Michael Weston, Michael C. Hall

The prevalence of streaming video encourages television fans to re-watch their favorite episodes, poring over them for subtleties and Easter eggs they missed the first time through. But that isn’t always an option with episodes too emotionally bruising, too gory, or too awkward to watch a second time. These episodes often represent shows at the height of their storytelling power, but having a huge impact on the audience can be a blessing and a curse. The more indelible the episode, the less pressing the urge to revisit it.

1. Six Feet Under, “That’s My Dog” (2004)

Although it surveyed a wide swath of the human experience over the course of its five-year run, the structure of a Six Feet Under episode changed little from week to week: In each hour, we bounce between the members of the extended Fisher family as they love, live, and plan funerals. One of the rare digressions from this formula was “That’s My Dog,” a pivotal episode from the show’s searching fourth season. In the episode, David (Michael C. Hall), the most nervous and straitlaced of the Fisher siblings, is carjacked by a hitchhiker (Michael Weston) who puts him through an escalating series of psychological horrors. As the plot progresses, it pushes other storylines aside to take over the episode, and it dawns on viewers that we are being hijacked, too. The audience is offered no relief as we watch the hitchhiker beat David, make him smoke crack, and force him to suck on the barrel of the gun, among other cruelties. The unrelenting approach gives us our own taste of David’s hopeless feeling, and even loyal Six Feet Under viewers probably hesitate to experience it again. [John Teti]


2. Dexter, “The Getaway” (2009)

Dexter is disturbing, but not for long—desensitization comes naturally with a show that almost always culminates with a huge, shiny blade plunged into someone’s chest. But the serial-killer thriller reclaimed its shock factor in “The Getaway,” upon Dexter Morgan’s (Michael C. Hall) discovery of his wife Rita’s murder. When your life is devoted to cat-and-mouse games with psychopaths, there’s no avoiding collateral damage, as Dexter finds out the hard way when he finds Rita (Julie Benz) soaking in a crimson bathtub, her femoral artery slashed. That should be bad enough, but worse still is the image of Dexter’s infant son Harrison crying on the floor in a puddle of his mother’s blood. It’s a symbolically powerful choice, a case of history repeating given that a similar experience infected Dexter with his homicidal compulsion. But seeing such a horrific trauma inflicted on a baby is not something that lends itself well to repeated viewings. It’s also tough to revisit because it doesn’t inspire Dexter to change his reckless behavior, and wasn’t the last time he put Harrison in harm’s way. It also triggered Dexter’s dramatic quality decline. When Miami Metro Homicide failed to scrutinize Dexter in the wake of Rita’s death, it became clear Dexter getting caught was no longer a plausible outcome, no matter how hard the show tried to pretend otherwise. [Joshua Alston]

3. Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” (2013)

Anyone who watched Breaking Bad knew that this was a story that wouldn’t end happily for Walter White (Bryan Cranston), and the teasers for the final season didn’t breed any new optimism, with Cranston reciting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” over images of the New Mexico desert. The episode that shared the poem’s name lived up to all premonitions, bringing Walt’s empire to the ground with jaw-dropping finality. It’s the totality of the loss that breaks the viewer, all the worst things possible happening over one hour. Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), one of the show’s most noble characters, gets shot in the head and is buried in an unmarked grave. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), whose innocence had been beaten to a pulp for more than five years, learns the true reason why the love of his life Jane died and is forced into slave labor by white supremacists. And everything Walt sold his soul for, he loses: the love of his family, the bulk of his fortune, and even his own final sense of self-worth when he realizes—in a heartrending moment—that he’s stooped so low as to kidnap his own infant daughter. The series continued for two more episodes, but the Heisenberg myth is definitely smashed to rubble here. Look upon Vince Gilligan’s works, ye mighty, and despair. [Les Chappell]


4. The Good Wife, “Dramatics, Your Honor” (2014)

In this age of spoilers, actually shocking a TV audience is nearly impossible, but leave it to The Good Wife to pull it off. Without even a whisper of Josh Charles’ impending departure from the show, The Good Wife up and offed Will Gardner in the middle of its brilliant and explosive season five, in the most upsetting and violent manner possible. Viewers were dumbfounded; Twitter blew up, as a nation mourned a fictional lawyer; the show’s producers even had to make a statement the next day. Re-watching “Dramatics, Your Honor” is also nearly impossible, as we’re cringe-watching with dread the whole time, waiting for Will’s death. But although it’s far and away the most memorable thing about the episode, it doesn’t happen until almost the very end. If we could make it through a second watch, we’d see that the show sets up its unforeseen conclusion beautifully, starting the episode through the eyes of Will’s eventual killer, his young client on trial for murder. All the dramatic set-ups before the courtroom shooting—whether Will will testify against Peter, Alicia and Cary’s new firm, the Office Of Professional Integrity, a tedious correspondents’ luncheon—are literally blown away in an instant as the episode brutally reminds us how precious life is and how nothing is permanent. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. NewsRadio, “Bill Moves On” (1998)

