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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Four!

We’re at the end of my look back at the best TV of 2016!  Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, here are my Top Five Episodes of TV in 2016:

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5. Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” (aired on 1/5/16) – I was tickled by the idea of taking Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s modern-day interpretations of Sherlock Holmes and setting them in the Victorian era from which the Holmes stories originated.  Had this been an entirely out-of-continuity caper — as I thought it would be, going into the episode — I’d have been happy.  But I was delighted to discover that, instead, this story connected directly to the cliffhanger ending of season three, and allowed us to explore the idea of Sherlock’s “mind palace” that was first raised back in the season two finale.  This episode was filled with many fun little moments, from Mrs. Hudson’s complaining that John never gives her any lines in his stories to the 19th century version of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting (as originally depicted in “A Study in Pink”).  And things got suitably mind-bending as the episode progressed and the story began jumping more frequently between the Victorian setting (happening inside Sherlock’s brain) and the modern-day events on board the plane, with Moriarty’s apparent return from the dead presenting a frightening new threat.  I adore this series and, if we couldn’t get a full three-episode new season of Sherlock in 2016, this one-off was a fine substitute.  (By the way, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the recently-aired season four of Sherlock soon!!)

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4. The X-Files: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (season ten, episode three, aired on 2/1/16) – I had hoped and dreamed for years that The X-Files, one of the great, unfinished stories of the modern pop-culture landscape, would one day be given the conclusion that once-great show so dearly deserved.  I rejoiced at the announcement of a new six-episode run (a superior format to a movie, in my mind, for the show’s return), though the relaunched show wound up mostly disappointing me.  With this one notable exception.  Darin Morgan wrote four episodes during the original X-Files run, and they were among the very best episodes the show ever did.  “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is without question my favorite episode of the entire series.  And so I was ecstatic when I learned that Mr. Morgan would be writing one of these six new X-Files episodes.  He directed this episode, too, and boy did he not let me down.  This episode is so joyous, so funny and so fun, that I had a huge smile on my face as I watched it.  As is to be expected from a Darin Morgan episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is packed to the gills with funny one-liners, bizarre happenings, and a lot of winking fun with the character of Mulder.  I adore the scene in which Mulder acts out both sides of his usual believer-vs-skeptic argument with Scully, as well as the discussion about how the existence of smart-phones have totally changed the way Mulder and Scully used to do business (in the nineties time-period of the show’s original run).  Also: that shot of Mulder sleeping in his tight red bikini briefs is one for the ages.  Scully comments, at one point: “This is how I like my Mulder,” and I entirely agree.  Rhys Darby and X-Files super-fan Kumail Nanjiani (you’ve got to check out his The X-Files Files podcast) did great work in their guest-appearances.  Mulder’s ring-tone is hilarious, and we even get a reference to Scully’s immortality!!  (This was a wonderful little idea first introduced by Darin Morgan in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”)  This was without question a high-point of this mini-season.  (Click here for my overall thoughts on The X-Files season X, and here for my episode-by-episode reviews.)

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3. Better Call Saul: “Fifi” (season two, episode eight, released on 4/4/16) – “Fifi” opens with an extraordinary single-take tracking shot that follows one of Hector Salamanca’s trucks through the entire inspection process at the U.S.-Mexico border.  It’s a spectacular sequence, and that alone would probably have landed this episode on my Best TV of 2016 list.  But there is so much more to “Fifi” than that — the episode is full of incredible moments for all of the main characters.  After watching Kim struggle for much of this season, we get to see her triumph in convincing Mesa Verde to come over from HHM to her new solo self-run firm.  We then see Chuck at his most villainous, leaving his house and coming in to HHM all for the purpose of undoing Kim’s accomplishment in an effort to hurt his brother Jimmy.  And then we get to see Jimmy go full-scale “Slippin’ Jimmy” on Chuck, painstakingly doctoring all of Chuck’s Mesa Verde files to change two digits of an address on every single document.  In the moment, it’s joyous to see Jimmy use his cunning to get back at his brother, for whom, at this point, I had lost all sympathy.  But it’s also immediately apparent that this is all about to blow up on Jimmy (and indeed it does, in the very next episode, both with Kim’s discovering what Jimmy had done and in his angry confrontation with Chuck and Chuck’s collapse at the copy center).  This episode is gripping and funny and heartbreaking, everything that Better Call Saul does so spectacularly well.  It was a huge culmination point for the show so far, and I am confident that the events of this episode will echo down through the episodes to come.  I can’t believe how great Better Call Saul is — I am enjoying it even more than Breaking Bad — and this episode highlights exactly why that is.  (Click here for my full review of Better Call Saul season two.)

