Not everything is always about movies here at thelosthighwayhotel. Some stuff’s about TV.
TV, especially American TV, is increasingly indistinguishable in quality from feature films. True, there’s still an awful lot of dross out there, but over the last 20 years or so we’ve seen TV aspire to greater things. Indeed, the serial drama offers many opportunities that a 2 hour movie can’t; long form storytelling and rich character development that unfolds over weeks, months, even years. The best of these shows achieve a consistency of quality and tone that makes picking highlights or favourite episodes pretty much impossible. Nevertheless occasionally a show will push itself to produce something truly memorable.
Below is a list of 15 such episodes from 15 different shows. It’s a fairly arbitrary list – there’s no way I could produce a comprehensive list; I don’t watch everything. Nevertheless, for the sake of it, here are some exemplary pieces of television that linger long in the mind, be it for emotional heft, creativity or – occasionally – comedy value. It’s worth mentioning right now that spoilers are guaranteed.
Oh, and the only reason Deadwood doesn’t appear in this list is that every episode is exceptional, and you should watch it all immediately. Right, off we go…
15. John From Cincinnati “His Visit: Day Five” (season 1, episode 6)
Probably the strangest TV show to get bankrolled by HBO, even if they did subsequently can it after 10 episodes, David Milch & Kem Nunn’s John From Cincinnati had the potential to be the network’s own Twin Peaks. Focusing on a surfing community near the border between California and Mexico, the show charts how the down-on-their-luck Yost family become changed by the arrival of a seemingly naive stranger with supernatural abilities going by the name John (Austin Nichols).
The show is a tough sell, as Milch’s dense writing style butts up against some elliptical storytelling. It all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Sadly, HBO didn’t give anyone enough time to complete the picture, but in 10 episodes I for one was given enough of it to be enthralled. Though the bulk of the episode is good, “His Visit: Day Five” is a highlight largely for its bewitching final minutes, as the ensemble cast gather in a sort of lucid dream at a barbecue, baring witness to John’s cryptic prophecies. The term ‘Lynchian’ gets banded about a lot, often without real justification, however this episode genuinely approaches the surrealist’s deft touch. There’s a midnight calm about the gathering, and as viewers we feel like privileged guests. When the credits roll we are left to contemplate, encouraged to think… differently. The superb cast that includes the likes of Jim Beaver, Garrett Dillahunt and Ed O’Neill (pictured) helps no end.
14. Millennium “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” (season 1, episode 19)
Most shows experience a sort of ‘epiphany moment’ in their early days when they suddenly realise their full potential and take a leap forward. Chris Carter’s Millennium did so late in its first season with the one-two punch of “Lamentation” and “Powers, Principalities, Thrones And Dominions”. The former episode worked as a corking horror-thriller, as an evil force invaded the home of former-FBI consultant Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), but the latter is the series’ finest hour, charting the dark aftermath and laying down the gauntlet for the show to come.
The show was always at its best when it was seriously probing the nature of evil and the credibility of the spiritual. “Powers…” takes on both topics. This is philosophical genre programming, sombre and intelligent. It’s also profoundly unsettling, as the story line builds the distinct impression that an evil that can take many forms is specifically targeting Frank. Framed by an act of divine(?) intervention, this was a pivotal moment for the series, arguably one never again achieved so successfully. It also includes a spot of terrifying fan-service with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance from Frank’s horrific nemesis Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond).
13. Space Above & Beyond “Who Monitors The Birds?” (season 1, episode 12)
Long before Joss Whedon took words away from his cast in Buffy‘s “Hush”, Glen Morgan and James Wong crafted this moody near-wordless hour of television for their WW2-in-space sci-fi saga. Following just one member of the cast through an operation that could see him sent home from service, “Who Monitors The Birds?” is both a character piece and a compelling action drama.
We follow Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), an in-vitro soldier (i.e a human clone grown in a lab) as he quickly becomes the sole survivor of a botched mission. As he attempts to complete the mission and avoid detection by the alien combatants, he has revealing flashbacks to his early days of life, whilst also receiving strange visitations from a being who looks like a deathly seductive iteration of his colleague Vansen (Kristen Cloke). It’s a remarkable episode in a sadly short-lived series. There were other great installments, but this is probably the best.
12. The Wire “That’s Got His Own” (season 4, episode 12)
David Simon has often spoken of how seasons of The Wire were structured more like novels than anything else, and appropriately the writing staff for the show featured more notable authors than an edition of Late Review. Appropriately then, it was usually the penultimate episode of the season where things came to a head. So it was with The Wire‘s extraordinary fourth season which focused on the struggling school system and how Baltimore’s children get drawn into its drug trade.
