The episodes on this list — which encompasses everything from “Breaking Bad” to “The X Factor” — represent Zap2it‘s favorite dramatic episodes of 2011. Tell us yours in the comments.
“The Vampire Diaries” – “Klaus”: It took the better part of Season 2 to meet the ultimate bad guy threatening our favorite Mystic Falls residents, but it was so worth the wait. In “Klaus,” we finally met the evil half-vampire, half-werewolf hybrid played by sexy Brit Joseph Morgan. And since the introduction happened via flashback, there was plenty of long, luxurious medieval hair to go around. Plus: Clueless Aunt Jenna finally (FINALLY) found out about the vampires in her midst. Although it wasn’t as sensational as some of the series’ other episodes, “Klaus” was supremely satisfying and set plenty of wheels in motion for future shenanigans.
“Terra Nova” – “Genesis”: So, the later episodes of FOX’s dino-drama weren’t that great. But the pilot introduced us to a thrilling, fascinating world set between an environmentally devastated future Earth and a lush, prehistoric past in an alternate timeline. “Terra Nova” looked more like a movie than a prime-time TV series — if only the story had lived up to the promise of this epic two-hour premiere.
“Breaking Bad” – “Salud”: I’ll probably always think twice about drinking special reserve tequila after watching this episode. At this point in Season 4, viewers understood Gustavo Fring to be a brilliant, callous and cruel meth kingpin, as well as a clear threat to Walter White and his family. And while the audience is of course on Team Walt, the moment in “Salud” when Gus exacts his revenge south of the border on Don Eladio was unbelievably shocking, cathartic, and a legendary “Breaking Bad” scene. Between the mass poisoning of the cartel, Walt’s emotional, borderline breakdown into his “remember your father” talk with Walter Jr., and Skyler’s predicament with Ted and the IRS, the suspense in “Salud” was outrageously thick. This episode is a perfect demonstration of why the series is so well-received: It leaves viewers thrilled, shaken and constantly taken to where they’d least expect.
“Boardwalk Empire” – “Georgia Peaches”: The final three episodes from “Boardwalk Empire”‘s second season were densely packed with horrifying jaw-droppers, and the conclusion to the “Georgia Peaches” episode led that journey into the dark. It’s important for a series focused on organized crime and corruption to be blunt about the risks and unromantic nature of that world, even if it breaks the audience’s heart now and then. Viewers sensed a storm on the horizon, with Margaret siphoning Nucky’s money into the church, and race tension (and tension between Jimmy and … nearly everybody) escalating. But Angela’s murder was a bold move. Reminiscent of Adriana’s murder in “The Sopranos” before it, “Boardwalk Empire’s” writers ripped the naive Angela from our screens while she sobbed on the ground. It was upsetting, but it also marked a bold point of no return for the show — the unexpected death of a major character — and ultimately made the Oedipally-charged murder spree and downfall of Jimmy Darmody in the following episodes somewhat easier to stomach.
“The Nine Lives of Chloe King” – “Beautiful Day”: I know I need to give up the ghost when it comes to this show. It’s not coming back, no matter how often I bring it up in conversation. And the fact that there won’t be a second season makes the one and only season’s finale an even better episode. Bodies — important character bodies — were dropping right and left, multiple betrayals played out and a “hey, I’m your evil brother” was revealed. If the show had been picked up, the inevitable back-tracking and convenient loopholes would undoubtedly have spoiled a solid, surprising hour of television. This way, it remains perfect.
“Doctor Who” – “The Doctor’s Wife”: This phenomenal episode was written by genre icon Neil Gaiman and actually made me tear up. In this chapter of the Doctor’s travels through time and space, we get to see the TARDIS as a woman named Idris. The role was beautifully played by Suranne Jones, who brought a feeling of deep age and abiding love that one would have expected of the vehicle that’s been with the Doctor for all these years. We learn that she and the Doctor chose each other hundreds of years ago. The TARDIS has always been an integral part of the show and a character of its (her) own, and when Idris says she’ll never be able to speak to the Doctor again, it’s heartbreaking. Gaiman’s brilliant writing and quirky sentimentality showed us that, though he marries River Song, his real wife is truly the TARDIS.
“True Blood” – “I’m Alive and On Fire”: Naked Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard)? Oh god, yes! Eric drinks “the whole fairy” and gets adorably drunk on her blood. Drunk Eric was my absolute highlight of the season, showing a completely different side of the normally stoic and violent vampire. He giggled! The scene in the lake, in the sun, took my breath away. I mean, there was almost full frontal. Ahem. Taking a cold shower now.
“Game of Thrones” – “A Golden Crown”: This one was written by one of my favorite writers of all time, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” alum and “Once Upon a Time” writer/producer Jane Espenson, along with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) has been harassing his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) for too long and her very, very sexy husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) has had enough. He gives Viserys the golden crown he was looking for, but it’s made of molten metal. Ouch! The death in “Baelor” might have been the most surprising, but this was the best kill I’ve seen on TV. It was so well written that I actually felt sorry for the creep.
