Now that the season is officially over, we've watched and rewatched every minute of every episode of television from the past year to determine our favorites; so with nothing but spoilers ahead, here's our list of the most award-worthy performances (Emmy voters, you're going to want to take notes)
The Rules To be eligible for this list, the episode must have aired between June 1, 2013, and May 31, 2014. In the interests of diversity, we limited ourselves to one scene or sketch per show. And in the interests of our sanity, we limited ourselves to 50 scenes total. We look forward to your angry letters, Supernatural fanatics, Newsroom junkies, and fans (fan?) of The Goldbergs.
1. Breaking Bad
[EP. 14 ”Ozymandias”], AMC
Scene Walt (Bryan Cranston) tries to get the family to run.
Why You could argue that the whole series was building to this moment. Since the first episode, Walt has claimed that he got into selling meth to protect his family. Hank has to die before everyone realizes the truth: The family needs to protect itself from Walt. It’s hard to pick the most devastating shot. Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) throwing a scrawny arm in front of his mom (Anna Gunn) to save her from his dad? Skyler, perfectly framed between a telephone and a set of knives, forced to choose whether to call the cops on her husband or kill him herself? Baby Holly crying as Walt kidnaps her while Skyler, broken, drops to her knees in the middle of the street? Maybe the worst thing about this gruesome scene is that it’s only happening because Skyler believes Walt killed Hank. After all the truly monstrous, evil things he’s lied about, the one thing she’s willing to kill him for is the one thing he didn’t do.
2. Game of Thrones
[EP. 6 ”The Laws of Gods and Men”], HBO
Scene Tyrion’s raging outburst while on trial for his life.
Why Having long endured callous abuse, unjustified mistrust, murderous plots, and cruel manipulations — and that’s just from his own family — Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) finally tells the King’s Landing court just what he thinks of them in an epic tirade that’s equal parts thrilling and self-destructive. ”Every scene with Tyrion, every interaction, was all leading up to this moment,” says writer Bryan Cogman. ”I keep coming back to how piercing his gaze is throughout that speech — he’s just stabbing daggers into every person he’s talking to.”
3. The Good Wife
[EP. 5 ”Hitting the Fan”], CBS
Scene Upon learning that Alicia (Julianna Margulies) is leaving to start her own firm, Will (Josh Charles) storms into her office and sweeps everything off her desk.
Why Fans were clinging to the notion that Will and Alicia belong together, but her act of betrayal was the final blow to their tenuous love affair. Alicia’s decision to make a clean break set into motion the most satisfying — and depressing — season yet of this Emmy-starved drama.
4. True Detective
[EP. 5 ”The Secret Fate of All Life”], HBO
Scene Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) tells interrogators, ”Time is a flat circle,” and that every action — including brutal murders — inevitably repeats.
Why It’s the most perfect (and most quoted) example of the show’s mad-scientist mash-up of character, philosophy, and crime, hauntingly delivered by McConaughey’s world-crushed Cohle.
[EP. 2 ”The Sign of Three”], PBS
Scene Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives his best-man speech for Watson (Martin Freeman).
Why When Sherlock toasts his friends, he makes the wedding guests (and Sherlock viewers) laugh and awww — and solves a few mind-bending mysteries in the process. Best men everywhere, the bar has officially been raised.
6. Orange Is the New Black
[EP. 11 ”Tall Men With Feelings”], NETFLIX
Scene Crazy Eyes’ poignant query.
Why Famous for peeing on the prison floor, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) has always been the comic relief — until she inquires about her nickname. The heartbreaking question made us wonder why we are laughing at all.
[EP. 3 ”So Did the Fat Lady”], FX
Scene Vanessa (Sarah Baker) sets Louie (Louis C.K.) straight on what dating is like for plus-size women.
Why Baker makes Vanessa pity-proof as she unleashes a truth-filled screed. The highlight: her scolding Louie for denying that she’s fat, as if fat is the worst thing he can call her.
