The 36 Most Stressful TV Episodes Ever
Supernatural, "Red Meat" (2016)
How it begins: Throwing fans immediately into the middle of a werewolf hunt, the hour starts with Sam (Jared Padalecki) getting shot. Did we mention that the boys are in the middle of the woods and have no cell signal to call for help?
The climax: When Dean (Jensen Ackles) refuses to leave his injured brother behind to go for help, Corbin (Blair Penner) — a human captive of the wolves — takes matters into his own hands and strangles Sam. And to make matters more stressful, Dean, believing his brother is dead, decides to take a bunch of pills and kill himself so that he can bargain with Billie the Reaper to get Sam back. The twist? Sam’s not really dead! But Dean doesn’t know that and takes the pills anyway.
How it ends: Thanks to a good doctor, Dean doesn’t fully make his way to the other side. And thanks to a very resilient Sam, Dean is also saved from death-by-werewolf. In the end, the Winchesters walk away … and viewers can finally breathe. —Samantha Highfill
The Americans, "EST Men" (2015)
How it begins: "EST Men" starts with a bang—Elizabeth (Keri Russell) botches an operation, and nearly gets caught by the FBI.
The climax: While The Americans can craft a pulse-pounding sequence with the best of 'em, much of its tension is a quieter kind: It plainly lays out the conflict between its characters, then methodically cakes on the tension with secrets and lies. The season 3 premiere does this very quickly, when the Jennings' new handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), tells the couple that they need to prepare their daughter to enter the world of espionage.
How it ends: An operation goes wrong in the field. Their target, Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), strangles the young trainee Annelise (Gillian Alexy) to death—making for a second botched operation in one episode.
Honorable mention: "Open House," "Walter Taffet" —Joshua Rivera
Southland, "Chaos" (2013)
How it begins: John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) and Henry Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar) have been called to an abandoned building, where they find a meth addict looking for copper wire. But when Lucero goes to investigate an abandoned truck nearby, he’s hit in the head with a rifle. The voiceover establishes the tension we'll feel for the next hour: "Cops are supposed to hold the line between chaos and civilized society. Every now and then, chaos gets the upper hand."
The climax: Lucero and Cooper have been kidnapped, stripped of their guns, and brought back to the meth heads' house. And when one of the captors thinks he hears a siren, he assumes that Cooper and Lucero have trackers on them…or in them. In a panic, he burns Lucero with a blowtorch before cuffing Cooper to some furniture. Just when things can't get any worse, the meth heads drag Lucero into the bathroom and shut the door, as viewers' hearts all but stop.
How it ends: After the meth heads shoot Lucero in the head, they remove Cooper’s cuffs from his now-dead partner so they can force him to dig a grave out back. Cooper is then forced to drag Lucero’s body into the grave, and when he refuses to get in alongside his partner, he’s hit in his (already bad) back with a shovel, and thrown in. Luckily, the meth heads leave in a panic, and their final shot misses Coop—allowing him to run from the hole to the nearest gas station, ask for help, then collapse to the ground and sob. —Samantha Highfill
Sons of Anarchy, "A Mother's Work" (2013)
How it begins: Leaning against Opie’s (Ryan Hurst) grave, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) writes in his journals to his sons. While Clay’s (Ron Perlman) grave is dug, Jax’s voiceover talks about his craving for terror and his own self-hatred. He tells his sons that today is a day they’ll both remember. Then, leaving the cemetery on his bike, he runs over a dove. If that doesn’t set the tone, nothing does.
The climax: When Gemma (Katey Sagal) hears that Jax is going to be arrested, she assumes that Tara betrayed her son. So when Tara (Maggie Siff) shows up at the house to discover that Gemma’s there, it’s evident that something is wrong. With the help of a full sink and a pitchfork, Gemma kills her daughter-in-law...only to realize that Tara hadn’t betrayed Jax after all.
How it ends: About to turn himself in, Jax says his goodbyes to his brothers while Juice (Theo Rossi) disposes of Gemma’s murder weapons. By the time Jax gets home, the weapons are gone—but he’s left to hold the body of his now-dead wife, leaning down to give her one last kiss through his tears.
