The best TV episodes of 2016

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Syfy Wire Staff
Jan 4, 2017

It’s been a great year for TV, but what were the best episodes of all the genre fare out there? 

We’ve taken into account everything from cinematography, to writing, to acting to the story itself to break down the best episodes of 2016. They run the gamut from high drama, to goofy fun, so if you’re looking to fill out your watch list with some treasures — start here.

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Arrow - “Invasion”

"It's real enough.”
That line from Thea to Oliver as she thinks about staying in an alternate reality where her parents are still alive, could sum up why Arrow's 100th episode was so powerful. This hour walked the delicate tightrope of not only serving as a lynchpin in the "Invasion" mega-crossover, but as a celebration of the show that launched the Arrowverse. It did so in spectacular fashion. This was fan service of the best kind, with everything we would want to see: great cameos, high stakes and of course, awesomely choreographed fight scenes.  The "It's A Wonderful Life" take may not have been the most original idea, but it allowed us to see the happiest versions of these characters we care so much for. Oliver was happy, truly happy...until he realized it wasn't real. There may not be a more touching moment in the entire series than that exchange between Oliver and Thea. Ultimately, just like Oliver, Speedy makes the right decision, even if it does cause her great pain. And we see these characters we've followed for five seasons move forward, despite their personal pain. Because that's what heroes do. -Mike Avila

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Ash vs. Evil Dead - “Second Coming”

The second season of AvED on Starz was even more of a gamble. While the first season was primarily about the joy of seeing beloved cult figure Ashley J. Williams return for an adventure after a long absence, the second season had the task of keeping the goodwill and momentum going – while also doing significant world-building. The team of Bruce Campbell, Rob Tapert, and Sam Raimi succeeded by upping the ante on horror and spectacle, but not while sacrificing fun (and friggin’ weird) storytelling and character development. In particular, the trippy time-traveling, altered timeline season finale was a high point. The “fair fight” between Ash and big bad Baal was earned, and had real stakes. But it was still perfectly ridiculous. And the reveal of Ash as a hero in Elk Grove presents big questions for Season 3 (i.e. I just don’t buy that this present day is to be believed). I cannot laud this show without giving kudos to Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago in their respective roles as Kelly and Pablo. Everyone loves Bruce Campbell, and again, we all initially showed up for Season 1 to see him. Then we got excited for the involvement of Lucy Lawless. And they have delivered in spades. But the acting by Santiago and DeLorenzo (who have wisely been given a lot to do with great arcs) has greatly expanded the appeal and life of the show. Ash vs Evil Dead felt like a true ensemble show this season, with “Second Coming” being an excellent culmination of that. Also: That was one helluva implosion of the cabin! -Aaron Sagers

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - “Deals With Our Devils”

Having part of the team be invisible is an old sci-fi trope, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to put its own spin on the cliche. In “Deals With Our Devils,” half of Coulson’s team is phased into a different dimension while the rest of the team searches for them. They use this narrative device to tell the story from different perspectives, with pieces of the puzzle getting filled out with each act as the story unfolds. They use this tool to maximum effect, and even sprinkle in some subtle visual cues with the alt-dimension getting darker as the episode goes along. We also get some excellent Ghost Rider action, and even get to see fan favorite Mack take on the glowing skull as a temporary Spirit of Vengeance. -Trent Moore

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12 Monkeys - “Lullaby”

While time loops have been done on TV before, “Lullaby” managed to deliver one of 12 Monkeys’ best episodes of the series so far and one of 2016’s finest hour of television. As Cassie goes back in time to 2020 on a mission to assassinate Dr. Jones, and Cole goes after Cassie in order to stop her, time may or may not have been on their side as the two get stuck in a deadly time loop that finally brought Cassie and Cole to some semblance of closeness again (until it was undone by that ending, that is). The episode delivered some smart storytelling as they have to work out why they keep repeating the same day over and over again and find a way out of their redux problem with a surprising solution. It’s also peppered with humor thanks to Jennifer Goines’ Groundhog Day jokes, high stakes or not. -Nathalie Caron

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Colony - "Zero Day”

