Monday’s episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, The Long Night, was billed as HBO’s most ambitious chapter of any series ever.
And it’s true: while the military strategy employed by the alliance to defeat the wights could have been conceived by F Troop’s Captain Parmenter, there was indeed spectacle to spare.
But, as Samantha from HBO’s Sex in the City’s might observe, biggest does not mean best.
Since the mid-1990s, HBO has proved the gold standard for broadcast drama.
A scan of some of the network’s flagship productions details the depth of competition facing GoT in claiming the ‘greatest episode’ crown.
The Sopranos, College (Series 1 episode 5)
Fans remember the enigmatic finale or Silvio’s murder of Adriana in season 5. But for me, this episode is peerless.
Tony (James Gandolfini) takes Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a road trip to visit prospective colleges.
At a gas station, he spots a former member of a rival crime family turned FBI informant, who was relocated under Witness Protection.
Continuing his trip with Meadow, Tony tracks down the rat and strangles him with wire as he pleads for his life.
A brilliantly conceived and executed episode made all the more vivid through its homicidal subversion of a beloved genre – the parent/child road trip of discovery.
The Wire, Old Cases (1.4)
The plotting of this landmark cops versus street hoods drama was labyrinthine in its complexity even by HBO standards.
So fans tend to recall the impact of individual scenes rather than entire episodes – Stringer Bell’s shocking death; Snoop buys a nail gun; Omar testifies against Bird.
This scene was the best of them: Detectives McNulty (Dominic West) and ‘Bunk’ Moreland (Wendell Pierce) revisit an old murder scene and uncover new evidence, communicating only through using the word ‘f–k’ and its variants.
Flight of the Conchords, The Tough Brets (2.3)
Political commentators are fond of saying too many of us are no longer proud to be Australian. Well, this chapter in the all-too-brief and magical New York mystery tour of a gormless Kiwi band should fix that.
Bret (Bret McKenzie) forms a gang for protection against rappers he dissed at a gig.
When Murray (Rhys Darby) is harassed by boorishly rude Australian diplomats, Bret’s gang could come in handy.
After Murray, Greg (Frank Wood) and Jemaine (Jemaine Clement) are again mocked by the Aussie bullies at a consulate function, this time with the ambassador joining in, the gauntlet is thrown down: time for a West Side Story-style dance-off, complete with synchronized finger snapping (Stay Cool).
Calling this episode brilliant is the height of understatement.
True Detective ,Who Goes There? (1.4)
Competition for best-episode status from True Detective’s debut season is intense. But in a crowded field, this one stands out. In a mystery about decades-old child murders, the centerpiece is a botched robbery.
Undercover detective Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) contact in a biker gang, Ginger, promises key information in exchange for Cohle’s help robbing a rival gang.
Things go awry, bodies mount up and Cohle is forced to take Ginger prisoner and escape pursuing drug soldiers across hostile territory in an unforgettable six-minute single-take tracking shot.
Deadwood, A Two-Headed Beast (3.5)
Deadwood’s primary purpose was to subvert the romance of the Western genre – and never was that done more unforgivingly than here.
In the brutal climax, Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) enforcer Dan Dority (W Earl Brown) does battle with a rival henchman in a savage street brawl.
The result anticipates Oberyn Martel’s bloody contest with Gregor Clegane – the seemingly defeated party turns the tables on his overconfident rival and a talent for eye-gouging comes in handy.
Viewers expecting the bar fight from Errol Flynn’s Dodge City, beware! Not for the faint-hearted.
Sharp Objects, Milk (1.8)
There were no episodes of Gillian Flynn’s feel-bad small town mystery Sharp Objects that could be recommended for the faint-hearted, least of all the finale.Concerned for her sister Amma’s (Eliza Scanlen) safety, Camille (Amy Adams) risks her own life to uncover the truth behind the shocking murders of teenage girls that brought her home.
Having exposed their mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) as the killer, Camille prepares to rebuild her life with Amma free from the maternal cruelty that poisoned their childhood.
But viewers weren’t fooled: we didn’t expect a happy ending and we didn’t get one.
A tooth in a dollhouse, a missing neighbour’s child and a vicious post-credit sequence chilled viewers’ blood – and made us nostalgic for the comparatively bright and sunny ending of Gone Girl, another exercise in cruelty based on a Flynn book.
Band of Brothers, The Breaking Point (1.7)
This powerful, unrelenting episode of the landmark WWII series had a bet each way. Easy Company is stuck in Belgium, succumbing to a brutal winter and German ordnance.
The arbitrary brutality of combat is on graphic display as the GIs are killed or maimed in steady succession.
But the deadly appeal of battle that got them there in the first place also comes into play.
After the company commander cracks under fire, Lieutenant Speirs assumes command with the manic courage of a Viking berserker, rallying the men to attack the town of Foy in the face of seemingly overwhelming artillery and sniper fire.
The fact that an earlier episode suggested he executed German prisoners added an overlay of guilt to the exhilaration viewers felt as Speirs sprinted into the town alone.