Honorable mention: "Laying Pipe" —Samantha Highfill
Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias" (2013)
How it begins: After reminding us of Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) early days cooking together, the show reverts back to the present—more precisely, Hank (Dean Norris) crawling toward a gun in an attempt to escape Jack’s (Michael Bown) power-hungry gang (who soon discover that Hank is a DEA agent). Right away, it’s clear someone’s not going to make it out of this interaction alive—and that this episode is going to be the culmination of Walt’s many misdeeds.
The climax: It happens just about 10 minutes in: Jack kills Hank as Walt, who was just begging Jack to spare his brother-in-law, watches in horror. After watching Hank narrowly escape death for five seasons, seeing him finally fall victim to his enemies is an undeniable gut-punch.
How it ends: Walt calls Skyler (Anna Gunn) and makes it seem like she never had any involvement with his second life; he knows the police are listening, and wants to make sure they don’t think she played a part in his business. Afterwards, he breaks his phone and assumes a new identity—leaving his entire family, Marie (Betsy Brandt) included, to grieve.
Honorable mention: “Grilled,” “Peekaboo,” “To’hajilee,” “Felina” —Ariana Bacle
The Good Wife, "Hitting the Fan" (2013)
How it begins: "Hitting the Fan" stays true to its name, jumping into the action just minutes into the episode. Will (Josh Charles) goes to confront Alicia (Julianna Margulies) about her leaving the firm, forcing her to reveal the plans she and Cary (Matt Czuchry) have been creating in secret for weeks. His fury kicks in as the two argue, leading to Will firing Alicia. The episode never lets up from there as Alicia and Cary scramble to start their new firm earlier than they planned.
The climax: It all culminates in a court case that pits Will against Alicia as the two battle it out to see which firm can lay claim to a major client, Neil Gross (John Benjamin Hickey) and his search engine Chumhum. After watching these co-workers—and lovers—work alongside each other for years, it’s surprising, tense, and incredibly sad to see them duke it out. (With closing arguments, of course. Not in an actual fight.) It backs Alicia into a corner, but rather than ruining her plans, it only fortifies her intentions. She’s going to win, and she’ll come after every Lockhart/Gardner client to clinch her victory.
How it ends: Gross is eventually swayed to come to Alicia’s firm, thanks to some help from Peter, meaning Florrick/Agos doesn’t have to go under mere hours into its existence. They still need office space and an actual business model, but for now, it’s a great, if rocky, first step for the startup—much to Will and Diane’s (Christina Baranski) dismay.
Honorable mention: "Hail Mary" —Jonathon Dornbush
Hannibal, "Mizumono" (2014)
How it begins: It starts with an invitation to dinner, and the sound of a ticking clock. As the clock ticks louder, we're privy to two separate conversations that merge together to make Hannibal's (Mads Mikkelsen) plan abundantly clear: He's going to kill Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). What we don't know is the role Will (Hugh Dancy) plays.
The climax: The. Whole. Damn. Thing. What makes "Mizumono" so intense is that its climax will be used as the opening scene in the season 2 premiere—and the episode plays with this knowledge, crafting a masterpiece of tension and release.
How it ends: The hour concludes with most of the cast bleeding out on the floor while Hannibal walks away scot-free. We still don't know if everyone's alive. —Joshua Rivera
Grey's Anatomy, "Sanctuary" (2010)
How it begins: As Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) voiceover reminisces about how she grew up in the hospital—and how, unlike most people, she loves it there—we watch Meredith walk past Gary Clark (Michael O’Neill), a man we recognize from an earlier storyline: His wife died at Seattle Grace. As Meredith brushes shoulders with Clark, she says, "Correction: Loved it here." It's clear something’s about to happen. And within the next six minutes, he shoots Reed (Nora Zehetner) between the eyes before shooting series favorite Alex Karev (Justin Chambers).
The climax: While hunting for the chief of surgery—and killing every surgeon he meets along the way—Clark pulls Bailey (Chandra Wilson) out from under a bed, points the gun at her face and asks if she’s a surgeon. The following seconds are enough to make any longtime fan lose his or her mind. Thankfully, Bailey doesn’t lose hers. Instead, she’s smart enough to say that she’s a nurse. Clark then apologizes for the trouble and the "mess" before leaving the room.