In what could have been a season finale it was so filled with machinations and revelation, "Zero Day" instead set up just how fractured the Bowman family has become in the wake of their decisions. Will (Josh Holloway) is in full pursuit of Broussard (Tori Kittles) and his people, one of whom he now knows is his wife, Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies).  Meanwhile, Katie has doubled-down on her Resistance work willing to spill blood for the cause. The moment they meet in the backyard and realistically fight over their now diametrically opposing views is real and genuinely painful in the hands of these fantastic actors. Everyone is a casualty to the Raps invasion and there are no safe zones. Great action, great character dilemmas and we get to see a Host for the first time in the last seconds. -Tara Bennett

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Doctor Who - “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

A year off from being a full-time showrunner did Steven Moffat an awful lot of good. As he prepares to finish his final season of Doctor Who as the Grand Moff he has been dogged by criticisms that his writing has flagged over the years from the stress of running one of the most famous shows in world history. So how relieving that, with the time away, Moffat was able to pen one of the best Christmas specials Who has ever had AND one of the best Capaldi episodes, too. Not only does Moffat convincingly explain why the Doctor was away from our screens in 2016 within the narrative, but it actually makes sense. Capaldi's Doctor is more charming than ever, Matt Lucas shines as Nardole, and the supporting cast actually has dimensions. The plot does a superhero story that's lightyears better than anything Warner Bros. and DC have offered this year. Heck, even the baddies have motivations that make sense. All that, plus a squeaky toy that features prominently in one of the funniest scenes of 2016. Dare I say it? I'm actually hopeful that Moffat's final series of Doctor Who will be, gasp, great! -Dany Roth

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The Flash - “Flashpoint”

There was a lot riding on the Season 3 premiere of The Flash, and “Flashpoint” did about as good a job as it could of paying it off. The episode introduces us to the famed Flashpoint universe, created when Barry goes back in time to save his mother and creates an alternate reality. We get alternate versions of much of the cast, and best of all, Barry has to team up with his archenemy Reverse-Flash to set things (mostly) right. The episode also introduces us to Wally Wells’ Kid Flash, and gives us our first team-up of the iconic duo. “Flashpoint” was a more intimate take on the comic storyline, but it cast Barry as the villain of his own story due to his meddling with time and the effect it has on his friends’ lives, which was one heck of a brave creative choice. -Trent Moore

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Game of Thrones - “Battle of the Bastards”

Over the course of six seasons, Game of Thrones has given us some epic battles. But here, we get two bloodbaths for the price of one. In one, Daenerys unleashes her dragons on an attacking navy. That, however, was overshadowed by the battle between Ramsay Bolton and Jon Snow, over Sansa’s return, a fight of good against wild-eyed evil. The battle, which was ripped from the pages of history (see the Battle of Cannae), took 25 days to film, and each second of screen time is a tribute to the agony of war and the glory of cinematography. Casualties include poor Rickon Stark and the giant Wun Wun. Ramsay Bolton also dies. But in the end, it was Sansa, not Jon, who kills Ramsay. By feeding him to his dogs. Egads. -Carol Pinchefsky

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Game of Thrones - "The Door”

Game of Thrones has had an untold backstory ever since the first scene in the first episode, where we saw a member of the Night’s Watch fleeing the White Walkers (a.k.a. rampaging ice zombies from the north). Finally, we learn their true origin. The White Walkers were created by the elven-like Children of the Forest…to protect them from us. But the reveal of that mystery isn’t the most jaw-dropping moment of “The Door.” That belongs to the origin, and the fate, of the simple-minded Hodor, who was once a stableboy named Wylim. In the present, Bran Stark has cast his mind to the past and does not realize that he, his companion Meera, and the Children of the Forest, are under attack by the White Walkers. As Meera drags the unconscious Bran away from the slaughter, she screams at Hodor to “Hold the door” against the Walkers. Bran’s mind sends the message back, which replaces Wylim’s thoughts. We watched as the young Wylim slowly but surely lost his mind and “hold the door” merges into the one word he can now speak—Hodor. It was one of the most painful scenes we’ve seen in a show that consistently brings the pain. -Carol Pinchefsky

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The Good Place - “Pilot”

Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur returned to workplace comedy, just in heaven this time. Unlike his ambitious and utterly likable Leslie Knope, Schur did a 180 with anti-heroine, Eleanor Shellstrop (played perfectly by Kirsten Bell), crafting a newly-deceased jerk who accidentally gets sent to the "Good Place." She spends the pilot being grossed out by all the nice around her until she figures out she better get hip to this good person crap in order to stay. Witty, cynical and often goofy, The Good Place welcomes the audience into a plausible construction of the afterlife full of Fro-Yo, with an even more flawed and plausible character to root for in Eleanor. -Tara Bennett