8. Masters of Sex
[EP. 6 ”Brave New World”], SHOWTIME
Scene Margaret (Allison Janney) is interviewed to join Masters and Johnson’s sex study.
Why The quiet wife of a closeted college provost painfully realizes in being rejected from the study that she’s never had an orgasm. Janney explains how she connected with her character.
What were you told about the role when you first signed on?
Janney [EPs] Michelle Ashford and Sarah Timberman hadn’t written it yet, but they said this character is in this relationship with her husband and she slowly finds out through this sex study about all these things women experience with sex, and she’s realizing she doesn’t have any sex. Margaret feels so inadequate as a woman and determined to please her husband.
How does playing her compare with your previous television roles?
Janney The West Wing was pretty phenomenal, but this stuff — the story line, the emotional life, the journey — has been challenging and an honor and a joy. Doing the scenes when I don’t have to say anything and Margaret’s learning all this information at her mah-jongg games, that’s just so fun for me.
What do you love most about the show?
Janney I had no idea that our story line was going to resonate as much as it did. I fell in love with Margaret, and I love that other people did too.
[EP. 4 ”Clovis”], HBO
Scene Clovis CEO Craig (Tim Baltz) puts a smart watch — a.k.a. a Smarch — on VP Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Why It is wicked fun to see a pretentiously casual tech CEO try to show off his next-level watch, only to have the moment descend into fruitless handshakes that resemble everything from tree sawing to cow milking.
10. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
[EP. 43 Jan. 8, 2014], COMEDY CENTRAL
Scene Jon Stewart calls out New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Why Leave it to Stewart to take something as pedestrian as Bridgegate and thoroughly undress it in a sly, righteous, mad-as-hell speech that says everything short of ”Argo f—yourself.”
11. House of Cards
[EP. 4 ”Chapter 17”], NETFLIX
Scene Claire (Robin Wright) reveals she got an abortion.
Why What starts as an act of bravery — the vice president’s wife admits on TV that she had an abortion — turns into a master class in media manipulation. Proof that in D.C., nothing is too personal to use for political means.
[EP. 12 ”The Star”], SHOWTIME
Scene Carrie (Claire Danes) inks a star on the CIA’s Memorial Wall to commemorate Brody’s (Damian Lewis) covert sacrifice.
Why Brief and dialogue-free, it’s still the most emotionally devastating scene of the series, aided by Sean Callery’s wistful score.
13. American Horror Story: Coven
[EP. 2 ”Boy Parts”], FX
Scene Supreme witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) meet.
Why As Fiona and Marie size each other up at Laveau’s salon, the undercurrent of danger pulsing between these rivals is trumped only by the thrill of watching Lange and Bassett engage in a thespian throwdown.
14. Saturday Night Live
[EP. 10 Dec. 21, 2013], NBC
Scene The ladies drop a beat about having sex in your childhood room with ”(Do It on My) Twin Bed.”
Why SNL‘s digital shorts have always been more bro than broad, so the first music video to feature the whole female cast was a welcome treat — and one of the season’s flat-out funniest bits. ”We had a Britney or Pussycat Dolls vibe in mind, and that’s an insane look…to see comedians go full sex is the least sexy thing ever,” says Aidy Bryant of the short, which was brainstormed on Tuesday, put to music on Wednesday, shot on Friday, and edited on Saturday.
[EP. 15 ”Mama Said Knock You Out”], ABC
Scene Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Mellie (Bellamy Young) duke it out over who’s to blame for their broken marriage.
Why Everything came out when the long-simmering confrontation between POTUS and FLOTUS exploded, but what wasn’t mentioned — that Fitz’s father raped Mellie — made the argument even more powerful. We can’t decide which was better: Goldwyn’s terrifying outburst or Young’s agonizing restraint.
16. The Mindy Project
[EP. 8 ”You’ve Got Sext”], FOX
Scene Morgan (Ike Barinholtz) and Peter (Adam Pally) hijack Mindy’s (Mindy Kaling) phone for sexting.
Why Kaling’s send-up of rom-coms reached a new level of hilarity thanks to Barinholtz’s and Pally’s performances and the sheer ridiculousness of the sexts in question.
17. Mad Men
[EP. 6 ”The Strategy”], AMC
Scene Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) slow-dance to ”My Way.”
Why In an echo of the after-hours tussle in season 4’s ”The Suitcase,” our booze-loosened heroes take part in an emotional, elegantly plotted dance that demonstrates how, for better or for worse, their souls are inextricably linked.
[EP. 1 ”The Crocodile’s Dilemma”], FX
Scene Hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) talks cop Gus (Colin Hanks) into letting him go.
Why Thornton’s menace is chilling: ”Some roads you shouldn’t go down because maps used to say ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”
19. The Big Bang Theory
[EP. 15 ”The Locomotive Manipulation”], CBS
Scene Sheldon (Jim Parsons) surprises Amy (Mayim Bialik) with a kiss.
Why Over Valentine’s Day dinner, Sheldon launches into a tirade about forced romance before a peck turns into a precious make-out — and reminds us why Parsons deserves his Emmys.
20. The Walking Dead
[EP. 14 ”The Grove”], AMC
Scene Carol (Melissa McBride) kills Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino).
Why From the very first episode of TWD, it’s been clear that even the young are not safe in the apocalypse. But four seasons in, Carol’s decision to shoot her ”adopted” daughter Lizzie is still one of the drama’s most shocking moments.
21. Key & Peele
[EP. 8 ”High on Potenuse”], COMEDY CENTRAL
Scene Elizabethan buddies Lashawnio (Keegan-Michael Key) and Martinzion (Jordan Peele) rave over Othello — at intermission.
Why The duo’s effortlessly portable wit is on full display when they plop their ”Liam Neesons”-loving fanboy personas into Shakespearean times.
22. Silicon Valley
[EP. 3 ”Articles of Incorporation”], HBO
Scene Tech billionaire Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) ignores pleas for emergency funds from start-up execs while studying every item on the Burger King menu…and then explains how cicada cycles will affect sesame seed futures and get them the money they need.
Why It’s a quirky, uneasy scene that ends in comic relief as Gregory schools everyone with his Jedi-like logic. It’s also one of the last that Welch would shoot; he died of lung cancer in December. Here, series co-creator Mike Judge remembers the 48-year-old actor.
”There’s a big tech person who was described to me as almost Asperger-y. He would sit there and mumble something like ‘Okay, we’re going to buy this company, and then we’re going to buy their main customer and supplier, and then we’re going to lower the price’…. People would be taking notes and go, ‘Oh my God, he just made us 60 million dollars’…. When Chris first read for the part, I was just blown away. I knew this was something really special. It made me think about doing a scene like that…. It’s weird to talk about because the whole thing is sad and tragic. I do feel really fortunate that we got the five episodes with him, and I feel like he ended on a high note. Although everything I’ve ever seen him in, he’s been a high note. He was one of a kind.”
23. Sons of Anarchy
[EP. 13 ”A Mother’s Work”], FX
Scene When a chillingly impenetrable Jax (Charlie Hunnam) confronts his wife, Tara (Maggie Siff), in the park, she’s convinced he’s decided to kill her and asks him not to hurt her in front of their young boys.
Why Siff grounds SOA‘s operatic dialogue with the fear, the conviction, and the honesty of a woman finally admitting aloud that she believes her husband has turned into a monster.
24. The Killing
[EP. 10 ”Six Minutes”], AMC
Scene Ray (Peter Sarsgaard) walks toward his execution.
Why If you make it through this scene once, you’ll never watch it again. Prison guards are dragging death-row inmate Ray to be hanged when he glimpses his son through the window. There’s no dialogue. Just looking at Sarsgaard’s face, you can pinpoint the exact moment when Ray’s fear of death turns into a much worse fear for his son’s life.
