Runners-Up (alphabetical by show): Fringe, Season 5 Episode 13 - "An Enemy of Fate," Futurama, Season 7 Episode 26 - "Meanwhile," Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 4 - "And Now His Watch Is Ended," Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 11 - "Tall Men With Feelings," Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 6 - "Spoils of War," Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 8 - "Separate Paths"
(Spoilers follow!) Part of what makes Breaking Bad great (and stand out in contrast against most attempts at "quality television" that have followed) is that, for all its darkness and misery and its focus on consequences and its character arcs of supreme, literary power, it can be a really, really fun show with thick veins of pulp running through it. Always has been, from Walt destroying Tuco's office with magic bomb crystals to several instances of cool guys not looking at explosions to the half-Terminator/half-Anton Chigurh Salamanca twins to Two-Face Gus Fring fixing his tie before dying. And it's in that spirit that one of dramatic television's great narratives ends with its protagonist building and deploying a Nazi-killing robot. Awesome!
After patiently holding it in for three years, being able to finally shout "RED WEDDING RED WEDDING RED WEDDING RED WEDDING!!!!!" at the top of my lungs across every corner of the internet felt so very, very good. I have nothing to add to the discussion surrounding this episode's infinitely-dissected final ten minutes (beyond one last good old-fashioned "Holy fucking shit!"), but even outside of that iconic, unforgettable sequence it was a great hour for the Jon Snow, Arya and Daenerys storylines too. It's an episode worthy of being called the spiritual successor to season 1's "Baelor."
Detaching entirely from the titular American dad and core Smith family, "Lost In Space" follows alien prisoner Jeff Fischer to a space station above Roger's home planet, where he tries to figure out how to escape captivity in a big, stylish, intergalactic musical action-adventure comedy extravaganza that might just be the year's most purely ambitious sitcom episode. It almost felt like a whole space opera compressed into 22 minutes (with jokes), complete with impressive alien design and massive, complicated "sets" that showed a hell of a lot of visual imagination. It had emotional depth and a bittersweet, melancholy ending you'd never associate with the MacFarlane animation empire.
I mostly just think of ABC Family's Switched at Birth as a teen drama – a far above-average one, but just a teen drama regardless – so it was a pleasant surprise to see them produce this formally and emotionally ambitious hour. The students of Carlton School for the Deaf rise up in an occupation protest when the city moves to shut their school down, which is, except for a few spoken lines at the episode's beginning and one more at its end, depicted entirely in silence with nothing but subtitled sign language to better reflect the viewpoint of the deaf characters. It was unique and ballsy, but more importantly than having a great gimmick, it had a great gimmick rooted entirely in character, thematically relevant and tied to a strong emotional throughline.
Years ago I read about how the real historical Spartacus held his own gladiatorial games to honor a fallen brother, using captured Roman soldiers as gladiators, and I spent all of Spartacus: War of the Damned nervously eyeing the ticking-down episode count, wondering whether or not showrunner Steven DeKnight had just decided to skip this particularly juicy historical nugget. But it turns out, nope, he was just delaying our pleasure, saving one of the show's finest outings for its penultimate installment.
DeKnight tweaked history to bring our heroes into the action (rather than having the Romans fight each other, in the show they fight the former slave/gladiator main characters), and, to be blunt, it was deliriously fucking awesome. In a show that is normally one of the most thoughtful and contemplative and consequence-heavy on television in its depiction of violence, it was enormous fun to see an episode just kick back and let it rip with an hour of pure pump-your-fists-and-cheer-out-loud bloody spectacle for perhaps the first time since Gods of the Arena. Just awesome.
The crucial flip side of Breaking Bad's deliciously pulpy essence – what raises it from entertainment to televised literature – lies in the darkness, the misery and the consequences on full display in "Ozymandias," which Vince Gilligan himself has declared his masterpiece and the best episode of the series. I'm not 100% sure I'm ready to go that far – I need to rewatch the entire series and see "One Minute" and "Full Measure" and "Crawl Space" and "Face Off" and "Dead Freight" again first – but it is as intense, brutal and harrowing an hour of television as I've ever seen. If "Felina" is the climax to Breaking Bad, the entertaining crime/thriller saga, "Ozymandias" is the climax to Breaking Bad, the bleak tale of a man losing his soul and the horrors he rains upon everyone around him. Beginning to end, "Ozymandias" is an episode about consequences, and karma brought its full fury against Walter White and his family in service of just that.
Easily the best episode (well, technically episodes, but they aired together and go together, so whatever) of The Legend of Korra to date and what would have to be in contention to be called the best episode of the entire Avatar franchise, "Beginnings" took us back to the prehistory of the Avatar world and showed us the life and genesis and battles of Wan, the first Avatar. And, as far as genre prequels go, let's call it the exact opposite of The Phantom Menace: Something great and beautiful and damn near perfect in every way. It enchanted me, it intrigued me, it thrilled me, it moved me, it left me both grinning like a dope and damn near on the cusp of tears. It's basically Korra's stab at a Miyazaki "concept episode," and it does Princess Mononoke proud.
If you were to pluck "Beginnings" from its home on TV and call it a movie, I don't know that I've enjoyed an animated film so much since... god, WALL•E, maybe? Very, very few episodes of television have made me feel giddy and excited and moved and just freaking in awe of the sheer potential of onscreen storytelling like this in years. Maybe ever. The animation? Beautiful, breathtaking. The emotion? Goosebumps all over my body. The action? Immensely badass. The sheer scope of its storytelling? It rivals entire epic fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in the space of about forty minutes of television. "Beginnings" is TV of mythic power. I love, love, love, love, love it.
I've already written and talked about 2013's finest television achievement at arguably excessive length and have little more to add on the subject. But I'll emphasize one last time that Spartacus' finale really had its cake and ate it too, providing a rich emotional feast and the conclusions to years of thoughtful character work and tying a totally satisfying thematic bow on everything while also remembering to give us a final battle sequence that made Game of Thrones' "Blackwater" look like the skirmish at the end of a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode. It's one of the best series finales and one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen.