Welcome to Damn Fine TV’s coverage of the best in TV from 2018. For the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing my favourite shows and episodes from this past year.
If you read last year’s lists, you’ll know I’ve been in the habit of tracking the shows I check out throughout the year since 2014. Eventually, they became more detailed; the shows I really enjoyed would receive a “*” or “**” rating, and I began highlighting my favourite episodes and characters, too. Lists, in general, feed the organizational side of my brain, but the creative side needed to put them to greater use. And, so, the (now second) annual Damn Fine TV: Best Of TV coverage was born.
The episode is an integral piece of the TV show pie – something we often forget when power bingeing through the latest series to drop on a streaming service. I’m guilty of experiencing the “episode jumble” myself, where so many of the details from a show’s season have just merged together, making it nearly impossible to remember when particularly noteworthy events happened. I’m not saying we should stop bingeing – though I do prefer the weekly viewing model – but that we grant these basic units of television the credit they deserve, more often. That means showing love to “filler” and “average” episodes, too, which is no easy task. Especially this year; especially in regards to compiling Best Of Lists.
2018 had its fair share of standalone episodes, of singular installments that took certain risks for just that hour. Some of them simply stood in contrast with their shows, not exactly adding anything to the season except a really good one-off experience. Some elevated everything around them, resulting in a better season overall thanks to their presence; they felt distinct in their style or focus, but deeply connected in terms of thematic elements or overall narrative throughline. I tried to be mindful of all the different kinds of episodes we saw this year and incorporate them all here. Easier said than done, but I gave it my best shot!
Alright, enough overture, let’s get to it: Damn Fine TV’s Best TV Episodes of 2018.
*TThese episodes have no ranking, and are simply listed in the order they aired. Be warned: from here on out there are SPOILERS for all of the shows these episodes are from.
Teddy Perkins – Atlanta, Season 2
I’ve no doubt “Teddy Perkins” is making an appearance on nearly every Best Of TV list this season. The episode received a ton of acclaim from critics when it aired, with many of them declaring it the best episode of 2018 – when we’d only just begun the fourth month of the year – as well as one of the best episodes in all of TV history. The Emmy-winning, genre-bending series was already something to marvel; reinvigorating the medium with the kind of insights and innovation needed for real progression. With “Teddy Perkins” Atlanta set the bar higher for itself, and the rest of television, yet again. The episode ruminates on some pretty big questions, like whether great art can only come from great pain? And, if so, is that greatness ever/always worth the pain inflicted? What are the true costs of fame and fortune?
These existential profundities were woven through an episode with a pretty basic premise: Darius tries to buy a piano. He was a perfect choice, too, as our guide through this intoxicatingly macabre journey of chilling silences, unnerving walks through corridors of what was essentially a haunted house, and that perfectly executed twist. Darius’ laidback attitude and wholly unique perspective on all situations, allowed us to be a little more comfortable in the presence of Teddy, but also that much more concerned for his wellbeing as time went on. Donald Glover was downright mesmerizing as Teddy. The episode works on its own, and in some respects feels like a short, horror film in the middle of the season. But it also deeply reflects, emphasizes, and connects the darker overall themes which took root in the show’s second season.
START – The Americans, Season 6
Never have I had the pleasure of witnessing such a deeply satisfying conclusion to a show – although The Leftovers comes close. “START” answered every major question viewers would have had from the beginning: What would happen if the Jennings’ cover was blown? Would the family be able to stay together? Would their story end in death, or a tragedy far worse? I think many fans expected something fairly bloody and brutal at the end, based on the show’s history of never shying away from depicting those things – just think of the words bones & suitcase, or tooth & pliers. I also think it’s fair to say most of us were completely blown away by the relative simplicity of the actual ending. It had a beautiful unpredictability to it; an almost quiet nature that nevertheless made a profound impact. It’s almost as though, because we’d been anticipating the worst, the outcome, which was still pretty dire, felt positive in comparison. And that left us all with a little something to cheer about.
It’s not like “START” went easy on us, though. The way Elizabeth’s breath caught in her throat as she realized she’d never see her son again had me bawling, and that was just the cold open. The parking garage scene alone – which was six years in the making and well worth the wait – had us mourning the devastating conclusion of TV’s most beautiful bromance. The earth-shattering look in Elizabeth’s eyes as she watched Paige stand defiantly on the train platform – not to mention how Philip ran to his wife’s side at that moment, deep cover be damned – was a heartbreak so crushing it will no doubt haunt me for years. But the idea that the Jennings’ relationship might actually survive over in Russia is deeply rewarding. As is the fact this show stayed true to its core concept of marriage until its very final shot. “START” single-handedly redefined the phrase “stick the landing.”