25. Inside Amy Schumer
[EP. 2 ”I’m So Bad”], COMEDY CENTRAL
Scene Amy’s videogaming experience takes a disturbing turn.
Why Writing about rape might be the hardest thing in comedy. In this sketch Amy is playing a first-person military game when her female-soldier avatar gets raped, unlocking level 25, which is ”just, like, a ton of paperwork.” Later she learns her attacker was found guilty but his commanding officer put him back on duty. Schumer says the writers were inspired by The Invisible War, a doc about sexual assault in the military. ”I loved the idea of using a Call of Duty-type game to highlight that,” Schumer tells EW. ”Those games are dark anyway, but how about we show something that really happens?” Funny? Unfunny? Like all important comedy, it’s both.
26. The Americans
[EP. 9 ”Martial Eagle”], FX
Scene Philip (Matthew Rhys) rages at his daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), after she donates her savings to charity.
Why Rhys turns in a furious, must-watch performance as an underground Russian spy who attacks Paige for giving money to that enemy of the comrades: the church. The subtext is rich — he has killed innocents for a cause she can’t possibly understand — and the dialogue is sharp, including the best claim to martyrdom ever delivered by somebody’s parents: “You respect Jesus but not us?”
[EP. 10 ”Weight”], FX
Scene Danny Crowe (AJ Buckley) tests the 21-Foot Rule on Raylan (Timothy Olyphant).
Why At last we were going to see if a knife-wielding nutjob really would win a duel with a gunslinger if he charged him from a distance of 21 feet or less. But in an abrupt and uproarious twist, Danny takes a few steps, falls headfirst into the grave dug for his beloved dog, Chelsea, and stabs himself through the chin instead. Exec producer Graham Yost will always remember the moment he and Olyphant, who’d pitched the death, first saw director John Dahl’s storyboards. ”There was a giddiness,” Yost explains. ”The way Dahl shot it with those feet sticking up, you know, that’s Elmore [Leonard]. It’s funny and it’s horrifying.” And quintessential Justified.
[EP. 7 ”Beach House”], HBO
Scene The big fight.
Why College friendships don’t last forever, and this brawl between four besties underscores why: Storing up years of resentment, only to tell your friends what you really think of them, can lead to total cruelty — and total hilarity. As Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) says, ”Being honest is fun.”
29. Orphan Black
[EP. 3 ”Mingling Its Own Nature With It”], BBC AMERICA
Scene Cosima watches her clone Jennifer waste away in a video journal.
Why Jennifer Fitzsimmons’ death may have stretched over months, but actress Tatiana Maslany was able to draw a full portrait of her in less than two minutes with a briskly stitched tapestry of confessional recordings.
30. Broad City
[EP. 10 ”The Last Supper”], COMEDY CENTRAL
Scene Abbi’s (Abbi Jacobson) birthday dinner ends with a shellfish disaster.
Why Few shows truly capture what a best friend really is: the person who, even though it’s her birthday, carries your allergy-ravaged body out of an upscale restaurant and delivers you to a cozy hospital bed.
[EP. 4 ”Cooperative Polygraphy”], NBC
Scene Pierce (Chevy Chase) says bye to every character through the executor of his will, Mr. Stone (Walton Goggins).
Why In an episode that showcased what this meta-comedy could do just by sticking all of its characters in a room, the scene proved a crassly touching way to handle a farewell for an actor who’d exited the show.
32. Grey’s Anatomy
[EP. 22 ”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”], ABC
Scene Burke (Isaiah Washington) offers Cristina (Sandra Oh) his job.
Why Hearing her former fiancé admit he can’t work with her for his marriage’s sake is the ultimate validation for the stoic Dr. Yang. And getting one final moment of crackling chemistry between the two was the ultimate parting gift for fans.
