Our writers celebrate the very best episode of their favourite TV shows on NEON. Don’t @ us, our decisions are final.
For all the great new television out there, nothing feels quite as comforting as returning to your favourite series and reliving the episodes that made your brain explode. It might be the one episode that encompassed everything you absolutely love about the series. It might be a breathtaking break from form. It might even be a musical episode (it probably isn’t).
Here at The Spinoff, we’ve scoured the NEON treasure trove of prestige (and decidedly not prestige) television to determine our all-time favourite episodes of our all-time favourite shows. Please enjoy our sampler box of television perfection – just don’t devour it all at once.
Contains mild spoilers
Seven years ago in San Diego, someone cocked up the city fireworks display and instead of lasting 17 minutes, everything went off in one great explosive blur. That’s what ‘Prague’, episode eight of Succession, is to the first series. A blazing all-in furnace of all the finest component parts; the most exhilarating, and probably the best, episode of this infernal, fictionalised facsimile of the Murdoch media dynasty.
‘Prague’ is only a promise – that was the plan for the bachelor party for the simpering, pitiful Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), but they instead stay in New York, soaking into an underground Dionysian party down some disused railway tracks. Cue business backstabbing, family betrayal, conspicuous wealth, privilege, ambition, loathing, dickishness, and dilettantism. Plus: ketamine, cocaine and sex.
Created by Jesse Armstrong – the British writer whose CV is an embarrassment of brilliance from The Peep Show to The Thick of It – Succession is, I suppose, a satire, or a black comedy, or a bleakly funny drama. Whatever it is, it’s a merciless unzipping of the entitled monsters of the media business, and it manages something pretty miraculous: despite the characters being almost invariably unsympathetic (Shiv, played note perfectly by Sarah Snook, shows some flashes of moral depth), it’s utterly compelling. In ‘Prague’, as always, the spectre of the patriarch, Logan Roy (the sublime Brian Cox), floats over everything.
And the tunes! Apart from the perfect theme by Nicholas Britell, this episode’s soundtrack includes DJ Shadow, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and !!!. And, blessed heaven, season two is streaming now.
– Toby Manhire, editor
Big Little Lies: ‘Tell-Tale Hearts’
The stars of Big Little Lies are as follows: Meryl Streep, Meryl Streep’s teeth, and Laura Dern. Sure, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are fine in their own award-winning ways, but they’re nothing, nothing I tell you, compared to Dern’s brilliant work in episode two, season two of Big Little Lies.
‘Tell-Tale Hearts’ sees Dern’s character Renata Klein bless us with the finest meltdown television has ever seen when her husband Gordon is arrested for fraud. Having just reached peak wealth and power, Renata has suddenly lost it all. “I will not not be rich,” Renata yells at Gordon through a prison phone. This is worse than the time that guy Perry fell down the stairs.
Forget being involved in a murder, Renata’s about to be poor.
Renata has all the problems a privileged white woman could have, and tensions climax when Gordon blames her for everything. Renata slams her Prius to a stop, kicks Gordon out, and drives off giving the naughty finger with both hands. Jesus take the wheel, because Renata doesn’t give a shit. “WILL SOMEONE GIVE A WOMAN A MOMENT?” Renata screams, as her car hoons away.
It’s iconic. It’s one hell of a mood. It’s everything.
Dern plays it perfectly, unleashing a darkly funny barrage of rage and fury as Renata realises she can no longer pretend her life is perfect. I love Renata more every time I watch it, because who hasn’t wanted to dump their problems on the side of the freeway and flip the bird at the universe with both hands?
Somebody give Laura Dern her moment, preferably while she’s holding an Emmy in one hand and a glass of red in the other.
– Tara Ward, staff writer
Counterpart: ‘Twin Cities’
It’s almost impossible to write about a show about spies and secrets without giving too much of the game away. But the sixth episode of the second season of the hugely underrated Counterpart takes the show’s original big reveal and goes back to the very start of the story.
The premise is simple. Two parallel worlds exist, connected by a single tunnel in Berlin. They begin as mirror images of each other but become frighteningly different. The episode ‘Twin Cities’ explores how these divergences began and accelerated out of control.
What makes it so good is that it operates almost as a standalone, science fiction short story. As deeply satisfying as it is to watch after 15 episodes of the show, it would equally hold its own as a parable about paranoia, chance and consequences. There’s an almost Old Testament quality to the plot because it’s clear that what’s being witnessed is the original sin after a new world was created. And in less than an hour, it meditates deeply on questions of human nature, and whether we are in control of our own destinies.
– Alex Braae, staff writer for The Bulletin
The Walking Dead: ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’
When I wasn’t binge-watching The Walking Dead last summer, curtains firmly closed, I was dreaming about spearing zombies through the head, ransacking supermarkets and gorging on dusty jars of pickles. Set in a hell world where a zombie virus has consumed most of America, I was transfixed and terrified from the start. Anyone could die at any moment! Including me!
