This list may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Breaking Bad – “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Episode 14)
Director: Rian Johnson
One of the most brutal, devastating hours of television ever, with one gut-punch after another. Every actor on the show is giving their best performances at the same moment, delivering the greatest episode of the decade.
Community – “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Director: Jeff Melman
Perhaps the single most technically impressive, deeply emotional and funniest episode the show ever did, it’s also the only episode that ever got any Emmy love. Leaving it off this list? That would truly be the darkest timeline.
The Crown – “Vergangenheit” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Everyone’s got some skeletons in their family closet. But finding out your eccentric uncle was a full-blown Nazi supporter who was willing to sell out the entire country? That’s something you don’t come back from. But the episode ascends to another level because of Paul Sparks’ guest turn as Billy Graham, counseling the Queen with empathy and honesty.
Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Palestinian Chicken” (Season 7, Episode 3)
Director: Robert B. Weide
The episode that launched a million meme reactions, it’s one of Larry David’s most darkly comic inventions. When his Jewish friends start protesting a Palestinian chicken restaurant he frequents, he keeps going because, well, it’s delicious. It’s also got the single most uncomfortable, hilarious sex scene in TV history.
Friday Night Lights – “The Son” (Season 4, Episode 5)
Director: Allison Liddi-Brown
An instant classic and probably the episode of TV responsible for the most tears, this marked a turning point for the show and for Matt (Zach Gilford). After his dad is killed in Iraq, he has to wrestle with his feeling. He has to grieve, but he’s also got to reconcile that with the fact that he didn’t much care for him when he was alive, and with good reason.
The Good Place – “Michael’s Gambit” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Director: Michael Schur
One of the best-executed twists in recent memory, the reveal that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason were all really in the Bad Place, being tortured by Michael, was stunning to watch in real time, punctuated by Ted Danson’s perfect evil chuckle. This extremely philosophical show was anything but basic.
Master of None – “Thanksgiving” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Director: Melina Matsoukas
The greatest Thanksgiving episode ever made, Lena Waithe shined as writer and star, telling an extremely personal story about her coming out journey. With a phenomenal Angela Bassett as her mother, and an extremely funny Jack’ee Harry as her aunt, this was a poignant, hilarious episode of one of the strongest seasons of TV in recent memory.
The Newsroom – “News Night with Will McAvoy” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Director: Alan Poul
Aaron Sorkin’s mostly terrific recent period piece featured all the hallmarks that people loved about his work, but occasionally allowed him to lean into his worst impulses. This mostly real-time episode from the show’s second season finds everyone firing on all cylinders. Starting with a missed call from his dad – with whom he’s had a rocky relationship at best – a chain reaction of challenges causes everyone to have to think on their feet.
The Office – “Goodbye, Michael” (Season 7, Episode 22)
Director: Paul Feig
The true series finale, it’s an emotional sitcom episode that works precisely because it’s about characters avoiding emotions. Steve Carell turned a prickly character into one of the most beloved of all American TV personalities, and this was a truly heartfelt send-off, and one of the best episodes the show ever did.
Twin Peaks – “Part 8”
Director: David Lynch
Easily the strangest thing to air on American television this decade, the midway point of David Lynch’s brilliant revival series detoured again, with a mostly black-and-white history lesson on atomic energy and eternal evil. Did I understand all of it? No. Have I ever forgotten it? Also no.
Veep – “Mother” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Director: Dale Stern
Selina grapples with the twin losses of the Nevada recount and her mother. But callous woman as she is, the former means a lot more to her than the latter. But the constant conflating of the two leads to one of the show’s funniest and most emotionally resonant episodes.