Just what is the best episode of TV of all time? After "Battle of the Bastards" — the ninth episode in Game of Throne's record-breaking sixth season — equalled the most awards won by a single TV episode at the Emmys 2016, there's a case to be made that this outrageously-entertaining 60mins of bloodshed and revenge is the best ever made.
But is it really? We'd argue that "Battle of the Bastards" isn't even the greatest episode of Game of Thrones, let alone of all time. So which slice of small-screen gold can claim the title of TV's greatest?
Below is a list of the 12 episodes we here at Movie Pilot think are the best of the best. You might not agree with them, but you for sure can't ignore them.
1. 'Home': The X-Files
If you haven't heard of the X-Files episode "Home," (S04E02) that's because it only aired once before being banned for almost an entire year (and rightly so). It was the first TV episode in history to ever receive a TV-MA rating and was universally hated by almost everyone on the cast. From the opening scene, "Home" relentlessly forces traumatic imagery and disturbing themes on viewers and doesn't let up until the credits role. It set the tone for future episodes of The X-Files and remains one of the most infamous episodes to date.
The episode focuses on the twisted family life family of deformed hillbillies who live in rural Pennsylvania. Bad feels abound in "Home," which subverts traditional American family values into one messed-up story that hits on everything from incestuous family dynamics to home invasion horror. "Home" is unsettling to its core and still gives me chills whenever I hear Johnny Mathis's "Wonderful! Wonderful!"
2. "Pilot": Lost
There have been few television series pilots that can be lauded as one of the best episodes of all time, however, the two-part Lost pilot is certain one of them. The episode was so expensive (estimated somewhere between $10 - $14 million) that it costs network president, Lloyd Braun, his job. But the proof was ultimately in the pudding when the first part of the pilot brought in a record-breaking 18.6 million viewers.
The episode was so wonderfully cinematic — probably because it was directed by J.J. Abrams — that viewers were instantly obsessed with the mystery of who these plane crash victims where and where the hell they had landed. The tension of the episode is so real, and throughout the 79 minute run-time we deal with injured passengers, a mysterious pilot-eating monster, an unknown felon, a polar bear and a looping transmission that's been playing for 16 years.
As the episode ends with Charlie asking "guys, where are we?" the viewers knew that they were in for one hell of a ride. Despite that fact that Lost would lose its direction in later seasons, there's no doubt the pilot episode is one of the best episodes of television of all time.
3. "Ozymandias": Breaking Bad
If Breaking Bad is the greatest TV show ever made, then "Ozymandias" must surely be its most incredible episode.
"Ozymandias" is the taut and savage denouement to Walter White's quest for status and family unity — the remains of his empire laid out boundless and bare. A knife, his stricken wife, his panicked son. The realization the game is up.
And yet, when all good in him seems lost, with Walter White seemingly destroyed, replaced forever by Heisenberg and his wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, the last vestiges of humanity shimmer out from his walking corpse. A phone call home - a parting gift taking the blame, exonerating his family in the hope of giving them the life he'd always wanted for them.
And then, the crumbling of an empire. The toppling of the king of kings.
By Matt Carter
4. "An American Girl In Paris: Part Deux": Sex And The City
When asked what the best ever TV episode is, I got to thinking, what episode offered me everything? The Sex And The City finale of course.
For six fabulous years we sat glued to our screens waiting for Mr. Big to say the words Carrie needed to hear the most, 'You're the one'. And boy did he deliver. Not only did he finally step up and commit, he flew all the way to Paris to rescue her from the neglectful Russian.
The finale saw each of the girls begin a new chapter of their lives. Charlotte had finally gained the family she wanted; Miranda had overcome her fears of commitment and learned to love unconditionally; Samantha had kicked cancer's butt and found herself in a trusting, monogamous relationship with a man who combined great sex with great love.
The episode was everything you'd expect from SATC, great outfits, Manolo Blahnik's and cosmopolitans, but it gave the characters everything they'd been needing from the very first episode. It was the perfect little parcel wrapped up in a Tiffany's bow. A true gift from the show to its loyal audience. Did we love it? Absof**kinglutely.