The Wire was never laugh-a-minute, but “That’s Got His Own” sees the show at it’s most tragic, as bureaucratic failings and simple human errors stack up bodies in equal measure. It’s hard to say what lingers the most; Lt. Carver (Seth Gilliam) walking helplessly away from Randy (Maestro Harrell – above), Namond (Julito McCullum) tear-struck by his cruel mother, or Bubbles (Andre Royo) making his terrible morning discovery. Powerful doesn’t come close. TV has rarely been so raw.
11. Masters Of Horror “Imprint” (season 1, episode 13)
Let’s face it, Masters Of Horror was rarely great. Most episodes suffered from either weak writing, poor acting, severe budget constraints or all of the above. A sense also grew that the masters in question were working on a leash, subject to the constraints of TV’s censorship rules. Obviously nobody told Takashi Miike. The least surprising thing about “Imprint” is how quickly it was banned from broadcast. Torture? Check. Domestic abuse? Check. Abortion? Check. Incest? Check. Strange deformities? Check. Excessive nudity? Check. Upside down urination? Err, yeah why not. This was never going to air.
Fortunately it was granted release when it came to DVD, for “Imprint” shows up the other entries in the series quite considerably. Putting aside the controversial content for a minute, it looks beautiful. Miike economically crafts a rich, terrible world. Hair, make-up and costuming play heavily in this; bright reds and blues making the design seem lavish, whilst deep shadows in the sets invite the viewer’s eyes to wander fearfully over the characters’ shoulders. Miike brings his trademark severity to the genre, unafraid to dapple his disturbing story (which I won’t spoil here) with surreal images as extreme as the explicit content. He is, to me, one of the greatest directors working today (if not the best), and “Imprint” is as absorbing and disturbing as anything he has conjured from the void. It will make you cower.
10. Game Of Thrones “Blackwater” (season 2, episode 9)
With the penultimate episode of its second season, the epic fantasy juggernaut pushed the boundaries of what could be expected of serial drama. Boasting spectacular visuals that most blockbusters fail to deliver, “Blackwater” is all the more exceptional for the circumstances of its creation. From a script by author of the books George R. R. Martin, feature filmmaker Neil Marshall took the job of directing the episode at the last minute, when the man signed up for it pulled out. To his enormous credit, there isn’t even a sniff of eleventh-hour preparation about “Blackwater”. Wrangling fewer resources than the episode appears to have indulged, the end result is perhaps the show’s finest hour so far.
With the action isolated to King’s Landing, Games Of Thrones provides the best onscreen siege since the Helm’s Deep section of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but the success is not all down to the ensuing battle, stunts and effects work. Hunkered within the Red Keep, some extraordinary performances are wrought, especially from fan favourite Peter Dinklage, but also from Lena Headley who as good as steals the season with her work here.
9. Treme “Do Whatcha Wanna” (season 2, episode 11)
Season 2 of Treme was hard to love at times, often seeming aimless or repetitious. Things got better as it progressed though, until all that hard work was instantly forgiven when it came to the season finale. Longer than a lot of feature films “Do Whatcha Wanna”‘s generous 85 minutes capture everything that is great about this gently immersive show. From Janette (Kim Dickens) making a personal experience of riding the returned trams to Davis (Steve Zahn) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) visiting Jazz Fest, few programs make time for simple sensual experiences like Treme does. This is where the show’s preoccupation with music and food makes sense. As well as providing a window into a rich and particular culture, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina what Treme is celebrating is life.
There are still hardships – this is a David Simon show after all – but “Do Whatcha Wanna” sticks in the mind for the determined hope keyed into every one of its characters as life rolls on. You could say that about any episode of the show, I suppose. But as this is a personal list, I place this episode here for the memory I have of watching it and feeling happy. Happy that a show like this keeps going and for how it reflects this chaotic world perpetuating, as hackneyed as that sounds.
8. The Sopranos “Pine Barrens” (season 3, episode 11)
Remember back at the top when I mentioned comedy? Well here it is. There was no such thing as a bad season of The Sopranos, but season three was hardly vintage. Toward the end of the run however was this fan favourite. One of the great things that the show did was share screen time between James Gandolfini’s mafia honcho and the sprawling supporting cast. “Pine Barrens” gave plenty to Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) as body disposal becomes a farce that the Coen Brothers would be proud of. The two characters had been bristling against one another for seasons, so isolating them together in uncomfortable conditions was a masterstroke.