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Game of Thrones - "The Winds of Winter”

Game of Thrones has always presented an interesting storytelling tightrope to walk. Spend too much time in one place and you risk boring the audience, even though sometimes you just have to spend a full hour at The Wall. Jump around too much and you sacrifice substance for speed. Then, of course, there's the ever-present fear of giving away too much too soon. With its Season 6 finale, the series demonstrated a near perfect tightrope routine. So much happens in an hour, and yet no one feels underserved by the lightning pace. The tragedies of King's Landing are balanced by the triumphs of The North, and each shocking death is matched with an intriguing revelation. All of this, anchored by some of the series' best performances (led by the sublime Lena Headey) builds to a climax that tilts the show's status quo on its axis, setting the stage for one hell of an endgame as all of the central players assemble for the ultimate war of kings and queens. This is Game of Thrones at its brutal best. -Matthew Jackson

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Gotham - “Mad Grey Dawn”

Gotham is a dark, kooky show that gets darker and stranger as the series progresses. Even though it’s ostensibly about a young Bruce Wayne, to me, the stand-out character in the show is Penguin. Played by the outstanding Robin Lord Taylor, he’s typically reigning in hell or serving in another hell, plotting his next new rise. At this point in the show, Penguin had lost his viciousness after his time in Arkham Asylum. It’s at this point, in “Mad Grey Dawn,” that he meets his long-lost father, Elijah Van Dahl. Considering the only person he ever showed affection for was his mother, I'm not surprised that Penguin would fall in paternal love. But I’m surprised by how deeply he was touched, and that in turn touched me. When Elijah tells his son, “You’re home,” Penguin collapses in his arms and sobs—and I had to fight back tears. I knew Gotham would be full of surprises. I never thought it would surprise me emotionally. -Carol Pinchefsky

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Jessica Jones - "AKA Sin Bin"

Akin to a bottle episode once Jessica (Krysten Ritter) seals Kilgrave (David Tennant) into the vault, the cat and mouse gets deadly serious as the pair confront and manipulate one another between glass. It's a fraught hour of machinations and questionable decisions (at times) but the personal stakes are ratcheted up to a heart-racing degree with tragic results when Jessica's tormentor takes another life, and gets away once more. -Tara Bennett

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Outlander - “Faith”

After several hours of proverbial chess playing in Paris during the start of the season, "Faith" gives Caitriona Balfe (Claire) an episode to break our hearts in the best way. The episode charts Claire's devastating miscarriage and the impact it has on her marriage to Jamie, who is locked up in the Bastille for most of the hour. In the aftermath of her losses, she makes the decision to seek the king's help in freeing her husband. The episode is all over the place touching on the time travel that put Claire in the past, as well as the emotional war we wage with the ones we love and how to overcome loss. Sam Heughan and Balfe do stellar work, as does writer Toni Graphia is balancing the disparate story elements into a cohesive theme. -Tara Bennett

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People of Earth - “Pilot”

Alien abduction is usually a topic saved for The X-Files, or as a point of derision for anyone who dares to admit to being a victim. Creator David Jenkins humanizes the entire topic in his sweet and subversive series that uses Wyatt Cenac's cynical journalist, Ozzie Graham, as our entry into a world both he, and we question, from the start. The support group of divine comedians from Ana Gasteyer to Brian Huskey don't make fun of these people, but make them relatable despite their weirdness. Plus, the introduction of the three bickering aliens who actually are reaching out to humanity is comedy gold worth the return visits. -Tara Bennett

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Star Wars Rebels - “Twilight of the Apprentice, Part Two”

Part two of the Rebels Season 2 finale on Disney XD was not only one of the best television episodes from 2016, but also one of the most ambitious. It tied together not only the storylines from the season, but connected the show to Clone Wars, the prequels, and the original trilogy in an epic throw down. After being drawn to the Sith world of Malachor to seek answers, Kanan’s failures as a master to apprentice (and, let’s face it, Dark Side-leaning) Ezra resulted in the boy being manipulated by “Old Master” Maul (Sam Witwer returning to voice the villain).