Usually if a show is hard to watch, it’s by design, as the writers have decided to wring laughs or drama from an uncomfortable situation. But sometimes, painful reality intrudes on an otherwise lighthearted show. When Phil Hartman was murdered, just a few weeks before shooting would begin on the fifth season of NewsRadio, the show’s writers bravely decided to deal with his death head-on. Instead of Hartman’s character, Bill McNeal, euphemistically moving away, or picking up the show months after his death, the season opener, “Bill Moves On,” begins with the remaining ensemble returning to the office after Bill’s funeral. Audiences still processing Hartman’s death had to watch the show’s actors publicly mourning their friend and colleague, while playing characters who were mourning his alter ego. It’s a testament to those writers and actors that the episode manages to be a loving tribute to Hartman, a cathartic exercise for the cast (filming had to be stopped several times because one actor or another burst into sobs), and still hold up as a half-hour of comedy. No matter how well NewsRadio dealt with tragedy, however, the loss of a comedic icon isn’t something you want to revisit. [Mike Vago]


6. Angel, “A Hole In The World” (2004)

In Joss Whedon’s television shows (and his movies, for that matter), death is nearly always abrupt and cruel, but what happens to Winifred Burkle in Angel is something worse than death, really… at least for the show’s other characters and viewers. There were a handful of episodes remaining in the entire series, and “A Hole In The World” immediately follows the funny, goofy “Smile Time”—an episode that ends with the sweet “Fred” (Amy Acker) finally getting together with the long-suffering Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof). Whedon wrote and directed “Hole,” which begins with Fred inhaling a mysterious cloud of dust released from an old sarcophagus, and ends with her soul dying and an ancient demon named Illyria taking over her body. The transformation turns out to be permanent, which means that poor Wes has to spend the rest of Angel living side by side with a strange creature who looks just like his true love. Knowing that no fix is coming makes “A Hole In The World” all the harder to take for Angel fans, who spend the better part of an hour watching one of TV’s most likable heroines slip away, irreversibly, while Whedon muses about the deep rot at the center of all existence. [Noel Murray]


7. Game Of Thrones, “The Rains Of Castamere” (2013)

“Now you know why your nerdy friends were really depressed 13 years ago,” George R.R. Martin said on Conan after “The Rains Of Castamere” aired, laughing as he quoted a comment on a fan-reaction video. He was the only one laughing, as the penultimate episode of Game Of Thrones season three crushed fans across the spectrum. For fans of the books, it was a near-perfect rendition of the most famous chapter of the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, the Red Wedding that broke House Stark apart and ended the brief reign of the King In The North. For those unfamiliar with the source material, it was a brutal melee that flew in the face of everything you expected from a television show, proving that even though Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) were presented as the good guys in the war, that alone wasn’t enough to save them. And what makes it even more horrific is how well writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss keep the denouement hidden, only hinting at the carnage to come in the last few minutes when the band plays the cautionary House Lannister ballad that gives the episode its title, doors slowly shut, and armor is revealed on erstwhile allies. It’s the high-water mark (or blood mark as it were) of the series, and it does justice to the source material by being nearly impossible to revisit. [Les Chappell]

8. Deadwood, “Requiem For A Gleet” (2005)

TV has had its fair share of disgusting medical procedures, from that giant needle that goes straight into an eyeball in House to surgeries on The Knick that look like they’re being performed with dental equipment. But nothing is as excruciating as the Deadwood subplot where Al Swearengen is incapacitated by kidney stones and Doc Cochran has to operate using his trusty 1870s equipment. His unenviable options: Al trying to pass stones so painful he can’t speak and the prospect of Doc cutting him open down there. The subplot’s so unbearable that it overshadows everything else at the start of season two. Yes, there’s a likelihood of death if either course of action fails, and yes, sidelining Al opens up Deadwood to worse powers like Tolliver and Hearst. But none of that compares to the immediate agony of Al Swearengen’s gleet. [Brandon Nowalk]