Adding to the Coens-y feel (and before he joined the show as an actor), “Pine Barrens” is directed by Steve Buscemi. He does a fine job, stacking up the ludicrous twists of the story. The episode looks beautiful, but Buscemi doesn’t showboat, instead allowing Imperioli and Sirico to standout. Sirico in particular is hysterical. The Sopranos had some firecracker dramatic episodes, and plenty of them would sit well on this list, but there’s something special about this one.
7. Mad Men “Shut The Door, Have A Seat” (season 3, episode 13)
Picking just one episode of Mad Men has proved incredibly difficult to the point where, like Deadwood, I’ve been tempted to simply remove the show from the list as, in my opinion, it’s all exceptional. However “Shut The Door, Have A Seat” deserves a mention for being such an audacious move on the part of creator Matt Weiner. For a show frequently criticised for moving too slowly, here were 45 minutes that completely upended the entire story, essentially cutting the series in half.
The third season finale sees the Sterling Cooper advertising agency bought out. Instead of meekly going along with the merger, Don (Jon Hamm) convinces his fellow partners to split ranks and start again from scratch, setting up a brand new agency. Clandestine meetings and after-hours discussions see Don and co stealing the company away in what feels like a mini-heist movie. It’s invigorating how quickly the whole show changes. It’s not just the business. “Shut The Door…” also sees Don and his wife Betty (January Jones) parting ways. Though it was all expertly set-up, Mad Men ends arguably its finest season with a new and uncertain future rolling out ahead of it.
6. The X-Files “Beyond The Sea” (season 1, episode 13)
The X-Files was never particularly consistent, be it due to the monster-of-the-week nature of the standalone episodes, or the labyrinthine dead-ends within its mythology arc. However when it hit on something good it was electric. The first season in particular is a little scrappy, but some of the show’s genuine highlights can be found in these early installments. For me the best of these is “Beyond The Sea”. Grieving the death of her father, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) is taken in by a death-row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif) who makes claims of being able to communicate with the dead.
Running beneath all this is a neat serial killer thriller, but the main draw here are the stellar performances from Anderson and Dourif. Dourif may never have been better. He takes full advantage of his guest role to showcase his incredibly physical acting range. It may all have more than a whiff of The Silence Of The Lambs about it – a huge influence on both The X-Files and Millennium – but it still makes for gripping television. Twenty years on (eek) it still packs a terrific punch.
5. Six Feet Under “That’s My Dog” (season 4, episode 5)
This one completely knocked the wind out of me. Nobody expects the fifth episode of a 13-part run to be the most dramatic. “That’s My Dog” is like a sneak attack. Indeed the first half is very much business-as-usual. We follow the varying members of the Fisher family through day-to-day life. It’s almost dull, in fact. And then David (Michael C Hall) picks up a hitchhiker whilst driving a body back to the funeral home and everything changes. We spend the rest of the episode with these two. There’s no score. No relief. As David’s day goes from bad to worse we are led on a terrifying odyssey through Los Angeles.
David’s hitchhiker Jake (Michael Weston) turns out to be a meek little monster, robbing David but refusing to let him go. By the end of the episode David has been tied up, tortured, coerced into taking crack and covered in gasoline. The show has spent years showing us that bad things happen to good people, and that death can happen to anyone at any time. It’s a rather cruel emotional trick, granted, as we’re led to believe this will be the end for David. Instead it primes Michael C Hall to steal the season as he deals with this dreadful ordeal. Six Feet Under‘s success came from how real its characters felt, how attached we grew over the years. Threatening this bond proved more shocking than a hundred horror movies. It may not be popular, there may be ‘better’ episodes, but for better or worse “That’s My Dog” will always be a landmark moment for fans of this show.
4. Carnivale “New Canaan, CA” (season 2, episode 12)
It took two ominous, portentous seasons to get to it, but the build-up was worth it. The season 2 finale (and, alas, final episode of the series thanks to its cancellation) managed to deliver everything that had been promised. It was around this time that long-haul mythic dramas were rising in popularity, but where the likes of Lost and Battlestar Galactica struggled to remain coherent and deliver answers to early questions, Carnivale felt rigorously thought-out and primed to pay-off all those little breadcrumb trails we’d been dutifully following.