33. The Tonight Show
[EP. 46 April 28, 2014], NBC
Scene Jimmy Fallon’s lip-synch battle with Emma Stone.
Why The new prince of late-night deftly pairs his guests with segments that bring out their truest selves. We knew Stone was a talented charmer, but her uncanny lip-synch renditions left us stunned.
34. Jimmy Kimmel Live!
[EP. 14 Feb. 6, 2014], ABC
Scene Celebrities Read Mean Tweets #6.
Why This one — which featured Tim Robbins calling out the bad speller who called him a ”pretensious c—” and Bill Murray chuckling at the tweeter who said he was glad that Murray got shot in Zombieland — contained many favorites. Co-head writer Molly McNearney takes us through the cruel-ing process of assembling the segment.
How do you pick which tweets to use?
McNearney Anytime we book a guest on the show, we search their name on Twitter and pull all of the terrible things written about them. I take out ones that would offend them to a point that they wouldn’t want to come on or just shouldn’t be said on TV. But I keep some mean ones in there. I put the harshest ones at the top and the more gentle ones at the bottom. Some celebrities are comfortable reading the harsh ones. In fact, some guests ask, ”Can we please get another round? These aren’t mean enough.”
McNearney Cate Blanchett wanted meaner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wanted meaner…. Some people want to be in it — Fred Willard, the Killers — and there are no mean tweets about them. I guess it’s a good problem to have.
What’s the meanest tweet about you that you’ve ever read?
McNearney I got one that said, ”You’re really hot for a woman in her 40s,” and I think I was 31.
35. The Returned
[EP. 1 ”Camille”], SUNDANCE TV
Scene A flashback reveals that Camille (Yara Pilartz) and Léna (Jenna Thiam) are actually twins.
Why Camille died on a class trip, while Léna, who stayed home, lived. Years later, Léna is older, but Camille is back from the dead and frozen in time. The scene sums up survivor’s guilt perfectly.
[EP. 12 ”Tome-wan”], NBC
Scene Mason Verger (Michael Pitt) feeds his own face to dogs, then eats his nose.
Why Dr. Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) drugs his unruly patient and encourages him to make a meal of himself in what might be the goriest scene in broadcast history. ”Pitt was so game for whatever, he’s practically giddy in that sequence,” showrunner Bryan Fuller says.
[EP. 8], BBC AMERICA
Scene Beth (Jodie Whittaker) confronts Ellie (Olivia Colman) after learning who killed her son.
Why The pain of two mothers crashes to a tragic climax as Beth comes face-to-face with her friend — who is not just a detective on the case but, as it turns out, also the wife of the murderer — in a darkened field outside Beth’s home. ”How could you not know?” she cries, before walking away. And a devastated Ellie, who once asked the wife of a sex abuser the same question, is left to wonder why she has no answers.
38. Parks and Recreation
[EP. 15 ”The Wall”], NBC
Scene In trying to destroy the wall between Pawnee and Eagleton, Leslie (Amy Poehler) exposes a ”beehole.”
Why When so many elements coalesce — crackling writing, antic acting, BEES! — we’re with Councilman Jamm: ”I’m gonna send this straight to Tosh!”
39. Doctor Who
[50TH-ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL ”The Day of the Doctor”], BBC AMERICA
Scene The return of Tom Baker.
Why There wasn’t a dry eye in the house — at least not in houses inhabited by Whovians of a certain age — when the show’s beloved ’70s-era star made an appearance to chat with Matt Smith’s Time Lord at the end of the special.
[EP. 23 ”Unthinkable”], THE CW
Scene Arrow (Stephen Amell) and Deathstroke’s (Manu Bennett) final fight.
Why This long-awaited throwdown gave fans two fights — one past and one present — combined with a sinking ship, creating an unforgettable (and highly physical) conclusion to their rivalry. Arrow did not fail his city, and the show’s stunt team did not fail its fans.
41. The Colbert Report
[EP. 116 June 19, 2013], COMEDY CENTRAL
Scene Stephen Colbert eulogizes his mother.