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2. Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards” (season six, episode nine, aired on 6/19/16) – Game of Thrones’ sixth season culminated in two of the strongest episodes the show has ever produced.  The penultimate episode, “The Battle of the Bastards,” gave us the largest-scale battle we’d ever seen on the show, as Jon Snow finally led an army against the sadistic Ramsay to retake Winterfell, which had been held by the Boltons for the past several seasons.  There was a visceral thrill in getting to see Jon finally taking dramatic action, and in seeing Winterfell finally, finally, reclaimed by the good guys and the vicious Ramsay at last getting his well-deserved comeuppance.  What I was not expecting was the episode’s astoundingly gruesome, gut-wrenching dive into the horrors of this type of combat.  The episode was a horrific, nightmarishly intense experience to watch, as we followed Jon and his men’s increasingly hopeless assault on Winterfell.  I don’t think I have ever before seen anything like this on television, save perhaps for Steven Spielberg’s masterful miniseries Band of Brothers.  One of the things I love best about Game of Thrones is the way the show doesn’t allow the audience to get any easy wins.  Even when a hated character finally meets his long-awaited demise, the show usually twists the knife such that it is hard to take too much pleasure from the event.  (A prime example would be Joffrey: we all spent years waiting for the little snot to get what he deserved, but the moment of his death was so gruesome that it was hard to derive much joy from it.)  The same happened here, in spades.  This wasn’t an episode that you could watch while munching popcorn and cheering for the good guys and hissing the bad guys.  “Battle of the Bastards” made the audience feel the terribly high cost of Jon’s victory.  This was incredible storytelling.  (Click here for my full review of Game of Thrones season six.)

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1. Game of Thrones: “The Winds of Winter” (season six, episode ten, aired on 6/26/16) – I spent a long time debating which of the final two episodes of Game of Thrones’ sixth season would make this list, “Battle of the Bastards” or “The Winds of Winter.”  Then I decided, what the hell, I should include them both.  “Battle of the Bastards” was an extraordinarily visceral experience to watch, but it was the season finale “The Winds of Winter” that was the true masterpiece.  The gorgeous piece of music that opened the episode, as we watched a montage of the characters in Kings Landing prepare for the momentous trial that would take place in the Sept of Baelor, was incredible.  As the episode (the longest the show had ever done) unfolded, we caught up with virtually every major character left on the show.  While sometimes episodes like that (with such a broad focus, spending time with so many different characters) can seem unfocused, this one was woven together masterfully, as we followed the escalating events across Westeros (and beyond) as all the pieces fell into place for the show’s final act (its two final shortened seasons that are to come).  I was thrilled that the long-brewing hints about the Mad King’s caches of Wildfire, buried beneath Kings’ Landing, finally paid fruit.  And I was delighted that the show finally confirmed the long-rumored truth of Jon Snow’s parentage.  Watching Cersei take care of all family business in “The Winds of Winter” was incredible, and as she strode down the chamber, resplendent in that gorgeous and bad-ass black gown, and finally sat in the Iron Throne, it felt as if the show had finally turned a huge narrative corner.  Meanwhile, Jamie’s ambivalent reaction to that moment was one of the most intriguing aspects of the season finale and one of the things I am most wondering about as the show roars towards its conclusion.  Will Jamie make a heroic turn towards the light and abandon his sister Cersei?  Or will his story be a more heartbreaking one, as even though we know there is good in him we will watch him choose his evil sister and doom himself?  I suspect the latter.  We also got to see the enormous library at the Citadel; Daenarys finally leaving Essos and sailing towards Westeros with her Dothraki soldiers (and the Unsullied and all her other allies); Tommen’s heartbreaking suicide; Davos’ long-awaited confrontation with Melisandre over the murder of Shireen, the much-longer-awaited payback for Walder Frey, and Jon being declared King of the North (while Littlefinger looks on, surely up to no good).  Truly this episode was overflowing with amazing moments.  And, at the end of the episode, the three major players in the Game of Thrones were assembled and set loose on a collision course with one another: Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, and Daenerys Stormborn, mother of dragons and breaker of chains and lady of many other titles.  I am beside myself with anticipation waiting to see how all this plays out in the show’s final two seasons.  (Click here for my full review of Game of Thrones season six.)

And that, my friends, brings to a close this list of my Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016.  Have a great weekend, and I hope to see you back here on Monday!

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