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The best TV episodes of 2015: from Walking Dead to Game of Thrones

40 terrific installments that made the year such a great one for television.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even in our era of streaming television and binge-watching, there's still something wonderful about a single episode that packs a punch. A half-hour or hour that proves pivotal for a show, or that just reminds us why we love spending time with its characters, is so important to the health of a TV series. It's one of the things that keeps us TV fans.

So here are 40 episodes from 2015 that I absolutely adored. Whenever possible, I skewed in favor of standalone installments that will be accessible to people who are interested in getting a taste of a show they've never watched before. (As such, I had to cut some of my favorites. Sorry, Hannibal finale! Sorry, Mr. Robot episode with That Big Reveal! Sorry, basically every show on The CW!) Certainly, almost all of these will have greater impact if you've seen the whole show — but almost all of them should also be fairly accessible if you haven't.

I haven't ranked them, because I'm fairly certain I've forgotten some episodes I deeply, truly loved. If you require rankings, just know that You're the Worst's "LCD Soundsystem" was in the top spot from the moment I saw it. You're welcome.

Person of Interest, "If-Then-Else" (Jan. 6)

Somewhere in its third season, Person of Interest sneakily became a series about artificial intelligences supplanting humanity, and in season four (which concluded in 2015), it brought that idea to the forefront. This episode, told from the point of view of a massively intelligent supercomputer, was one of the finest sci-fi hours of the year.

Parks and Recreation, "Leslie and Ron" (Jan. 20)

The final season of Parks and Recreation was a beautiful swan song offering a warm goodbye from some of the best sitcom characters of the past decade. It peaked early with this episode, its fourth, in which sunny optimist Leslie Knope and grouchy Ron Swanson get locked in the office overnight and explore the shattered remnants of their friendship. Moving stuff.

Scandal, "Run" (Jan. 29)

Olivia Pope in the middle of an action movie? That shouldn't work. And yet as she tries to escape her kidnappers in "Run," the show that routinely captures the title of TV's Most Convoluted Series gets down to basics and has one of its strongest hours.

Broad City, "Knockoffs" (Feb. 4)

Broad City is one of TV's most sex-positive shows, with every episode offering the argument that there's nothing sexier (or funnier) than a woman who's in charge of her own sexual destiny. This episode takes that idea to a new level entirely — for both the show and TV as a whole — as Abbi and her boyfriend try something new in their relationship.

Girls, "Sit-In" (Feb. 15)

The fourth season of Girls was perhaps the series' best since its first, moving Hannah all the way to Iowa for grad school — and then sending her right back to New York, where she finds that everything is different. In this episode, she protests one of the biggest changes — her boyfriend finding a new girlfriend — by refusing to leave his apartment (once her apartment).

Togetherness, "Kick the Can" (Feb. 15)

HBO has a weird habit of clustering great episodes of its comedies on the same evening, so it was only appropriate that the great Girls episode mentioned above was followed by the finest half-hour of Togetherness's first season. At the center of this series is Melanie Lynskey's brilliant, wounded performance as bored wife Michelle. In this episode, she earns a minor victory — but one that feels huge in the context of the show.

The Last Man on Earth, "Alive in Tucson" (March 1)

Now in its second season, The Last Man on Earth has been hit-or-miss (though the hits are strong enough to keep me watching). However, its spare, empty pilot, filled with sight gags, is one of the most inventive comedy premieres I've ever seen.

Looking, "Looking for a Plot" (March 1)

HBO could never figure out how to attract viewers to this modest dramedy about gay men living in San Francisco, despite the fact that it aired some terrific episodes that almost work as short films. This one is centered on the funeral of the father of supporting character Doris, which takes several of the characters to Modesto to ruminate on life and mortality.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "The Gang Goes on Family Fight" (March 4)

If you know anything about this show — literally anything at all — I don't have to tell you anything more than "the characters go on a Family Feud–style game show" to get you interested. Go. Watch it. Now.

The Americans, "Stingers" (April 1)

There are reveals, and then there are reveals. The Americans has always been building to the moment when Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — undercover Soviet spies living in the US in the early '80s — have to show their true face to somebody else. They finally do in this episode, in a scene that hits far closer to home than they might have liked.

Bates Motel, "The Last Supper" (April 20)

I love this absolutely nutty reimagining of Psycho's Norman Bates as the "hero" of a small-town teen soap, and season three was the show's finest yet. This episode puts a bunch of people up in a room together for the titular event, then watches as the emotional chaos steadily spirals further and further out of control.

Louie, "Cop Story" (April 23)

Louie has always been based on a principle of radical empathy, on the idea that anyone we meet is another human being just like us — bruised and broken, maybe, but also filled with passions and hopes. In this episode, creator Louis C.K. extends that idea to the kind of angry loudmouth cop who's been making headlines lately, something that could have felt provocative but instead felt sad and a little bittersweet. In other words, perfect. (The above clip isn't from this episode — though it is from this season — but is too good not to watch.)