By Chloe Gale
5. "College": The Sopranos
Touring colleges in Maine, Tony Soprano learns more about his daughter in the space of 48 hours than he'd previously absorbed in 17 years in the superb Season 1 episode "College". When Meadow asks her father if he's in the mafia, Tony balks: "That's total crap! I'm in the waste management business! It's a stereotype, and it's offensive!" But just like parents know their kids better than we'd like to admit, kids aren't blind either, and soon Tony is singing.
In return for his honesty, Meadow admits to taking speed, and both find an unexpected relief in their confessions. In a series full of mob activity, violent crime and questions about existentialism, 'College' is an anomaly with almost no influence on the wider story, but it does a lot of heavy lifting in making us care for the spoiled Meadow and view Tony through altogether less jaded eyes.
It also contains one immortal line of dialogue. When Tony returns home to discover Carmela allowed Father Phil to sleep on the couch, he jealously quips, "What d'you guys do for twelve hours, play Name That Pope?" You don't get writing quite like that on HBO these days.
By Jack Carr
6. "Once More With Feeling": Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Dancing demons, scheming bunnies and a whole lot of drama — so much could have gone wrong with Buffy’s musical episode, but in just under 45 minutes, "Once More With Feeling" completely redefined what genre TV is capable of, captivating fans under its spell.
Even Joss Whedon himself must have been nervous when his beloved vampire slayer started to belt out musical tunes, yet every song contains countless moments of wit, spark and genuine emotion that elevated Buffy to new peaks of creativity.
Sure, some of the casts voices weren’t exactly Broadway material and episodes such as 'Hush' and 'The Body' are equally worthy of iconic status, but there's something indefinably perfect about the way that 'Once More, With Feeling' tied together every plot thread of the season, revealing each characters pain and desires through song.
Many shows have since tried to replicate the impact of this episode with mixed results, but at a time when most programs would have begun to feel tired and no longer relevant, Whedon and his team created a genuine masterpiece that’s yet to be matched, giving us all something to sing about.
By David Opie
7. "Parents": Master Of None
As a fan of Aziz Anzari's standup comedy, I was obviously drawn to his Netflix show, Master of None, but I was surprised by how the writing hit even deeper and closer to home than I had expected. In all its modesty, the show actually got off to a slow start — as with most millennial shows tackling" life in general," the first episode has you struggling a bit to figure out what exactly the story is about. Then comes Episode 2, simply titled "Parents" — which just won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series — and the humble power of Master of None hits you with its full force.
Featuring Aziz’s real life Indian parents and the Asian family of Kelvin Yu’s character Brian, the episode dives into the sacrifices they made for their kids to have a comfortable life in America. It’s simultaneously one of the most unashamed accounts of immigrant struggles on television, and a deeply emotional reflection of the complex relationship we all have with our parents — what they expect from us, what we want from them, and how much has changed between our generations.
By Elise Jost
8. "Middle Ground": The Wire
When the unlikely face of pure justice, Omar Little, finally blasts scheming Stringer Bell into oblivion it's a moment of explosive gratification that fans have been waiting three long seasons for.
While the dynamics of the entire episode are (as always) intricate, well-considered and emotionally loaded, the scene where Omar and his unexpected ally, Brother Mouzone, storm a freshly betrayed Stringer Bell is faultless.
From the poetic cinematography with doves fluttering around the doomed building site, to the way your heart somehow aches for a man who previously murdered most of your favorite characters, "Middle Ground" elevated TV writing to an art form. It's perfect.
By Karly Rayner
9. "Everyone’s Waiting": Six Feet Under
It’s difficult to do justice to the sheer brilliance of Six Feet Under's final episode without acknowledging just how monumentally outstanding the entire series was. The premise was simple: we follow the Fischers, a dysfunctional family who run a funeral home as they deal with the joys and horrors of life across five glorious seasons. Each episode starts with a death which ultimately brings the newly deceased to their funeral home. In doing so, their story becomes subtly weaved into that of our main protagonists and masterfully makes mortality the omnipresent backdrop to our beloved characters lives.
Consequently, the series finale could not have ended any other way. Having travelled with the Fischers as they bravely portrayed what it meant to be human across sixty three episodes, in the end, they had no choice but to die. Widely acknowledged as one of the best TV finales ever, fans across the world watched in pained awe as a sequence of flash-forwards revealed each of the characters different fates which, true to the show, were tragic, violent, peaceful and even comical. Rarely has a series, let alone a single episode, tapped into something so quintessentially human that after it aired, the world needed a week to mourn.
