp, weirdo genius. So the season-opener, which started with a 10-minute montage about a pregnant woman trapped outside her home by an earthquake, was a reminder of how audacious and startling it could be. What returning TV show kicks off with a prehistoric parable of survival set to Verdi, then spends the rest of the episode with a whole new family, barely offering glimpses of the stars of the first season? Even better were the ways in which the seemingly opaque interlude was illuminated as the series progressed.

Looking, “Looking for Home


The haters’ claims that Looking is overly preoccupied with making gay guys seem “normal”—approachable, boring, basically straight—should have been put to rest by the second season finale (which turned out to be the last episode before a series-ending TV movie set to air in 2016). Patrick moved in with his boss/boyfriend Kevin at a building populated by other yuppie gay couples; at a party there, it came to light that Kevin had been lurking on Grindr. A battle about shades of monogamy ensued, featuring all of the showrunner Andrew Haigh’s typical nuance and humor. If Kevin and Patrick were Kevin and Patricia, the issue may have been a lot more cut-and-dry. But because cultural norms about long-term relationships between men remain unsettled, they must talk and talk and talk it out, as many same-sex couples must do in real life

Mad Men, “Lost Horizon

The final season of Mad Men felt necessarily fragmented, as characters split off in various directions. In “Lost Horizon,” Joan was bought out of her partnership for half of what she was owed. Don skipped out on a Miller meeting to drive west in search of Diana. Roger seemed stuck forever in SC&P’s old offices, like a ghost who can’t get out of purgatory. And Peggy finally made her way to McCann Erickson, hungover and clutching a pornographic print of an octopus. But though the characters were rent asunder, the show’s spirit was perhaps more present than in any other episode of season seven: surreal, joyful, bleak, and barbed. “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone,” Shirley told Roger, expressing an awful lot in a handful of words. The beauty of Mad Men was how efficiently this discomfort was manipulated to make great drama.

Master of None, Old People


Master of None, consumed during a weekend binge, felt like a revelation for its humor and heart, as well as its handling of race and gender issues. “Old People” instantly wedged itself into my mental catalog of “comedy episodes that give you all the feels.” Millennial-centric shows can be dismissive of the experiences of older people, who often serve as props or vehicles for younger people to better understand themselves. In “Old People” Dev and Rachel engaged with older characters on their own terms, empathizing with them in ways both hilarious and beautiful. The only thing better than Lynn Cohen’s performance as Rachel’s grandma was finding out that Paro the seal is real.

Mr. Robot, “eps1.8_m1rr0r1ng.qt


Mr. Robot added a burst of cyber-intrigue in the normally sleepy summer-TV scene. Its portrait of the hacker Elliot Alderson, played by Rami Malek, came to a head in the penultimate episode of the season when the show revealed its Fight Club-esque twist. While the unveiling of the identity of Mr. Robot wasn’t entirely a surprise, it turned the story into a different kind of battle: Elliot was fighting not only Evil Corp, but also his own mind. In a show that pits individuals against the entrenched structures of society, the intricacies of Elliot’s mind ended up being the most powerful—and most curious—antagonist of all.

Orange Is the New Black, “Trust No Bitch


I’ve already spent about 1,300 verklempt words describing how the final few minutes of Orange Is the New Black’s third season made for some of the loveliest TV I’ve ever seen, so let’s turn our attention to the second-loveliest part of the episode. That’d be when Black Cindy—a mildly antiheroic character mostly used for laughs and plot complication until now—converted to Judaism. What had started as a ploy for better food at the mess hall became a desperately overdue search for meaning and forgiveness, as emerged when she told her three witnesses that she was raised in a strict Christian family. The show being the yin/yang experience that it is, this moment of earnest catharsis was made possible when one of the inmates realized she has dirt on the presiding rabbi’s past as a mushroom-tripping undergraduate in the Berkshires.

Parks and Recreation, “Leslie and Ron

Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson are probably the best odd couple in television history, meaning that season seven’s flash-forward revelation that the two were enemies due to a mysterious event titled “Morningstar” felt like even more of a disruption to life in Pawnee than terrible Gryzzl. “Leslie and Ron” saw their former Parks department workplace-proximity associates try to repair their friendship by locking them in their old office overnight; a stunt that led to a timeline of events, a sprinker system being activated, a significant amount of alcohol, and an impromptu performance of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” In other words, poignant, cockamamie Parks perfection.

Rick and Morty, “Total Rickall

Adult Swim

Just because Rick and Morty’s sci-fi storytelling is funny, doesn’t mean it can’t be brilliant. “Total Rickall” was a particularly ingenious piece in the show’s audacious second season: Sitting down to the breakfast table, the Smith family suddenly had a new member, a wacky uncle—because they’d been infected by alien mind-worms that burrowed themselves into people’s memories, creating false ones to escape detection. Soon, they had to fend off an ever-increasing number of bizarre new characters who insisted they’d been there all along. Rick and Morty excels at blending highfalutin genre storytelling with zany laughs and intense action, and watching the family guess whether or not they really knew each other offered some of the best comedy, and drama, of the year.