How it ends: Finally finding the chief, Clark points a gun at Derek (Patrick Dempsey) as Meredith and Cristina (Sandra Oh) look on. Just as Derek seems to have talked him down, April rushes into the scene, forcing Clark to lose eye contact with Derek. As a result, Clark shoots Derek in the heart.
Honorable mention: "It’s the End of the World/As We Know It," "Death and All His Friends" —Samantha Highfill
Gunsmoke, "The Jailer" (1966)
How it begins: Three men ride into town in the Kansas State Prison cart. As suspenseful music plays in the background, they find their own horses and ride off. As we cut to night, we see two of the men lurking around Kitty’s (Amanda Blake) saloon. Once she closes up for the night, they enter and kidnap her.
The climax: Kitty convinces one of the men to help her escape, but when his mother—who’s behind the entire kidnapping scheme—catches them, she shoots her own son dead, slaps Kitty, and brings her back inside, determined to make her watch as Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) hangs for arresting and killing her husband years ago.
How it ends: The kidnapper’s daughter-in-law sneaks the Marshal a gun—on a literal silver platter—and he kills two of the men holding them hostage. Using one of the dead men’s guns, Kitty then takes out the woman behind the kidnapping with one shot. —Samantha Highfill
One Tree Hill, "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept" (2006)
How it begins: Jimmy (Colin Fickes), an outcast who can no longer handle the pain of not fitting in, starts the episode with a monologue about how all his classmates are "losers" as eerie instrumentals play in the background. Within two minutes, he pulls a gun out in the hallway and shoots, resulting in complete chaos and an injured Peyton (Hillary Burton).
The climax: Keith (Craig Sheffer) enters the school in an attempt to stop Jimmy, and gives him a powerful speech about how he once was like Jimmy—and how it will get better. After minutes of pointing the gun at Keith, Jimmy turns it on himself.
How it ends: Dan (Paul Johansson) goes inside the school to find Keith hunched over Jimmy, who’s now dead. Dan responds by picking up the now-abandoned gun, pointing it at Keith, and shooting his brother dead. Dan’s always been the bad guy, but his ability to coldly kill his own brother brings his villain status to a new level. —Ariana Bacle
Game of Thrones, "The Rains of Castamere" (2013)
How it begins: Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and his bannermen arrive at Walder Frey’s (David Bradley) castle to apologize for Robb backing out of his promise to wed one of the Frey daughters. The plan is to refortify the Stark/Frey alliance by marrying Robb’s uncle Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) to a Frey instead. Things seem to be going well; Lord Walder accepts Robb’s apology with cantankerous humor, and offers the Starks his full hospitality for the duration of the wedding. By the laws of Westeros, this prevents him from harming them. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
The climax: The wedding reception is carrying along normally—long and boring and awkward. But then, Robb’s mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) notices that the musicians have changed their tune. They’re now playing "The Rains of Castamere," otherwise known as the Lannister theme song. On cue, a Frey leaps out and stabs Robb’s pregnant wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin) in the stomach, and a volley of crossbow arrows lay into Robb and his friends. And the slaughter of everyone you were cheering for commences.
How it ends: Catelyn desperately tries to hold Lord Walder’s wife hostage in exchange for Robb’s life, but it’s too late, and she watches as her beloved son is killed by his own vassal. After a few seconds, another traitor walks over and finally slits her throat, but you can see in her eyes that she’s already dead. This is what makes the Red Wedding truly tragic, and not just an unexpected plot twist: Catelyn dies thinking that her whole family has been wiped out, unaware that her youngest children are still alive.
Honorable mention: "Blackwater" —Christian Holub
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Innocence" (1998)
How it begins: The prior episode ended on a major cliffhanger, with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) having sex for the first time—and something strange happening to Angel. We don't check in on them right away, though. Instead the episode begins with Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) plotting. Drusilla falls to the ground and smiles. Cut to Buffy waking to an empty pillow next to her, and Angel, now without his soul, having a snack on the street.
The climax: Angelus reveals himself to the Scooby Gang by briefly taking Willow (Alyson Hannigan) hostage.
How it ends: After Buffy uses a rocket launcher to attack The Judge, she and Angelus have a water-soaked fight. Not ready to kill him, she kicks him in the balls. Giles (Anthony Head) drives her home and she watches an old movie with her mother to celebrate her birthday.
Honorable mention: "The Body," "Becoming," "Normal Again" —Esther Zuckerman
The Sopranos, "Long Term Parking" (2004)
How it begins: Adriana (Drea de Matteo) is sick—ostensibly thanks to colitis, though we know she's really suffering from the long-term effects of being an FBI informant. The tension's been mounting ever since they first targeted Ade way back in season 3—but has gotten exponentially worse this season. Then the feds confront Adriana about a murder that happened at her club, and she comes clean—in hopes that she can also turn her fiancé Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and the two of them can join the Witness Protection program together. Things… don't exactly turn out as she'd hoped.
The climax: You might think it's coming when Adriana confesses to Christopher, and he responds by almost strangling her to death. But nope: It happens after he goes out to "buy cigarettes," and Tony (James Gandolfini) calls Ade to tell her that Christopher tried to commit suicide. His consigliere Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) appears, ostensibly to drive Adriana to the hospital. When he turns off the highway and onto a secluded, wooded road, though, it's clear that the whole suicide story was a lie. In the end, Adriana isn't even granted the mercy of a dignified death—Silvio shoots her twice as she's on her knees, trying desperately to crawl away from him. (There's a school of thought out there that Adriana didn't really die because we don't see her dead body onscreen. That school of thought is wrong.)
How it ends: With Tony and Carmella (Edie Falco) taking a look at the land where Mrs. Soprano is planning to build her spec house. Their lives go on—Adriana's doesn't.
Honorable mention: "Funhouse," "Pine Barrens," "Made in America" —Hillary Busis
24, "Day 5: 6:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m." (2006)
How it begins: Most episodes of 24 are supposed to be stressful, edge-of-your-seat affairs, but midway through the show's fifth season (arguably the last really good one), the nerve gas plot kicks into high gear when a terrorist plants a canister in CTU headquarters.
The climax: CTU goes into lockdown while Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) hunts down the terrorist who planted the gas. While Bauer is able to catch (and kill) said terrorist, it's too late to help CTU.
How it ends: The gas is released in CTU, killing the personnel who weren't able to lock themselves into the facility's safe rooms. One of those people is beloved analyst Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi)—Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) watches him die through the safe room's glass doors. —Joshua Rivera
Desperate Housewives, "Bang" (2006)
How it begins: Jilted housewife Carolyn Bigsby (guest star Laurie Metcalf) walks into a supermarket and immediately makes hostages of all the customers, including Lynette (Felicity Huffman) and her husband's antagonistic former mistress Nora (Kiersten Warren). Not a bad way to kick off an episode.
The climax: After Carolyn shoots Nora for her adulterous ways, Lynette stands up to the gunwoman—and gets shot as a result.
How it ends: The other supermarket hostages come to Lynette's aid by taking out Carolyn via a well-aimed can of food, followed by a gunshot. When Lynette is wheeled out of the market, the entire neighborhood—some of whom were responsible for Carolyn's breakdown in the first place—watch the news and see what they have wrought. —Marc Snetiker
Hill Street Blues, "A Hill of Beans" (1983)
How it begins: After the morning roll call meeting, it isn’t long before LaRue (Kiel Martin) confronts Benedetto (Dennis Franz) about the investigation that nearly got his partner killed. Needless to say, there’s obvious tension between the two.
The climax: When Benedetto sees LaRue take Iggy (David Fresco), the property clerk, into interrogation, he knows that it’s only a matter of time until they have proof that he’s a dirty cop. Running away, Benedetto stops at the bank. But when the cops show up, Benedetto pulls out his gun and takes a hostage in the back room. It isn’t long until Benedetto gives up his hostage, instead taking his own life.
How it ends: Rico (Marco Rodriguez) shows up at the police station after his “typing class,” to reveal that he used Leo’s (Robert Hirschfeld) money to get high. A heartbroken Leo then tells Rico to leave. —Samantha Highfill
The Walking Dead, "No Sanctuary" (2014)
How it begins: The Grimes gang—minus Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and Carol (Melissa McBride)—are locked up in a darkened railway car, a grotesque metaphor for their predicament. It may as well be a cattle car, because everyone's off-season suspicions about Terminus were confirmed when the group was bound, gagged, and dragged to the butcher shop.
