/Answers: The Best Television Episodes of All Time

breaking bad ozymandias

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. This week’s edition asks “What is your favorite television episode of all time?” As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team, along with a special guest. This week, we are joined by The Leftovers and Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof.

If you’d like to share your favorite TV episode, please send your thoughts to slashfilmpitches@gmail.com for a chance to be featured on the site. Find our favorite episodes below!

Damon Lindelof: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M*A*S*H

I feel like there’s so many [shows] that have incredible sticking power, but the first thing that popped into my head when you asked the question was M*A*S*H finale. That made a massive impression on me when I saw it for the first time. I felt like I was watching something incredibly adult, and I was still a kid. I was also watching something at the same time that 60 million other human beings were watching it. I had a very profound experience watching that episode, and every time I’ve revisited it over the years, it takes me back to exactly what I was wearing and what I was eating, and where I was sitting in my childhood living room when it was on.

Is that the best episode of television ever? Who knows. But all I can do is answer the question you asked, in terms of what my mind immediately leapt to. There’s a bunch. In the modern era, I think the greatest single episode of television produced is probably the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad. I sat there watching it, and when it was over I couldn’t move for, like, five minutes. It was just staggering.

Hoai-Tran Bui: “Zuko Alone,” Avatar: The Last Airbender

Antiheroes are a dime a dozen in today’s pop culture landscape, as are their obligatory redemption arcs. But try as many shows might, they will rarely best the character development of Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender. That’s right, a Nickelodeon animated series does character work better than your favorite cable prestige drama. And that pristine character work is fully realized in the breakout season 2 standalone episode, “Zuko Alone.”

In an episode that forgoes the main protagonists in favor of the show’s resident villain-turned-antihero, “Zuko Alone” is a miraculous homage to iconic “ronin” films like Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, condensed into a 25-minute episode. The episode follows Zuko after he has parted ways with his wise, tea-drinking uncle, in an attempt to make it on his own as the disgraced outcast prince of the Fire Nation. He runs into a poor boy being terrorized by Earth Kingdom military thugs and — in an uncharacteristic moment of chivalry — decides to help him and the village under the sway of the brutal soldiers. What follows is your classic antihero grappling with identity, the horrors of war and poverty, intercut with flashbacks to Zuko’s unhappy upbringing alongside his psychotic sister. But brief moments of nobility and compassion thanks to the kindness of his mother in his past are reflected in Zuko’s own journey of self-discovery, as he clumsily tries to do good by the villagers.

It’s the bitter ending of the episode that sets this episode apart from other “lone noble warrior” stories, however. Backed into a corner, Zuko ends up revealing and reveling in his identity as the crown prince of the Fire Nation, the object of both the villagers’ and the soldiers’ hatred. He’s cast out again, despite his small, baby steps toward doing a good deed, and hurt, he retreats back into his proud, antihero shell. The episode is a fantastic piece of storytelling and character work, and while “Zuko Alone” does nothing new, it does it with such aplomb that it deserves to be ranked up there with the movies it pays homage to.

Ben Pearson: “Ozymandias,” Breaking Bad

I think Breaking Bad is the greatest television show of all time, so naturally my pick for this category is the best episode of that show: “Ozymandias,” the third-to-last episode of the show’s five season run. As great as the pilot is, I think “Ozymandias” is the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. Directed by Rian Johnson and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, it contains the heart-wrenching murder of a major character, the gorgeous cinematography the series was known for, and an absolute masterclass in tension with a knife fight sequence that still gets my heart racing just by thinking about it.

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston deliver titanic performances here (they both won Emmys for their work in this episode), and the scene in which Cranston’s Walter White drives away with his daughter Holly as Gunn’s Skyler screams in despair is one of the most guttural, powerful things I’ve seen on any screen, big or small. It’s the culmination of years’ worth of secrets and lies, all coming to a head as the show speeds into its finale. It’s riveting, breathtaking television, and in a show full of fantastic episodes, this is the pinnacle of its achievements.

Jacob Hall: “Once More With Feeling,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“Once More With Feeling” isn’t the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it employs a cute gimmick where the entire story is presented as a musical. It’s the best episode of the series because creator, showrunner, writer, and director Joss Whedon uses that gimmick to actually push the season’s larger plot in incredible directions, taking advantage of the song-and-dance format to let characters bare their souls and have the kinds of conversations they’d normally avoid. It’s a spectacularly entertaining break from format that refuses to be a monster-of-the-week episode – everything that occurs here hurts and lingers and matters.

In true Buffy fashion, there’s a malevolent reason for everyone suddenly breaking into song. A demon named Sweet has arrived in Sunnydale and his mere presence causes the population to break into song and dance, singing their darkest truths, sharing lovely romantic ballads with their partners, and getting all Busy Berkeley over mustard stains. Some people literally burst into flames after singing and dancing too much, so naturally, it’s up to Buffy and her crew to deal with the problem. While some members of the cast are much better at singing and dancing than the others, that’s part of the charm. Even the less talented singers throw themselves into each scene with gusto, as if they were, you know, compelled to do so by a supernatural force.

And while those songs are great and the series’ trademark wit and winking camp are on full display, it’s the final scenes that seal the deal here. Whedon uses this very silly, potentially gimmicky episode to finally deal with the ramifications of the fifth season finale and the season six premiere. Only through song can Buffy be honest with her friends about what they’ve done to her and what she has gone through. It’s heartbreaking and catchy and bold and yeah, this is the best hour of TV ever made.

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