All week, The Ringer will be counting down the 100 Best Moments in Culture in 2019 So Far, and in the process, diving even deeper to shine a light on the best of movies, music, and TV. Today, the staff turns toward the small screen to name their favorite moments in TV on the year.
The Dothraki flames are extinguished to begin the Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones
Chris Ryan: One of the biggest bummers of Thrones’ final season was how the flaws outweighed the triumphs. Case in point: Director Miguel Sapochnik doing a pretty impressive bit of David Lean karaoke in “The Long Night.”
Removed from its context, the sight of those flaming Dothraki swords as they crossed the dark, snow-covered ground outside Winterfell and charged toward the army of the dead was a testament to the unprecedented visual scope of the show. Shot from the slightly removed perspective of Brienne and Jaime, and the God’s-eye view of Daenerys and Jon, the charge was a perfect illustration of the futility of what the allied forces were trying to accomplish. Despite being powered by barbarism and magic, the Dothraki were no match for this ancient and seemingly invulnerable power.
Of course, what would follow was a murky tableau of carnage that somehow spared the lives of those who served greater narrative purposes down the line. But for that brief moment, Thrones approached its classic heights. As those lights went out, it was like stepping off a ledge. You weren’t sure where you were going to land.
The inhuman child in Barry
Andrew Gruttadaro: For the first 11 minutes of “ronny/lily,” things play out like a regular episode of Barry; a great one, mind you—Barry’s madcap romp with Ronny is absurdly funny, but botched hits come with the territory here. But then the episode goes to a place you never expected, as Ronny’s daughter arrives home to find Barry in a bloody ski mask, goes into survival mode, and … becomes inhuman?
“I think he trains her or something,” Barry says as Fuches patches up a giant gash in his back. “Because she was like a feral mongoose.” Minutes later, this feral mongoose propels herself onto the roof of her house; minutes after that she vaults onto the top of Fuches’ Jeep and then sneaks inside the Jeep; then she bites Fuches in the face.
Through two excellent seasons, Barry has distinguished itself by continuously subverting expectations, by going in directions you couldn’t even fathom. “ronny/lily” is a flawless example of this, and Lily is one of the most memorable TV characters of 2019 thus far.
“You have no good car ideas,” I Think You Should Leave
Kate Knibbs: Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch show is an immediate comedy touchstone that could’ve been featured on this list a dozen times. I change which sketch is my favorite on a weekly basis. But I’m choosing “Ford Focus Group” as my favorite television moment in 2019 because it’s the first one I kept rewatching on a loop, the one that percolated into meme territory the quickest. The sketch stars 81-year-old Ruben Rabasa as the token weird guy in a focus group for new cars. Amid requests for automatic windows and Bluetooth, he demands “a steering wheel that doesn’t whiff off while I’m driving.” At first, it seems like the bit will just be how the group politely humors him as he doubles down on the bizarre suggestions. But then his unearned confidence catches on and Rabasa turns his mild-mannered groupmate Paul into a mother-in-law-loving scapegoat. There’s dabbing, there’s flinching, and there’s the best insult of the year: You have no good car ideas.
The priest’s speech in Fleabag
Alison Herman: Fleabag is a show so packed with atomized moments—the title character’s lightning-quick cuts to the camera, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s idiosyncratic one-liners—it’s hard to isolate just one. But the season’s climactic speech, at once a deconstruction and superb example of the tying-it-all-together monologue TV viewers know and love, is as good a candidate as any. It’s delivered not by Fleabag herself, but by the Catholic priest officiating her father’s second wedding, with whom she happens to have fallen in love (and had sex with, contrary to his vows). “Love is awful,” he begins, describing the spiritual torment inflicted by that heady mix of hormones and bad timing. “No wonder we don’t do it alone.”