Forming a reluctant trio to acquire the Holocron and fight off three Inquisitors, Maul, Kanan, and Ezra each get excellent battle sequences while essentially fighting over the soul of the Jedi-in-training. Maul’s corruption of Ezra begins to sink in, and by episode’s end, Kanan has been blinded by the horned-one. But the best part of “Twilight” is the confrontation between Ahsoka and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones!). With the erstwhile Anakin about to end young Ezra, Ahsoka swoops in to take on her former master. The scenes between the two are heartbreaking and pulse-pounding. After all, Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein) has become one of the most beloved “new” characters in the Star Wars mythos, and it was exceptional having her return as the alias of Fulcrum. But while we know how Vader’s journey ends, hers remains a mystery. Written by Dave Filoni, Simon Kinberg, and Steven Melching, “Twilight of the Apprentice” was a great “Empire Strikes Back” episode for Rebels. It answered some questions, but posed many more, and left things on a downer note. -Aaron Sagers

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Stranger Things - "Holly Jolly"

In a series with a string of fantastic episodes, "Holly Jolly" stands out for the loss of Barb, which reinforced the terrifying stakes of being caught in the Upside-Down, and Joyce's (Winona Ryder) frenetic purpose in figuring out how to communicate with Will. Her Christmas light solution launched a thousand Halloween costumes in October and easily rivals Richard Dreyfuss' mashed potato moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There's more harrowing character development and backstory with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), plus a killer twist at the very end. -Tara Bennett

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The Walking Dead - "The Well”

Season 7 has been a rough one for the series but once you got past the wince-inducing violence of the season premiere and Negan's bat, the show got back to doing what it does best in its follow-up episode where Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol (Melissa McBride) find themselves in a new, benevolent community run by the very theatrical King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and his Siberian tiger, Shiva.  The episode was a character piece that was thoughtful, funny and flat out interesting. There was hope in the heart of this narrative and it reminded the audience about what really keeps us coming back for more — the characters and their journeys. -Tara Bennett

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Westworld - “The Bicameral Mind”

After Lost and Battlestar Galactica, where mysteries were strung out for season after season, it’s gratifying to not have my expectations crushed with banal answers, or worse, no answers at all. Westworld restores my faith in the premise that one show can ask genuinely mystifying questions and provide satisfying, rational answers. In this episode, much was revealed: the reason the Man in Black sought to torment Dolores. Who the Man in Black really is. Whether or not Hosts can achieve consciousness. But even with answers, the series ends on a cliffhanger that promises to rewrite the premise of the show. In other words, these oft-quoted "violent delights" will have a violent new beginning. -Carol Pinchefsky

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The X-Files - "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster"

While The X-Files return overall didn't achieve a fan or critical consensus, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster" was the one episode everyone agreed featured the best performances and captured the spirit of the original run of the series. There were fan easter eggs (Queequeg and that stoner couple!), a case that was classic in construction and revelation, Duchovny and Anderson at their most charming, plus a episode stealing guest spot by Rhys Darby as the creature. Funny and touching, it reminded us why we love the show and the characters. -Tara Bennett

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Luke Cage - “Manifest”

The old adage that a hero is only as good as his adversary was proven true once again in the seventh episode of Luke Cage, “Manifest.” This incredible hour of television focused on Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard, and Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard give masterful performances. We finally got to see what life was like growing up with Harlem’s infamous Queenpin Mama Mabel. We learned that Cornell was pushed into the deep end of the crime pool by Mabel and away from music, which was once his true passion. The big shocker came with the realization that Cottonmouth was not the true villain of this pair. It was the twisted and tormented Mariah. The moment where she snaps and beats her cousin to death with a mic stand is one of the major TV shockers of the year. It’s so good, the Judas Bullet taking down Luke at the very end of this episode almost seemed anti-climactic. -Mike Avila

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The Expanse - "CQB"

Part of what makes The Expanse so unique is how it’s a hybrid of multiple genres. Yes, it’s science fiction. But the space opera is as much a political drama and noir detective story as it is anything else. And "CQB" manages to balance all of those components perfectly while also giving us an action packed, space battle that we haven’t had on TV since Battlestar Galactica. The episode is beautifully shot, the set design is awe inspiring, and the special effects are literally mind-blowing. I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen the show yet ( in which case, what are you waiting for?) but "CQB" really played out how much is at stake at every turn for the crew and how during war, nothing is certain except death. -Cher Martinetti