9. Archie Bunker’s Place, “Archie Alone” (1980)

When All In The Family evolved after its ninth season into Archie Bunker’s Place, the writing was probably on the wall that Archie’s long-suffering spouse, Edith, was destined to be phased out of the series, which is exactly what began to happen about halfway through Archie’s first season. Edith’s final fate wasn’t revealed, however, until the second season premiere, when viewers learned that she had died of a stroke. Seeing one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time wandering silently and aimlessly through his bedroom, looking into Edith’s now-empty closet, was devastating enough, but when Archie sees a lone pink slipper peeking out from under the bed, he sits down and begins a monologue to his late wife, musing on how he was supposed to have been the one to go first before he breaks down sobbing, “You had no right to leave me that way, Edith, without giving me just one more chance to say I loved you.” It’s a necessary moment to close out the life of the character, to be sure, but between how beloved Edith Bunker was and how moving Carroll O’Connor’s performance is, it’s a farewell that’s hard to watch in its entirety even once, let alone a second time. [Will Harris]

10. My So-Called Life, “Life Of Brian” (1994)

While My So-Called Life’s main character is a teenage girl, the series’ 19 episodes featured a full ensemble of beautifully drawn characters, including Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), a painfully realistic portrait of an awkward nerd. And while there are plenty of adolescent (and adult) embarrassments to go around throughout the show’s single season, the show saves one of its most painful moments for “Life Of Brian,” the episode that turned over narration duty from Angela Chase (Claire Danes) to Krakow for a brief window into the lovesick nerd’s brain. Brian decides, late in the episode, to trade up for the school dance: Though he’s asked sweet-natured Delia Fisher (Senta Moses), he misinterprets a request from his longtime crush Angela as a sign that they could go to the dance together. In the show’s most excruciating moment, Brian blows Delia off, doing a terrible job of sparing her feelings. Brian’s selfishness is both appalling and chillingly identifiable, a precise rendering of a lonely kid getting in his own way. The sharp, insightful scene is almost impossible to watch without flinching. [Jesse Hassenger]


11. The Office, “Scott’s Tots” (2009)

The cartoonish buffoonery of Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is so elemental to The Office, it seems as though overkill is impossible. That is, until “Scott’s Tots,” the episode in which the cringe humor is heavy enough to spoil the broth. Michael reaches the peak of his immaturity and conflict aversion, waiting until the last possible moment to tell a group of underprivileged high schoolers he won’t be able to bankroll their college educations as he’d pledged to do a decade before. He can’t bring himself to tell the kids the ugly truth, even as they make heartfelt speeches telling him what a difference his unfunded promise has made in their lives. When he finally admits the truth, all he has to offer in lieu of tuition payments is laptop batteries. Michael’s oblivious behavior is one thing when it affects employees who choose to work at Dunder Mifflin, but it’s excruciating when blameless, hard-working kids are the collateral damage of Michael’s losing battle with mediocrity. It’s a well-crafted episode, and one pivotal to Michael’s relationship with Erin (Ellie Kemper), but it’s too tough to watch kids have their dreams deflated by the same person who inflated them to begin with. [Joshua Alston]

12. The Wire, “-30-” (2008)

The Wire is about people making bad decisions after being trapped in a fundamentally broken system that’s stacked against them. This is never more apparent than in the show’s fourth season, which introduces the audience to adolescents standing on the edge of the Baltimore meat grinder. The saddest fate is reserved for the poverty-stricken and parentally abandoned Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford), who strikes up a friendship with cop-turned-teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost). Dukie thrives while working with “Mr. Prezbo,” and it proves to be his undoing—his academic success gives the school system justification to move him up to the ninth grade, despite his emotional inability to handle the change. The show’s fifth and final season checks in with Dukie from time to time, as the high-school dropout tries repeatedly to make his way in a world seemingly designed to push him ever downward and out of sight. His storyline in the show’s final episode earns its place on this list, as Dukie returns to Edward Tilghman Middle School to ask Prez for some money. He tells his former teacher that it’s for his GED, but Prez suspects the truth. We last see Dukie in the show’s final montage—and while there’s no lack of moments in that sequence to prove the show’s thesis that the system is designed to reward the bastards and punish the weak and the kind—the sight of a young man left with no option for happiness but to give himself over to heroin, as so many of the show’s wounded characters have before, makes it impossible to watch again. [William Hughes]