Ultimately, the priest concludes, the angst is worth it—not because it necessarily leads to a happily ever after, but because connection is an end in and of itself. “When you find someone you love, it feels like hope,” he says, not just to the couple, or even to Fleabag. As great television writing does, the scene ties together Fleabag’s conflict with that of her sister, Claire, finally moved to pursue her Finnish crush in a rom-com-style dash to the airport. As great writing does, it delivers the theme of Fleabag’s superb conclusion in a way that’s direct without seeming obvious, powerful without being preachy. Fleabag and The Priest don’t walk off together into the sunset. But her experience does motivate Fleabag to walk away from us, her unseen audience that turns her life into a performance instead of, well, a life. That’s the power of optimism and true love. It’s not all about the other person; it’s about what they inspire in you.
The trial in Chernobyl
Megan Schuster: “Favorite” is a stretch here because we are talking about a show that centers on a real-life nuclear disaster. But the trial scene in the HBO miniseries presents a lot of poignant moments: Boris Shcherbina’s leaving the room with a cough, indicative of the radiation that’s swimming through his body; Anatoly Dyatlov’s interrupting proceedings to call Valery Legasov a liar; Legasov’s use of tiles to explain how nuclear reactivity works. The best moment, though, is the final reveal, when Legasov exposes the Soviet Union’s cover-up and shows how the country’s prioritizing of inexpensive production led to the explosion that April night in 1986.
The moment is a stunning one, both because it was a departure from the state-sponsored speech Legasov gave at a conference in Vienna, but also because he risked his life to tell the truth. And from the reaction shots of his fellow scientists and comrades in the room, everyone knew it. It’s a beautiful performance from Jared Harris—who, along with Stellan Skarsgard (who plays Shcherbina), makes the show—and it’s immensely satisfying to see the people responsible for this situation confronted with it head on. Chernobyl lives up to every bit of the hype it got, and scenes like this are the reason.
The car chase in Too Old to Die Young
Miles Surrey: For years, Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn has resisted the temptation to revisit the kind of thrills that made Drive a breakout hit in 2011. There’s a decent argument to make that Refn’s actively trying to troll audiences with his provocative inclinations and brutally glacial narrative pacing. That’s also the M.O. for the filmmaker’s first foray into television, Too Old to Die Young, a languid, grotesque, and surreal crime series only the most devoted Refn-heads could be enamored of.
But tucked away in the show’s fifth episode, there is a crowd-pleasing salve reminiscent of Drive’s thrilling opening sequence. After killing one of the ringleaders of a smut film business, Miles Teller’s Martin Jones is pursued by two other men in a race through city streets, a highway, and eventually barren desert. But there are some tweaks from the usual car chase formula: the two men bicker over what to put on the radio, settling on the peculiar and unfitting choice of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”; the “chase” becomes more of a casual, hours-long tailing until they reach the desert; the words “this motherfucker’s a dead motherfucker” are uttered; and an anticlimax is reached when the men’s electric car runs out of battery, as Martin rams his Mustang straight into them. For once, Refn is trying something fun and funny, evoking shades of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. What a rare blessing.
Sky Castle’s penultimate episode
Donnie Kwak: When news of America’s college bribery scandal made headlines last March, those who watch Korean dramas instantly thought of two words: Sky Castle. Premiering in Korea to little fanfare last November, the 20-episode series—about the lengths to which education-crazed parents will go to ensure their children are accepted into prestigious universities—was a record-breaking smash by the time of its February finale. (Netflix America: Please add this show ASAP!)
Like the accused in Operation Varsity Blues, the ultra-wealthy adults of Sky Castle are shameless and cutthroat in procuring academic success for their progeny. The show’s equivalent of real-life Svengali William “Rick” Singer is the cold, calculating Kim Joo-young, whose high-priced tutoring program is mysteriously infallible. This being a Korean drama, there are of course plot twists galore: a suicide ends the premiere episode, followed by cliffhanging reveals involving a hidden daughter, a whodunit murder, and countless instances of subterfuge and betrayal. (William H. Macy doesn’t have any love children, does he?) The 19th episode of Sky Castle, which ties up most of the loose plot ends, is the series’ finest.
