Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2018” coverage here.
On television, it was a year of assassins finding their hearts in acting class, of conflicted spies realizing their fates, of unsettling outings to suburban mansions haunted by Donald Glover in prosthetics. BoJack Horseman went to a funeral; Kim-Joy went all the way to pâtisserie week. The Roy family, meanwhile, seemed bent on going straight to a hell of their own making. TV’s best episodes in 2018 mined subjects large and small: artificial life, life after death, the kind of life journey that leads a person from midwestern air-horn aficionado to hokey bunker-cult leader. Here are the moments we enjoyed the most. (Spoilers, as usual, abound.)
The Americans began as a meditation on marriage; it ended as a meditation on family. The FX show made that shift in large part through the evolution of Paige (Holly Taylor): Over the course of six masterful seasons, the Jennings’ daughter, initially a frenetic kaleidoscope of a character, came into ever-sharper focus. Would Paige, her parents’ manufactured American lives unraveling, choose her country or her family? As the series hurtled toward its conclusion, the questions got their answers via scenes of visual poetry, their final stanzas set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” and U2’s “With or Without You” (both released in the mid-1980s, both already widely used for soundtrack purposes, both managing to find new urgency nonetheless). The show’s taut final moments spread out in free verse: a phone call; a farewell; a column of fire; a sheet of ice; a train; a lie; a decision that ended it all. Paige—American but not entirely, Russian but not really, free but not fully—made her choice.
If you ever find yourself needing to prove that we’re in a “golden age of television,” you could make your case by way of a long argument that mentions The Wire, maybe, or The Sopranos … or you could just offer a screening of “Teddy Perkins.” The episode—a capsule-parable that starts with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) trying to buy a piano and ends with him narrowly escaping death at the hands of the eponymous recluse (Donald Glover)—is inflected with elements of horror and absurdity, invoking by turns Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Joseph Campbell and The Shining and Get Out. As a metaphor, it’s prismatic: From one direction, you could read Darius’s interaction with Teddy as a meditation on the demands of fame. From another, you might see a trenchant exploration of the fact that to be black in America is also to be in constant danger. Look from a different angle, and you might see something else entirely. To watch “Teddy Perkins,” ambiguous in the most literary of senses, is often to be disoriented: Its scenes can seem like crystalline fragments of an enigmatic whole. But then, suddenly, the scattered pieces catch the light, and in the reflection is something deeply true about what it means to be living—to be trying to live—in America.
The punchy one-sentence conceit of Barry—a cold-blooded hit man gives up a life of crime to pursue a career as an actor—was never going to work if the show couldn’t stick the landing. Bill Hader’s performance as a man teetering on a knife-edge of sanity was mesmerizing, but much of Barry leaned toward Coen brothers–esque comedy, rather than bleak drama. In “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” reality finally came crashing down on the lead character’s precariously balanced double life, as he was forced to kill an innocent person to save his own skin. In the pivotal scene, where Barry realizes what he’s going to have to do, Hader’s face shifts from confusion, to horror, to dead-eyed determination; it’s an astonishing bit of acting on one of the year’s most carefully calibrated shows.
Jed Mercurio’s six-part miniseries about a protective officer assigned to the British home secretary’s security detail often felt like all the most explosive parts of Homeland patchworked together into a hyper-suspenseful, not-remotely-plausible whole. In the finale, things got even more stressful, as David (Richard Madden) was knocked out, abducted, forced into a suicide vest, and framed as the perpetrator of all the series’ previous attacks. Somehow, the plucky, ultra-alert, permanently grimacing David had to outsmart the special-intelligence services, a criminal ring, and a corrupt police insider, all while managing to stay alive. Could he handle it? Could he ever.
Each BoJack Horseman season has one or two standout installments, mini masterpieces that fans refer to reverently by nicknames like “the underwater episode” or “the dementia episode.” Season 5 of the series added to that list “the funeral episode.” Like its season-best peers, “Free Churro” arises from a simple premise: BoJack delivers a eulogy. After a brief flashback, the episode begins with BoJack ranting about an encounter he had at Jack in the Box. Not that unusual. Then: He mentions that his mom died. Then: The viewer notices the camera is slowly zooming out and that BoJack is standing at a podium. In a suit. The first of several realizations hits: He’s giving this inappropriate and rambling speech at the funeral of his mother, a woman he loved and despised. Moments later comes the second epiphany: Oh my God, this eulogy is going to be the entire episode. In an ideal world, “Free Churro” would guarantee an Emmy to Will Arnett for voice-acting and to the series for writing. Few shows can design a gripping half hour around a single monologue that connects the hilarious and the tragic with hairpin turns. But BoJack Horseman isn’t just any show.
Half of this episode—the half wherein James Franco’s Frankie won a dry-cleaning business in a poker game, only to trip over his own idiocy trying to run it—involved the kind of pointless detours and farcical hijinks that made Season 2 of The Deuce often wearying. So why was “Seven-Fifty” one of the year’s TV highlights? Because, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy, the show has one of the most fascinating women on television, played by an actress who finds endless layers within her. In “Seven-Fifty,” Candy met a producer in Hollywood to try to get funding for her “Little Red Riding Hood”–inspired movie, only to realize that women are as exploited and depersonalized in the entertainment industry as they are on the streets of the Deuce. Gyllenhaal’s wordless rendering of Candy as she quickly came to terms with this fact carried the emotions of a million women before her who’d found themselves in the same position.
The episodes of Alex Gibney’s Netflix docuseries that lead up to “The Confidence Man” deal with striking examples of grift: truly epic instances of corporate malfeasance, money laundering, and illegal-loan empires. The finale of Dirty Money is different. Yes, its subject—Donald Trump—capitalized off gullible Americans with Trump University, for which he ended up paying a $25 million settlement. But, the director Fisher Stevens argues, Trump himself embodies a much larger confidence trick, one he’s been playing for five decades, and one that he managed to ride all the way to the White House. In a crowded field of cultural excavations of the 45th president, “The Confidence Man” offered a savvy interpretation of an overexposed subject.
You could fete “Goodbye, Forever” simply for the unexpected scene in which Maya Rudolph sings “This Is How We Do It” to a ballroom full of snooty dead revelers. You could laud its strange and indelible imagery (see: Julia Ormond burning a vast and unwieldy pile of possessions in a ritual “cleansing” on the beach). What I liked most about it, though, was the ending. Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard’s oddball dramedy about a couple who end up in a vaguely defined afterlife often felt maddeningly elliptical, but in its final moments Rudolph’s June (who’d spent eight episodes questioning everything in her relationship) seemed to see things with total clarity. Her departure with Fred Armisen’s Oscar for a new landscape was surreal and hopeful.
The seventh episode of GLOW’s sophomore season dealt with the aftermath of a bout gone wrong, after a coked-up Debbie (Betty Gilpin) spontaneously but deliberately broke Ruth’s (Alison Brie) ankle in the ring. The knotty relationship between the two friends has always been at the core of Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s Netflix series about a 1980s women’s wrestling league, and “Nothing Shattered” brought the tensions between them to a head. Ruth and Debbie’s subsequent fight in the hospital was charged and intermittently excruciating to watch: It captured the intensity and the toxicity of female friendships gone wrong, set into starker contrast by how warmly the cast and crew of GLOW rallied around Ruth after her injury.
One of the most compelling elements of NBC’s The Good Place is its ability to blend the stuff of moral philosophy with the stuff of the zany sitcom: puns, visual gags, Aristotle, the trolley problem, Manifest Destiny, shrimp. The collisions create a particular kind of exuberance, one that is on pitch-perfect display in “Jeremy Bearimy,” which takes its name from the lesson in the workings of time that Michael (Ted Danson), who is basically immortal, gives to the show’s four central humans, who are basically not. While time on Earth moves linearly, Michael explains, in the afterlife it moves according to swoops and swirls that, when drawn out on paper, happen to spell “Jeremy Bearimy.” (The dot in the i in Bearimy? That’s Tuesdays. And Julys. And also, adds D’Arcy Carden’s Janet, “sometimes it’s never.”) It’s a joke that pokes fun at the brain-bending assertions of quantum physics, and at the faith required even of science, and at the disbelief-suspending demands of fiction. Like The Good Place itself, it also finds humor in the frailties of being human. As Michael notes, with frustration and a little bit of wonder: “Their bodies are very poorly made. They’re mostly goo and juice.”