Picking just one perfect episode is difficult. I really love episode five from season two when Bob gets bitten by a zombie but keeps it a secret. Captured by baddies who chop off his leg and eat it in front of him (it’s fine!) he eyeballs them and screams the immortal words “TAINTED MEAT”. Those two words have given me one hilarious joke every time I marinate meat, that’s for sure.
As gleefully gory as that is, it’s all but forgotten just two episodes later. After a fruitless search for Sophia, Carol’s missing 12-year-old daughter, the group of squabbling survivors are holed up on Hershel’s farm. He has it all – loaded shotguns, fresh veg, and a quaint barn full of zombies that he thinks he can save. After an episode-long shoving match debating the morals and protocol surrounding their flesh-hungry neighbours, the group decides to open the barn door.
In an excruciatingly long climactic scene, the zombies stagger out to be gunned down one by one. Just when you think the carnage is over, a child lumbers from the shadowy barn. It’s Sophia, and this is her Stars in Their Eyes moment. For a moment you think she’s made it out alive, that God is good, that everything is going to be okay. As she lifts her head to reveal a zombie face, the dreadful reality sets in – the group is going to have to kill one of their own kids.
Rick Grimes does the mahi, absolutely nobody gets the treats, and murky depths of moral depravity in The Walking Dead universe are fully realised for the first time. You love to see it.
– Alex Casey, senior writer
The Sopranos: ‘Funhouse’
The perfect episode of any show is one that ends before you have all the answers. It’s one that enters your brain and sits there idly for weeks, coming back to you when least expected during a common phrase or lucid dream. ‘Funhouse’ is this episode. Breaking the traditionally linear narrative of the series, the season two finale plays out through hallucinations from the main character – mob boss Tony Soprano.
These fever dreams are brought on by a bad bout of food poisoning which forces Tony to confront some of his biggest fears: a terminal illness diagnosis, the return of dead accomplices, and talking fish confirming a rat in the ranks.
The tension is broken by the soundtrack: a brutal shooting set to the tunes of Frank Sinatra, a vivid hallucination to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Falling’, and a chirpy rendition of ‘Maybe Baby’ by The Crickets, sung by Tony, to close the episode. ‘Funhouse’ concludes one of the biggest plot points since season one in a heartbreaking moment for Tony and one of his best friends, as Tony takes matters into his own hands; a move rarely seen from the high-powered mobster.
Despite the heavy, unnerving moments at the heart of the episode, it’s still peppered with humour and hope. It finishes with one of the main themes in The Sopranos universe – everything works out in the end. Gathered in the family home to celebrate Tony’s daughter’s graduation, there is a peacefulness to the scene which reinforces the eerie contrast between Tony’s home life and the violence of the mob.
‘Funhouse’ is the perfect season finale for a show that consistently challenges the viewer to reflect on their own morals, as they inevitably begin to sympathise with a cast made up mostly of cheaters, liars and murderers.
– Alice Webb-Liddall, staff writer
Game of Thrones: ‘The Winds of Winter’
Over its eight seasons, Game of Thrones delivered moment after moment that left us thrown back on the couch, hands over our mouths in speechless shock. Remember that beheading, that assassination and all those blistering, bone-crunching battle scenes, unlike anything we’d ever seen on TV before? When a show is able to create remarkable moments as effortlessly as Dany incinerates the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen, choosing the best is a near-impossible task.
But this isn’t a question of spectacular scenes; this is about perfect episodes, front to back. To that, there’s one obvious answer: season six closer ‘The Winds of Winter’, a tour de force that encapsulates everything that’s great about Game of Thrones. It starts with an extended, wordless sequence culminating in a blast which upends the King’s Landing chessboard and spawns both a coronation and a suicide. It ends with the long-awaited answer to Jon Snow’s real parentage, arguably the most consequential revelation of the entire series, intercut with a whole other coronation taking place on the other end of Westeros. Meanwhile, Dany finally escapes her 60-episode confinement on Essos, setting sail towards the confrontation that will define the final two seasons, dragons circling high above her magnificent war armada.
What an episode. My god, what a show
– Catherine McGregor, deputy editor
The Comeback: ‘Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees’
The Comeback is arguably the most prescient and dark comedy that’s been made in the 21st century, and Lisa Kudrow’s performance in it is one of the greatest in the medium. But there’s one episode in particular that stands out.
The Comeback is a very meta show about a fading sitcom star, Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), who gets cast in a sitcom under the condition that she film a reality show at the same time. She’s constantly belittled by her situation, especially by the showrunner Paulie G (who is later played by Seth Rogen), but puts on a brave face despite this.
Season two, filmed nine years later, has Valerie filming a gritty HBO drama based off Paulie G’s experience of filming that show. He’s named it Seeing Red, and it just so happens Valerie’s hair is red. A particularly great joke is Valerie’s wig bill to play herself, even though Lisa Kudrow is quite clearly wearing a wig to play Valerie.
