Welcome to the Tournament Of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here. Today’s competing shows include Breaking Bad vs. The Returned, Girls vs. How I Met Your Mother, The Americans vs. The Good Wife, and Hannibal vs. Rick And Morty.
The quarterfinals of the Tournament Of Episodes both begin and end today, because we have things to do and people to see. As always, if you disagree with our judges’ choices, please vote in the polls below each match. It won’t do anything, but it will make you feel better.
Breaking Bad overcame True Detective. The Returned defeated Louie. Now, they face each other, and Carrie Raisler has the call.
Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” vs. The Returned, “Camille”
Carrie Raisler: The battle between these two episodes can essentially be distilled into how you prefer your horror: mysterious, slow-building, and slightly supernatural, or in-your-face, all-encompassing, and bone-chillingly realistic? Because although neither of these shows is solely a horror show, these episodes are undoubtedly horrific in their own ways. It’s simply that one features a man facing down the final gasps of an awful fate he designed for himself, and the other focuses on a community beginning to realize that their entire existence as they know it is about to be altered.
Other than the fact that both of these episodes are essentially waking nightmares, they don’t really have much in common. “Ozymandias” is the culmination of five seasons of watching the dread build as Walter White destroys everything around him, while “Camille” is just the beginning of a story (about the dead returning to life) that still feels very much untold. While “Camille” asks the fundamental question “What’s going on?,” “Ozymandias” asks, “How did it come to this?” Interestingly, both end on the question “Where do we go from here?”
There are some surface similarities between the two episodes—both contain devastating scenes featuring a kitchen knife, and both undercut their horror by using flashbacks to a simpler, gentler time—but that’s where any similarity ends. “Ozymandias” is knot-in-your-gut terror from open to close, while “Camille” goes more for spooky, subtle atmospherics. As a single episode of television divorced from all context, “Camille” probably works better. But it’s impossible to ignore that I know exactly where “Ozymandias” comes from, and where it leads. When Walt yells “We are a family!” all of this knowledge comes to a perfect head, and with five seasons’ worth of anguish, tears me apart. It’s a stunning achievement, both emotionally and intellectually, and that type of achievement cannot be ignored.
Winner: Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias.”
Next, Brandon Nowalk judges Girls (which overcame Orange Is The New Black) and How I Met Your Mother (which overcame Looking).
Girls, “Beach House” vs. How I Met Your Mother, “How Your Mother Met Me”
Brandon Nowalk: The battle for the Long Island Beach House Belt pits a funny, female-centric vacation featuring Andrew Rannells against an episode of Girls. “How Your Mother Met Me” pauses the Ted Mosby gang at its most melodramatic—all their precious faces show up lost and lonely in the climactic tear-jerker montage—in order to see what The Mother has been up to all these years. A month later “Beach House” scooped up the main cast of Girls and dropped them into the crucible of a mandatory friendship retreat enforced by Marnie. Never go to the far end of Long Island.
I regret to say this is no contest. “Beach House” is practically Girls’ mission statement, and “How Your Mother Met Me” is HIMYM’s dessert, except the dessert gets all syrupy at the end. Storytelling is HIMYM’s forte, and this narrative experiment is at least a rewarding rush of memories and clues buttoning The Mother’s journey to The Father’s. Star Cristin Milioti heroically anchors, breathing new life into old jokes and putting on a sweet ukulele show to boot.
But dear Mother, is this thing overwrought, straining to make the fun, hyperlink story really mean something. The way it concocts a sense of melancholy, Ted-worthy gravitas is by introducing a perfect gentleman and killing him off. There’s also a silent black friend, but that’s more than you can say for Ted’s side of the story (or Hannah’s). Girls will throw out truth for a joke even at its best, but “Beach House” has only minor infractions. It’s the sharpest, most venomous satire of these privileged brats yet, every line a weapon, every smile baring fangs. Even the editing gets in on it, cutting to Marnie mid-pity party. “Beach House” is overworked and exhausting, too. The difference is that’s the point.
Winner: Girls, “Beach House”
Now it’s time for The Americans, which overcame Sleepy Hollow, to take on The Good Wife, which beat Bob’s Burgers. Molly Eichel doesn’t know if a TV show can ever “beat” another TV show.
The Americans, “Behind The Red Door” vs. The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Molly Eichel: Both of these phenomenal episodes of television are gateways to the rest of their respective seasons. “Behind The Red Door” hits in the middle of The Americans stellar second season, while “Hitting The Fan” set the tone for The Good Wife’s fifth season earlier on. But where one episode reveals new, important avenues for the series to explore, the other completely blows up a premise that its show had been working on for years.
The immediate connection found within these two episodes is the power inherent in the genders of its main characters characters. The men act through their physicality—Will knocks the papers from Alicia’s desk, clearly threatening her in a way that she has not experienced before from him; Phillip acts out his frustration and aggression on his wife who is literally asking for it. It’s counteracted by the women in each respective series using their own subtle tools of manipulation—Alicia and Kalinda’s cunning in their different interests, Lucia and Elizabeth working for their shared cause. Yet the episodes don’t feel gendered. They simply focus on each character tapping into a power that comes naturally to them.
While this season of The Americans was simply spectacular, “Behind The Red Door” feels like such a part of the whole. “Hitting The Fan” took what could have become a staid premise and completely shook it to its core, giving an aging show one of the most invigorated episodes of its run. That The Good Wife writers could live up to the sheer momentum of “Hitting The Fan” doesn’t give it the W, but it certainly is a bonus.
Winner: The Good Wife, “Hitting The Fan”
Finally in the quarterfinals, we have Hannibal, which bested Broad City, versus Rick And Morty, which won over Review With Forrest MacNeil. Myles McNutt judges this last match for the week.
Hannibal, “Takiawase” vs. Rick And Morty, “Rixty Minutes”
Myles McNutt: There is a certainty to Hannibal as a series. We know that Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer. We know that he will eventually get caught, just as we know that many of those around him will die before that happens. Yet at the same time, we’re given only sporadic glimpses into his thought process, leaving his identity an open book with plenty of blank pages waiting to be filled in.
By comparison, Rick And Morty constructs a world of infinite dimensions, where certainty and uncertainty live side by side in chaotic harmony. “Rixty Minutes” uses the series’ science-fiction premise to explore how awareness of that infinity would affect the reality its characters know best. Pinballing between insightful character work and rapid-fire pop culture parodies in the form of televisual glimpses into those alternate dimensions, the episode never loses track of the need to ground the expansive storyworld of the series in characters that audiences can connect with.
That said, though, “Rixty Minutes” never reaches the heights of “Takiawase,” which manages to find new nuances in death in a series that’s almost always ruminating on the subject: What does it mean to die? Who gets to determine when and how someone’s life ends, and what their death means? The whole series is about Hannibal taking life and death into his own hands (including at episode’s end), which makes his flip of the coin with Bella Crawford all the more perplexing—another page filled in with questions instead of answers.
It may seem awkward—albeit inherent to the imprecise nature of this tournament—to compare Hannibal’s elaborate calligraphy with Rick And Morty’s child-like yet complex crayon scrawls, but both find meaning filling in their open books; there’s just more to be found in Hannibal in this instance.
Winner: Hannibal, “Takiawase”
Monday: Zack Handlen judges Breaking Bad versus Girls in our first semifinal. Take a look at the bracket so far below.