Mad Men, "Time & Life" (April 26)

The first three installments of Mad Men's seven-episode final run were grumbled over. The last three were unanimously praised. This fourth episode, then, was the season's linchpin, falling dead center and providing the pivot from the existential crisis of the first three to the absolute panic of the final three. As a bonus, it's a neat reversal of the show's season three finale, one of its finest hours.

Inside Amy Schumer, "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" (May 5)

Perhaps the most discussed TV episode of the year, "12 Angry Men" more than lives up to the hype. A parody of the movie of the same name, the episode follows the titular men as they argue, passionately, about whether Schumer is hot enough to be on TV. It's funny, yes, but it's also a pitch-perfect riff on the film, which makes it even better.

Community, "Wedding Videography" (May 26)

Community is always at its best when it acknowledges that the characters at its center are just a little bit antisocial, and this half-hour was the best example of such an acknowledgment from the series' sadly underseen, seemingly final sixth season. The characters go to a wedding where they're tasked with making a video to document the happy day, but rather than record the details of the event, they end up making it all about themselves. Of course.

Game of Thrones, "Hardhome" (May 31)

It's hard to separate any single Game of Thrones episode from the season as a whole, and this one's first half-hour is full of politicking you may not enjoy if you've never watched before. But the second half-hour is full of battles with ice zombies. And everybody likes that, right?

Veep, "Testimony" (June 7)

I may never be on the right wavelength with Veep, a show other people absolutely love that I just can't click with. But individual episodes often make me roar with laughter, including this one, which sends the characters before an investigative committee to explain their role in a data breach. It's not just stupid funny — it's formally inventive as well.

Orange Is the New Black, "Trust No Bitch" (June 11)

The season three finale of Orange Is the New Black had it all — big laughs, hugely moving moments, and even a cliffhanger or two. But the episode's closing passages, which depicted the women of Litchfield prison at their most uninhibited and unfettered, pushed it into another realm entirely. They were the show in a nutshell: beautiful abandon, cloaked in heartbreak.

Silicon Valley, "Two Days of the Condor" (June 14)

Silicon Valley's season two finale is everything I love about the series, including the way its plotting often plays more like a serialized drama than anything else, while still leaving room for ridiculousness. The episode also neatly encompasses the way the show buries huge failures inside of what seem like massive triumphs, as the guys get a big win, only to find the big loss lurking within it.

Catastrophe, "Episode 4" (June 19)

The sneakiest thing about this show is the way it can shift into a deeply serious consideration of what it means to become a parent later in life than most other people become parents. This episode marks the height of that approach, with a storyline that could feel sappy but instead feels incredibly true.

Halt and Catch Fire, "10Broad36" (July 5)

Kerry Bishé has always been Halt and Catch Fire's not-so-secret weapon. Her character, Donna, began the series seeming like just another cable drama wife — constantly picking on her husband to keep him from doing anything fun — but has gradually revealed herself to be the series' soul, especially as she's pursued her own ambitions. This episode, centered on her, was season two's peak.

BoJack Horseman, "Escape From L.A." (July 17)

The titular horse leaves LA to look up an old friend in New Mexico — only to find she's built a fine, happy life there with a husband and children. What happens next is at turns mortifying, horrifying, and deeply sad, but it stands in for what this show does so well: hilariously depict characters who find ways of making their pain lash out at others.

Rectify, "The Source" (Aug. 13)

This deeply felt Southern gothic takes its time, which makes its emotional highpoints that much more moving. In this episode, the season three finale, the series' main character — who spent much of his life in prison for a crime he may not have committed — takes a terrible deal to remain a free man. It's a gut punch.

Rick and Morty, "Total Rickall" (Aug. 16)

I've called Rick and Morty TV's most inventive show dozens of times now, but there's simply no other way to describe an episode in which Family Guy–style cutaway gags — you know, when one character says, "Remember that time when..." followed by a flashback — become literal monsters that try to destroy everything. It must be seen to be believed.

The Carmichael Show, "Prayer" (Sept. 9)

This immensely promising new comedy centered its best episode on a frank discussion of religion between parents who believe in it and kids who have drifted away from it. I don't know that I've had a bigger laugh this year than in Loretta Devine's delivery of, "You know, Joe used to be a pilot." (You'll understand when you see it.)

Married, "Guardians" (Sept. 10)

FX canceled this low-key dramedy for the simple reason that nobody watched it. And what a shame, because Married was capable of some immensely affecting moments and episodes, including this one, in which two friends of the couple at the show's center break up. The breakup isn't rooted in anger — it's rooted in exhaustion, and all the more real for it.