The climax: The season premiere began at peak intensity, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun), and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) among a group of prisoners prepped for slaughter. Kneeling over a trough of blood, the Termians start slitting throats, but Gareth (Andrew J. West) pauses to document ammo counts and interrogate Rick about his stash of weapons. The testy negotiation, punctuated by Rick promising to machete Gareth to death, is interrupted by the distant sound of gunfire and a huge explosion—Carol has arrived. The men escape, but their frantic exit leads them through the gruesome Terminus food-supply dungeon, where fresh corpses hang on meathooks. Meanwhile, Tyreese is outsmarted by the Terminus Tiger Fan, who grabs baby Judith and threatens to snap her neck unless Tyreese walks unarmed into a herd of walkers outside. He has no choice but to abide, and those fraught moments are as dark and tense as anything ever on The Walking Dead.
How it ends: Carol's sabotage opened the gates of Terminus for the zombie horde, which feasts on the inhabitants while the Grimes gang escapes into the woods. It's a tender reunion after a full season apart from each other, made sweeter by the lasting image of Rick holding his baby girl again. —Jeff Labrecque
E.R., "Love's Labor Lost" (1995)
How it begins: A man (Bradley Whitford) and a very pregnant woman (Colleen Flynn) come into the ER for a simple checkup: She's two weeks away from delivery and having to urinate often. Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) thinks it must just be a bladder infection. Things are great! Jokes are made! Viewers know that Dr. Greene is a great doctor. The couple is in capable hands and have nothing to worry about ... until they do.
The climax: Wrongly given the all-clear to leave the hospital by Dr. Greene, the couple return when the woman is in clear duress. And the tension of the episode doesn't stop building from there. Dr. Greene performs a suspenseful C-section—wherein he makes more errors—and just when it seems everyone is out of the woods...
How it ends: ...the mother dies. Dr. Greene must tell Bradley Whitford's character that his wife is dead. Then Greene takes a long, sad subway ride home, and America learns that one of their favorite TV doctors isn't flawless.
Honorable mention: "Hell and High Water" —Dalene Rovenstine
The X-Files, "Roadrunners" (2000)
How it begins: A backpacker boards a bus late at night on a desert road, unaware that his fellow passengers are cult members on their way to stone someone to death. When Scully (Gillian Anderson) shows up to investigate, the cultists strand her in town so she'll care for the backpacker—because they worship the slug they've put in his back.
The climax: The backpacker's body fails him, but not before the slug transforms his mind. As he volunteers for death, the townspeople close in on Scully, holding her down and forcing her to watch as they kill the backpacker, then carry the slug to its next vessel—her.
How it ends: Doggett (Robert Patrick) comes to Scully’s aid, because nothing cements a new partnership like cutting a slug out of someone's spine and shooting it. The cult goes to trial, citing religious persecution.
Honorable mention: "Ice," "Duane Barry," "Irresistible" —Kelly Connolly
Downton Abbey, "Season 3, Episode 5" (2012)
How it begins: The episode opens with Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) inspecting Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is beginning to experience early labor pains. Dr. Clarkson realizes what's going on—Sybil has eclampsia. He tells Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that they could go to the hospital and try a C-Section, which might be the only thing that could save her. Cora wants to try it—Robert refuses to let them.
The climax: Just after giving birth, Sybil’s body goes into shock and begins seizing. The doctors tell the family there is nothing that can be done to save her. Surrounded by her family, Sybil’s body goes limp after several intense minutes of writhing in pain on the bed. Tom (Allen Leech) begs, "Please don’t leave me."
How it ends: The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) arrives dressed in black, and greets the family. The Countess leaves the room after announcing she partially blames her husband for Sybil’s death. But thankfully, the Dowager Countess is there to remind the family to honor Sybil and “cherish her memory and her child.”
Honorable Mention: "Season 1, Episode 3" —Megan Daley
Dexter, "Born Free" (2006)
How it begins: Dexter (Michael C. Hall) has figured out Rudy (Christian Camargo) is the Ice Truck Killer—but it’s almost too late: Debra’s (Jennifer Carpenter) limbs are taped together on Rudy’s boat while Dexter races around trying to find her, kicking off the episode with a quickly escalating life-or-death issue.