Kiksuya – Westworld, Season 2
The second season of Westworld reached a point very early on where it became too complicated for its own good. In all its attempts to be more clever than the Internet, it completely lost sight of the necessity for proper character development. The show forgot how essential emotional stakes are, particularly for making its seemingly endless parade of twists and turns feel grounded in something we can connect with. Thankfully, Westworld got out of its own way during “Kiksuya” to craft a truly elegant episode. It was the first time all season I genuinely cared about a character and their outcomes, the first time I felt any authentic emotion pulsing through the narrative. This episode demonstrated the Westworld writers room excels at telling single-focus, linear (even through a flashback) narratives, better than anything else they’ve attempted. And they managed to cover a lot of ground while doing so.
“Kiksuya” gave us Akecheta’s journey to sentience – which was more compelling than Maeve or Delores’ despite its succinctness – a gripping love story, the knitting together of mysterious hanging threads from the show’s past, and even a larger understanding of the park’s ethical failings – and, look ma, no philosophical grandstanding! The cinematography was stunning, from wide and picturesque shots of the park’s landscape we’ve never seen in such a way before, to raw and revealing close-ups during the more tender beats. Zahn McClarnon became my favourite actor on the show in very short order. He was simply breathtaking; a talent that’s gone overlooked and underused in this series. Without “Kiksuya” I’m not sure I’d be tuning into the show’s third season, but I can’t help but hope they see the success of this episode and heed the message.
Love is the Message – Pose, Season 1
This episode marked the directorial debut for writer, producer, and transgender rights activist, Janet Mock. And it was one hell of a debut. On top of all the standard drama, humour, and heart found in every episode of Pose, “Love is the Message” contained a fight scene, two musical performances, ball sequences, a death, a heated exchange amongst friends, and an intimate conversation between strangers. It’s a remarkable hour of television, one displaying no trace of Janet’s rookie status – she also co-wrote the episode, and that heightened relationship with the text definitely shone through onscreen.
Much of this episode follows Pray Tell (Billy Porter) as he unravels with the grief surrounding his boyfriend’s declining health, and the eventual loss of his life. Porter wears everything on his sleeve here; showing us the raw and sometimes belligerent sides to heartache – allowing for just the right hint of levity in his inebriated state. His joy is magnetic during musical performances, and, as per usual, inspires a whole lot of hope as he learns to cope with the brutal hand life just dealt him. The scene that has really stuck with me, though, was the confrontation between Patty and Angel.
Nothing about their conversation played out quite like I had expected. Perhaps the promos for that week were clever enough to guide my expectations in a different direction. Their chat had none of the melodrama or “catty” vibes that, in retrospect would have been so cliché and that’s just not how Pose rolls – so, shame on me. Both women are open and honest, they both just want the truth and to be truthful. They lay a lot of their shit out on the table, and you can just tell they’ll each grow so much from this experience. It’s not as though they leave deciding to be BFFs, but the atmosphere between them doesn’t feel hostile, either. The awkward intimacy is striking. The shot that follows Patty leaving the restaurant, which then slows down to swivel back to Angel, has a fluidity to it that just punctuates the scene with such poise. Can’t wait to see more from Janet in season two!
Fix – Sharp Objects, Limited Series
Sharp Objects was certainly no walk in the park during its eight-episode run, but “Fix” was an especially brutal episode both for its visually disturbing subject matter, and its focus on the deeply rooted sexism running rampant throughout Wind Gap. It’s probably no surprise to most of you that I’m a sucker for dark TV, but I didn’t choose “Fix” based solely on the fact it made me weep like a baby and fume with rage. This episode deepened our understanding of Camille, elaborating on the specifics of what haunted her from the recent past, and cleared up some of the mystery surrounding her seemingly omnipresent flashes of memory. It also firmly established a thematic element that would be present throughout the season and play a large role in the murder mystery at the show’s core: it’s highly dangerous, even deadly to underestimate women.
Amy Adams had thus far played Camille with a muted sorrow, letting the woman’s alcoholism and scars speak volumes for themselves. So, the moment when Camille finds Alice’s body, and the harrowing few moments that follow, were heavy, but appropriately so. They were painful on a kind of visceral level Sharp Objects was careful not to overuse, and which therefore made the deepest impact possible here. Months later, it’s still arresting to think of how warm and safe some of Camille and Alice’s first encounters were; in a few small moments, they reached a place of honesty and openness most people in Wind Gap never would. The men are too busy yammering about how the only thing the women in their town are good for is gossiping; the women, using society’s perceptions of them to their, sometimes violent, advantage. “Fix” not only helped us to better sympathize with Camille, it further illustrated why Wind Gap was such a perilous place for her to be.