This was never meant to be the end, but there’s a surprising amount of resolution here, more than the aforementioned shows managed on their complete runs. In fact I’d argue that if you made some selective edits to the cliffhangers in the final scenes, you could present “New Canaan, CA” as the end to the series proper and people would be largely satisfied. As it is it’s a frustrating but thrilling send-off which sees healer Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) finally confront evil preacher Brother Justin (Clancy Brown). The groundwork laid by the 23 preceding episodes sets the pulse racing and makes such ridiculous lines as “Iris and I must ride the ferris wheel!” barely register as daft. Part horror show, part supernatural serial, Carnivale is one of the finest examples of its kind, and this episode draws together all of it’s best elements. There’s the final confrontation… there’s Iris’ chilling final confession to Norman… and there’s that scene with Sophie locked in the outhouse… I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.
3. The West Wing “Noël” (season 2, episode 10)
Aww, the Christmas episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s sentimental political talkfest The West Wing were lovely, weren’t they? All happy and schmaltzy and covered in in tinsel… Err, actually, no. They weren’t. And whilst season one’s installment featured Toby (Richard Schiff) arranging a military funeral for a homeless Vietnam veteran, season two’s offering made that sound like a merry walk in the park, as Josh (Bradley Whitford) suffers PTSD symptoms in the aftermath of an assassination attempt.
My favourite episode of the show’s seven-year run, all of the elements come together here to make something that feels more than the sum of its parts; Sorkin on the kind of form he’d sell his soul for these days; a stellar, bristling performance from Whitford; and some very effective editing that matches the rhythm of the show to Josh’s slowly mounting helplessness. Sorkin once wrote that good auditory should be like music. This episode is like music. It builds and swells and eventually soars, even if the place it goes to is a painful one. The West Wing was a great show. You can deride it for being occasionally glib, arrogant or patronising. But you should also praise it for being heartfelt, fiercely intelligent and emotionally engaging. “Noël” is a shining example of all of these finer qualities.
2. Twin Peaks “Episode 14” (season 2, episode 7)
The episodes of Twin Peaks directed by David Lynch himself were always something else, and whilst it’s hard to conceive of anything quite as odd and mysterious as the second season finale, it is this episode that most strongly effected me. Quite simply, it’s terrifying. It would be hard to imagine anything this dark and intense making it onto television today, let alone back in 1990. How did Lynch get around the censors to portray something so completely disturbing?
The episode has all his trademark quirks from the get-go (the lobby of the Great Northern hotel overrun by sailors with rubber balls?), but it is the second half of the episode which drifts away into its own surreal nightmare, pursuing the dark corridors of human nature that Lynch usually reserved for his features. As Laura Palmer’s killer strikes again (and in unflinching detail) we also cut to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) sitting in the Roadhouse watching Julee Cruise perform some beautiful dream-pop. Such inaction from the show’s hero makes the horrors taking place in the Palmer household somehow even more appalling, whilst a feeling is conveyed that the supernatural spirits surrounding and infecting Twin Peaks are just as horrified as we are. It’s a strange magic. By the end credits the viewer feels floored. As sinister as anything Lynch has ever made. TV has never seemed so daring.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer “The Body” (season 5, episode 16)
Written and directed by Joss Whedon, “The Body” is the answer to anybody who dismissed Buffy the Vampire Slayer as just a silly show for teenagers. Artfully shot and compellingly acted, it charts and evokes the horrific numbness that falls immediately after learning that a loved one has died. With no music and scenes that last whole acts of the show, this could’ve felt like a formal exercise. Film school 101. Instead it feels torturously truthful, whilst simultaneously underlining some of the reasons people feel so affectionate about the show in the first place.
Rarely, if ever, has the bond of friendship been so realistically portrayed as on Buffy. Over the years these characters, some fantastic or supernatural, came to feel like whole people. Witness the interaction between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) in the third act. As Xander grows frustrated, Willow knows exactly how to calm him again. It speaks of a shorthand that has history, and is utterly real. Elsewhere you can see Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Tara (Amber Benson) grow closer before your eyes, as Tara reveals a shared experience. Really though, these are but a couple of examples of one aspect of what makes “The Body” (and Buffy as a whole) exemplary. I don’t think Whedon’s work ever been stronger or braver. “The Body” is a masterpiece.
In the end, this is the perfect example of television rising up to be more than just filler between commercials. Whedon was growing as an artist, and here he used the medium of film as though it wasn’t bound to any rules of broadcasting. “The Body” feels like an auteur trying to connect with his audience, to show or share something. To do more. And Sarah Michelle Gellar cannot be praised highly enough for the emotional openness she brings to the lead role. This is what television should aspire to do. It may in this instance be depressing as hell, but it is a searing lightning bolt in a lamentably quiet sky. More television like this please!