The climax: Rudy wraps Debra up in plastic wrap, just as Dexter does with his victims, and presents her to Dexter as a gift. Dexter grapples with killing her, but Rudy eventually can’t handle Dexter’s hesitance and takes the knife into his own hands—and nearly plunges it into Debra’s chest before Dexter stops him.
How it ends: Debra ends up free and Rudy ends up dead, but not all is happy-go-lucky for Dexter: Doakes (Erik King) knows something is up, and Rita’s (Julie Benz) starting to become suspicious too.
Honorable mention: "The Getaway" —Ariana Bacle
Homeland, "Marine One—Part 1" (2011)
How it begins: The episode begins with a video of uniformed Brody (Damian Lewis) taping his confession for the attack he plans to carry out.
The climax: Brody is putting on his suicide vest, when his daughter Dana tries to enter the room.
How it ends: At the end of the first half of this double episode, Elizabeth Gaines (Linda Purl), advisor to the Vice President, is shot by sniper Tom Walker (Chris Chalk), Brody's fellow POW—and the VP and a bunch of other important people are put in a bunker along with Brody, who plans to blow them all up. When he hits the switch... nothing happens.
Honorable mention: "The Choice," "Marine One—Part 2" —Esther Zuckerman
Boardwalk Empire, "New York Sour" (2013)
How it begins: After some small talk at a Jersey truck stop diner, half-faced Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a formerly calm Army marksman now in the midst of a bloody rampage, fatally plugs two stopover goons while they try to start their car in the freezing cold. But it was easygoing stuff compared to the corker of a centerpiece in the season four premiere: Chalky’s right hand man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) enjoying some “fifteen minute-worth of jelly” with talent agent Dickie Pastor’s (Jeremy Bobb) wife Alma (Jo Armeniox), when Dickie waltzes in and proceeds to make Dunn continue his sexual conquest...at gunpoint.
The climax: Dunn, having none of it, stabs Dickie 20 times with a broken liquor bottle–with pants around his ankles, no less–while Alma flees out a window.
How it ends: Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Nucky (Steve Buscemi) watch over Dunn’s safe burial of Dickie, but given Dickie’s underworld connections and later violent misgivings, Dunn always appeared dunn for in the long run. —Jason Clark
The Wire, "Cleaning Up" (2002)
How it begins: The episode starts off slow. The Barksdale operation knows the police are onto them, so Avon (Wood Harris) and Stringer (Idris Elba) are trying to tie off any loose ends that could potentially compromise them. The biggest one, of course, is the young boy Wallace (Michael B. Jordan)—but thankfully, the police have him safely stowed away in the countryside at his grandma’s house. There’s a whole different kind of stress, too, as political operatives start getting rattled by the cops’ investigation into political contributions, and threaten to shut them down. All this seems kind of boring, but there’s a current of stress bubbling underneath. And then the bodies start dropping. And then Wallace comes back.
The climax: On the orders of Stringer Bell, Wallace’s friends Bodie (J.D. Williams) and Poot (Tray Chaney) corner him at gunpoint. Wallace pleads with his friends: "It’s us, man." But it’s lost on these boys, whose youth has been ground away by the drug trade’s meaningless brutality. Even as the scene is happening, and you know there’s only one way it can end, you’ll probably end up screaming at the TV for something, anything else to happen.
How it ends: D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Wallace’s friend and supervisor who had tried to protect the boy from his more Machiavellian uncle, is arrested, and the cops reveal Wallace’s death. This leads to one of the more dramatic scenes of the series, between D’Angelo and Stringer: "Where’s the boy, String? Where the f--k is Wallace?" By the end of the episode, Avon has been arrested, but even that feels like a hollow victory. The Wire is a show about futility, but of all the useless deaths to come in later seasons, none sting more than Wallace. —Christian Holub
Black Mirror, "National Anthem" (2013)
How it begins: Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) wakes up to a phone call telling him that Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is missing. Soon after, he finds out that her captor will only free her if Callow has sex with a pig on live television.
The climax: It’s satirical, sure, but also incredibly disturbing when Michael eventually ditches his pants and gets to work on the pig as thousands of people watch (and laugh, and cringe) from hospitals, bars, restaurants. This is the moment most of the episode has been building up to, and the fact that it actually happens is enough to freak out even the toughest of viewers. The fact that the show also shows the Prime Minister’s sweaty face and tortured groans adds an extra layer of intensity.
