Hitting the bottle: a (non)definitive list of our favourite bottle episodes
Hitting the bottle: Drunk in love with the bottle episode
I have an intoxicating affection for bottle episodes. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, described these episodes as the ‘quiet’ before the storm, allowing the big, dramatic moments to veritably ‘pop’ in comparison. I’m not sure I agree; in my semi-vast experience of show watching, bottle episodes make for the most emotionally raw and captivating television. Nothing drives character development quite so much as a paradoxically empty yet confined space. There are no extraneous factors, it is the show in its most concentrated and purest form. I haven’t tried hard drugs before but I imagine it to be something like watching a satisfying bottle episode. What counts as a satisfying bottle episode you ask? Well here’s a list I prepared earlier.
1. Fly – Breaking Bad
I might not agree with everything he says but BY GOLLY can Gilligan draw a deeply complex character. Perhaps it’s a mistake to start the list off with such a polarizing episode but this gal likes to be a bit of a contrarian so lick my acorn. Fly was actually my favourite episode of BB, directed by Rian Johnson (who also directed the powerhouse that was “Ozymandias”), the episode follows Jesse and an obsessive Walt dealing with each other and a very pesky fly. There’s deliciously rich symbolism and some great insights into both characters; 4.4/5 blue crystals.
2. Fight – Masters of Sex
The framing device of a historical boxing match has certainly been done before in the paradigm of bottle episodes but I ain’t even mad because it works oh so well. The episode centres on Masters and Johnson continuing their ‘it’s-ok-because-its-for-science’ affair in the wake of a hermaphrodite birth which confronts Bill as it mirrors the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father. As the birth reflects issues with gender roles, the fight is symbolic of the Masters/Johnson relationship. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Kaplan utterly shine with their performances, granting the rich script the delivery it deserves.
3. The Suitcase – Mad Men
Mad Men did the boxing match first but I would put both The Suitcase and Fight on par with one another. Parallels could also be drawn between the relationship developments of the lead characters. Peggy and Don have the most gratifying non-romantic relationship I’ve ever seen on television; my heart pined for the illusive approval that Don refused to give Peggy but I happily settled for some reciprocal comforting. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss act the shit out of nuanced script; Peggy is a particular sasspot in this episode which I loved almost as much as the Simon & Garfunkel closing track.
4. Torando! – United States of Tara
To say I was immensely bummed that United States of Tara was cruelly ripped off the air before it’s time is perhaps the greatest understatement of September 2015. My ~quirky girl~ sensibilities love the offbeat writing style of Diablo Cody (yes, the one who made her name with Juno). Coupled with the fact Brie Larson is secretly a cool alien time-traveler sent to our universe as girl crush bait, United States of Tara is a perfectly paced dramedy. Torando! Sees our motley crew plus some hangers-on (see the ‘gaybors’, Charmaine and a few of Tara’s alters) retreat to the basement to ride out the storm. Hoo boy, things seem more destructive within the basement than outside at times which certainly makes for a wild, emotionally explosive ride.
Bonus Points for Princess Valhalla Hawkwind.
5. Out of Gas – Firefly
Speaking of shows that were brutally cancelled as they were hitting their stride….
(A moment of silence for our fallen comrades please)
Out of Gas is an ingenious episode that follows an oxygen starved Captain Mal fight for Serenity and its crew. Using flashbacks to make the cramped confines of the ship seem cavernous, the episode flitters to the backstories of each crew-member and how they came to be aboard Serenity. The episode is such a refreshing change of pace to the rest, enhancing my undying love for this beautiful series. Excuse me while I withhold a sob.
6. MILF Island – 30 Rock
30 Rock’s show in a show format makes for some fantastically fast paced comedy and MILF Island is no exception. Liz Lemon must deal with the fallout of a mildly rude, off-the-cuff comment about her boss. Everyone is restricted to the studio which ironically places the fictional reality TV finale of ‘MILF Island’ as the characters’ only portal to the outside world. Season 2 is arguably when the show hit its stride, it almost seems funnier on a second-watch through, which is a true compliment.
Long live our overlord T Fey.
7. Leslie and Ron – Parks and Recreation
My heart is still emotionally hungover from the P and R wrap-up earlier this year but to be fair Season 7 warmed me to my core and was everything I hoped for. This episode alone is a perfect summation of the warm-fuzzies; Leslie and Ron reconcile (that sentence feels funny on my fingertips), and it’s oh so sweet. Leslie’s lyrically-liberal rendition of “We Didn’t Start This Fire” is enough to make me snort like a coke fiend.
Side note: I’m now taking funds for my Poehler-Offerman master race Kickstarter.
8. Last Resort – House M.D.
I have an even deeper appreciation of stylistic changes between House episodes due to the formulaic nature of the medical ‘whodunit’. Although the repetitive format of House may be what bought fans back each season, I can’t help but love the variety – it is the spice of life after all. Last Resort takes place almost entirely in Cuddy’s office with House, Thirteen and an array of random patients becoming hostages at the behest of an ill, gun-toting man chasing answers. The high stakes nature of the episode make for some nice emotional revelations about the characters’ own sense of mortality. But because it’s House, the lofty questions of existentialism are broken up by intermittent sarcasm and general assholery. Could we expect any less?
9. Vision Quest – Archer
There is just something about H. Jon Benjamin’s voice that lends itself to acerbic comedy; for some reason this fact is compounded when he’s stuck in an elevator with six other whackjobs. The crew antagonizes one another in their typical banter-bordering-on-verbal-assault type way. For new watcher of Archer, this episode could be a stiff view (PHRASING!), but for true fans it gives subtle nods to all the best running jokes which more than compensates for not really going anywhere.
Pros: Crazy naked Pam and a state-of-the-art toast popping robot.
Cons: needs more of Jessica Walter’s disapproving voice
10. Cooperative Calligraphy – Community
Community is the most self-aware comedy to air, perhaps ever. This is largely due to the television-savvy savant Abed who boldly proclaims:
“I hate bottle episodes. They're wall to wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.”
Long before the viewer is even aware that the episode is going into bottle territory. What follows is 17 minutes of a snarky adult study group taking cheap shots at each other over a single missing pen. It’s fantastic because of how aware Community is of the contrived nature of bottle episode tropes but I am so thankful that Dean Pelton bookended the episode because he is hands down the most punderful character in the entire series
Thank goodness Community was picked up by Yahoo this year with Dan Harmon back at the reigns. Sure we won’t get 7 seasons and a movie, but I’m happy enough with 6 and the distant hope that maybe there’s a slim chance we might get a movie.
I just want to add, in spite of these flawless examples, not all bottle episodes are instant television gold.
And the "well, you tried" consolation prize goes to...
Mind's Eye - The Good Wife
Recently The Good Wife attempted an interesting take on the bottle episode with “Mind’s Eye”, the setting wasn’t actually solely in Alicia Florrick’s apartment, instead the audience were ‘bottled’ in a novel way – by being thrown into the inner workings of Alicia’s mind. I really wanted it to work because I thought it was an interesting and fresh take on the bottle episode.. but it fell short. I felt cooped up being stuck in Alicia’s endlessly pernickety and circular thoughts.
I do genuinely hope that showrunners continue to write bottle episodes and push the concept into new directions. There’s a potential revolution brewing, long live the single-room drama. Viva La Bottle.