1. Don and Peggy's reconciliation on Mad Men
There were a few times I cried during Mad Men's seven-episode half-season, the beginning of the final run for this Matthew Weiner show I have loved. I cried watching the Sally and Don diner scene; I cried when Bert Cooper died, and I cried some more during his farewell musical number.
But Mad Men is, of course, the story of Don Draper (Jon Hamm); and it is also the story of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). The show's first day was Peggy's first day, after all. So when Don and Peggy fell out over Ted's decision to move to Los Angeles at the end of Season 6, it was hard to watch them divided. But their reconciliation in the sixth episode of Season 7, "The Strategy" — as they brainstormed for the Burger Chef account — was so meaningful that the pain was worth it. These two actors bring out the best in each other. And at this point in late-stage Mad Men, every scene is layered with more meaning than are my own personal interactions — which is both a compliment to the depths of Mad Men, and an insult to my shallow life!
Where was I? Ah, yes. In that scene, when Don says to Peggy that he "worries about a lot of things," but never about her — well, I just got choked up typing that. And then she asks him what he has to worry about, and he very honestly, and so sadly, says: "That I never did anything. And that I don't have anyone." Just like Peggy, she takes it in, and doesn't really react — because it's OK for these two to go back and forth, being honest, and then cap it off with 1) a great idea for the Burger Chef pitch and 2) a lovely coming together as they danced to, of all the deliberately on-the-nose things, "My Way." Just perfect. If the show had ended at that scene, I would have been fine with it.
2. Cristina's departure on Grey's Anatomy
It should go without saying that the character of Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh, was crucial to Grey's Anatomy. More than any of Shonda Rhimes' other Grey's creations, she embodied the group's surgical ambitions, which are so important to the show's story. Cristina was Grey's most gifted and most aggressive character — but she also learned how to be a friend. As anyone who watches Grey's, or ever watched Grey's, knows, the Cristina/Meredith relationship was the show's central one, and it demonstrated Rhimes' radical (for television and film) insistence that female friendship is a thing women need in order to live.
There has also never been an Asian-American character in pop culture like Cristina. As portrayed by Oh, she was sarcastic, highly skilled, introverted, loving, thoughtful, cold, sexual, and funny — sometimes in a single scene! She knew she didn't want to have children, had an abortion, and never wavered. In Grey's parlance, she was Meredith's person: But more importantly, she was a person, which Asian-American actors so rarely (though increasingly, I pray) get to enact.
Oh announced at the beginning of Grey's Anatomy's 10th season that it would be her last. And the show said good-bye to her over the course of the season, culminating in a wonderful finale in May in which Cristina served as the episode's narrator, and which ended with her move to Zurich. I got choked up throughout that hour, but fully and unashamedly wept during her and Meredith's (literal) last dance together (to Tegan and Sara's "Where Does the Good Go"). In dialogue, the scene invokes a number of references to insane Grey's plots — plane crashes, bombs, gunmen, etc. But Cristina leaves Meredith with some advice about her marriage, and the beauty of what she says to her friend coupled with how Oh delivers it is something that now runs through my head often: "You are a gifted surgeon with an extraordinary mind. Don't let what he wants eclipse what you need. He's very dreamy. But he is not the sun. You are."
Also, they don't hug. Love that.
3. Will's death on The Good Wife
Everyone involved in The Good Wife did such a good job of keeping Josh Charles' exit from the show a secret, that in the episode "Dramatics, Your Honor," when Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) runs into the courtroom in which shots have been fired, and we see a bleeding Will lying on the floor, it didn't even occur to me that he would die. Like, how could it not have come out if Charles were leaving the show? Even without that jeopardy worrying me, I cried when Kalinda exclaims, "Will!" Because of course. I continued to cry when Kalinda and Diane (Christine Baranski) are at the hospital waiting to see how he is, and Diane says, "Alicia," and Kalinda nods and calls her. I kept straight on going when Diane cried with worry. And then I became hysteria-adjacent when Kalinda, followed by Diane, realizes that Will's unattended dead body is in a nearby curtained-off bed. Both Panjabi and Baranski did a stunning job in that final scene, expressing their separate grief. And it foreshadowed what was to come on The Good Wife, as Will's death has continued to resonate in the lives of the characters we have come to know over five and a half seasons. Plenty of television shows have handled the shock of death well; no show has ever taken such a deep dive into grief.
4. Max talking to his parents about being bullied on Parenthood
I cry at least once per episode of Parenthood. So I will not list the number of times Parenthood made me cry in 2014, because no one wants to see that. With the series finale coming up early next year, I am considering, however, alerting the state of California, or perhaps just my local police department, that there might be a problem that night — like, one that registers on the Richter scale. Because if we all cry at once, what might happen?
