"Of all the disciplines involved in making anything - TV, film, or anything I do — the writing is the most valuable commodity." — Ricky Gervais
Here are my picks for the five best written episodes of television in 2016
5. 'Hyde Park Corner' ('The Crown')
‘Hyde Park Corner’ felt like a momentous episode for its ability to present key historical events with a beautiful level of intellect and significance. Where many historical shows will often gloss over the ‘nitty-gritty’, this episode makes sure to allow the audience insight into the protocol and procedures of the royal family in such a time. Peter Morgan delicately develops the characters to be optimistic about their state and their futures, but also sew the seeds of doubt. Elizabeth understands her duty and who she will one day be, but she also believes becoming Queen will be many years away.
Morgan is able to craft drama out of the audience’s god-like knowledge of knowing, that as the Princess celebrates her new marriage in Africa, while also partaking in official duties, her father is dying. The contrast between the two narratives is riveting, as it provides a very real examination into human life. We truly do not know what is coming around the corner, and as an audience, who does know, Morgan is able to capitalise upon the emotional significance of these events.
This discussion of life and death, and how it doesn’t change even if you are a royal family member, is then superbly written in conjunction with an exploration of marriage and duty. As conflict begins to arise over Elizabeth as a woman and wife in opposition to as a royal figure, Morgan is able to provide an unflinching look into the real royal family, even at its darkest times. This exploration is stunningly well summarised by Queen Mary’s monologue, written to perfection, where the former Queen breaks down the responsibility of the role and her duty to the people. It is some of the most thrilling and intellectual writing I have witnessed as it sets up what will be a clear transition for Elizabeth.
4. 'The Winds Of Winter' ('Game Of Thrones')
This episode consists of many fist-pumping moments of absolute glee and joy. From Cersei defeating her enemies and destroying the Sept of Baelor, to Jon being pronounced the King in the North, to Arya murdering some of the Freys, this episode delivered on nearly every front. However, while I do agree that a great episode of television does not need relentless action or shocks to be successful, I do think that when done well, surprises, twists and reveals can be just as effective as poetic, Shakespearean writing.
‘The Winds of Winter’ succeeds with this, as the writers have been able to masterfully position each storyline in a manner that allows each their time in the spotlight, but never overlong or poorly paced. Cersei’s destruction of Kings Landing is a momentous, exhilarating sequence as it has stunning build up, supported by a delicate and at times powerful score.
The writers understand tension, suspense and the wrath Cersei can deliver and they execute it perfectly. These big bravado moments are balanced with smaller, more intimate, and arguably more relatable deaths, when Arya kills the man responsible for her mother and brother’s slaughter. There is an undeniable poeticism to the accomplishments of these characters. After many seasons of heart-break and betrayal, it is interesting to note that nearly every main character, key from the start of the series, gets a ‘win’ here. It signifies that the end is coming, and it is brilliantly realised with hints of political intrigue, fantasy and very human, family drama.
3. 'Klick' ('Better Call Saul')
This episode, possibly more than any other, is centred around the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. Opening with an incredibly emotional and important sequence, where Chuck refuses to get Jimmy as their mother dies, the writers successfully portray the jealousy Chuck has always had for his brother. It speaks to the power of the human condition that Chuck, the successful lawyer, is jealous of his down-on-his-luck brother.
This episode perfectly encapsulates that conflict, balancing it with Jimmy’s utter devastation and suffering at seeing the consequences of his actions in the episode before. But it is also key to remember that while Jimmy makes attempts here to reconcile with his brother, to try gain his trust, it is still, at first, built on a lie. Jimmy, however hard he tries, will always wish the best, but only under immense pressure will he ever deliver or execute it.
He is too conflicted and divided internally and in his admiration for Kim, to sacrifice himself. Vince Gilligan and Heather Marion, present Chuck as the morally corrupt, jealous brother, but also remind us that Jimmy is not innocent either, the brothers are as bad as each other. When Jimmy finally does come clean to Chuck about his con, the audience wouldn’t be blamed at sighing relief or being happy that the brothers can come clear to each other, but as the writers present once again, we never truly know each other and the good or bad we can do.
As Chuck secretly records Jimmy’s admission, and the show ends, the writers have perfectly constructed a cliff-hanger that is not needlessly flamboyant or action packed, but a shocking, heart-breaking and realistic showing of Chuck and Jimmy’s brotherhood. Good will built on deception and selfishness will always have damaging consequences and Chuck shows that he too can be a con man.
2. 'Trompe L’Oeil' ('Westworld')
One of the key flaws of #Westworld is that at times it seemed the characters were defined more by what we didn’t know about them than what we did. While they each had distinct personalities, these weren’t as developed or complex as they could be, as the writers wished characters to remain ambiguous in order to keep secretive around key mysteries.
"Trompe L’Oeil" however, was a monumental episode in its ability to showcase the character’s motivations and intentions. For example, William, a character that initially attempts to be the typical ‘good guy’ with the white hat, becomes indulged in his liking of Dolores. From being resistant against the park’s seduction, William falls in love with Dolores and her growing realizations. It is key to emphasize that the writers have cleverly highlighted elements of the human condition in this development. By having William fall in love, not with a host controlled to be seductive, but with a conscious host, one bordering on human, the episode is making a larger argument about what makes us human, mechanism versus nature and whether one can truly love something without a soul.
This notion of having a soul, is further explored by Maeve’s storyline as she realizes that while being on an endless loop may mean she can never die, it isn’t human and in a sense death is liberating. It mirrors the Man in Black’s argument, that only when pain and death are potential consequences, can someone fully emerge from their shell. Clementine desires freedom and a new world, but the audience, and now Maeve, realize this will never occur as long as she is stuck on this loop. The emotional, heartbreaking impact of this hits Maeve, makes the decision to control her own destiny and free herself from the park.
Finally, this episode is noteworthy for its ending moments, where episodes of build up result in a tragic, effective sequence, as we learn of Bernard’s true state and the power Ford has. This sequence, while more defined by its direction and acting than writing, highlighted the show’s ability to surprise, while also brilliantly deal with exposition.
1. 'Nailed' ('Better Call Saul')
“Nailed” is the best written episode of television of 2016 for its superb handling of consequences and the notions of an antihero. With exceptional development of the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy and how this affects the Jimmy and Kim dynamic, Peter Gould has masterfully showcased the true nature of the man who will one day become ‘Saul’. There are multiple examples of Jimmy, the con-man, throughout this episode, including the riveting final moments where he bribes the copy shop staffer, but Gould also recognizes the good will that Jimmy has. Yes, he may be selfish and ignorant of collateral damage, but his con over Chuck was to ultimately help Kim.
The writer presents Jimmy as a flawed anti-hero, asking the audience whether they will continue to support him after such decisions. This nuance is stunningly well realized, and is mirrored beautifully by making Chuck a more sympathetic character, in seeing his pain firstly in getting embarrassed by his supposed mistake, and secondly in the episodes’ perfect final moments of literal pain and discomfort.
The culmination of this relationship between good and bad within the characters and their relationship highlights the unforeseen consequences of our actions. Just as Mike’s plan is ruined by the good will of a random citizen, Jimmy’s wish to deliver for Kim suffers from the unintended ramifications it has on his brother. These are dark and at times haunting developments, so it is a testament to Gould that he is also able to include the show’s famous black comedy, which is detrimental in highlighting the ignorance and naivety of Jimmy in not realizing the potential devastation he is causing. This is an intense exploration of anti-heroism and character and makes this episode a complex, intriguing piece of art.