What Makes a Perfect Drama Episode?

Last week, the Still Watching crew devoted an hour to discussing the three most perfect TV comedy episodes of the past 25 years. This week, we turn our attention to dramas—once again selecting a trio of episodes that stand apart. 

Two of those episodes appear on Vanity Fair’s larger list of perfect television installments; one does not. Rather than “Pine Barrens,” Richard Lawson decided to select “Cold Stones,” a less commonly celebrated hour from season six of The Sopranos. Why? “Unlike a lot of Sopranos fans, I like the later seasons,” he explains. “I like when the show started to get more metaphysical and questioning.” Edie Falco’s Carmela embodies that side of the series when she takes a trip to Paris, a jaunt that almost—almost—pushes her into a profound reckoning. 

Meanwhile, gay mobster Vito (Joseph R. Gannascoli) reaches the end of his arc—a devastating conclusion even by the standards of The Sopranos. “This episode balances the horrible, violent finality of Vito’s storyline with Carmela having this kind of awakening. But then she brings herself back down to earth, and realizes that she can’t fully forsake everything that has essentially brought her to Paris. And I think that that’s almost as tragic,” says Lawson.

Chris Murphy elects to highlight a very different but no less popular series: Grey’s Anatomy, which hit the jackpot with its season two episode “It’s the End of the World.” Airing directly after the 2006 Super Bowl, more than 38 million viewers watched as the doctors of Seattle Grace grappled with a very unusual medical emergency: a live patient whose abdomen contained a live bomb that could explode at any moment.

“I do think it’s a perfect episode of Grey’s Anatomy,” says Murphy. “It really encapsulates the whole series in one 45-minute swoop, and the stakes have never been higher. This was, like, the pinnacle” of the show—which is, incredibly, still airing new episodes to this day.

Hillary Busis, meanwhile, couldn’t help choosing an hour often cited on lists like these: “The Suitcase,” from Mad Men’s fourth season. The episode centers on Jon Hamm’s Don and Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy as they pull an all-nighter in the office, exploring their peculiar dynamic. Watching it again, she says, underlines how the current TV landscape has nothing that fills the void Mad Men left. “I’m like craving a Mad Men–esque show, something that just has a heavily populated universe of characters,” she says. “A place that you don’t necessarily want to live in—because the people are so sad—but you want to immerse yourself in it. There is not something that scratches a similar itch right now.”

You can listen to the full discussion below (or anywhere you listen to podcasts).

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