[Editor’s Note: SPOILERS exist throughout the article, but bolded titles have been adjusted to preserve secrets. Avoid reading specific paragraphs for shows you don’t want spoiled. Otherwise, you’re safe to scroll and enjoy.]
16) “Parks and Recreation” – The Final Minute
It’s rare to see a comedy deliver a truly shocking moment: Sure, there’s always a jolt of excitement when you find out a long-awaited couple is finally sleeping together or so-and-so’s pregnant, but usually these don’t require the courage it takes to make a plot development authentically marvelous. So when “Parks and Recreation” pulled out all the stops at the end of its two-part Season 6 finale, we were stunned in the best way possible.
Not only did we jump ahead three years for a timeline otherwise methodically subsequent, but we skipped some of the most traditional staples of a sitcom. Our lead character had just announced she was pregnant, and we motored right past nine months to 36 months down the line. We won’t get to see Leslie’s delivery with Ann as her bedside nurse and Ben trying not to pass out at her feet. We don’t get to see how the Parks department of Pawnee absorbed the national stage it was given. Most disappointingly, though, we missed out on three seasons worth of Jon Hamm’s inept departmental assistant, who Leslie reluctantly dismisses right after we meet him. The time jump was a ballsy move, and one we can’t wait to see pan out in the final season this January.
15) “Masters of Sex” – Barton Scully Tries the Easy Way Out
A title like “Masters of Sex” ensures a certain level of commitment to exploring human sexuality in all its diversity, despite the 1950s period setting. And Barton Scully’s (Beau Bridges) struggle with the terror of the truth about his attraction to men getting out wasn’t just a key plot thread of Season 1; it ensured that the second season began with an understanding of just how serious the stakes are, when it comes to any attempt to repress physical attraction. In the season premiere, Scully undergoes electroshock to attempt to cure his homosexuality, but there’s no cure for how you’ve been born, and when he then attempts to kill himself, the resulting scene (his daughter discovering him flailing from the ceiling) was one of the year’s most memorable and disturbing. Bridges does a magnificent job of playing through all the related emotions leading up to the moment, making his suicide attempt feel tragically inevitable. But the shock of the actual scene stuck with us for some time.
14) “True Detective” – The Tracking Shot
Call us cheaters if you want for finagling a “True Detective” entry onto this list, but when you realize the scene you’re watching hasn’t featured a single cut for minutes, you’re suddenly on the edge of your seat, giddy with anticipation for the inevitable end. “How long will it last?” “When did it start?” And most of all, “How’d they do that?” “True Detective” elicited all these reactions and more when it featured an impressively blocked tracking shot meandering through houses, yards, and even over a fence in the fourth episode of Season 1. It will stick with us as much as anything else on this list, that much we know for certain.
13) “Doctor Who” – Missy’s True Identity
Loyal “Doctor Who” fans know the show’s rhythms pretty well — the bulk of the season’s stand-alone episodes include just enough secrets to amp up the greater mystery, which climaxes in a season finale that reveals all. But this year, the show’s biggest twist came in the penultimate episode, when wily Missy (Michelle Gomez) disclosed her true identity — a reincarnation of The Master, one of the Doctor’s most notorious nemeses. The Master, up until now, has always been male, but in Michelle Gomez’s hands the character attained a new level of sexy malicious evil, and more importantly made the eighth season a clash between one of TV’s most legendary heroes and his most legendary nemesis. Missy’s true nature had been rumored but never proven until “Dark Water,” and the reveal made Season 8 one of the rebooted series’ best.
12) “Scandal” – The First Family Loses a Member
Without its shocking twists, “Scandal” would be just another “Grey’s Anatomy” for ABC — interesting enough, as nighttime soaps go, but perhaps more navel-gaze-y than the typical viewer can stand. But while Shonda Rhimes and her team aren’t afraid to kill off the occasional character to escalate the live-tweeting to a fervor, it’s safe to say that many were caught off guard by the death of Jerry, President Grant’s son and a relatively innocent bystander in the no-such-thing-as-a-white-hat world of “Scandal.” Jerry’s sudden death due to meningitis (orchestrated by the secret government organization B-613) gave the Season 3 finale focus (arguably essential, after the uneven plotting that came before) and kicked off what has been, so far, an arguably more dynamic Season 4. Plus, when was the last time a show murdered a teenage boy to kickstart the drama? All in all, an impressively ballsy move.
11) “Veep” – …No More
[“House of Cards” Season 2 SPOILER ALERT] Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood wasn’t the only power-hungry politico to ascend to the highest office in the United States: Selena Meyer did so, as well. Though most of Season 3 was spent on the campaign trail, Armando Iannucci’s lethally funny HBO comedy found a way to drop the “Vice” from Meyer’s title without anyone casting a ballot in her favor. While the appointment of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ foul-mouthed VP may not have been as calculated or even as risky as Frank Underwood’s, she nevertheless will hold the title come Season 4 — and it’s hard to tell who will be more dangerous.