Review, "Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination" (Sept. 17)

Okay, I really don't know that I've had a bigger laugh this year than in the moment when Forrest, the series' central character and "life reviewer," realizes what he's going to have to do for his final segment.

Black-ish, "The Word" (Sept. 23)

It's not easy to turn a topic as potentially volatile as the so-called "n-word" into comedy, but Black-ish figured out a way to do just that, in an episode that gently satirizes and makes fun of all of our cultural conversations on the topic. Plus, there are adorable children rapping. What more could you ask for?

Fresh Off the Boat, "Boy II Man" (Sept. 29)

Now in its second season, Fresh Off the Boat is currently on one of the biggest rolls a comedy has been on in recent years, without a dud episode in the bunch. The best of them in 2015 was this one, which captures everything the show does well — from '90s nostalgia to stories about feeling like an outsider in majority-white America to terrific jokes. It even ends with a family sing-along.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "4,722 Hours" (Oct. 27)

As it has aged, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has loosened up a little more with its storytelling. Nowhere has that been more evident than in this episode, which is effectively a two-character piece about what happened to one of the show's regulars when she found herself stranded on an alien planet for, well, look at the episode's title.

The Walking Dead, "Here's Not Here" (Nov. 1)

The zombie drama's sixth season has suffered its fair share of problems so far, but none of them came to light in this peerless episode, one of the finest the series has ever produced. An hour-long flashback to how Morgan went from being a shattered wreck of himself to having a strong, Zen-like sense of calm, "Here's Not Here" is beautiful, intricately observed character storytelling.

You're the Worst, "LCD Soundsystem" (Nov. 4)

This episode is so good, and yet it doesn't even seem like an episode of You're the Worst for a good chunk of its running time. It starts out by following a married couple we've never seen before, two people who are completely separate from the show's regular set of characters, and eventually becomes a rumination on how simply changing the circumstances of your life won't make you feel more fulfilled. It's impossible to "get better" by just fixing a few cosmetic things. The end of this one, the best episode of 2015, is devastating.

Mom, "Terrorists and Gingerbread" (Nov. 5)

Those who doubt that the "filmed before a live studio audience" sitcom can manage moments of real depth should check out the closing passages of this episode, which features Allison Janney's character, Bonnie, wrestling with the legacy of a mother who seemingly never wanted her — but now wants to be back in her daughter's life.

Master of None, "Mornings" (Nov. 6)

A sly, sweet, sad romantic comedy, all in one half-hour, "Mornings" traces a relationship over the course of a year. And while its running time is short, it has tons to say about love, life, and the way we take others for granted. What's even more impressive is that it never leaves the main character's apartment — and rarely leaves his bedroom.

Nathan for You, "Smokers Allowed" (Nov. 12)

Every episode of Nathan for You contains audacious conceptual stunts. But this one may be his best, as he conspires to find a way for a California bar to allow smoking again — then realizes that smoking is allowed as part of live, theatrical performances. By turning the bar into a stage show, he just might have his answer. And that's just the beginning.

The Leftovers, "International Assassin" (Nov. 22)

The Leftovers never took half measures when it could take double or even triple measures. Consider this episode, which follows main character Kevin Garvey — seemingly deceased — into an afterlife that consists of a hotel filled with others in similar predicaments. Sure, The Sopranos did something similar. But did The Sopranos turn its version into a spy thriller? No.

Doctor Who, "Heaven Sent" (Nov. 28)

Peter Capaldi may be the single best actor to have ever played the Doctor, the near-immortal time-traveling alien at the center of this show. And this episode is a showcase for everything he does well. Stranded in a fairy-tale castle, stalked by a monster from his nightmares, the Doctor must find a way out. And it just might take him billions of years.

Fargo, "Loplop" (Nov. 30)

Fargo's running times — which often drift well past the hour mark once commercials are added in — could seem a little excessive, but this episode shows why they're so necessary. At first long and languorous, "Loplop" gradually tightens its screws, as it traps a seemingly normal married couple in a cabin with a dangerous criminal — it's just that they're holding him hostage.

Transparent, "Man on the Land" (Dec. 11)

The stunning emotional climax of 2015's best TV show features an audacious sequence that allows several time periods to bleed together and presents the characters at their best and worst. And the episode up until that point is terrific, too, as Maura, the trans woman at the show's center, unknowingly goes to a music festival where trans women aren't allowed.

Manhattan, "Jupiter" (Dec. 15)

Though it's entirely the calendar's fault that this episode is last on my list, it's only appropriate to close said list — and this year — with the detonation of an atomic bomb. In its season two finale, Manhattan raised the stakes so high that only a mushroom cloud could top them — and then there was one, billowing out on the horizon, equal parts majesty and dread.

Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy editor: Tanya Pai
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