I've always been a sucker for flashback episodes. And bottle episodes. And musical episodes. And alternate realities. Some of those devices are used as gimmicks, but when done right, they reveal new points of view and insights which elevate the nature of our usual television programming. That’s why a good chunk of the best television episodes to air so far this year employ them, especially in genre shows which feel more free to play with form and structure.
Check out our list of what has already made a mark this year, and see which ones you agree with, which you don’t, and which you need to catch up with. Disagree? Feel something was more deserving but didn't make the cut? State your case in the comments below.
Before we begin, though, an honorable mention for The Magicians, Season 3, Episode 9, "All That Josh." In all fairness, I was hesitant to include any SYFY shows on this list because the assumption would be favoritism. But The Magicians pulled off a musical episode that deserves some love. Although it's not the same as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s "Once More with Feeling" — because, hey, it's cover songs versus originals — it still works on a character and narrative level while also elevating everything, literally. (Singing together is a quick trip to unity, the key to the next key on their quest.) Just listen to The Magicians' version of "Under Pressure" and watch who sings which lyric and why. You'll be floating away on Eliot and Margo's flying ship by the end.
With that, here are our choices for best sci-fi, horror and fantasy TV episodes of 2018 so far (in order of airdate).
Electric Dreams Season 1, Episode 10, "Kill All Others" (January 12, Amazon Prime)
Each episode of this anthology series took one of Dick’s short stories and re-imagined it. In this case, writer/director Dee Rees took "The Hanging Stranger" as a jumping-off point to give us an allegory for our times. Mexico, the United States, and Canada have merged into one great "mega-nation" called MexUsCan, theoretically a democracy because people can vote in an upcoming election — but how much of a choice is there, when only one candidate is running? Vera Farmiga, who plays the candidate with an eerie mix of warmth and steel, makes a strange comment during a televised address: "Kill all others." Should anyone dare question that proposal — even just to ask if that really happened — puts them at risk to become branded an "Other," an enemy of the state, and an easily brainwashed, compliant populace turns on itself. It's a sci-fi protest song and necessary viewing.
The X-Files Season 11, Episode 4, 'The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat' (January 24, Fox)
In its 11th season, The X-Files did what only The X-Files can do, and deconstructed itself – both recalling better days and commenting on the current political climate fostered by the Trump administration. How can the truth be out there in this era of fake news? Brian Huskey plays Reggie Something, who calls upon Foxy and Sculls to prove that he’s real — and that "they" are manipulating memories. Is it a government conspiracy? Is it an alternate universe? Did Reggie actually start the X-Files at the FBI?! Cue the retcon history where Reggie was in several of the biggest moments of the show, including a meta-meta moment where he shoots the shapeshifter Eddie who was pretending to be Mulder — and who was played by none other than writer Darin Morgan, who gave us this episode. It's goofy, it's punchy, and it's got a point to make about cover-ups and the pliability of memory. Now if I could just remember what that was...
Altered Carbon, Season 1, Episode 7, 'Nora Inu' (February 2, Netflix)
As Takeshi Novacs recovers from a cage fight, he remembers his time in past bodies and different worlds — including protecting his sister Reileen as a child, signing up as a CTAC soldier, reuniting with his sister and escaping, training with the Envoys, and falling in love with the revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). His sister (Dichen Lachman) seems to be along for the ride, but she’s not a true believer, and she’s got some major jealousy issues when it comes to sharing her brother with anyone. Tak failing to address that has tragic consequences. Really, Tak is slow on the uptake with a couple of other things this episode — why was it, again, that anyone thought he’d be a good detective? Part of the pleasure of this episode is figuring Rei out before he does.
Counterpart, Season 1, Episode 7, 'The Sincerest Form of Flattery' (March 4, Starz)
In one of the best new shows of the year, characters have "counterparts" in a parallel dimension, some of whom are able to play double-agent and pretend to be the duplicate of themselves from the other side for a particular mission. As we learn in this pulling-back-the-curtains episode, replacing someone on the other side of this Cold War between the two dimensions can also be a lifetime’s work, one which requires great sacrifices — such as giving up the ability to ever be yourself again, or to ever know love. Without spoiling the big reveal in this episode, let's just say it's shocking and heartbreaking, particularly for the children who become collateral damage.
