Monica Potter: Season 4, Episode 11 (“What to My Wondering Eyes”)
The Plot: After chemotherapy takes its toll, Kristina spends a touch-and-go Christmas in the hospital.
Why It’s Her Best: Some actors know how to cry. Monica Potter? She knows how to cry — especially in Season 4, when Kristina spends the year battling breast cancer. In this harrowing hour, Potter displays her best work while acting opposite a computer monitor, as Kristina delivers a gut-wrenching goodbye video to her children. “I may not always be with you the way that I want to be. But I will never leave your side,” Kristina sobs — and, for a few heartbreaking moments, Potter makes us forget we’re merely watching a TV show.
Peter Krause: Season 4, Episode 5 (“There’s Something I Need to Tell You…”)
The Plot: Following Kristina’s breast cancer diagnosis, she and Adam break the news to Haddie, who is away at college.
Why It’s His Best: Because he’s the glue keeping the Bravermans together, it’s not often that we see Adam be completely vulnerable. But when he and Haddie have a private conversation about Kristina’s cancer, Krause begins to show the chinks in Adam’s armor. Even though he’s able to blink back the tears — well, almost — Krause gives us a fleeting reminder that Adam is, indeed, only human.
Max Burkholder: Season 5, Episode 18 (“The Offer”)
The Plot: After Max begrudgingly attends a school field trip, he endures the most vicious bullying yet when a classmate pees in his canteen.
Why It’s His Best: Despite his Asperger’s (or perhaps because of it), Max has always been straightforward and unapologetically unique. Maybe he hasn’t exactly embraced his affliction, but he accepts it. In this episode, though, Burkholder reveals the demons that Max still battles with internally each day. “I think I am a freak,” he quietly confesses to Adam and Kristina from the backseat. In this emotional scene, Burkholder takes one of Max’s rare quiet moments and still allows it to speak volumes.
Sarah Ramos: Season 3, Episode 11 (“Missing”)
The Plot: Max takes a bus ride to the museum by himself, and Haddie is furious with his selfishness.
Why It’s Her Best: Though we don’t see much of Adam and Kristina’s eldest these days, Parenthood‘s first three seasons allow Haddie — and her portrayer — to truly grow up. That evolution comes to a head in this episode, as Ramos transforms Haddie into a confident, articulate woman who knows how to stand her ground.
Lauren Graham: Season 3, Episode 18 (“My Brother’s Wedding”)
The Plot: After deciding she doesn’t want to have more kids, Sarah breaks up with Mark.
Why It’s Her Best: If there’s one thing Graham can do better than make us laugh, it’s make us cry. As soon as Sarah enters Mark’s apartment, we know it’s over for the couple — and all it takes to break our hearts is Graham’s sad, regretful smile.
Mae Whitman: Season 5, Episode 10 (“All That’s Left Is the Hugging”)
The Plot: While Amber decides how to proceed in her turbulent relationship with Ryan, he betrays her by re-enlisting in the Army.
Why It’s Her Best: In Parenthood‘s pilot episode, we immediately come to know Amber as a headstrong, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do teenager. Cut to this Season 5 episode, where Whitman beautifully portrays Amber at her most unsure. From a brutal argument with Ryan to an honest heart-to-heart with Sarah, Whitman delivers one of her most gripping performances of the series — culminating in the episode’s final moments, when Ryan confesses that he’s re-enlisted. (Has anyone ever cried so hard on a TV show? Can we just give her that trophy now?)
Miles Heizer: Season 4, Episode 13 (“Small Victories”)
The Plot: After Amy learns she’s pregnant, she decides to have an abortion that Drew doesn’t advocate.
Why It’s His Best: Before he went to college and became the most level-headed Braverman (er, Holt) of the bunch, Drew didn’t say much. And in this episode, Heizer sets a new record for Most Emotion Conveyed With Almost Zero Dialogue. Without uttering more than a few sentences, Heizer still manages to communicate Drew’s inner turmoil — and his emotional breakdown in front of Sarah at the end of the hour is the cherry on top of a stellar performance.
Ray Romano: Season 5, Episode 22 (“The Pontiac”)
The Plot: After coming to grips with his newly diagnosed Asperger’s, Hank confronts Sarah about their relationship.
