5. Girls, “The Return”
One of Lena Dunham’s stated influences in this coming-of-age series was Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, and this episode makes clear that it wasn’t something she said just to be polite to her co-producer Apatow. He co-wrote “The Return,” and the episode shares the setting of Michigan — where Dunham’s Hannah Horvath brings her personal baggage (and laundry) for a fraught visit home — guest star Becky Ann Baker (as Hannah’s mom) and, above all, a rare sense for the bittersweet feeling of realizing you’ve outgrown your childhood. Influences aside, “The Return” is also pure Dunham. She can be unsparing about Hannah’s self-absorption (as a confidence builder before going out, Hannah tells herself, “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting”). Yet as Hannah comes to terms with the idea that her parents are getting older too, she shows a new maturity. Sometimes, “The Return” tells us, growing up is something that happens while you’re standing in front of your mom and dad’s fridge.
4. Homeland, “Q&A”
It says something about the intensity of this episode that the most wrenching scene is not the one where a guy gets stabbed through the hand. Coming on top of a shocker about-face, in which Congressman Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) is revealed as a terrorist sleeper agent, this hour-long interrogation involves a man already broken by imprisonment and brainwashing and takes him apart again. Brody’s pursuer and onetime lover Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) pries off his protective layer of lies, brutally and tenderly. At the end, Brody is curled up on the floor like an infant, and this viewer felt like joining him. Brody’s terrorist captor, Carrie says, pulled him apart “until there was nothing left but pain.” The lingering question: Is there still a Brody left in there to rebuild?
3. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater”
For a fantasy saga about kings and dragons, Game of Thrones is very intimate, choosing conversations and verbal sparring over effects spectacles and battle scenes. But it gets epic with a capital E in this high-water (and flaming-water) mark when it pares down its usual sweep across story lines and continents to focus on the fight for capital King’s Landing in the series’ central civil war. Even in pitched battle, some of the episode’s hardest blows are psychological as it depicts the darkest moments within the besieged castle, with royals and subjects huddling with candles and poison. It delivers on a grand scale when sympathetic antihero Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) executes a brilliant tactical defense on behalf of his thankless and undeserving royal relatives. “Those are brave men knocking at our door,” he exhorts his men before battle. “Let’s go kill them.” For this spectacular hour, Game of Thrones killed it.
2. Community, “Digital Estate Planning”
At its warmest, Community takes apart its misfit-toy characters — adult learners at the nation’s worst community college — to see what makes them hurt and what makes them tick. At its weirdest, it takes apart the very form of TV comedy, experimenting with new ways to tell funny stories in a half-hour. And at its best, it does both at the same time. Here, crotchety Pierce (Chevy Chase) has to confront the legacy of his controlling, racist father by competing with the rest of the crew in a Nintendo-style virtual-reality video game to earn his inheritance. That the episode could make an emotional connection with its characters mostly drawn as 8-bit avatars is a testament to how well imagined the show’s world has become. At the end of Season 3, Community‘s mad-genius creator was forced off the show by NBC, but this late episode may have been the series’ best ever.
1. Louie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Parts 1 and 2″
Louis CK’s comedy/short-story collection paints New York City in particular, and the world in general, as a place of surreal, disturbing wonders. And this two-parter distills that beautifully when Louie asks out bookstore clerk Liz (Parker Posey) and goes on what is less a date than a crash course in life experience. As they take a weird, adventurous after-hours tour of the city — fitting Louie in women’s clothes, helping a homeless man get medicine, scarfing cured fish at Russ and Daughters — Liz spills out a story that includes a childhood near-death experience and hints of a mentally troubled adulthood. But though the evening ends on a minor-key note, “Daddy’s Girlfriend” is far from a downer. It is, like the show in general, a full-throated endorsement of being open to life’s weirdness and surprises at any age — and truly a night to remember.
The Short Version List of The Top 10 TV Episodes of 2012
10. Breaking Bad, “Fifty-One” (AMC)
9. Awake, pilot (NBC)
8. The Good Wife, “Another Ham Sandwich” (CBS)
7. Mad Men, “At the Codfish Ball” (AMC)
6. Parks and Recreation, “The Comeback Kid” (NBC)
5. Girls, “The Return” (HBO)
4. Homeland, “Q&A” (Showtime)
3. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater” (HBO)
2. Community, “Digital Estate Planning” (NBC)
1. Louie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Parts 1 and 2″ (FX)
James Poniewozik's Honorable Mentions:
30 Rock, “Aunt Phatso vs. Jack Donaghy,” “Stride of Pride,” “Leap Day”
Last Resort, “Captain”
Parenthood, “There’s Something I Need To Tell You”
Parks and Recreation, “The Debate”
Mad Men, “Signal 30,” “Far Away Places”
New Girl, “Injured”
Girls, “Vagina Panic”
The Good Wife, “Gloves Come Off”
Bob’s Burgers, “Moody Foodie”
Community, “Introduction to Finality”
Louie, “New Year’s Eve,” “Late Show”
Last Resort, “Captain”
Glee, “Goodbye,” “The Break-Up,” “Dynamic Duets”
Breaking Bad, “Dead Freight”
American Horror Story: Asylum, “I Am Anne Frank, pts 1 and 2″
The Walking Dead, “Killer Within”
Boardwalk Empire, “Two Imposters”
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Do you agree or disagree with the list? Any favorite episodes?