Scandal, “The Lawn Chair

When Law & Order SVU mines real events for drama—i.e., having Cybill Shepherd play a toxic combo of George Zimmerman and Paula Deen—it often feels impossibly cheap. And even Scandal flailed this season with a case-of-the-week inspired by Princess Diana’s death. But “The Lawn Chair,” which saw a standoff involving the father of young man who’d been shot by the police, was something else, airing the same week that the Justice Department released its report on the death of Michael Brown. Olivia, initially hired by the D.C. police to defuse the simmering tension, found herself joining the protests instead. “You talk about fairness and justice like it’s available to everyone,” she told David Rosen. “That man standing over his son’s body, knows he’s going to end up in one of two places: a jail cell, or a drawer in the morgue.” The lesson here for TV shows: Don’t overplay your hand; let real, awful tragedy speak for itself.

Silicon Valley, “Two Days of the Condor


Mike Judge’s brutally funny tech-world satire reached action-thriller levels in its second season finale, essentially a tense chase sequence in which half of the participants had no idea they were racing against the clock. The show’s climactic legal case, which saw the startup Pied Piper competing against the show’s Google stand-in, ended in an improbable victory for the underdog—but because of some phone malfunctions and transit mishaps, Richard (Thomas Middleditch) had to race back to headquarters and stop his hapless coders from pulling the plug on everything based on the assumption they had lost. Somehow, HBO’s goofy little comedy transformed into a genuine white-knuckle ride for half an hour, and it was one of the most satisfying comedy moments of the year.

Transparent, “Mee-Maw


When small-town Evangelicals came to visit Josh Pfefferman’s secular, fluid-everything Los Angeles enclave, the expected awkward/funny small talk about gun possession and “the Jewish people” ensued. But the presence of folks devoted to tradition and selflessness also forced a test of priorities for Josh and his presumed fiancé, the rabbi Raquel. In one haunting scene, the adopted kids of the Midwestern’s preacher’s family sing a gorgeous hymn; the illustration of what it’s like to be part of something bigger than yourself arrived just as Josh and Raquel decided to make their own world smaller.

True Detective, “Night Finds You


For a little while, True Detective’s second season seemed like a dark curio that might blossom into something transcendently weird rather than devolving into endless scenes of Vince Vaughn speaking something resembling Pig Latin. Never did it seem to have more potential than after the second episode, which ended in one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever seen on TV. Who was the birdman, and why did he do what he did? I barely remember the answer now—and I’m still mad that the show wimped out on the accompanying twist—but I do remember what a thrill it was to watch it happen and then, in one week of naïve optimism, speculate about what madness would come next.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Makes Waffles!


You could, to be fair, pick pretty much any episode from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the best episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The finale of the Netflix show’s first season, though, was an especially satisfying culmination of Kimmy’s transition—back to the world, back to her life—after being kidnapped as a teenager by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. The episode found Wayne on trial for his crimes, and Kimmy Legally Blonde-ing herself in a desperate effort to make sure her kidnapper/abuser gets justice. The trial itself put Wayne (Jon Hamm)’s charmy smarm on full, glorious display; it also poked excellent fun at the tired conventions of legal dramas. Most of all, though, it made clear that no matter what happens to Kimmy, optimism will still be her defining feature. “I still believe,” she announced, “that the world is good, that bunnies are nice, and snakes are mean … and that one day Sandra Bullock will find someone that deserves her.”

UnREAL, “Fly


Lifetime’s UnREAL—a “dark satire of dating shows and reality TV and pretty much the entire romance industrial complex,” as my colleague Megan wrote earlier this year—went behind the scenes of a fictional Bachelor-esque reality dating show called Everlasting. The show revelled in the dirty tricks its scheming producers used to manipulate the contestants into creating good TV, but in “Fly,” the disastrous consequences of their morally dubious work resulted in the death of one of the women. Leading up until this point, the producers’ questionable tactics were cringeworthy, but this episode had a sharp lesson: The entertaining unreality of dating shows is rooted in people’s real personalities and flaws and mental problems, and that’s not something to take lightly.

You’re the Worst, LCD Soundsystem


“I miss our Largo days, Sandwiches.” When Gretchen was talking to the fat pug she stole from her neighbors, it felt like the happiest she’d been all season, but the fact that she was babbling words she didn't fully understand made “LCD Soundsystem” that much sadder. The episode’s unexpected narrative and tonal shift was surprising at first, but it quickly became clear that You’re the Worst aimed to be far more than just rudely funny and often sweet. The story alluded to the first season finale, when Gretchen and Lindsay wondered if “buying in” and embracing normalcy “is actually the punk-rock choice.” But coupled with Gretchen’s renewed struggles with clinical depression, the episode felt less like an exploration of #adultingproblems and more of human problems. “LCD Soundsystem” ended with the sober puncturing of a dream, closing with perhaps the most heartbreaking shot of the season.