Why It’s His Best: Never has someone embodied the word “curmudgeon” like Romano does each week as Hank Rizzoli. But for a brief moment in the Season 5 finale, Hank is not only surprised, but truly happy after Sarah greets him with a kiss. Romano’s line reading on a single word — “Really?” — is full of such genuine relief that we can almost see why Sarah chose him over Mark. (#TeamCyr4Ever)
Jason Ritter: Season 4, Episode 15 (“Because You’re My Sister”)
The Plot: After Hank and Mark give her an ultimatum, Sarah decides to pursue a relationship with Hank.
Why It’s His Best: When Sarah breaks the devastating news — “I’m going to… try to make it work with Hank.” — Mark confesses that he doesn’t know what to say. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to say anything. Ritter’s crestfallen expression and slumped shoulders are all that’s needed to communicate his heartache.
Matt Lauria: Season 4, Episode 15 (“Because You’re My Sister”)
The Plot: In an attempt to win Amber back, Ryan shows up at her apartment and confesses his love for her.
Why It’s His Best: From the moment he shows up on Parenthood to the moment he leaves, Ryan is a super-serious Army guy. Showing emotion? Not his thing. And yet, Lauria gives Ryan such depth in this episode, particularly as he falls apart while telling Amber how much he loves her. (“I don’t even remember what it was like before you. I don’t even think about it.” Sob!) Even though Amber and Ryan were never destined for a happy ending, Lauria made us sympathize with his flawed character all the same.
Erika Christensen: Season 3, Episode 17 (“Remember Me, I’m the One Who Loves You”)
The Plot: Shortly after giving birth to the baby Julia and Joel hoped to adopt, Zoe decides to keep it.
Why It’s Her Best: Yes, Season 5 was also a series of shining moments for Christensen, as Julia and Joel’s marriage crumbled. But Christensen’s all-time best performance comes many episodes earlier as Julia breaks down at the realization that she won’t have a son, after all. Christensen conveys Julia’s grief so well, in fact, that watching her sob in a hospital room makes us feel as though we’re intruding on a private moment.
Sam Jaeger: Season 6, Episode 7 (“These Are the Times We Live In”)
The Plot: Joel. Finally. Fights. For Julia.
Why It’s His Best: After four seasons of playing the supportive husband, Jaeger veered into much less swoon-worthy territory in Season 5, as Joel put up a wall between himself and Julia. Fortunately, Jaeger is able to get us back on his character’s side in the span of one scene, as Zeek tells Joel to fight for his wife. While most of the scenes on our Best Episodes list feature full-blown emotional meltdowns, Jaeger’s best moment is much quieter — and just as gripping.
Dax Shepard: Season 2, Episode 19 (“Taking the Leap”)
The Plot: After cheating on Jasmine with Max’s behaviorial therapist, Crosby tries desperately to win her back.
Why It’s His Best: In six seasons of the NBC drama, it’s safe to say Crosby has dealt with far less taxing issues than his siblings and in-laws. But even though Crosby is the Bravermans’ family goofball, Shepard manages to bring a genuine sense of remorse to his character when he’s at his very lowest.
Joy Bryant: Season 3, Episode 17 (“Remember Me, I’m the One Who Loves You”)
The Plot: A family camping trip prompts Jasmine to (finally!) forgive Crosby and propose to him.
Why It’s Her Best: Sure, the Bravermans are a stubborn bunch. But the Trussells? They’re even tougher. Though Bryant always does an excellent job with her tough-as-nails character, it’s even more impressive to see her convincingly play Jasmine’s soft side.
Bonnie Bedelia: Season 6, Episode 3 (“The Waiting Room”)
The Plot: Camille is deeply shaken when Zeek goes in for heart surgery.
Why It’s Her Best: Even though all of the Bravermans seem to understand the benefits of a good cry, it’s still unsettling to see Camille or Zeek fall apart. Bedelia does just that in this emotional rollercoaster of an episode, revealing to us the deep fears that Camille has about her husband’s possible death. As Camille confesses her worry to Julia, and reflects on the wedding vows she took years ago, Bedelia gives her most honest performance of the series.
Craig T. Nelson: Season 3, Episode 12 (“Road Trip”)
The Plot: In celebration of his mom’s birthday, Zeek rounds up the family for a road trip to visit her.
Why It’s His Best: Zeek Braverman in three words: Stoic. Honest. And… vulnerable? In this episode, yes, thanks to Nelson’s endearing performance as a son who just wants his mom to say she loves him. That’s a side of the Braverman patriarch we don’t often glimpse, but if it means watching Nelson at his best, we wish we could have seen more in these last six years.