Even with its recent change in hosts and networks, The Great British Baking Show remained comfortably consistent in its ninth season, with contenders like the fiery Ruby, the bubbly Briony, and the wonderfully Eeyore-esque Rahul. One baker who took time to grow on me was Kim-Joy Hewlett, a mental-health professional from Leeds who loved to make her cakes as cute and precious as possible (and preferably decorated with cartoon animals). But as the bake-off progressed and the crucible of competition grew hotter, Kim-Joy persevered. In the show’s pâtisserie-themed semifinal, she faltered when making a chocolate mousse, choked up, and seemed ready to quit: “I think I’m just ready to go,” she confessed. The host Noel Fielding rushed over; he talked Kim-Joy through it, she picked herself up, and that was that (she ended up coming in second in the challenge). Any other show would’ve wrung an entire act of drama from this incident, but this series has always resisted those easy tropes, and Kim-Joy’s spiritual triumph hit all the harder because of it.
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House was a fascinating adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel whose tremendous highs were sometimes dampened by bizarre lows (namely: that polarizing, maudlin, exposition-heavy finale). Among the peaks, though, are the bone-rattling closing minutes of “The Bent-Neck Lady” and the entirety of “Two Storms,” a time-bending, claustrophobic bottle episode that gathers all the members of the Crain clan into a funeral home. Here, the essence of the series—part haunted-house tale, part haunted-family story—is distilled into an hour filled with bravura tracking shots, a vandalized corpse, divulged secrets, silent apparitions, boiled-over resentments, crashes of thunder, and many, many tumblers of liquor. “Two Storms” centers on the worst kind of family reunion you could imagine, one where any long-standing toxicity doesn’t finally leach out but simply accumulates further (not to mention all those ghosts). But the episode is also an outstanding piece of horror television, balancing more traditional scares with a subtler kind of emotional terror to offer a portrait of a broken family seemingly doomed by the demons they refuse to exorcise.
As Peak TV has given rise to shows that explore every cultural nook and cranny for increasingly narrow audiences, credit is due to High Maintenance for working in very specific territory while telling very universal stories. “Fagin” is a pitch-perfect mockery of life in cookie-cutter Bushwick apartment complexes, where the walls are so thin that your neighbor’s pet boa constrictor can end up in your apartment without warning. But it’s also a story of parents coming to visit their kid’s first apartment out of college; the mom and dad here, played by Marcia DeBonis and Ray Anthony Thomas, are the right mix of understanding and baffled as they navigate their daughter’s new life. That is, until the boa constrictor comes slithering along.
In the eighth episode of his Amazon series, Sam Esmail finally used his biggest asset: the blinding mega-wattage of Julia Roberts’s smile. But the smile came in a scene in which Roberts’s Heidi, disoriented and appalled by a recent revelation, tried to reassure both herself and a team of recent arrivals that everything was actually okay. In that context, the most famous grin in Hollywood suddenly seemed ghastly, or offensive, even. In “Protocol,” Esmail similarly used a handful of film and TV tropes (the road trip, the haunted house) to disconcerting effect, as both future Heidi and Shea Whigham’s terrific Thomas Carrasco sought answers in the former Homecoming center—recently renovated into a comically bland wellness resort.
One of Insecure’s greatest skills is its ability to explore the Sliding Doors anxieties of modern life—all the knowledge of the loves not partnered with, the jobs not taken, the paths not explored—in a way that manages to be wrenching rather than glib. But while many of the HBO show’s best episodes have explored the negative spaces of all the choice-making, “Fresh-Like” is about the positives. The episode finds Issa (Issa Rae) finally getting her own apartment. And, having brought some closure to her relationships with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Daniel (Y’lan Noel), she goes on an unexpected and extremely good first date with someone new: Nathan (Kendrick Sampson), one of her Lyft passengers, who’s just moved to L.A. As Issa gives Nathan a tour of her city, she also gives viewers a rare insight into her past. She shows him the home she grew up in, a fancy house in a fancy neighborhood, a place her parents had worked so hard to afford—a place they eventually sold. The budding couple, inspiring adventure in each other, break into the house’s backyard and, finally, skinny-dip in its pool. It’s a set piece—Issa, reclaiming a space that once was hers—that brings new insight to some of Insecure’s ongoing themes: gentrification, displacement, and, finally, belonging.
