Samuel Brace on the two greatest TV episodes of all time…
There have been many great and iconic series throughout the history of television. These classic shows have brought us some truly memorable episodes that have become the standard-bearers for the entire medium. There are episodes so exquisitely crafted, so gloriously designed, that they have been able to elicit a power of feeling that can match the best the big screen has to offer. But what are the BEST episodes in history? Which episodes rise above all others? Now, we are not talking favourites here, we are not speaking in subjective terms. This place is only for the undeniable, and there are many classics of this nature, many objective greats, but there are only two that stand tall as kings among men.
Two Cathedrals (The West Wing)
Aaron Sorkin’s landmark, hall of fame political series, is chock full of brilliantly written, smart, thoughtful drama. The fast talking, hall walking, pratfalling masterpiece, is among TV’s very best. There was something in Jed Bartlet’s White House for everyone, regardless of your love for politics. But the season two finale is the irrefutable classic of the series. ‘Two Cathedrals’ is THE West Wing episode. It has no rival, which is really saying something. The accumulation of an entire season of build up, this season ender was the apex of the fictional President’s MS scandal, the will he/won’t he of the all important re-election question that plagued the good men and women of his West Wing.
The episode kicked off with the funeral of Bartlet’s long time friend and secretary, fuelling his anger and despair at the justice his god deemed appropriate for him and his loved ones. The scene where Martin Sheen prowled the cathedral floor, ranting in Latin at his silent lord was visceral; no easy feat considering the lack of subtitles, everything we needed to know was conveyed with infliction, circumstance and with Sheen’s physicality. The loss of someone so dear was, for the President, the horse that broke the camel’s back. Running for a second term seemed to be a fight too many for the weary former New Hampshire Governor.
Towards the episodes end, sitting alone in the Oval Office, waiting to announce his decision at a press conference, the conflict within him was palpable. Haunted by the memories of his old friend, the woman that had always kept him in check, he finally made a decision — one he didn’t vocalise to us however. Stepping out into the rain, with Dire Straits ‘Brothers in Arms’ (a genius choice) scoring this most crucial of moments, he and his staff journeyed together, as a family, to the room of reporters awaiting them. The music swelling, and our hairs rising, Bartlet stepped on stage with the world watching. And without saying a word, with nothing but a smirk and an iconic stance, he signalled his intention to run again. Good god was it great TV.
It might not seem much on paper, I admit I’ve not done it the slightest justice, but everything about this episode was great. ‘Two Cathedrals’ was great, great, GREAT. And when I say great, I mean great. Not great in the way it is often misused. Not great as in good, fine, or excellent. But great as in the way it was always meant to be used. Great as in unequivocally flawless, as in objectively immaculate, as in premium. If ever television was indeed great, this was the episode. And whether you think Sorkin is an annoying liberal panderer or god’s gift to screenwriting (he’s a little of both), you can’t shrug your shoulders at what the man achieved here. ‘Two Cathedrals’ was the man at his peak, it was The West Wing at it’s very best, and signalled the show’s arrival into the pantheon of TV glory.
Ozymandias (Breaking Bad)
Breaking Bad is the greatest show of all time. You may like others more, you may have other shows that you enjoy above it (nothing wrong with that), but Breaking Bad is the best. It’s perfect in its design. It’s flawless in both its vision and execution. ‘Ozymandias’, one of the final episodes of Bad’s last season (probably the greatest season of television ever), is the only other choice to sit alongside ‘Two Cathedrals’ as the all time greatest individual TV episodes.
A lot of Breaking Bad‘s episodes, when reflecting, kind of roll into one, they merge with each other. Because the show is so serialised in nature, it becomes just one continuous story that had to be broken up week after week, events flowing into each other seamlessly. This means we tend to think of Breaking Bad by its iconic moments and not necessarily by its episodes. ‘Ozymandias’ however, stands out despite of this. The episode arrived at a crucial time in the story and when Bad was at the peak of both its powers and popularity. It was lightning in a bottle amidst the most brilliant storm of episodic storytelling the world has ever seen.
In ‘Ozymandias’, the series protagonist Walt is coming towards the end of everything he knows, the jig is up for him, shit has hit the fan like never before and the story has never been more intense. With his brother and law/close friend Hank murdered in the desert, and Jesse taken hostage, Walt is forced to go on the run after an incredibly frightening altercation with his horrified wife and son. In his absolute desperation to cling to what little family he has left, Walt flees with his baby daughter, escalating events that have no need of escalation. It’s pure exhilaration. Its heart pounding. It’s perfect.
Finally coming to his senses, he sends his daughter home to her mother, at the same time clearing Skylar of any guilt regarding his criminal activities. The episode then ends with Walt arranging for himself to disappear forever. It’s truly remarkable television, and yes it’s made all the more so by what has come before, by everything that has informed it, but ‘Ozymandias’ is perfection in its own right. If you watched this episode in isolation, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact, but it would be impossible to deny the greatness of craft, of pacing, of writing and performance on display. ‘Ozymandias’ is an advert for everything that the medium can be, the perfect episode arriving at the perfect time. Hearts have never raced quicker, jaws have never dropped further, drama and tension has never permeated deeper. This is THE episode everyone. This is television.
Band of Brothers: ‘The Breaking Point’, Rome: ‘Kalends of February’, True Detective: ‘Form and Void’, Game of Thrones: ‘The Rains of Castamere’, Hannibal: ‘Mizumono’, Lost: ‘Pilot’, The Leftovers: ‘International Assassin’.