Why Colbert put his blowhard character aside to pay heartfelt tribute: ”It may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies, the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.”
[EP. 3 ”Celery”], IFC
Scene Steve Buscemi stars as a struggling celery salesman/brand strategist desperate to make the vegetable seem as hip as kale.
Why Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s savvy the-way-we-live-now lampoon of the modern foodie’s fickle tastes — complete with nods to everything from Glengarry Glen Ross to Grisham thrillers — sucker punched us so hard, we spit out our pickled ramps in amazement. The sketch, nearly cinematic in scope, made excellent use of Buscemi — and will forever make us more cautious about going to the farmer’s market.
[EP. 18 ”The Offer”], NBC
Scene Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter) pick up Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger’s, after his field trip is cut short.
Why The only thing more agonizing than Max’s revelation that he feels like ”a freak” is the look on the faces of his parents, who sit helpless in the front seat.
[EP. 5 ”Looking for the Future”], HBO
Scene Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raúl Castillo) muse about life on a date at the planetarium.
Why This tenderly written, understated scene captures the flirtation of a modern gay couple and realistically discusses sex with a comic lightness that never feels derisive.
45. The Blacklist
[EP. 9 ”Anslo Garrick”], NBC
Scene Red (James Spader) tells an injured Donald (Diego Klattenhoff) why it’s not their time to die.
Why What began as another TV procedural has blossomed into this year’s breakout hit, all due to Spader, who dazzles with his effortless magnetism and keen ability to make Red relatable, like in this moment in a cell.
46. Bates Motel
[EP. 10 ”The Immutable Truth”], A&E
Scene Norma (Vera Farmiga) stops Norman (Freddie Highmore) from suicide.
Why The Psycho prequel has built to this intensely acted moment, culminating in an incestuous kiss. ”That was Freddie’s idea,” EP Kerry Ehrin reveals to EW. ”It scared me at first…. [But] I think they got away with it.”
[EP. 13 ”Archer Vice: Arrival/Departure”], FX
Scene Lana is visited by Archer as she feeds and bonds with her new baby of unknown paternity.
Why The season ends with the mother — or should we say daddy? — of all cliff-hangers when Lana announces, ”Sterling Archer, I’d like you to meet your daughter, Abbiejean.”
48. The Simpsons
[EP. 20 ”Brick Like Me”], FOX
Scene Homer realizes he’s stuck in a LEGO world because he’s afraid of Lisa growing up — and outgrowing him.
Why Homer offers up some classic blunder-headed thinking (Marge: ”Homey, ask yourself, Can you really live in a paradise if you know it’s just pretend?” Homer: ”Marge, who would give up eating steak in the Matrix to go slurp goo in Zion?”), and his juvenile joy is effectively illustrated through consequence-free LEGO magic: He kicks off his head and takes down Chief Wiggum’s helicopter by throwing a parking meter at it, only to have the resulting mess tossed into a plastic container, to be rebuilt another day. Indestructible, like The Simpsons.
49. Sleepy Hollow
[EP. 13 ”Bad Blood”], FOX
Scene The epic nine-minute reveal at the end of season 1.
Why Finales are full of hyperbolic teases from shilling actors, but Hollow’s cast wasn’t lying: No one saw this coming. Sin eater Henry Parrish (John Noble) is actually the son of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse. Our jaws remain in 1781.
50. Trophy Wife
[EP. 7 ”The Date”], ABC
Scene Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) plays beer pong to get an embarrassing photo removed from ”Instant-Gram.”
Why The vicious doctor is never funnier than when she’s trying to bridge a generational gap, and in a season of brilliant one-liners by Harden, this showdown was brimming with the best. (R.I.P. Trophy Wife.)
EW.COM If you missed any of these moments, you can still catch them online. Watch the scenes — and find out more about what went into making them from the actors and writers themselves — at ew.com/bestscenes.