“The X Factor” – “Week 7″: This episode featured the best and worst of reality TV. It offered ex
ceptional performances from each of the five remaining contestants — Melanie Amaro, Josh Krajcik, Chris Rene, Marcus Canty and Rachel Crow. But what made it legendary was how it ended. Judge Nicole Scherzinger had a chance to save Rachel but punted on the responsibility, sending it to deadlock between Crow and Canty. Scherzinger assumed Crow would win the popular vote and therefore could blame Canty’s dismissal on the viewing public. But it turned out that Canty had the higher number of votes, Crow was out and the 13-year-old crumpled to the floor in a bawling heap. Scherzinger was booed heartily and a moment of television history was born.
“Pan Am” – “Truth or Dare”: This is the episode the rest of the series should aspire to be like. With the too-brief relationship between Laura (Margot Robbie) and Joe (Gaius Charles), the period drama explored interracial dating in pre-Civil Rights Act America in a tender and honest way. It also delivered on the Kate’s (Kelli Garner) spy storyline by featuring a twist related to turning her Yugoslavian boyfriend, Nico Lanza (Goran Visnjic), into a double agent. While I’ve been hard on “Pan Am” for bland, go-nowhere episodes, this one showed the promise of what it could be.
“Gossip Girl” – “Rhodes to Perdition”: The secret of Charlie/Ivy’s (Kaylee DeFer) past was a mess waiting to be unraveled. But when her secret emerged, how would she convince the rest of the Upper East Siders that she’s not just pulling the Vicuna wool over their eyes? It started off when her ex-BF Max comes into town and attempts to blackmail her. When C/I can’t meet his demands, Max decides he’s going to spill everything he knows of her past. But using Jedi mind trick, C/I is able to convince the van der Woodsens that Max is a pathological liar and she’s the real deal. Awesome fun.
“Homeland” – “Marine One”: I sure hope everyone reading has finished watching season 1 of Showtime’s terror-drama because I’m so about to spoil it. The finale made about a gazillion twists and turns, but still came off as totally plausible. Claire Danes plays crazy beautiful and my heart totally broke when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) — friend, boss, mentor — tried to have her contained. I still can work up a chill when I think of her “Brody and Walker are Marine One and Marine Two” revelation. And that Damian Lewis — fuggedaboutit. I’m still not sure where the guy is headed with this character and that has me totally on-board for a second season.
“The Real Housewives of New Jersey” – “In the Name of the Father”: Most reality shows save the big fight scenes for the finale. Not so for “RHONJ,” which came out of the gates with a Season 3 opener that featured fisticuffs between Teresa Guidice’s husband Joe (aka “Juicy Joe”) and her brother, Joe Gorga. Did I mention this took place at the reception for Gorga’s son’s christening? It set the bar high (low?) and the melodrama held steady at that level throughout the season.
“The Vampire Diaries” – “The Reckoning”: If I was trying to convince a friend to give “The Vampire Diaries” a chance, I’d make him watch “The Reckoning.” Written by the consistently phenomenal Michael Narducci, the episode exemplified “TVD’s” unparalleled ability to walk the line where surface suspense meets emotional consequence — all without forgetting that the characters in peril are teenagers. It was a major turning point for Stefan (Paul Wesley), who displayed that the powers of his humanity are just as strong, if not stronger, than the powers he has as a vampire … just before Klaus (Joseph Morgan) snapped and locked that humanity down. Wesley’s powerful performance created the foundation for Stefan’s story this season. Meanwhile, we found Matt (Zach Roerig) in a moment where his vulnerability, loneliness, and desperation collided in a fit of reckless bravery as he, for all intents and purposes, committed suicide to save the very friends who made him feel isolated in the first place. Of course, this was also the episode where Tyler (Michael Trevino) was turned into Klaus’ first hybrid, which will have dire consequences as the season progresses.
“Supernatural” – “The Man Who Would Be King”: Castiel (Misha Collins) was shrouded in mystery for the majority of Season 6. As an audience, we understood this, as he was busy fighting a civil war in Heaven, and we’re not so deluded to think that the show has the kind of special effects budget that a satisfyingly epic Heavenly battle would require. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” though, the man behind the curtain revealed himself. We were finally privy to Castiel’s origin story, to the life he led before he met Dean Winchester, and, of course, to the fact that while we’d been distracted by the Mother of All, Castiel himself was, inadvertently, becoming the true “big bad” of the season. While heartbreaking to many fans of Castiel, I thought the move was a brave and unexpected one, particularly for a show that has become relatively formulaic in the trajectories of its season-long arcs. It brilliantly serviced the underlying themes of the series and, just as the audience was becoming complacent given the impermanence of death on the show, it raised the stakes for the viewers and the characters. It may not have been particularly pleasant to learn that Castiel was behind so much of the Winchesters’ suffering — but that’s the whole point of a “twist,” right?
