Today’s entry in NGN’s Best of 2015 series focuses on the year’s best episodes of television. From fantastic finales and shocking surprises to beautiful bottle episodes and half-hour romantic comedies, these episodes gave us reasons to laugh, sob, and cheer from our couches (or wherever we watch TV nowadays). These are the episodes we never stopped talking about—even to people who didn’t watch these shows. They’re the ones that kept us up all night thinking about what happened and what it meant for the characters we’ve come to know and love. And they’re the ones we reference when we want to tell someone why a particular show is so wonderful.
As you check out this list of my 10 favorite TV episodes this year, don’t forget to share your own list in the comments! And, as always, there are some wonderful year-end lists to check out at MGcircles and TVExamined if you’re hungry for more!
1. “Stingers” (The Americans)
“Stingers” was as close to a perfect hour of dramatic television as a show can get. It used the element of surprise perfectly, lulling the audience into a false sense of security right along with Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Just as they thought they’d have more time before revealing their identities as KGB spies to their daughter, Paige, we thought the show would have more time because this episode wasn’t the season finale or even the penultimate episode of the season. But Paige forced their hand, and in one wonderfully tense dinner table conversation, the entire makeup of the show changed. However, in typical The Americans fashion, it did so not with fanfare but with subtlety—with powerful moments of silence, whispered words in Russian, and achingly nuanced performances from Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Holly Taylor.
2. “Leslie and Ron” (Parks and Recreation)
“Leslie and Ron” was the exact moment I knew Parks and Rec was going to have the masterful final season it deserved. If a show can deliver finale-caliber emotional beats and finale-level tears in one of the early episodes of its last season, you know you’re dealing with quality television. And “Leslie and Ron” delivered on both of those fronts. It was unafraid to aim for the heart and to ask both Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler to do much, proving that amazing things happen when writers and directors trust their actors to make magic together. The fact that a show could produce an episode like this one in its seventh season proves how smart, special, and brave Parks and Rec truly was.
3. “The Devil’s Mark” (Outlander)
Outlander is a sweeping romance the likes of which I have never experienced on television before, and no other episode of this show was as sweepingly romantic as “The Devil’s Mark.” Of course, the early scenes in the episode featured powerful acting and one heck of a twist involving a scar, but the reason this episode landed on this list was because of its final 20 minutes. Watching Jamie and Claire come to terms with the truth about her identity was the stuff epic love stories are made of: tearful confessions, emotional embraces, windswept farewells, and the hottest fully-clothed scene I’ve ever seen on television (which, coincidentally, took place in front of a fire). By the episode’s end, I was left with tears in my eyes and hands over my heart like a true swooning fangirl, and that’s exactly the kind of feeling I want to have while watching a show like Outlander.
4. “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” (Orphan Black)
Is there anything that leaves a fan with more conflicting emotions than a truly satisfying but also surprising death? On one hand, you’re devastated to lose a character you love, but on the other hand, you’re so happy they died in a way that did the character justice. That’s exactly how I felt after this episode ended with Paul’s death. Other things happened in this episode, but what I remember is the intense rush of emotions I felt watching both Mark and Paul risk everything to do the right thing for the women they love. And while Mark’s love for Gracie was touching, it was finally having that on-screen confirmation of Paul’s love for Sarah that made me an emotional wreck. In one episode, I was reminded of why I came to love his character and his relationship with Sarah so much, and it was the perfect way to say goodbye. After a season where a lot of Orphan Black episodes began to run together in my brain, this one remains a true standout.
5. “Hollander’s Woods” (Castle)
I thought “Hollander’s Woods” would have been the perfect series finale for Castle back when it aired, and I still stand by that initial assessment. There was so much love poured into every scene and every word from longtime writers and producers Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, and it reminded me that no one will ever understand these characters and the spirit of this unique show like they do. “Hollander’s Woods” highlighted everything special about Castle: its compelling mysteries, loving friendships, warm family dynamics, resilient heroine, complex leading man, and captivating love story. It ended with all the show’s most beloved characters coming together to celebrate, and the episode itself felt like a celebration I never wanted to end.
6. “Swan Song” (Once Upon a Time)
I love when episodes make me feel, and there is no doubt that “Swan Song” made me feel more deeply than perhaps any other hour of television this year. And even being as deep into the Once Upon a Time fandom as I am (Lord help me), this episode still managed to genuinely surprise me with its Rumplestiltskin twist. But even beyond that fantastic surprise, I loved “Swan Song” because it took my favorite of this show’s many themes—self-definition—and extended it into an hour-long look at Killian struggling with choosing how to define himself. It showed us all that we have the power to stop letting our darkness, our flaws, and our past define us—if we simply choose to let love in and let it give us strength. “Swan Song” was thematically powerful, and it was also emotionally powerful, with performances designed to take hold of our hearts and never let them go. To that I say: Mission accomplished.
7. “Officer of the Year” (Playing House)
If you’re looking for a lovely little romantic comedy, look no further than “Officer of the Year.” I loved the way this episode both defied and embraced the conventions of the genre. Yes, there’s something wonderfully fresh about the man going to his closest female friend for relationship advice. But there’s also something wonderfully familiar about that classic moment when two people stare across the dance floor at each other while in the arms of someone else. The episode culminated in a scene between Keegan-Michael Key and Jessica St. Clair that sparkled with the kind of chemistry that big-budget rom-coms wish they could find, one of those rare moments when you feel like you’re watching something truly special and you want to scream from the rooftops about it. Consider this my scream from the rooftops.
8. “Johnny and Dora” (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
Just like “Officer of the Year,” “Johnny and Dora” was a perfect romantic comedy in a half-hour package. But it was also so much more. Not only did Jake and Amy get to live out some classic rom-com tropes (fake dating/fake engaged, kissing to preserve a cover, etc.), we got to see our excitement over this development reflected in Boyle’s adorable enthusiasm. We were also treated to a lovely look at Boyle and Rosa’s friendship, as well as a shockingly moving moment from Andre Braugher, as Captain Holt bid a temporary farewell to the Nine-Nine. Never have robot sounds made me cry harder.
9. “Out of Time” (The Flash)
Fun fact about me: I love time travel plots. Needless to say, when The Flash first dove into the time-travel pond, I was ecstatic. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking to see so many important things happen in a timeline that only Barry (and—in some ways—Cisco) would remember. This episode brought the shock value, with Dr. Wells revealing his identity to Cisco before “killing” him. But it also delivered on the emotional front, especially when it came to Barry and Iris. Their first kiss was a beautiful moment—the kind that took me from casually interested in the idea of them together to full-blown “shipper.” This episode felt like a movie, and if it was, it would have been one of the best movies I saw in 2015, too.
10. “Faith” (Suits)
“Faith” was an episode in which so many things that needed to happen on Suits finally happened: We finally got to see what really happened with Harvey’s family, we finally got to look at the specifics of Mike’s childhood, we finally got to see Mike dealing with the weight of his lies, we finally got to see Harvey make a huge sacrifice for Jessica, and we finally got to see repercussions for the lie that started this whole show. “Faith” spent most of the hour giving us blockbuster performances form the most underrated troupe on television, and in its final moments, the entire foundation of the show was shaken. Just when we’d come to accept that Harvey was leaving and Mike was quitting, Mike was arrested, giving us the best cliffhanger of 2015.