15. Boardwalk Empire, ‘To the Lost’
I had such high hopes for this series at one point — that it might become a modern Deadwood rather than a 20s version of The Sopranos. And very few efforts were more convincing than the Season 2 finale, where Jimmy Darmody tries to ‘make things right’ in his season-long feud with Nucky, and help him escape a certain jail sentence. That he has violated some deeper code becomes clear in the episode’s unforgettable climax, where he basically surrenders himself to become the first man to die completely by Nucky’s hand. It was a bold, game changing move. The fact that the series ultimately proved unworthy of it does not change that fact.
14. Breaking Bad, ‘Face Off’
We knew that the season-long confrontation between Walter and Gus Fring wasn’t going to end well for anybody. But not even those of us who had remembered previous climaxes could have expected the final confrontation where Walter uses the one man who might loathe Gus more than him to destroy him. But it’s not the unforgettable image of Gus emerging from the explosion or the destruction of the superlab that immediately follows that gives us the biggest ache — its learning how Walt, desperate to get Jesse back on his side, was willing to sacrifice an innocent child to get there. He might have won as he told Skyler, but whatever was left of his soul was as dead as Gus.
13. Frasier, ‘My Coffee With Niles’
This spin-off had not yet established itself as one of the greatest comedies in TV history when it’s first season wrapped, but this very avant-garde piece established that it was going to be a radically different animal. Consisting almost entirely of a conversation when Frasier and Niles in which he ponders the first season, all the while trying to avoid answering a deceptively simple question: Is he happy? The back-and-forth between the brothers, the appearances of the rest of the cast, and the simple inability of Frasier to get the coffee he ordered are among the most delightful, almost avant-garde pursuit the series had yet done. When Frasier finally got the answer he was looking for, we realized this would be no ordinary comedy.
12.. Deadwood,‘ Boy-The-Earth-Talks-To’
There were so many good things about this foul-mouthed western. And perhaps the most enjoyable selection out of its too brief run was the arrival of the most insidious force the town would ever deal with at the end of Season 2: George Hearst. We knew that there was evil in his presence when his emissary to the town Francis Wolcott was revealed to be a psychopath, what was more frightening was how easily Hearst discarded him— and by extension, the lives of the prostitutes he had slaughtered in an earlier season— as if it were a conflict over a hotel receipt. Add to this, the wedding of Ellsworth to Alma, ‘a lie agreed upon’ to cover her affair with Bullock, the war between the Chinamen that ended in a victory for Wu, and the coming of elections to further shake the status quo, and you had one of the best of this series— unfortunately few— season finales.
11. Mad Men, Meditations in an Emergency
Many fans of this series consider the Season 3 Finale where Don Draper and the bulk of Sterling Cooper break off to form their own agency a great moment in TV. I consider far more unsettling Season 2’s finale, where the British take over of Sterling Cooper leaves everyone at the agency — already in a state of paralyzed fear over the Cuban Missile Crisis— utterly terrified at whether or not they have a future anywhere. This leads to some shattering decisions, including the unforgettable scene where Peggy reveals to Pete that she had his child out of wedlock so that she could have a different future than the one she could’ve had. And while Don may have won the battle for his freedom at Sterling-Cooper, his future with Betty– who reveals her pregnancy in this episode— is even more cloudy. They reconcile, but those of us who have been watching loyally know there isn’t much hope there.