How it ends: Michael didn’t have to have sex with a pig after all: Turns out the kidnapper released Princess Susannah before Michael even started, as a statement on the media. He knew everyone would be watching the act on television, and no one would be paying attention to anything else... like the Princess lying unattended on a usually populated bridge. Michael’s aide, Alex, finds this out, but makes sure neither he nor anyone else discovers this information. With that hidden, Michael’s political reputation soars (although his personal life flops: his wife still isn’t happy with him about it a year later). —Ariana Bacle
Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Chain of Command: Part 2" (1992)
How it begins: Captured by the Cardassians, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is injected with a truth serum, under which he tells the Cardassians of his plans to destroy a metagenic weapon. Picard is then taken into another room for questioning, but only after they implant a device in his chest. Its purpose? Pain at the press of a button.
The climax: After hours of torture, Picard is told that he is free to go. But when the Cardassian who's torturing Picard informs him that Dr. Beverly (Gates McFadden) is up next in the torture chamber—which, of course, is a lie—Picard chooses to sit back down in the chair and accept more torture in order to spare Beverly. Can we/Picard take anymore?!
How it ends: After the Enterprise has successfully negotiated Picard’s return, he says goodbye to the Cardassian leader, refusing to give into his games, telling him once and for all that there are four lights! —Samantha Highfill
Law & Order: SVU, "Surrender Benson" (2013)
How it begins: Season 14 of Law & Order: SVU ended on quite the cliffhanger, with Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) being held at gunpoint by William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber) in her own apartment. And the following season opener wastes no time: We see Lewis tying a beaten and battered Benson to a chair.
The climax: The episode doesn't have a moment of relief, but it seems nearly unbearable around the time a rookie cop pulls over Lewis, who promptly shoots the cop. Next, we see Benson tied to a bedframe at a beach house. Obviously SVU is filled with moments like this, but seeing the iron-strong Detective Benson as the victim is almost too much to handle.
How it ends: Benson is able to break free, knock out Lewis, and become a hero. Then she cuts off her own hair, you know, as one does. —Dalene Rovenstine
Scandal, "Run" (2015)
How it begins: After Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington) kidnapping during the Scandal midseason finale, "Run" kicks off in high gear, following Olivia as she is bundled off to a cell in what appears to be a prison in a Middle Eastern country.
The climax: The disappearance of her cellmate and frustrated first escape attempt both increase the tension, but it's the final moments of the episode that have us watching with bated breath. Olivia launches her second escape by bludgeoning one of her captors with a metal pipe, grabbing his gun, and sprinting toward the red prison door. When another kidnapper gets in her way and nearly talks her out of escaping, Olivia raises that stolen gun and shoots him point blank.
How it ends: Olivia's break for freedom leads to her complete disorientation, as she barges through the red door to find that she's been captive in a simulation in a warehouse...and her former cellmate is actually the mastermind behind the whole scheme. —Kat Ward
Miami Vice, "Definitely Miami" (1986)
How it begins: A black Porsche enters a quarry, where a man is looking for a woman named Callie. Instead, he finds Charlie Basset (Ted Nugent), who shoots him, takes his money, and then buries the dead man—and his car—in a freakishly large pile of sand.
The climax: When Maria (Kamala Lopez) and Clemente (Roger Pretto) finally meet, she hugs him … before she pulls out a knife and stabs him to death. But she doesn’t live much longer: A sniper shoots and kills her. Cut to a shootout at the quarry with Crockett (Don Johnson), Charlie, and Zito (John Diehl). Crockett takes Charlie down, only to discover the many sand piles he’d used to bury people he’d killed.
How it ends: When Callie sees Crockett at the beach, she realizes what’s happening. She tries to flirt her way out of it, but ends up getting read her rights. —Samantha Highfill
The West Wing, "Twenty Five” (2003)
How it begins: Picking up from the revelation that Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) is missing, "Twenty Five" wastes no time in letting President Bartet (Martin Sheen) know before the opening credits roll. Leo McGarry (John Spencer) comes in to inform the president, and with a wordless, concerned look to his wife Abbey (Stockard Channing), viewers know they’re in for a tense hour.