The Queen – Castle Rock, Season 1
Through a tour-de-force performance by Sissy Spacek, a narrative that walked a clever line between the rational and supernatural, and a rich direction that rewards multiple viewings, “The Queen” elevated Castle Rock from addictive and fun summer series, to thought-provoking, can’t-miss TV. The hour was an elegantly woven web of timelines, allowing us to witness first-hand what it’s like inside Ruth Deaver’s maze-like mind. It was the first episode to begin filling in the gaps of the Deaver family history, answering our questions about their past – while introducing a few more – and gave us a look at the beautiful love story between Ruth and Alan Pangborn. Despite its time-hopping structure, one which made very clear just how present the past remains for Ruth, “The Queen” never undermined the season’s momentum, moving the plot along just as much, if not more than the episodes preceding it.
“The Queen” took us on an illuminating and ultimately heartbreaking journey that built steadily towards an absolutely crushing climax; the outcome of which was one of the truly shocking moments in TV from this past year, a real gut punch that stays with you for weeks. The episode offered so much to the rest of the season, gave it a defining moment, and, yet, worked perfectly as its own standalone installment. It’s the episode that allowed Castle Rock to stake its own claim in the King Multiverse, not relying so heavily on Easter Eggs or a simple tonal alignment. “The Queen” tackles dementia in a way I’ve never seen, uses it to create a structure that effortlessly invites empathy from the viewer, and grounds it with Spacek’s almost unbelievably compelling and endearing portrayal.
Andre and Sarah – Forever
The first time I watched this episode, I was convinced I had accidentally clicked on the wrong video and was watching a completely different Amazon show. Where were June and Oscar? Who cares! The chemistry between these two real estate agents is off the charts and I want to see what happens! Which isn’t to say I had grown bored with the show’s key couple, but I was too captivated with the titular Andre and Sarah to worry. Of course, eventually I would come to learn that I was, in fact, still watching Forever, and that “Andre and Sarah” was just a delightful – if completely unexpected – shift in perspective, where the main characters don’t feature at all. In retrospect, it was a bold choice for the show to take; Forever’s total runtime is just around 4 hours and to completely deviate from the main story was a risk that might not have paid off.
Like a number of the other episodes featured on this list, “Andre and Sarah” is a standalone installment that works to underscore its season’s larger themes, by taking a tighter or alternative focus. Within this enchanting yet tragic love story, are questions of monogamy, settling for routine, following you heart, and regret from missed opportunities, which parallel June and Oscar’s journey perfectly. The structure is superb in the way it burns through plot without ever feeling rushed, and also manages to push the main action of the show along quite nicely. The performances are award-worthy; I want a spinoff! It all builds towards this abrupt and devastating end – the weights of it really hits you like a ton of bricks – and then the show reveals how the episode fits within the larger narrative. And in that moment of clarity, Forever’s bold move paid off, in abundance.
Two Storms – The Haunting of Hill House, Season 1
The long take isn’t exactly groundbreaking anymore, and for them to truly capture viewers’ attention these days, they need to represent more than just a technical feat – which they absolutely still are, and the amount of planning, rehearsal, and dedication they require (especially with child actors) should be lauded. With “Two Storms” The Haunting of Hill House used its five long takes to elevate the episode’s entire narrative. The unrelenting eye of the camera created a very claustrophobic atmosphere inside Shirley’s funeral home, generating a palpable sense of tension between the estranged Crain family. The tight quarters during the present day scenes allows us to feel part of the experience. The seamless transitions between sequences at the funeral home and Hill House evoke the idea that the past is still very present for the Crain family – the shift from funeral home to Hill House while Hugh walks down the hallways is, in particular, just spectacular.
During the first sequence, the camera feels aimless, but with a purpose. It moves back and forth, and around in a circle, emulating how many of us feel lost, almost drifting around following the death of a loved one. Then there’s the brief but powerful insight we get into Hugh’s state of mind when, upon first arriving, he sees his children as the ages they were at Hill House, showing just how distant he feels from his family. When the family gathers to tell stories about Nelly, they sit completely separately. There’s no communal feeling here; they’re not really sharing memories, simply saying them aloud. The blocking only further cements the deep fractures within the Crain family.
“Two Storms” is also the episode that finally brought the Crain family all together, and felt like a kind of multipurpose installment. It represented a culmination of sorts, after the more solitary journeys we had just taken with the Crain siblings. It felt like the beginning of a new part as we ventured into the back half of the season. And though it doesn’t halt the narrative’s momentum, it did have a somewhat fixed vibe. The hour narrowed the focus to one night in the funeral home, one night at Hill House, and the family connecting them. Whenever I think of “Two Storms” I think of the semicolon; the way it connects two ideas while allowing for a brief respite. It’s a beautiful piece of punctuation – I know, nerd alert! – to symbolize a stunning episode of television.
What do you think of my list? Is there an episode I missed? Let me know what your favourite episodes of 2018 were, and stay tuned next week for the final bit of coverage: Damn Fine TV’s Best Shows of 2018!