This is to say, it's hard to choose one instance. But of all the things that made me cry on the show in 2014, the disastrous, heaving one was toward the end of Season 5 when Max (Max Burkholder) goes on his overnight school trip, is bullied (off-camera, thank god), and then has to recount what happened to his parents as they drive him home. The kids, even his former friend, tormented him. And peed in his canteen. Obviously, the way Parenthood's Jason Katims has dealt with Max's Asperger's is a delicate, beautiful thing. That's endemic to the show at this point. In this particular scene, how Burkholder balanced Max's different emotional awareness of his lot in life with his deep sorrow is terrifically moving. But what killed me, and I almost mean "killed" literally, is Monica Potter's and Peter Krause's reactions: They show how Kristina and Adam are destroyed by what Max has gone through. Kristina climbs into the backseat of the car, for god's sake! And Adam grips the steering wheel with tears in his eyes. I have those same tears in my eyes at my desk in my office just reimagining it! Max!
5. Suzanne's backstory episode, "Hugs Can Be Deceiving," on Orange Is the New Black
The Suzanne backstory episode of Orange Is the New Black was one of the second season's best. (Oh, and, dear people who thought Season 2 wasn't as good as Season 1: You are wrong.) It gave show creator Jenji Kohan (and actor Uzo Aduba) a chance to deepen the Suzanne character, not by telling us how Crazy Eyes landed in Litchfield, but by showing the evolution of her mental illness. In Season 1, during a visiting day, when we saw that Suzanne had white parents who appeared to be upper-middle class, the revelation played like a visual joke, or at least a surprise twist. In Season 2's "Hugs Can Be Deceiving," we got a lot more, including how hard Suzanne's parents have tried. "I'll be damned," her mother says to a mean parent when Suzanne is 10, "if I label my child as less than so that the rest of the world can put her in a box and dismiss her before she's had a chance to succeed in life." I cried in that scene. But it was Suzanne's breakdown as she was supposed to sing during her high school graduation — a physical, head-hitting, screaming meltdown with which we're familiar — and her mother's collapsed, devastated face that really got me. (And this scene flashes forward to Litchfield's Christmas pageant, in which Suzanne's stage fright had violent consequences.)
This is the episode in which Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) begins to pray upon Suzanne, seeing a pawn in her. But as opposed to Taystee, whose desperation for a mother led her to the evil Vee, we see that Suzanne is susceptible because she is actually used to a mother who has her back. It's tragic.
6. Neil deGrasse Tyson's touching personal connection to Cosmos and Carl Sagan
At the end of Cosmos' first episode, after host Neil deGrasse Tyson has explained many complicated science things in clear, entertaining ways, he tells us about Carl Sagan, who created the phenomenally popular PBS version of the show in 1980. (The new Cosmos aired on Fox.) After so much history, it's a jarring but neat narrative turn: "He was the most successful science communicator of the 20th century," Tyson says of Sagan.
And then the story becomes personal: Tyson takes out Sagan's datebook from 1975, in which we see the name "Neil Tyson" written on Sagan's schedule for Dec. 20 of that year. Tyson says he was 17, from the Bronx, and had a desire to study astronomy; Sagan worked at Cornell University, which was trying to recruit Tyson. Or as Tyson puts it, "Somehow, the world's most famous astronomer found time to invite me to Ithaca, in upstate New York, to spend a Saturday with him." Among other kindnesses, Sagan inscribed his book to Tyson (which Tyson shows us). It started to snow that day, Tyson says, and after Sagan drove him to the bus station, he gave Tyson his home phone number and said that if the snow got too bad, he should call him and spend the night with the Sagan family. "I already knew I wanted to become a scientist," Tyson says. "But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become."
Am I wrong, or is this story incredibly moving? Especially when Tyson goes on to describe how cooperative and generation-spanning science is. I burst into tears! On top of it all, I was watching Cosmos with my older son, Frederick, who was then 3½. I had told Frederick that the man who was telling us things on the show works at the American Museum of Natural History, where Frederick has seen dinosaurs and the whale. After Tyson's Sagan anecdote, which Frederick could barely have processed, he turned to me and said, "Maybe I can go see Neil next time I'm at the museum."
Which prompted even more crying.
7. Moira's murder on Arrow
This entry might show that I am an easy mark, but damn, did Arrow's Queen family bring it in this scene. By the end of "Seeing Red," the 20th episode of Arrow's tight, excellent second season, Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) has taken Oliver (Stephen Amell), Thea (Willa Holland), and Moira (Susanna Thompson) captive. To punish Oliver, Slade, aka Deathstroke, tries to force him to choose which one of them will die. Instead, Moira stands up, and says, "There's only one way this night can end," volunteering herself. One particularly effective part about how this scene was written, shot, and edited is that as Moira is addressing the psychotic Deathstroke, you hear Oliver and Thea crying and begging her not to do it. It all goes on for a while, and it's really tense. Despite the foregone conclusion of Moira's death, it's still shocking and sad.
