There’s a list up at Pajiba from over the weekend of the ten most heartbreaking television episodes of the last twenty years. It’s not a bad one — the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where her mom dies, in particular, is a good catch. But there are two rather obvious misses, episodes that no list of great sad TV should be without. One is from awhile ago now, so I might be able to forgive it, but the other is just from last year.
The more recent one is “Wilson’s Heart,” last season’s finale of House. Former fellowship candidate and current girlfriend of House’s best friend, Dr. Wilson, is suffering from grave injuries apparently sustained during a bus accident in which House was also involved. House, being House, is certain that he detected a crucial symptom of Amber’s before the accident, but just can’t remember. Most of the episode is taken up with his investigation, using various methods, including a form of electro-convulsive therapy, to try and jog his memory. House solves the mystery and realizes Amber is doomed. Her kidneys, damaged in the crash, are unable to filter out a toxic ingredient in the flue medication she had been taking; she will certainly die. I have to hand it to the writers of this episode, not just for crafting such an emotionally wrenching hour, but for contriving such a great death for Amber, having her not only die in Wilson’s arms, but requiring Wilson to reach out and shut off the heart bypass machine, effectively killing her when she decided it was time to go. Goddamn, this was a superb and devastating little bit of TV, one of the best episodes of one of the best series on television. Why it didn’t make the list, I have no idea. Unforgivable.
Now the one from a little while ago, though its exclusion is still inexcusable: “Hearts and Souls,” the final episode of NYPD Blue for Jimmy Smits, from 1998. Smits had joined the show as Detective Bobby Simone five years earlier following the departure of David Caruso, and quickly became the strongest member of a remarkable ensemble that also included the great Dennis Franz. When he left the series, the writers gave Simone a much more memorable send-off than they had given Caruso’s Detective John Kelly, who had retired in the face of corruption charges at the start of the second season. At the start of season 6, Simone, who had just gotten married to fellow detective Diane Russell, developed an infection that quickly necessitated a heart transplant. His condition worsens steadily throughout the first four episodes of the season, bringing us to “Hearts and Souls.” The other cops in the unit work their own cases, but it’s all clearly beside the point. Near the end, his fellow detectives take their turns standing by his bed, and then, with his wife by his side and a vision/hallucination of his dreamed-of but never-born son in his head, Bobby dies as the screen fades slowly to white. It’s a brilliant, artful piece of work, and so beautifully sad. It’s comforting, too, but not in a cheap “he’s in a better place” sort of way. This was NYPD Blue, and TV, at the top of its form.
And hey, shit, while I’m naming great, sad NYPD Blue episodes, why not “A Death in the Family,” the third-season episode where Sipowicz’s son is murdered? That was a heartbreaker, too. Why wasn’t that on the fucking list?
What do you guys think? Have I missed any others?