In this particular episode, the conflict between Paulie G and Valerie comes to an ugly peak. It’s time for them to shoot that scene: a fantasy sequence where Valerie’s character Mallory gives Paulie G a blowjob.
Valerie’s hugely uncomfortable, not just because Paulie G is actively bullying her, but because the closest she’s come to doing anything like it on camera is ‘when she and Alan Thicke made out that Growing Pains flashback’. She’s so uncomfortable that she tries out Rogen-esque improv, genuinely trying to be funny. “It’s been a long day, why don’t you just rape me?!”
The entire episode is a tar-black treatise on what it’s like to be an actress – subsuming your identity and your sense of humanity for someone else’s art form, even when they’re constantly encroaching on both for their own humanity, and doing it all with a smile. When Valerie is given her victory, which I won’t give away, it’s a win only in the loosest sense of the word. She gets to keep on doing what she’s doing, but Jesus Christ, she needs to stop.
– Sam Brooks, culture editor
Westworld: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’
At times, Westworld can feel dense, vague, overly complicated, purposefully dragging me into plotlines I have very little patience for. But on an episodic level, season two pulls through with a handful of seriously good set pieces. There’s ‘Akane No Mai’ and its amusing dive into Shogun world, ‘Kiksuya’ and its emotionally gut-punching tale of Ghost Nation, and my personal favourite, ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’.
Famously, the riddle asks: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening? The answer is man, from birth to death. Or in this case, beyond death, with the episode asking (and eventually answering in horrifying fashion): what happens when you want to live forever?
Not only does the episode reveal something fundamentally important about Westworld and its intentions, but it also showcases some tremendous acting between James Delos (Peter Mullan), aka the guy who bankrolled this diabolical theme park into existence, and William (Jimmi Simpson), his son-in-law. The best part about the episode, though, is how expertly scenes between the two men have been written and directed. Repetition can be such an effective narrative tool if done right, and the way it manifests itself through both dialogue and visual symbolism (the record player, the exercise bike, the circular nature of the room) all manage to work seamlessly together. It’s mysterious, intriguing, and strangely eerie, topped off by nightmarish scenes of full-blown horror and chaos. Isn’t technology fun?
– Jihee Junn, staff writer
Celebs Go Dating: ‘Joey and Charlotte’
Dating website founder Eden Blackman and lifestyle guru Nadia Essex use Celebs Go Dating as a platform to turn C-list celebrities into better people. Each season follows six or so celebrities from their first group mixer to a final romantic dinner, where they’ll introduce their chosen civilian love interest to the rest of the celebs.
Episode 10 of the first season showcases everything we want from reality TV: crossovers, friendships, and dark secrets. Joey Essex (The Only Way Is Essex) and Charlotte Crosby (Geordie Shore) go on a double date with their love interests, but have much more fun palling around with each other instead; celeb BFFs! Joey and Charlotte are both golden retrievers in human form: big hearts, big eyes, lush hair.
Joey’s date is “well reem”, but Charlotte’s has a shady secret. When Joey finds out, he has to decide whether to honour the bro code or do right by his friend. This episode perfectly captures the gulf between civilian and C-list life, a megadose of the softest-hearted celebs in the UK.
– Josie Adams, staff writer
True Blood: ‘Spellbound’
You made it through four seasons of True Blood and you don’t know who you are anymore. There are bloody fairies, were-panthers and witches, and approximately 50,000 storylines. But just when you start to worry the series has lost its way, episode six from season four comes at exactly the right time – and boy does it come.
Finally, we get Sookie banging Eric. And she’s not just finishing him like cheesecake on a couch like some uninspired rom-com – she’s in a God damn forest. On the ground. Naked AF and there are butts all around. It’s glorious. Eric’s been dressed as a fuckboy the whole season because he lost his memory due to a witches curse. But it doesn’t matter; what matters is that he’s forgotten everything and he thinks his only job in life is to sexually please you.
I mean Sookie. Sookie of course.
But it’s episode eight of season four that will forever be my favourite True Blood episode. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in life. Most people on the planet have spent at least a portion of their lives imagining being cracked open like a nut by Alexander Skarsgård. It would be transcendental, you imagine, but then the True Blood writers make it so much more than that. It’d be so good you’d have a hallucination where your shower would turn into a fucking snow wonderland with a bed in it.
Sookie turning to Eric and saying “What’s the bed for?” is golden, and when she sees the snow bed, it’s Oscar-worthy. She’s standing naked next to Alexander Skarsgård, who’s also naked. You know what that bed is for. She knows what that bed is for. He knows what that bed is for.
Everything is perfect and nothing is wrong. Trump isn’t president anymore. Climate change? Fixed. You’ll never go hungry again.
– Emily Writes, parents editor
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.