R.I.P. Six Feet Under, you were one of a kind.
10. "Digestivo": Hannibal
Hannibal was unlike any other crime drama on television. This was particularly true of Season 3, which perfectly balanced stylish & inventive gore with sumptuous fever dream visuals and homoerotic undertones. It was hard to pick between "Digestivo" and the season finale, but I think the former just clinches it for being the perfect crystallization of all the things that made Hannibal such a singular viewing experience.
In true Hannibal fashion, this episode gave us face transplants, death by eels, dead babies inside of pigs and a guy's prostate being stimulated by a cattle prod against his will. One of the greatest things about this episode was that much of the violence was either carried out or condoned by characters other than Hannibal; in the horrific space of the Muskrat Farm, all the other characters finally started to see Hannibal's logic and personal code of ethics. It also gave us a final farewell to the best B-villain of the show (RIP Mason Verger, you creepy bastard), and the capture of Hannibal. Hannibal's surrender was the crowning triumph; it proved he can never truly be beaten, and even in defeat, he's playing every other character like a fiddle.
11. "Nixon vs. Kennedy": Mad Men
The Sterling Cooper staff are kings of debauchery so when election night hits on November 8, 1960, episode “Nixon vs. Kennedy” opens up on a party in full swing, complete with its fair share of stolen kisses, whiskey guzzling and in-office vomiting (no, it's not Roger Sterling this time!)
Amidst the alcohol-fuelled shenanigans though, this is the episode that sees a significant part of the Draper myth unravel, dividing solidly into over-confident Don and meek Dick Whitman halves. With flashbacks to his harrowing Korean War past, the penultimate episode of Season 1 is the point where we start to learn about the mechanics that make him tick. Its the first we hear of his desire to run away to California too, which, if we fast forward a few seasons, is exactly what ends up happening.
Ultimately, "Nixon vs. Kennedy" builds beautifully on Don's paranoia, which is further pushed and prodded by an ever-arrogant Pete with an eager eye on the upcoming Head of Account Services position. Yet despite figuring out the Don Draper truth, he is swatted away like an annoying fly by Bert Cooper, who basically puts it all to rest with one crucial question: "But Mr. Campbell, who cares?" Hands down, one of the best moments of the series.
12. "Northwest Passage" Twin Peaks
If the first Twin Peaks episode hadn't been the neodymium magnet to the strange and wonderful universe that it was, the show wouldn't have been the success it is today. It was unlike anything that had come before and the pilot made sure to get that as straight as a damn good cup of black coffee. One of the scenes that established the show's unique dynamic for me was when Agent Cooper first meets Sheriff Truman. In most police mystery shows, there's a more than a healthy dosage of petty tension between the local police force and those sent from the outside. But Lynch and Frost immediately nipped that in the bud when Coop says:
"Sheriff, let me stop you in the hallway here for just a second. There's a few things we gotta get straight right off the bat. I've learned about this the hard way, it's best to talk about it up front. When the Bureau gets called in, the Bureau's in charge, and you're gonna be working for me. Sometimes local law enforcement has a problem with that. I hope you understand."
Check out the full scene here:
By Alexandra Ekstein-Kon
13. "The Entire History Of You": Black Mirror
While every episode of Charlie Brooker's dystopian drama Black Mirror depicts one of the various ways in which technology can destroy lives — from politicians shagging pigs live on air, to re-animated boyfriends talking through tweets — there's none as brutally depressing nor harrowingly close to home than "The Entire History Of You."
The concept is simple: Every human has an implant or "grain" which records everything they see and hear, constantly. There's not a fragment of their life that isn't noted and stored for instant internal playback, or shared with others via TV screens. So, when the protagonist suspects his wife of cheating, paranoia turns to obsession as he dwells relentlessly on his recordings, forcing her to watch the playbacks too and grilling her as she does so, finding faults in her story using backups from statements she'd made in the past. It's chilling stuff.
"The Entire History of You" is a commentary on our smartphone obsession, and a disturbing reminder that while everything we do on the internet leaves a trail, this next level "extreme" isn't actually so far fetched.
Agree with our list? Think we're way off the mark? Let us know what you think the greatest episode of TV is in the comments below.