In a competitive country obsessed with higher education, Sky Castle proved especially resonant—though perhaps the satirical social commentary was missed by some. “You know what the purpose of education is in Korea?” asks one domineering father in the show. “It’s to help students be good at taking tests.” Most Americans reacted to Operation Varsity Blues by asking: How could they? In Korea, the response to the ruthless tactics in Sky Castle was often: Hmmm, how can I?
Villanelle’s Instagram bit in Killing Eve
Alyssa Bereznak: Ever since Killing Eve tore into the content-sphere last spring, a steady online fetishism has built over the wardrobe of Villanelle, the bloodthirsty assassin played by Jodie Comer. The Cut offered a “How To Dress Like TV’s Chicest Assassin” tutorial that dissected her many looks; a Glamour writer penned a gushing ode to them, declaring her “the queer fashion icon of my twisted lesbian dreams;” and Vanity Fair referred to it as the show’s “own delicious subplot.” Often wrapped in cheery colors and playful prints, Villanelle’s style is commanding, unapologetic, and just the kind of stuff that makes for a good Instagram post. (And if I’m being brutally honest with myself, that’s probably part of the reason I like it so much.)
Anyway, the ever-perceptive writers of the show picked up on this fervor, using it as inspiration for a scene in the second season’s fourth episode. Villanelle is staked out at a cafe, doing recon and writing Eve a postcard in a fuchsia floor-length skirt, a billowy bubblegum-pink blouse, and giant, glimmering gold earrings. A tourist approaches her to ask if she can photograph her for Instagram, and Villanelle scoffs. “No, of course not,” she says with disdain. “Don’t be pathetic. Get a real life.” The moment is just as much an assertion of Villanelle’s self-possessed cruelty as it is a commentary on how social media has turned us all into insufferable hyperdocumenters. That they chose the psychopath of the show to make that point is the best part.
James Holzhauer’s gracious loss on Jeopardy!
Ben Lindbergh: Holzhauer couldn’t have been happy that his Jeopardy! winning streak was snapped in his 33rd appearance, leaving him short of Ken Jennings’s record regular-season lifetime tally of $2.52 million by only $58,484—less than his average daily take. Yet the moment 27-year-old University of Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher made his defeat official, Holzhauer, all smiles, slipped into the frame to give her a high-five.
In the aftermath of his reign of trivia terror, Holzhauer heaped praise on Boettcher’s performance, bringing a satisfyingly sportsmanlike end to a saga that had captivated the country, set strategic precedent, and vaulted the venerable game show into ratings territory it hadn’t seen since the mid-aughts. And although Holzhauer lost, he never lost his wits: He went out with a well-considered wager, even if it wasn’t a winning one. Here’s hoping his daughter got the party she was promised.
“The Bones Are Their Money,” I Think You Should Leave
Lindsay Zoladz: If you were to compile a list of the best comedy sketches of the year so far, it’s entirely possible that every single one would be from Tim Robinson’s exquisitely absurdist Netflix series. But even among such gems as “Baby of the Year” and “Has This Ever Happened to You?” one shining sketch stands above the rest: the deliriously silly Walk the Line parody absolutely no one asked for, colloquially known as “The Bones Are Their Money.” It’s perfect. It’s so funny that even the parts of it that aren’t funny actually are: During the roughly 37,000 times I’ve rewatched it over the past few weeks, I am always amazed at how long it takes for the first joke to land. It just seems like a pretty standard country-artist-in-the-recording-studio biopic scene until, damn near a minute and a half into the thing, Robinson’s clueless bassist blurts out, “It was also the night that the skeletons came to life!” and improvises the most ridiculous ballad in the history of music. The Johnny Cash–type crooner is a fantastic straight man (“You talked about how their bones were money like four times”) but the sketch lives and dies by Robinson’s anarchic goofiness. Why are we still searching for a Song of the Summer when we’ve already got this earworm? (Worms are the skeletons’ money.)