Joe Pera, the soft-spoken Buffalo, New York, comedian who has a voice as fuzzy and monotonous as a television overheard from another room, starred in a short, strange Adult Swim series that was among the best things television had to offer this year. In its showstopper episode, Pera, an almost unnervingly normal fellow, reads the announcements at church, but is quickly sidetracked by a song he recently heard on the radio for the first time in his life: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The 11-minute episode quickly becomes a winsome, slightly manic celebration of falling in love with a particular piece of music, and Pera’s performance is both transfixing and lovely.
Killing Eve, at its best, isn’t so much a show that is written as it is a dance that is choreographed, a tango between two characters that plays out over distance and time. The finale of the BBC show’s first season brings Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) together, their mutual obsession with each other finally realized through physical collision. Having pursued one other across a continent, they end up together in Villanelle’s chic Paris apartment, among her gauzy dresses and soaring windows and fridges full of champagne. The two fight; they collapse onto the bed. “I think about you all the time,” Eve says. “I think about you, too,” Villanelle responds. Implication hangs heavy, until it is cut by the stab of a knife, and then by blood and screams and, finally, escape. It’s a fittingly open-ended finale. For everything Killing Eve is—a psychodrama and a murder mystery and a dark comedy—it is also, at its core, a rom-com. And its conclusion makes clear that the questions of the genre will continue as the story does: Will they or won’t they? How will they be kept apart? And how will they, almost inevitably, be joined together once more?
At first sniff, at first poke, the main question about Netflix’s The Last Kingdom seemed to involve prefixes: Was it post–Game of Thrones or was it sub–Game of Thrones? Might it even be diplo–Game of Thrones? Braids, broadswords, intrigue at court ... Surely this was low genre work, yet another wrench at the udder of the cash cow?
Not at all. Based on The Saxon Stories—a historical fiction series by Bernard Cornwell—The Last Kingdom sets us down in ninth-century England: Brits versus Vikings, with King Alfred leading the charge. Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) is the show’s complex and adorable hero—half Saxon, half Dane, a divided man who swaggers and broods like Chris Cornell in the days of Soundgarden. Although the big romance of the show is the volatile relationship between Uhtred and the visionary prig King Alfred, Uhtred also has a wonderful, fate-bedeviled long-form bond with a woman called Brida. Which reaches a sort of beautiful/sorrowful apogee in Season 3, Episode 6. Uhtred’s brother Ragnar—also Brida’s man—has been murdered in his sleep. According to the religion of the Danes, this means his way to Valhalla is barred. Great magic and great violence here on Earth are necessary to redeem the soul of Ragnar. So off they ride, Uhtred and Brida, as if on a wild, Dark Ages dating show.
At first glance, One Day at a Time is a classic sitcom, full of mini melodramas and rapid-fire jokes punctuated by the tinny laughs of a studio audience. Just below that cheerful veneer, though, the Netflix reboot of Norman Lear’s 1970s show is a series of treatments of some of today’s weightiest issues: identity, immigration, race, sexuality, money, trauma, forgiveness, family. In the Season 2 finale, the last of these elements gets its due, as all the love the show’s core characters share, despite their differences, comes to a tearful climax. Lydia (Rita Moreno), the family matriarch, suffers a stroke and goes into a coma, her fate—and that of her family—unclear. The Alvarezes (honoring Lydia’s flair for decorating, they have strewn her hospital bed with twinkling lights) have their moments with their mother and grandmother, remembering her and thanking her and confessing to her: reconciliation, by another means. But the final ceremony belongs to Lydia, as her late husband, Berto (Tony Plana), bathed in another kind of light, comes to her room and beckons her to join him on the other side. “So, mi amor,” he asks, “is it time?” Do not watch any of this, obviously, without having an enormous stash of tissues nearby.