13. Hannibal, “Tome-wan” (2014)

As fantastic as Hannibal is, most of the series could fit the bill of this Inventory. But the series’ gruesomeness hits its peak in “Tome-wan,” the penultimate episode of Hannibal’s exquisite second season. In other episodes, there is an artfulness associated with the horrors on-screen (see: skin angels, a human totem pole, a mural made of people). These images are terrible but there is always beauty inherent to their design. But there is nothing beautiful about Mason Verger (Michael Pitt) slicing off pieces of his face to feed to Will Graham’s dogs, made all the more disgusting by Verger’s Hannibal-induced drugged-out gales of laughter. “What are you feeding my dogs?” Graham (Hugh Dancy) asks Mason. “Just me!” Mason responds with glee, turning his skinless face to the camera. [Molly Eichel]

14. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “The Body” (2001)

Buffy The Vampire Slayer generally explored the harsher realities of real life through the guise of the supernatural, but one of its best episodes, season five’s “The Body,” is excruciatingly realistic. When Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes home to find her mother’s lifeless body on the couch, the episode forgoes melodrama to focus on the mundane details of death. In an extended long shot Buffy calls 911, attempts CPR, and—in a childlike state—asks what it means if her mother’s body is cold. There’s virtually no respite from the anguish—there’s not even a musical score—and instead we’re forced into Buffy’s detached, disoriented mind-set as she deals with the logistics of moving her mother’s corpse to the hospital and breaking the news to her little sister. The episode plays on innate fears of parental loss in a way that never feels cheap, while doing well by just about every character (like Alyson Hannigan’s Willow breaking down over what to wear to the morgue.) But while “The Body” is one of Buffy’s best episodes (and maybe one of the best episodes of television ever), it’s so unbearably, realistically bleak that it’s hard to imagine watching it more than once. [Caroline Siede]


15. The Sopranos, “Long Term Parking” (2004)

David Chase and company killed a lot of people over six seasons of The Sopranos, but few deaths landed with the resonance of Adriana La Cerva (Drea De Matteo). It’s not because Adriana was an innocent in this world—she was the fiancée of hotheaded mobster Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and her eyes were wide open as to how he made his money—but because her end came after two years of a private hell. Identified as a potential FBI source in the season-three finale, Adriana kept being drawn deeper and deeper into the world of an informant, and wasn’t smart or tough enough to deal with the pressure. When the feds finally pushed her to wear a wire, she tearfully confessed to Christopher, creating the most devastating fight in a relationship that saw its fair share. It’s a claustrophobic kind of agony to watch: You want there to be an out for Adriana in this situation, but it’s clear the FBI won’t give it to her, and despite some flickering chance that love might win out, it becomes clear Christopher won’t give it to her either. The final sequence where consigliere Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) drives Adriana out of town ostensibly to meet an injured Christopher is The Sopranos at its best, an inexorable journey to the grave where it’s an open question of exactly when she realizes that’s where she’s headed. This was a show that could chop off heads and put them in bowling bags, and yet it’s the view of New Jersey autumn leaves as a shot is fired offscreen that’s the hardest thing to handle. [Les Chappell]


16. Friday Night Lights, “The Son” (2009)

“The Son” ranks among the best episodes of Friday Night Lights’ five-season run, but it’s arguably too effective. It’s such an effective hour because it epitomizes the show’s efforts to depict teenagers under the weight of physical and emotional strain that would cause stable adults to crumple. Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) has to come to grips with the death of his father Henry, who is killed during combat in Iraq. Matt can’t take solace in other people’s fond memories of Henry as a kind, funny, and brave man when his experience of his frequently absent father doesn’t align with the other mourners’ hagiographic memories. Initially, Matt is the picture of stoicism, but as the chasm grows between his recollection of Henry and the image others have of him, Matt becomes more agitated, then insists on seeing Henry’s body after a night of drinking. Though the sight of Henry’s body wrecks Matt, he manages to excavate a fond, funny memory of his father and turn it into a heartfelt eulogy for a man he never knew who made him feel abandoned and unwanted. It’s a heartrending farewell, and Gilford turns in an unbelievable performance. But for anyone who has struggled to come to grips with the death of someone they wanted to get to know but never had the chance, “The Son” hits too close to home, making one viewing enough. Full hearts? Absolutely. Clear eyes? Not a chance. [Joshua Alston]