Jackson sings Billy Ocean in Sex Education
Michael Baumann: What I love about this clip is that it doesn’t exactly show what Sex Education is about, but it does show why it’s great. There’s the vibe of a slightly more earnest, significantly more British, and galactically hornier version of 10 Things I Hate About You, the perilous balance between knowledge and insecurity for Asa Butterfield’s Otis, and above all there’s Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, who can be hysterically charming with just one or two lines (“Is he gonna ... sing ...”). It conveys the sort of off-kilter weirdness of the Sex Education universe—why does the coolest kid in school in 2019 choose, at best, the third-biggest Billy Ocean song for his big musical number? Why do these children in the middle of the English wilderness go to school on this gorgeous estate? How is Jackson so cool he can just stop school to put the moves on the girl he likes? All suitably weird choices for a show that foregrounds the music of Ezra Furman, and benefits immensely from that choice.
At least, that’s how you ought to react if you’ve never seen the show. Coming back to the clip after seeing how complex and rich these characters are—to say nothing of what a pleasure they are to spend time with—this serenade is an evocative scene, the moment the show kicks into high gear. Knowing how the story ends, and how it gets there, you’ll laugh and cry reliving all of this again.
The Russian walruses in Our Planet
Danny Heifetz: Take that feeling of being in a dangerously packed concert crowd and imagine that everyone had two knives sticking out of their face—now you can begin to understand what it’s like to be a walrus. Melting sea ice has displaced so many walruses that they travel 100 miles to the nearest land. When they get there, they must pack in with 100,000 other displaced walruses and fight for inches of space.
Some walruses flee this hellscape by climbing—yes, walruses climbing—the rocky cliffs. Getting up is hard. Getting down is almost impossible because they can’t recognize how high the cliffs are over the beach, but the walruses must return to the sea. And so they jump.
Netflix’s Our Planet borrows liberally from BBC’s Planet Earth (they even have David Attenborough narrate), but where it stands out is showing us the human-driven horrors that other nature series leave just out of frame. The walruses’ flippers flail, their bodies bounce off of the rigid rocks, and their eyes bulge. As unnerving as the commotion is during the fall, their stillness after they land is worse. It’s hard to watch, but it’s impossible to forget—and that’s the point. Our Planet shows the things we can no longer look away from.
Arya and Gendry hook up before the Battle of Winterfell, Game of Thrones
Kate Halliwell: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was, in my opinion, the standout episode of Game of Thrones’ final season. And while the episode’s standout moment may have been Jaime knighting Brienne, I must take this opportunity to shout out the other scene that satisfied my poor, shippin’ heart. Gendry and Arya finally got it on, and reader, it was thrilling. A lot of people felt weird about it, which I get, considering we watched Arya grow up onscreen. But she’s an adult now, and the heart wants what it wants, and Arya’s heart wanted Gendry’s abs. And my heart wanted her to want Gendry’s abs. (My heart also wants Gendry’s abs, but that’s neither here nor there.) So few of the sex scenes on Game of Thrones involved the kind of emotional connection and mutual attraction—not to mention the long-term history—of this one, and as fan service-y as it was, I loved it. Arya took her thirst into her own hands and got her some, and then hours later she killed the Night King, saving all of mankind. What a run.
Colton jumps the fence on The Bachelor
Amelia Wedemeyer: Remember when we thought the high drama of The Bachelor had peaked in 2018 with the split-screen breakup of Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Becca Kufrin? Oh, how naive we were! Enter nice guy Colton Underwood, his indecisive suitress Cassie Randolph, and a Portuguese fence standing around 7 feet tall. For weeks, ABC teased us, the loyal American TV-viewing public, with shaky, handheld footage of Colton leaping over the fence in one fell swoop. We waited for the moment with bated breath, not only because it was an absurdly impressive feat of athleticism (seriously, watch it), but because it also created a narrative that boggled the mind: What in the fresh hell had transpired to cause our virginal Bachelor to disregard physics and somehow propel himself up and over this fence?
Well, it wasn’t until the ninth episode of the season when we FINALLY found out what happened, but dear lord was it worth the wait. I’ll be brief, but the lead-up involved a God-fearing father and a tear-drenched conversation between two people clearly on separate pages, while the post-jump resulted in a fruitless midnight search for Colton through the Portuguese countryside. Now that’s what I call prime-time television.