Marvel's Jessica Jones, Season 2, Episode 7, 'I Want Your Cray Cray' (March 8, Netflix)
This look back at Jessica's life — and her mother's — is both playful and tragic. Could Trish's video win a VMA? (Probably, given its Britney Spears-level of inanity.) But while we might laugh at where Trish wanted to take her career, there's nothing funny about how Jessica lost yet another person she cared about at the hands of someone who was looking to protect her. Was Stirling really willing to pimp out Jessica's super-strength, or, as he says, just trying to get the guys to leave him alone? We'll never know, but the aftermath gives us some of Krysten Ritter's best acting and a touching scene between the two friends who are each other's real family.
The Terror Season 1, Episode 9, 'The C, The C, The Open C' (April 10, AMC)
The terror in The Terror isn't just because some supersized and possibly supernatural polar bear is hunting down the stranded men — it's also the slow, creeping dread of realizing you're running out of food, and the main options are lead-poisoned food tins which are causing sickness and madness, boot leather, or... each other. The moment when cannibalism becomes the most viable option to survive, when the crew have to find various ways to rationalize it to themselves, when choosing death seems the kindest option. Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies both give stirring performances as captains who know they can no longer offer much of any hope, humanity, or even survival to their men. Death comes for us all, and no show faces that more than this one.
Legion Season 2, Episode 4, 'Chapter 12' (April 24, FX)
Some might point you to the multiple realities episode where David lives a variety of lives, but this one, where he spends most of his time inside Syd's head, has more heart. Director Ellen Kuras — who was the DP on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — knows how memory works, and takes us through several iterations of Syd's defining moments: her being born, spooning with her mother (guest star Lily Rabe), getting bullied at school and swapping bodies with a boy to turn the tables on the mean girls, moshing at a punk show, swapping bodies with her mother so she can have shower sex. Each time David tries to guess and gets it wrong, Syd tells him, "Again." It's his and our best chance at understanding the joys and sorrows of being someone Syd, who swaps bodies with anyone she touches.
Lucifer Season 3, Episode 26, 'Once Upon a Time' (May 28, Fox)
This was an episode that could have worked as a series finale if Netflix hadn't swooped in to save the day after Fox canceled the show. It's an alternative history of Lucifer's story — what if he hadn't met Chloe and teamed up with her detective squad? — with God (an impish Neil Gaiman) as the ultimate omniscient narrator: "Wouldn't you do the same, in my shoes? After all, a parent just wants what's best for their child." (Reminder to Netflix: ask Neil Gaiman to continue playing God, please).
The Handmaid's Tale Season 2, Episode 8, 'Women's Work' (June 6, Hulu)
For a brief shining moment, it seemed like Serena and June could become actual allies. While the Commander was recovering in the hospital and Serena took over his paperwork, the two women worked well together — Serena as a writer, June as her editor. Then the Commander came home, and though they're supposed to return to their former roles, Serena's had a taste of decision-making again and doesn't want to give that up. Especially when it could actually benefit others — the baby who is failing to thrive, the parents who don’t know what to do, the Handmaid who wants to say goodbye. Serena thinks that the best chance for the baby is a former neonatal specialist — who happens to be a woman — and she risks everything to forge the Commander's signature to request her services. It's a revolutionary act in a system which has forbidden women to work in that capacity. But really, all this baby needed was her mother's love. To provide that, too, is a revolutionary act, undermining the entire Handmaid system. If Gilead is as pro-baby as they claim, why would they separate mothers and babies? It's a touching and thought-provoking episode.
Westworld Season 2, Episode 8, 'Kiksuya' (June 10, HBO)
In one of the most elegant episodes of Westworld, we get a deep dive into a Ghost Nation character: Akecheta (played by Zahn McClarnon). Akecheta has been awake longer than Dolores or Maeve, and has been trying to share that knowledge with his tribe and other hosts for ages. He's been able to avoid having his memory wiped because hosts are only updated when they die (sloppy work, Delos!), and he's been able to resist his warrior programming to become a man of peace. If suffering makes the hosts more "real," self-aware Akecheta has suffered plenty — and with this rendering of his story (mostly in the Lakota language), we suffer along with him. It's simple and beautiful, and gives the show back its heart.