“Friday Night Lights” – “Always”: Unlike my colleague Rick Porter (see below), I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the “Friday Night Lights” finale multiple times. I’m still a bit verklempt that it’s ended at all. Despite my single, blurred-by-tears viewing, the episode resonated beautifully — particularly because it not only told us where our favorites were headed, but reminded us where they’d been. Matt’s (Zach Gilford) awkward Alamo Freeze proposal to Julie (Aimee Teegarden) perfectly echoed the fumbling, stuttering start of their relationship. The chance to catch up with Tyra (Adrienne Palicki) was a bit of a relief after almost two years without a mention. Coach and Mrs. Coach were perfection as always — there was never any question that they’d get a happily ever after, regardless of whether that happily ever after was in Texas. The final “Texas forever” from Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is what really got me, though. It’s hard to review this episode with any kind of eloquence or objectivity. Basically, the writing was perfect, the performances were perfect, Kyle Chandler was perfect, the whole show is perfect. Even the murder thing from Season 2. I don’t care what you say.
“Revenge” – “Pilot”: Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) has been called the female Dexter, and it’s a perfect descriptor, in that she’s a sociopath with an obsessive, relentless need for vengeance, but I like her anyway. Watching the first episode of “Revenge” was like drinking expensive wine and eating dark chocolate and turning o
ff your cell phone — so wrong, but so, so right. The wrong part, I suppose, is the soapiness: the sheer ridiculous impossibility of Emily Thorne’s presence in the Hamptons at all. (Billionaire ex-juvie delinquent with a memory like a steel trap, trained by a revenge sensei … with time to shop Tory Burch and Emilio Pucci until she drops. Come on now.) The right part is that despite the suspension of disbelief, we believe the characters and their motivations. I fell in love with both Daniel (Joshua Bowman) and Jack (Nick Wechsler) within the span of 42 minutes, and despite her very expensive brand of crazy, I girl-crushed Emily, too.
“Parenthood” – “In-Between”: I will admit to a certain amount of bias for this one in that I love, love, love John Corbett. (I was one of like 12 people who preferred Aiden to Mr. Big, okay?) This was his last appearance on “Parenthood” for the time being, and it was brilliant — but not because of him. His story had focused on Seth’s rehab and recovery, and the way that his sudden clarity of mind forced Sarah (Lauren Graham) to reconsider him as a potential partner despite her relationship with Mark (Jason Ritter). The love triangle played out well — the audience understood her conflict and got caught up in the idea that there’s a certain allure to the idea that her painful past with Seth could somehow be fixed. The thing that made this episode one of the greatest, though, was Amber, looking in on her mother’s love triangle from the outside. Mae Whitman is arguably the most underrated actress on television right now, and her portrayal of Amber’s very abrupt, very grown-up understanding of her mother’s weaknesses was dead-on. At the end of the episode, her father left her a stack of birthday cards — one for every birthday he’d missed — with notes about what he remembered from those various years of her life. I cried so much I got the hiccups.
“Friday Night Lights” – “Always”: The best portrayal of a marriage on TV in ages ended with an episode that both tested and reinforced the bond between Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton). The finale gave us one more improbably exciting high-school football game, fitting, touching grace notes for any number of characters and that final, beautiful scene of Coach and Mrs. Coach walking off a darkened field. I’ve watched it twice, and both times ended in happy tears.
“Breaking Bad” – “Box Cutter”: Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” ended with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) turning fully to the dark side, but it began with him in mortal fear for his life at the hands of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). There were long stretches of “Box Cutter” that were so intense it was almost hard to breathe while watching — none moreso than the sequence in which Gus silently, ruthlessly slits the throat of his right-hand man Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui). Mesmerizing.
“Justified” – “Bloody Harlan”: The second season of “Justified” came to an explosive head in the finale, as the Crowder/Bennett war climaxed and left several bodies on its wake. Dickie shooting Ava, Raylan saving Loretta, Mags killing herself — it was an extremely satisfying ending to the season.
“Homeland” – “The Weekend”: The entire first season of “Homeland” could be on the list, but my personal favorite was the weekend Carrie and Brody spent together. It advanced their relationship so beautifully, then collapsed it in one tension-filled stroke. The table conversation is, for me, the strongest scene of the entire series, and that is saying a lot.
“American Horror Story” – “Halloween Parts I and II”: It’s hard to separate the two-parter, so I’m putting them together. Between Dr. Montgomery’s chop shop, the horrifying Tate revelation, the fainting nurse, Addie’s death and Hayden’s reappearance after her demise, plus the first of guest-star Zachary Quinto‘s many appearances, the Halloween episodes of “American Horror Story” more than lived up to the creepy holiday they sandwiched and eclipsed any other episodes for sheer volume of action.