As the entire internet fell in love with The Last of Us‘ Bill and Frank this week, a side conversation broke out: how wild is it for a show to devote its third episode ever to a standalone story? In its third week of airing, HBO’s hit adaptation of the video game franchise panned away from the main narrative to spend the majority of its 80-minute runtime fleshing out and sweetening the backstory of a side character from the game — and it paid off massively. And when TV shows swing for the fences in this way, it often does. Whether it’s in the first or the final season, luring audiences away from the grind of endless serialisation and cliffhangers to tell a self-contained story can make for some of the most satisfying viewing.
A side note on labels: As Vulture’s Kathryn Van Arendonk has pointed out(Opens in a new window), some folks have referred to these as “bottle episodes”. Sometimes a standalone episode may also be a bottle episode, but not all of them are just because they are largely self-contained stories — in a bottle episode, it’s the characters who are contained(Opens in a new window), not the narrative. Van Arendonk suggested “departure episodes” for those instalments that break with the usual storytelling of a series, whether it’s focusing solely on one character, group, or subplot, an episode-length flashback, or even a musical episode.
‘The Last of Us’ changed Bill and Frank’s story, here’s why
Here, we’ve focused on episodes that really can be enjoyed without the context of the episodes that became before it. There are anthology shows where pretty much every episode is like this — they don’t count here. There are episodic and serialised shows designed for new viewers to be able to drop in and pick up the thread of the story at any point; and there are great episodes of TV where someone goes on a self-contained journey that still simply doesn’t land without the broader context of their arc and character development (e.g. Breaking Bad‘s classic bottle episode “Fly”, directed masterfully by Rian Johnson).
These are not those. These are episodes that, even if you’ve never seen the show they’re from, you can go and watch right now and enjoy the stories they tell, like a really short-ass movie. If you love what you see, by all means, go back and check out the rest — or don’t. There’s a lot of TV out there.
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
While not technically a true standalone episode, as it starts and ends with Joel and Ellie’s continuing journey, “Long Long Time” delivers one of the greatest single-episode arcs of recent years. “Long Long Time” chronicles the relationship between survivors Bill and Frank, who manage to fall in love and build a fulfilling life at the end of the world. Anchored by phenomenal performances by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, this episode is the apocalyptic television equivalent of the Up “Married Life” montage — sweet and devastating in equal measures. The episode may have just aired, but it’s already one for the ages. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Reporter
Where to watch: The Last of Us airs Sundays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
Credit: Apple TV+
Exactly halfway through Mythic Quest‘s chaotically funny, nine-episode debut season, the show slowed down for the devastating one-off flashback to the early days of the video game industry. It follows twenty years in the groundbreaking career of a married creative team, known to us only as Beans (Cristin Milioti) and Doc (Jake Johnson), and the eponymous game that makes and eventually breaks them. The simple genius of Dark Quiet Death, the game, makes “A Dark Quiet Death”, the episode, strips the main story’s theme of constant, messy tension between creativity and commerce down to what is essentially a two-hander — but the episode’s only connection to the wider world of MQ is a Dark Quiet Death shirt that a character wears in the present day. If you loved Gabrielle Zevin’s 2022 book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, give this a watch ASAP. — Caitlin Welsh, Australia Editor
Where to watch: Mythic Quest is now streaming on Apple TV+.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
Girls, Season 2, episode 5, and Season 6, episode 3, “One Man’s Trash”/”American Bitch”
While plenty of people might nominate “The Panic In Central Park” as their favourite one-Girl-only Girls episode, its reliance on callbacks to Marnie’s series-long journey means it doesn’t quite work as a standalone as well as these two. Popping up in the second and last seasons respectively, both pair Hannah (creator Lena Dunham) with a well-known, older male actor for a talky two-hander. In the first, twentysomething Hannah spends a weekend hanging out and getting naked with a newly separated, Ken-doll handsome doctor (Patrick Wilson) in his fancy brownstone – a sort of anti-romantic Before Sunrise where she gets to try on a life she’s not sure if she wants.
And in “American Bitch”, she’s invited into another man’s house, this time for a confrontation: middle-aged writer Chuck (Matthew Rhys) wants a little chat about a piece Hannah wrote about his sexual harassment allegations, but the two find themselves connecting as writers from different generations. Airing mere months before the Me Too movement was in full swing, it’s among the smartest, most nuanced scripts of the show’s entire run and could almost work as a stage play — until the perfectly surreal final shot. – C.W.
