05. Sharp Objects – “Milk”
Season 1 | Episode 8
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by Gillian Flynn and Marti Noxon
For most of its runtime, the eight-episode miniseries Sharp Objects (adapted from the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn) is a slowly-shrinking fuse. The mystery unfurls at a snail’s pace, not because it’s convoluted, but because Sharp Objects pays equal attention the mental state of its protagonist Camille (Amy Adams) upon returning to her hometown to report on said mystery. The two major through lines of Sharp Objects—the analysis and revisiting of Camille’s childhood trauma and the unsolved murders of teenage girls in her hometown—tend to run parallel to one another for the first seven episodes. “Milk,” however, brings the two together for an exciting final chapter, one that manages to weave Camille’s trauma into the mystery’s conclusion, revealing itself to be a show about how we inherit and pass on traumas from and to others. “Milk” is rich in character insight and brimming with tension, with a final few minutes that rank as one of the most bone-chilling endings I’ve ever seen on television.
04. The Affair – “408”
Season 4 | Episode 8
Directed by Michael Engler
Written by Itamar Moses and Sharr White
“I have only one thing to do and that’s / be the way that I am and then / sink back into the ocean.” It’s always controversial when a room full of writers decides to kill off a main character on the show, particularly if the character’s demise is forced by external stimuli. Ruth Wilson’s departure from The Affair (thought to be due to pay disparity though never confirmed) meant that its writers would have to find an appropriate exit for Wilson’s Alison Bailey, one of the show’s two original leads. In spite of these real-life obstacles, “408” serves as a devastating yet appropriate send-off for Alison, whose death—implied to be suicide, though subsequent episodes explore alternate possibilities—would appear to be the culmination of unaddressed trauma and a destructive self-loathing, attributes that the show disparately afflicted her with but only really tied together now. It’s all elevated by Joshua Jackson’s heartbreaking turn as ex-husband Cole Lockhart, whose perspective dominates the episode and who sells every ounce of his overwhelming worry and grief as it becomes more and more clear that he’s not going to be able to tell his ex-wife how much he wants her back. For a series that lost much of its spark since its first season ended, “408” proves that stagnancy doesn’t have to be permanent, and that a show can rediscover its greatness even years after it appeared to have faded.
03. The Good Place – “Janet(s)”
Season 3 | Episode 10
Directed by Morgan Sackett
Written by Dylan Morgan and Josh Siegal
Somebody please give D’Arcy Carden an Emmy already. Carden has already taken up multiple roles on the show as both the lovable magic assistant Janet and her evil counterpart Bad Janet. In “Janet(s),” Carden even further shows off her talent after a trip to Janet’s “void” causes the entire Soul Squad to take Janet’s form. Carden portrays each member—Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason—using only their speech patterns and tics to distinguish between them all, and it’s wildly impressive. But “Janet(s)” is so much more than just a high-concept acting showcase. Like the second season’s “The Trolley Problem,” “Janet(s)” uses its wacky concept to further a main storyline; in this case, time spent in the void gives D’Arcy Eleanor a chance to tell D’Arcy Chidi about their relationship in a past life, eventually cementing a romance that’s been bubbling ever since Eleanor and Chidi were announced as soulmates in the show’s pilot. For an episode introducing such integral plot developments, telling them through multiple D’Arcy Cardens might seem like a risk, but, as always, Michael Schur and his writing staff demonstrate how selective they are with their use of these concept episodes. For it is not these concepts that drive where the story goes, but the story that drives the kinds of high concepts The Good Place has always done so well.
02. Atlanta – “Teddy Perkins”
Season 2 | Episode 6
Directed by Hiro Murai
Written by Donald Glover
In its second season, Atlanta displayed its lasting power by rejecting the notion that a show should maintain a consistent structure, premise, or tone. It whisked audiences back to Earn’s childhood, dropped Paper Boi into a creepy forest at night, and took Vanessa on a surreal tour through a party at Drake’s mansion. But its most experimental, form-shedding episode is “Teddy Perkins,” in which the ever-oddball Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself in a creepy mansion after responding to an online advertisement. After meeting the mansion’s owner, the titular Teddy Perkins (portrayed by a nearly unrecognizable Donald Glover under layers of whiteface makeup), Darius begins to unravel the dark family secrets hidden away in Perkins’s old home. The parallels between Teddy Perkins and Michael Jackson are obvious, with Glover’s Perkins serving as an analogue for any and all artists who were forced to give up a piece of themselves in order to live someone else’s dreams. And though its thematic richness manages to flesh Teddy Perkins out into more than your typical horror villain, the episode’s depth of character never gets in the way of its effective thrills. More than anything else, “Teddy Perkins” demonstrates that Atlanta can’t be put into a box quite so easily.
01. The Americans – “START”
Season 6 | Episode 10
Directed by Chris Long
Written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
It’s a given that, when a television show’s endpoint is announced, speculation as to how the story will conclude flares up like a wildfire. Will Walter White survive the Breaking Bad finale? Does Jon Snow eventually unite all of Westeros under his rule in Game of Thrones? Will Tony Soprano receive any comeuppance by the end of The Sopranos? While this level of speculation is indicative of a show’s strong imprint on pop culture, outlining every possible ending can also take some of the surprise out of a finale. The Americans, however, has something of a unique conclusion in just how shocking it is. It subverts so many of the tropes that many finales fall into as a means of neatly wrapping up the show’s lingering plotlines, all while remaining true to its characters. It’s fitting but unexpected, and it avoids the temptation to provide closure for every single plotline, allowing the open ones to linger in the mind of the viewer long after the episode ends. In a television landscape in which a finale can often make or break the perception of a show (see The Good Wife and Dexter for examples of the latter), The Americans sticks the landing and then some. “START” could have been half as good as it is and The Americans would still be the best television series to come out of the 2010s thus far. That this finale is such a stunning hour of television speaks to the sheer talent, care, and forward-thinking of its writing staff. The Americans is one of the richest, most complex, most nuanced and mature television shows I’ve ever seen, and its ending was perfect in every conceivable way.