The climax: As the search continues fruitlessly, Bartlet realizes Zoey’s abduction is preventing him from serving as the president. He confesses this privately to Leo midway through the episode, and decides that he needs to invoke the 25th amendment—to put someone in charge who is thinking more rationally than he is. His mind is made up—but this means the Democratic leader is also putting the most powerful Republican in the country in charge: Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman).
How it ends: The episode doesn’t actually end the manhunt for Zoey: Resolution on that storyline wouldn’t come until season 5 (a parting gift from series creator Aaron Sorkin). But Sorkin does end his run on the show, and concludes the tense hour, by having President Bartlet actually remove himself from power so that the speaker can assume control. With a signature and the words "You’re relieved," Jed Bartlet leaves the Oval Office as Walken is sworn into power.
Honorable mention: "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, part 1" —Jonathon Dornbush
Castle, "Reckoning" (2015)
How it begins: Beckett (Stana Katic) has been captured by Dr. Kelly Nieman (Annie Wersching), a plastic surgeon who likes Beckett’s face a little too much. The only thing she likes more? Fraternizing with Jerry Tyson (Michael Mosley), the presumed-dead serial killer known as 3XK. Tyson has the world convinced that he's a nobody whose resemblance to Tyson is all Nieman's handiwork.
The climax: In his rogue search for Beckett, Castle (Nathan Fillion) is caught by Tyson, who wants him to watch on a monitor as Nieman takes Beckett's face for her own. But Castle brought backup this time, and Esposito (Jon Huertas) takes out Tyson through a window.
How it ends: Beckett works her way out of her restraints just as Nieman prepares to make the first cut, and by the time the team arrives, she's standing over Nieman's dead body. For his work, Castle is invited to return to the NYPD as a consultant. All's well that ends with copious amounts of post-traumatic stress.
Honorable mention: "3XK," "Knockout," "Always" —Kelly Connolly
Banshee, "Tribal" (2015)
How it begins: Sheriff Hood (Antony Starr) is having visions of his girlfriend while in real life, shards of glass fly all around him. The show goes on in silence, until, suddenly, we are snapped back to reality: The police department is being shot up from the outside.
The climax: When Hood heads down to the basement, Siobhan (Trieste Kelly Dunn) stays up top, only to get attacked by a member of the Redbones. She’s able to kill her attacker, but Chayton (Geno Segers) watches it all go down. By the time Hood comes back upstairs, Chayton has Siobhan by her neck. And as Hood watches, Chayton snaps Siobhan’s neck … just as sirens appear in the background, causing all of the Redbones to flee.
How it ends: After the Redbones clear out at the sound of the sirens, all of the hostages are getting their wounds treated. As for Hood, he’s sitting on the steps of the police station with nothing but a blank stare. Cut to black. —Samantha Highfill
Twin Peaks, "Lonely Souls" (1990)
How it begins: This was the episode in which ABC promised the audience an answer: After a season and a half, we were finally going to find out who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The episode opens with an eerie recitation from Mike (Gary Hershberger) at the police station, which everyone swiftly ignores. But within the first five minutes, Mike has a full-body reaction at the Great Northern while helping the police search for the killer. Also, Hawk (Michael Hawk) discovers Harold Smith’s (Lenny von Dohlen) hanging body along with pages of Laura Palmer’s diary that were sprinkled on the floor of his living room.
The climax: Leland (Ray Wise) gazes into a mirror in the Palmer’s living room, but instead of his own reflection, Bob (Frank Silva) appears. Leland turns around, looking through the doorway with a slight smile, and begins to put on gloves. The camera pans briefly to Sarah Palmer’s (Grace Zabriskie) body on the floor just before Maddy (Sheryl Lee) enters, asking about the smell. Leland attacks and the two engage in an intense brawl (with a spotlight added for effect). The punches, the screams, the slow motion—it’s an unforgettable scene as Maddy attempts to save herself from her uncle/Bob.
How it ends: The waiter approaches Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) at the roadhouse and says, "I’m so sorry," as everyone in the restaurant collectively loses their minds. A lounge singer continues a sad anthem that echoes a love lost. Even Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), with a cigarette in hand, seems moved. This moment allows the killer of Laura Palmer to really sink in for the audience, even though the characters still don’t know who did it yet. —Megan Daley