Where to watch: Girls is now streaming on HBO Max.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
BoJack Horseman, Season 3, episode 4, “Fish Out Of Water”
It’s one of the BoJack Horseman episodes that fans bring up a lot, the self-contained odyssey under the sea, written by Elijah Aron and Jordan Young. In order to make BoJack’s (Will Arnett’s) big comeback movie Secretariat a legitimate awards contender, “Oscar Whisperer” publicist Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett) needs to send him to a major film festival. As Cannes and Sundance have barred BoJack for his characteristically unwelcome comments, he’s off to the Pacific Ocean Film Festival (POFF), the biggest underwater film festival in the world. BoJack has one job: get to the premiere on time. But there’s a spanner in the works, as fired Secretariat director Kelsey Jannings is also attending, so his goal instead becomes first avoiding her in true BoJack style, then tracking her down and making things right. What follows is a chaotic journey through the bottom of the ocean toward appreciating connection and asking for forgiveness, whether it’s received or not.
All the details in that ‘Bojack Horseman’ whiteboard scene you may have missed
With gloopy, dreamy music from Jesse Novak and a muddled audio soundscape, the episode is completely set underwater where communicating by speech is unavailable to BoJack, who wears a bubble helmet to breathe. This means the majority of the episode has almost no dialogue, with all communication done by gestures, body language, written words, and sound effects. Titled “Fish Out of Water,” the episode sends BoJack into complete culture shock, as he’s plunged into a world where he doesn’t speak the language or hasn’t bothered to read up on local customs. But when he’s thrown way off course by a lost, babbling seahorse baby, BoJack sees way more of the bottom of the ocean than he bargained for. There’s one particularly gorgeous sequence in which the wee seahorse gets him out of a deep, dark sea cave through bouncing light and sound. Stunnin’. – Shannon Connellan, U.K. Editor
Where to watch: BoJack Horseman is now streaming on Netflix.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
Not every character is capable of carrying an episode of television all by themselves, but Avatar‘s Zuko is no ordinary character. Throughout “Zuko Alone,” we learn about his relationship with his mother and see him reckon with what the Fire Nation has done to the Earth Kingdom. It’s a perfect opportunity to explore his inner conflict between doing the right thing and doing what his father expects of him. The ensuing episode is mature, introspective, and a major turning point for Avatar. If you couldn’t see Zuko’s redemption arc coming before “Zuko Alone,” this solidified his upcoming (yet still emotionally complicated) hero’s journey. — B.E.
Where to watch: Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
Barry, Season 2, episode 5, “ronny/lilly”
Credit: Aaron Epstein/HBO
All hell breaks loose in Barry when hitman-turned-actor Barry’s target Ronny turns out to be a martial artist master. Then, even more hell breaks loose when Ronny’s young daughter Lilly turns up and beats him down with an otherworldly intensity. As Barry wrestles with his moral code — is he going to have to kill a child? — Lilly growls, bites faces, and jumps onto car roofs, making for an episode as surreal as it is darkly funny. “ronny/lily” is a violent ride through suburbia that never lets up, pushing reminders of Barry’s dark past on him with explosive results. All hail “feral mongoose” Lilly for putting this excellence in motion. — B.E.
Where to watch: Barry is now streaming on HBO Max.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
Doctor Who, Season 3, episode 10, “Blink”
It’s terrifying to realize what you could lose in the blink of an eye. In one of this beloved Britsh series’ most chilling episodes, clever Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan, pre-An Education) is tasked via cryptic messages from the stuck-in-time Doctor (David Tennant) to combat a mysterious new threat to mankind. “Don’t blink,” he warns earnestly via a DVD dispatch, “Blink and you’re dead!” In a unique spin on the haunted house narrative, “Blink” not only took audiences on a devilishly scary adventure but also introduced one of the franchise’s most iconic villains: the weeping angels. No wonder this one won Stephen Moffat a BAFTA Craft award for writing. — Kristy Puchko, Film Editor
Where to watch: Doctor Who is now streaming on HBO Max.(Opens in a new window)(opens in a new tab)
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