8. When Nora sees her "family" again on The Leftovers
My colleague Jaimie Etkin posted in detail about The Leftovers' Season 1 finale, in which the Guilty Remnant, the cult that doesn't want people to move on, gives everybody who has lost someone a life-size look-alike doll of their missing loved one. The plot represented a departure — heh! Leftovers joke! — from the events of Tom Perrotta's novel, and it was a real kick in the stomach for those of us who thought we knew what was coming. And also for those of us who have a soul, because good lord, it is such a sad concept! (For the record, I wasn't sure what I thought of Damon Lindelof's adaptation of The Leftovers when it began on HBO, because I thought I might die of misery watching it. But I ended up truly loving it.)
The person most affected by the cruel Guilty Remnant stunt is, naturally, Nora (Carrie Coon), who lost her husband and two children — her whole family. You can see from Jaimie's post the annihilating way the sequence plays out. Basically, Nora is almost glad to see them, or at least to be able to pretend that her children are in her physical presence. So yes, the bit in which she puts the dolls to bed and kisses them good night — unreal. I was creeped out, weeping, and resolving to appreciate my own children more all at once.
9. When Mellie breaks down after Fitz's State of the Union on Scandal
Scandal gets a lot of props for a lot of things — even as the Shonda Rhimes drama starts to sink a bit under the weight of its own WTF expectations — but the quality of its acting is often overshadowed. Bellamy Young, for example, who plays Mellie Grant, has displayed a range that's rare even for quality television. She swings from comedic foil to drunken, truth-telling fool (as Shakespeare would use fools) to voice of reason to aching, sorrowful mother. She's a raw nerve. And she's become the heart of the show. Young has had a lot to do in Season 4 as Fuck-It Mellie, mourning the death of her son Jerry. But she really got me at the end of the season's second episode, after she's pulled it together for Fitz's State of the Union, only to physically collapse from the effort. Scandal is a show that usually holds you at arm's length while you watch its narrative gymnastics. But not in that scene. You want to just crawl right onto the floor and lie down next to her. Mellie!
10. Maura comes out to Sarah on Transparent
The pilot of Jill Soloway's Transparent — the story of the Pfefferman family of Los Angeles — was an attention-grabber, as an offering of Amazon's pilot bake-off system needs to be, perhaps. Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) has a secret he's been keeping from his three adult children, who exist in varied states of selfishness: Mort is transitioning to becoming Maura, and her loved ones are going to have to figure out how to deal with that. Though Maura wants to begin the process of coming out, she doesn't get there in the pilot, but we viewers are let in on her poignantly rendered and totally understandable fears. Her kids, in fact, are lovable assholes!
She's right to worry. Luckily, the first one to find out is the most sympathetic. The cliffhanger of the pilot is Maura — with her hair down, and clearly dressed in women's clothes — walking in on Sarah (Amy Landecker) cheating on her husband with her college girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin) in Maura's house. "Hi, girls," Maura says, after seeing them in full clinch. Pretty great, and of course you want to see more. The pilot went up in February, it was officially ordered by Amazon in March, and it went up for marathon-viewing with the remaining nine episodes in September — a long time to wait. But it was worth it. Episode 2 picks up right where the pilot left off, with Maura explaining to Sarah — in meandering, heartbreaking terms — what her plight has been. She's confused. "I'm sorry, Dad, I'm sorry," she says. "Can you just help me out here? Are you saying you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?" Laughing, and choked up, Maura says: "All my life, my whole life, I've been dressing up like a man. This is me." Maura clutches her daughter's hand, and looks her right in the eye. Fuck, I cried!
11. Will talking to Charlie's grandson on The Newsroom
The Newsroom's third and final six-episode sprint started out promisingly, with the story and characters under dual pressure from a sale of ACN — the fictional news network that provides The Newsroom's setting — and a Snowden-like mess that enmeshed our heroes. Some time after the third episode, though, it seemed like Sorkin was like, Eh, fuck this, I'm out — or the rest of the show's writers did, leaving him on his own. Either way, Sorkin stopped exploring new territory, fell back on his familiar axe-grinding topics, and wrote the most troubling television episode of the year. This is all to say that by the time Charlie (Sam Waterston) died at the end of the fifth episode, I actually laughed out loud. The aftermath of Charlie's death — the series finale — was hacky, with its flashbacks to what led to the events of the Newsroom pilot. As I watched, I felt like I was taking in a copy of a copy of a copy of the wonderful pair of West Wing episodes in which Mrs. Landingham died. And yet, I was in a state of choked-up-ness for portions of the episode, and especially welled with tears when Will (Jeff Daniels) told Charlie's grandson that he could talk to Will about his parents' divorce now that Charlie was gone. But let the record show that I was clear-eyed and annoyed during the time-killing, cringe-y garage rendition of "That's How I Got to Memphis." Sigh, The Newsroom. You got me for the last time.