The 50 greatest TV episodes of all time, from This is England to I May Destroy You
Television shows are, inevitably, made up of parts. On the surface, there’s the great, overarching story that begins with the first shot and ends with the last. But, within that narrative, there are small parts: the series, and the episode. It is the smallest of these sub-divisions, the episode, that is most intriguing. A truly brilliant episode can bridge the gap between cinema and TV. It can refine the essence of the best shows into a single, self-contained moment. At its most potent, a perfect episode is like mainlining all the myriad ingredients of prestige television in a single sitting.
But great TV shows do not necessarily beget great episodes and, conversely, great episodes are not always the sign of a great show. The start of 2023 has been dominated by discussions about The Last of Us, a perfectly good series including one stunning episode. In it, two supporting characters tell us the story of humanity’s endurance at the end of the world. It is an episode that any show would be proud of. Succession has also returned to screens, with a run of spectacular episodes spawning endless think pieces and memes. Ahead of Sunday night’s (14 May) Bafta Television awards, we’ve compiled a list of the greatest TV episodes of all time. Admittedly, it’s a list that features lots of excellent shows and a few mediocre ones, but what matters here is how they tell a story over one single broadcast. Whether that’s an hour of prestige drama or a 20-minute sitcom, these are the moments when television transcends its format and becomes an art form.
50. Homeland – Series 1, Episode 7: ‘The Weekend’
In Homeland’s seventh episode, the show went from just another prestige espionage thriller to something more profound and substantial. “The Weekend” followed Claire Danes’s CIA agent Carrie and recently rescued marine Brody (Damian Lewis), who may or may not have been turned by al-Qaeda, as they head away on a countryside retreat. Homeland’s later seasons were much, much better than many gave them credit for, but, truthfully, the many action-packed set-pieces that ensued never matched the high-stakes showdown featured in the final 10 minutes of this instalment. Proof, if ever it was needed, that two people simply talking in a room can be just as thrilling as any action scene. Jacob Stolworthy
49. Celebrity Big Brother – Series 17, Episode 8: ‘Day Seven’
Reality TV remains the bastard stepchild of scripted television, and often for good reason. But there are times in which cosmic coincidences collide in such farcical fashion that the result is funnier than anything pre-planned. CBB’s 17th series saw Angie Bowie being told of the death of her ex-husband David and stumbling out of the diary room in a daze, where she encountered reality TV stalwart Tiffany Pollard. “David’s dead,” Angie uttered. Pollard, understandably but also not understandably at all, assumed she was talking about fellow contestant David Gest – who no one noticed was asleep nearby. What followed was a tour de force in tears, crossed wires and collective acrimony, culminating in Pollard attempting to throttle Bowie. Gest, on the other hand, did actually die a few months later. You quite literally couldn’t make this up. Adam White
48. Insecure – Series 4, Episode 8: ‘Lowkey Happy’
After their stagnant long-term relationship ends in infidelity, Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) decide to meet up, two years after the fact. A rare two-hander for the sleek comedy series, “Lowkey Happy” shows the old flames wandering through south Los Angeles and trying to make sense of their new lives. With brimming chemistry and stunning on-location cinematography, it’s Insecure at its best. The sparks between Issa and Lawrence are impossible to ignore and seeing them let their guards down and be truthful about their feelings culminates in a joyful, romantic reunion. Though it’s far from plain sailing for the pair going forward, this episode is a standout moment of bliss. Nicole Vassell
47. Planet Earth II – Episode 1: ‘Islands’
Smuggled into this 2016 David Attenborough series is a high-octane thriller so edge-of-your-seat suspenseful that Alfred Hitchcock’s ghost had to have directed it. It takes place in the Galapagos islands, with a newborn iguana being relentlessly chased along a beach and a rock wall by dozens of racer snakes, who harpoon themselves out of the ground as if they all have tiny trampolines. It’s extraordinary television. AW
46. Six Feet Under – Series 5, Episode 12: ‘Everyone’s Waiting’
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific episode of Six Feet Under that stands out from the rest as there’s not really a dud in the pack. But the series finale capped things off in a spectacular manner. Every character was given a memorable ending via a montage flashforward climax, soundtracked to Sia’s “Breathe Me”, that’s been oft-repeated but never matched. The highlight, though, comes as the characters sit around the Fishers’ dinner table, morosely paying tribute to fallen son Nate (Peter Krause). “May he rest in peace,” says his brother, David (Michael C Hall). Here, the episode cuts to a white screen, with a sunglasses-wearing Nate, from the afterlife, maniacally dancing to Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate”. That right there is Six Feet Under summed up in 10 zany seconds. JS
45. Catastrophe – Series 4, Episode 6