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The Verge's favorite TV episodes of 2017

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From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Game of Thrones, the stories and moments that made the best TV of 2017 worth watching

Image: HBO

The problem with great TV in 2017 was that there was so much of it. These days, there are so many TV recommendations and must-sees that leisure starts to feel like homework. (“You absolutely have to watch this! And you have to see it from the beginning! There are five seasons so far!”) That’s why we’re wrapping up our 2017 year-end summary coverage by trying to boil down our favorite 2017 television experiences into something approachable: a single episode that summed up why we love our favorite shows.

Spoilers ahead for these specific episodes.

Image: HBO

The Leftovers, “The Most Powerful Man in the World”

HBO’s baffling, maddening, beautiful series The Leftovers wrapped in 2017, and improbably (given Damon Lindelof’s involvement), it actually wrapped up cleanly, explaining its biggest mysteries and reaching a satisfying conclusion. But the biggest catharsis came in its insane penultimate episode, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” which has series protagonist Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) confronting his own nihilism, his self-destructive urges, and his biggest safety outlet in one gloriously weird fantasy about setting out to destroy the world. It’s impossible to explain the buildup that leads to this episode, which was one of the year’s biggest WTF television moments. But it’s also an intense and powerful story, made all the more impressive by its sheer ballsiness. The team behind The Leftovers was perfectly willing to dive into surrealism to get at emotional truths. This episode sums up the series: a man confronting his own failings in the weirdest, most imaginative way possible, but actually getting somewhere meaningful by the end. —Tasha Robinson

Image: HBO

The Young Pope, “Ninth Episode”

The Young Pope started off as a meme. It’s a strange series starring a not-so-young Jude Law, a wildly expensive re-creation of the Vatican, and bonkers musical cues from U2, Belle & Sebastian, LMFAO, and, in the astonishing penultimate episode, Australian producer Flume. The ninth episode reveals the series’s “Catholic House of Cards” conceit as a bait-and-switch, and looks for denouement in the form of love and peace for all its odd, conflicted characters. The young pope’s unmailed letters to the woman he never kissed are published in The New Yorker; an abusive archbishop’s power crumbles because of an underdog priest’s relentless goodness; a mother juggles oranges to delight her kids. “All around me, people don’t stop yearning,” the pope says, after sneaking onto a beach to watch a pal build a sand castle. It’s openly saccharine, which reminded me of Leslie Jamison’s essay about the maid in Madame Bovary who eats sugar every night after her prayers: “[Sugar] offers salve to the physical body, immediate comfort, something the flesh can trust while the spirit is being patient.” Then the finale opens with a voiceover: “The world has stopped turning to talk about love,” and snowfall over Rome. Oh my God. When has a big-budget HBO drama ever been so crushingly sweet? —Kaitlyn Tiffany

Photo by Patrick Harbron / Netflix

Mindhunter, “Episode 10”

Early in Netflix’s Mindhunter, the characters float the idea that the social change of the 1960s contributed to the rise of the modern serial killer. For the men Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interview as part of their burgeoning FBI profiling program, the means of regaining control over a society that’s sidelining them includes ritualistic murder. But this also feels like a perfect encapsulation of the cultural dynamics currently engulfing the United States: a bit of commentary tucked between David Fincher’s precise, icy shot selection and the unflinching portrayal of killers like Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). I loved Mindhunter as a whole, but the finale stuck with me most. Ford embraces his skills at manipulation and coercion to get a confession from a killer, but in the process, torches his friendships, and the work of his team. The narcissistic tendencies percolating in his character are called out — he’s already become unsympathetic, yet the show barrels forward unapologetically — and then the final reveal about the unnamed serial killer bookending every episode is crushing. It’s easy to imagine Fincher cackling behind his monitors on the set; as bleak as Seven was, it has nothing on Mindhunter. For 2017, it feels like the perfect episode of television. —Bryan Bishop

Image: HBO

Vice Principals, “Spring Break”

Danny McBride and Jody Hill's two-season series about power-hungry high school administrators is over already; the creators chose to bow out of the party before overstaying their welcome (which, for the record, is probably not the choice its protagonists would make at a party). But before it ended, it gave us "Spring Break," a 32-minute episode in which Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walter Goggins) go on a spring break trip to the beach with Gamby's young teenage daughter and two of her friends. It plays out like a miniature version of the classic no-rules spring break story, complete with cocaine, Hawaiian T-shirts, and moments of temporary mental clarity, but it ends with betrayal and the threat of revenge. For a show with almost zero likable characters, Vice Principals is pretty good at making it hard to stop watching. —Lizzie Plaugic

Image: Netflix

BoJack Horseman, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t”

BoJack Horseman has so often and so accurately depicted depression that it's almost a cliché to make this a point of praise. But even after four seasons, the show's creators continue to find new ways to talk about one of the most common, most crippling mental illnesses. In the sixth episode of season 4, viewers are subjected to a running monologue in BoJack's head, a mantra that always circles back to him calling himself a "stupid piece of shit." But though BoJack can recognize his own self-hatred and the ridiculousness of it all, he still succumbs to his worst urges. It's a petty, ugly cycle: he hates himself, he lashes out, he screws up, he hates himself even more. He pushes people away, but also dreads what they’ll think of him once he's left. It’s a relief to see these familiar struggles spelled out with a specificity that’s sometimes painful to personally articulate. But the episode is also a handbook on how to better understand the struggles of people we love, and it’s offered up with a rare combination of humor and empathy. —Megan Farokhmanesh

Image: PBS

The Vietnam War, “Déjà Vu (1858-1961)”

At the end of the summer, I rewatched all of Ken Burns’ fantastic documentary The Civil War. I was getting excited for his new series, The Vietnam War, which aired on PBS in September. Like The Civil War, The Vietnam War looks at the convoluted, complicated ways in which the conflict unfolded. The documentary debut episode, “Déjà Vu,” opens with the question “What happened?” and uses the rest of the episode to present almost a century of history that helped set the stage for the war, and the way the US was dragged into it. I keep thinking about one moment: in the first couple of minutes of the episode, Burns rewinds the story. Set to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ song “A Familiar Taste” (from The Social Network soundtrack), the entire war unfolds in reverse. Tanks roll backward, explosions implode, victims come back to life — and it’s all interspersed with quotes from US officials proclaiming that the US is prevailing against the North Vietnamese Army. It’s a powerful scene that sets up an incredible series. —Andrew Liptak

Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Bridge”

The Handmaid’s Tale’s entire first season is a solid, Emmy-winning, Emmy-deserving experience. Director Reed Morano won a directing Emmy for the pilot, and in the middle episodes, Elisabeth Moss’ Offred descends into an increasingly nightmarish scenario, where flashbacks, the present, and the looming future are all filled with terror. Offred has lost her name, her identity, control of her body, and her family. She’s constantly shamed and sexually policed. But what hasn’t been taken from her is a kind of grit that withstands the attempts of an overt patriarchy and savagely fundamentalist society to subdue her. That’s the message at the heart of “The Bridge,” my favorite episode of the emotionally poignant series. The catchphrase “Praised be, bitch,” isn’t even written dialogue, but it so encapsulates why the patriarchy can’t get us down. Although the odds are stacked against them, Offred, Moira, and others just might make it out alive with a brilliant combination of bravery, selflessness, and angry swearing. This is the empowering message to remember. —Shannon Liao

Showtime

Twin Peaks: The Return, “Part 8”

Twin Peaks: The Return is an extended exercise in keeping viewers hooked while denying their most basic narrative desires. Initially, the show’s eighth episode promised some kind of satisfaction. Special Agent Dale Cooper's evil doppelgänger — a sadistic inversion of everything fans loved about the character — got a karmic comeuppance, shot by one of his underlings. It felt like the end of a truly loathsome villain, and implicitly, a chance for the real but catatonic Cooper to finally wake up. Instead, the episode jumps back more than half a century to the first atomic bomb test, heralding one of the year's weirdest half-hours of television. Moments of recognizable Twin Peaks lore punctuate a tale about the cyclical battle between good and evil, set in a 1950s New Mexico town invaded by mysterious woodsmen. It’s an eerie, compelling short film in its own right, but also a reminder of the show's cosmic stakes — and its ability to offer things we didn't know we wanted. —Adi Robertson

Robert Voets / The CW

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy”

Calling women “crazy” (rather than complicated, challenging, or human) is a lazy cultural shorthand I don’t enjoy, so the the title of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend initially put me off. But when I finally gave the CW musical / romantic comedy a try, I found a hilarious, razor-sharp show with a protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), who is sometimes manic in her pursuit of love, but always relatable. What I didn’t see coming was the third season tailspin into Rebecca’s very real mental illness, which culminates in a breakdown and suicide attempt that’s dealt with realistically, sensitively, and, yes, through music. In Rebecca’s lowest moment, Josh Groban appears to narrates her breakdown in a revelatory song called “The End of the Movie.” As her life falls apart, the swelling ballad indicts her for acting like the main character of a story, and reminds her that the messiness of real life bears little resemblance to scripted drama — including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend itself. Rather than a happy ending, Rebecca (and the audience) are faced with a more painful but important reality: “[Life] is not some carefully crafted story,” Groban croons. “It’s a mess and we’re all gonna die… Life doesn’t make narrative sense.” —Laura Hudson

Image: HBO

Game of Thrones, “Beyond the Wall”

Game of Thrones’ seventh season largely boils down to the showrunners embracing overindulgence. After years of careful plotting, political maneuvering, and setup, it seems like all hell has broken loose in Westeros, and nothing is off the table. No episode better exemplifies that than “Beyond the Wall,” where Jon Snow and his band of merry men venture, um, beyond the Wall in an extremely ill-advised plan to capture a wight. A huge percentage of this episode makes no sense: the awkward Sansa / Arya drama to set up the Littlefinger reveal in the finale, Gendry's apparent world-class sprinting, the outright ignoring of anything resembling a reasonable time scale. (There's also the random fight with a giant zombie polar bear out of nowhere!) But none of that matters. Because just when all hope seems lost, and Jon Snow is about to be eaten by ice zombies, Daenerys swoops in with her dragons, triumphant music blaring, guns blazing to incinerate the host of wights and save the day. Game of Thrones has been setting up this payoff for seven years, all the way back to the scenes that bookend the show’s first season (plus the series’s title, "A Song of Ice and Fire"). After Qyburn’s ballista proves utterly useless, this episode raises the stakes by showing an actual threat to the seemingly invincible dragons, which is just icing on the cake. The first half of the episode highlights all Game of Thrones’ flaws, but the second half reminds us all why we tune in to this often insane show. —Chaim Gartenberg