17. ER, “Love’s Labor Lost” (1995)

ER’s first season was a cultural phenomenon, making instant stars of a half-dozen actors and reviving the dormant medical drama genre by reinventing it as something more grueling and open-ended than the old fashioned “patient of the week” series. “Love’s Labor Lost” arrived late in the season, and varied the show’s formula a bit by sticking mostly with one case: a pregnancy taking a bad turn in the emergency room while the usually reliable Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) makes one mistake after another. At its best, ER put viewers through the wringer for an hour each week, asking fans to sit through gory surgical procedures and intense personal dramas. “Love’s Labor Lost” hits hard in both areas, punishing one kindly, well-meaning doctor while destroying the lives of a happy expectant couple. It’s brave, brilliant television—and absolutely excruciating. [Noel Murray]


18. House, “Wilson’s Heart” (2008)

It’s almost cruel for a series to offer an episode as painful as “Wilson’s Heart” as not only the second part of a two-parter but also the season finale. But that’s Dr. Gregory House for you. Rarely during his eight-season run did he ever have a problem playing with people’s emotions. The preceding episode, “House’s Head,” was about House being involved in a bus accident but unable to remember (until just before the closing credits rolled) who’d been on the bus with him: Dr. Amber Volakis (Anne Dudek), girlfriend of Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), who’d gone to help a drunken House get home and followed him when he stormed onto the bus. During the course of “Wilson’s Heart,” it’s revealed that Amber’s use of medication to combat a flu bug had caused amantadine poisoning, which, combined with the injuries she incurred in the crash, had left her kidneys irreparably damaged. She wakes up just long enough to realize her fate, say her goodbyes, and leave Wilson—and the viewers—a sobbing mess. Just when you think it’s as bad as it can possibly get, the last moments of the episode show Wilson alone at home, finding the last note she ever wrote to him (“Sorry I’m not here, went to pick up House. ❤ A”) and curling up in a ball to cry. [Will Harris]

19. Black Mirror, “White Bear” (2013)

It’s a shame “White Bear” is such a difficult episode of Black Mirror, because it’s also one of show’s best, most ambitious installments. It’s told from the perspective of Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow), who wakes up with a beastly headache and no recollection of who or where she is. Upon stumbling outside, she’s immediately pursued by masked attackers trying to kill her for no discernible reason, as throngs of spectators record the events on their cell phones but refuse to even engage with Victoria, much less intervene. It seems like typical Black Mirror, a technophobic glimpse at a society gone mad due to decades of engaging more deeply with screens than with each other. But there’s a gutting twist: The scenario isn’t real, but an elaborate ruse to punish Victoria, who shot video with her cell phone as her fiancé tortured and killed a six-year-old girl who the couple kidnapped. “White Bear” forces the audience to empathize with a sadistic child killer and to hate her cruel, unusual punishment nearly as much as the unforgivable crime that inspired it. The episode concludes with Victoria having her memory erased in preparation to endure the horror again, as she has become the main attraction in a public-shame theme park. The ending twists the knife. As awful as it is to emotionally connect with a monster like Victoria, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. She’ll have to infinitely repeat an experience so draining viewers can’t imagine having more than once. [Joshua Alston]


20. Gilmore Girls, “A House Is Not A Home”

After five seasons of straight As and making curfew, Gilmore Girls Rory (Alexis Bledel) was due for some sort of rebellion. But when she went off the rails, it upended the entire series. Despite an upbringing filled with almost-constant positive reinforcement, Rory becomes undone by the first bad review of her life, when her boyfriend Logan’s newspaper magnate father tells her that she doesn’t have what it takes to make it in her dream field of journalism. This is all it takes to turn Rory into a felon overnight, stealing a yacht with Logan (Matt Czuchry), and getting arrested. The season-five finale “A House Is Not A Home” opens with Lorelai (Lauren Graham) picking Rory up from the slammer, and things stunningly go downhill from there, as Rory is so freaked out by her own actions that she flakes on a final, and decides to drop out of Yale. Her mother adamantly disagrees, which leads to the inconceivable: the breakup of our Gilmore Girls. Graham is nearly always wonderful, but in this episode she amazingly pinballs from her usually hilarious self—offering Rory bread and water for a morning-after-jail breakfast—to her palpable relief when she gets needed support from her parents, to her complete devastation when they and her daughter let her down. The Gilmore Girls’ darkest moment: Rory moving in with her grandparents, Lorelai glumly watching her from the outside, as every sacrifice she’s made since she was a pregnant teenager seemingly goes up in smoke. [Gwen Ihnat]