“There are things I haven’t told anybody and never will, including you,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Patrick Melrose sneers early on in “Some Hope,” after Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Johnny gently tried to sell Narcotics Anonymous to his sober but miserable friend. Famous last words: The third episode of David Nicholls and Edward Berger’s superb adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels ended with Patrick confessing the darkest secrets of his childhood to a horrified but still-sympathetic Johnny. “Some Hope” was funny, caustic, and tremendously moving, pulling the scant optimism of the episode’s title out of Patrick’s near-permanent despair, and poking at the grotesquery of the English upper classes (with Harriet Walter playing a magnificently monstrous Princess Margaret) along the way.
Radical empathy is a phrase that gets a lot of use; Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the groundbreaking Bravo show, practices it implicitly. In the second season’s fifth episode, the Fab 5 advise Skyler, a trans man who recently got top surgery (the episode begins in the operating room, as he sees his new body for the first time) and is navigating life after the physical change. While, like other Queer Eye installments, the action and advice here build to a climactic social event (in this case, a party), the episode’s true drama centers on a more organic moment: Skyler’s attempt to get a new driver’s license. Would he, after earlier failed efforts, finally be issued an ID that lists his gender marker as male? Would his local government—a symbolic stand-in for the many other institutions that claim authority over one’s identity—acknowledge him for who he is? I won’t spoil the answer, but I will say: Never has a trip to the DMV been so riveting.
How does that line go? All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own entitled, drug-addled, manslaughter-y way? Anyway: In the finale of Succession’s darkly comedic first season, the family of Logan Roy (Brian Cox)—winkily Murdochian, all of them, down to the controversial TV network and the patriarch’s cushy relationship with the American president—comes together to celebrate the marriage of Logan’s daughter Siobhan (Sarah Snook). At the castle-set party for the woman everyone calls “Shiv”—she’s marrying one of her father’s more plasticine employees—everyone is unhappy in their own way. There’s the betrayal. And the drugs. Oh, and the death. And the attempted cover-up of the death. And also, this being the Roys, the revenge. It’s the culmination of the ideas that have made Succession so compelling as a darkly anthropological comedy: its searing interrogation of privilege, and its suggestion that absolute wealth, as another sort-of saying goes, tends to corrupt absolutely.
One of the most underrated series of 2018, The Terror wrings pathos and suspense from a saga whose conclusion is foregone from the show’s opening cards: In 1845, two British Royal Navy ships ventured into the Arctic to try to locate the Northwest Passage; the vessels were never seen again. Though AMC’s horror-drama limited series is based on a fictionalized account of what exactly befell the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus—lead poisoning, starvation, mutiny, cannibalism, a supernatural monster—viewers begin the show expecting the worst. But the emotional stakes still feel high by the brilliant finale, “We Are Gone,” which I refuse to spoil. A pre-mortem hallucination, a harrowing attack, a moving sacrifice, and a triumphant reveal all elegantly cap off a meticulously plotted and beautifully written 10-episode season (plus, the ensemble is a who’s-who of terrific British-TV character actors). For all the inescapable violence and despair of its central tale, The Terror succeeds because it knows that humanity—that love—has a place in the story, too.
What’s the level of meta for when a series on a streaming platform parodies the ways in which said platform manipulates the anxieties of privileged white women via addictive true-crime documentaries? In its fourth season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke with all episodic conventions with this mockumentary episode starring Derek Klena as an idiotic DJ investigating how his childhood idol, DJ Slizzard (Jon Hamm), became a monster who kidnapped women and kept them in a bunker. As comedy, “Party Monster” contains some of UKS’s best details (DJ Slizzard is “the legend who brought the air horn to the Midwest”). As satire, it moves seamlessly from poking fun at true crime to pointing out the absurdity of men’s-rights movements without breaking a sweat.
The second season of Westworld was a dense, tautological, often frustrating plunge into the philosophical depths of the technology it had heretofore deployed for recreational purposes. Essentially immortal robots with near-limitless computer brains were built for a live-action version of a cowboys-and-Indians story; what other purpose could they serve? Well, surveillance, for one, but more important, they could be the key to extending life beyond death. In “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” we saw that theory put into practice, as the sadistic capitalist William (played by both Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris) reboots the brain of his father-in-law, James (Peter Mullan), over and over to see if it can be housed in a robot body. The resulting episode was an exciting, mind-bending piece of sci-fi, and hopefully a template for future, less-ponderous seasons.