10) “Boardwalk Empire” – Guess Who’s Back?
The final season of the HBO Prohibition drama didn’t skimp on its near-legendary violence, to the point where one of the series’ most shocking moments was remarkable for its lack of blood. By bringing back the son of long-dead Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), not only did “Boardwalk Empire” reconnect to a key character from its earliest seasons, but it set in motion the chain of events that built to the show’s ultimate ending. Yes, that ending was violent. But by involving Tommy, it had a sense of poetry to which most series finales can only aspire.
9) “Penny Dreadful” – The Seance
Some, if not most, of the instances on this list are ones that came out of nowhere and stunned audiences in a matter of seconds. For a moment, things were fine. Everyone was okay. Life was normal. Then BAM! Everything changed. The same cannot be said for the seance scene in “Penny Dreadful,” a lengthy segment of Showtime’s freshman series’ second episode. It begins with a party at which a young Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) decided to seduce the hauntingly beautiful Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Yet it ended with a demonically-possessed Ives striding through the rain to a stranger on the street and sexing him hard right then and there. In between comes the shock, but only its onset. The feeling itself lasts for more than seven minutes, and its effects stay with you for the rest of the very scary season.
Next: A wedding, a stabbing, more stabbings and shoves.
8) “Game of Thrones” – The Purple Wedding
You can make the argument that the most shocking moments of “Game of Thrones” aren’t often that shocking, because the safe money is always on The Worst Outcome Possible. But that makes the show’s knack for keeping us guessing all the more impressive.
There were two seismic events in the show’s fourth season, but we’re featuring the Purple Wedding over that (magnificently staged) battle between the Mountain and the Viper because while it was clear early on that something awful would be happening during the nuptials of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), the way the slow terror and dread built to just one abrupt death was a reversal that still took us aback. Not only that, but while the hated Joffrey’s poisoning might have felt like a triumph for fans, the beloved Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) alleged guilt took that triumph and made it into tragedy. In the end, the shock wasn’t so much the fact that Joffrey died — it was the fact that we almost wish he hadn’t.
7) “The Walking Dead” – Whoops?
In the world of “The Walking Dead,” there’s suicide and there’s… well, what ends up happening to a lot of characters. Survivor Beth’s (Emily Kinney) death during the mid-season finale officially came courtesy of an abrupt and bloody bullet to the head shot by the controlling Dawn (Christine Woods). But that gunshot may have been an accident, as it came just after Beth stabbed Dawn in the chest following a tense standoff between two warring groups of zombie-avoiders. Did Beth, like many on “The Walking Dead,” simply reach her limit? Did she know what the consequences would be, if she attempted to kill Dawn? The only thing with a bigger impact than the visceral shock of the moment is that it ended a fan favorite character with such ambiguity — an ambiguity that might be one of “The Walking Dead’s” strongest qualities.
6) “Fargo” – “Put your hood up, huh?”
“He wouldn’t… he wouldn’t… Oh my god, he did.” We are positive that those words were said out loud in many, many living rooms during the conclusion of the “Fargo” episode “A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage.” With just a careful bit of subterfuge — and a very bulky parka — Lester (Martin Freeman) committed one of the most horrifying actions on television this year; the only thing worse than figuring out what he’d done to his sweet, loyal wife Linda was watching it slowly unfold. It’s one thing to watch a evil man do something average. It’s another thing to watch an average man do something evil. That, in essence, was the moral of “Fargo” the series — and no moment of the series communicated that more clearly.
5) “The Leftovers” – The Cabin in the Woods
To be specific, we’re talking about the scene when Patti (the tremendous Anne Dowd) offs herself with the broken glass from a mirror she herself smashes. We did see Patti’s death coming as soon as she showed up tied to a chair in the middle of nowhere with Kevin Jr. (Justin Theroux) and The Guy With the Truck — there was no way she was going to make it back to Mapleton at that point, no matter who killed her. Yet the way Patti died, combined with the effects of her death, make the scene one of the most haunting not just of the series (which, considering the dour subject matter, is still saying something) but of all television. Her martyrdom forced Kevin’s cultivated image of moral superiority into question, while threatening to ruin him even if the “truth” somehow comes out. He’s in a no-win situation, and worst of all, Patti’s plans for him aren’t over. She’s become an immortal thorn in his side, ruining his dreams of saving his wife from the GR and damaging his credibility within the city itself. Patti started a war, and it seems unlikely that Kevin will be able to end it.
4) “House of Cards” – Last Train to Brooklyn
After firmly planting a flag for Netflix in the prestige drama category with its first season, the second season of “House of Cards” had a lot to prove. And to be honest, the first episode… It was kind of weak. The political machinations involved were dry, the characters restrained, and our hero Frank Underwood seemed up against the ropes.
And then our hero Frank Underwood, during a surreptitious meeting with erstwhile reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), pushed the lady in front of a damn train. A few minutes later, Frank finally turned back to the camera: “Welcome back.” But one well-timed murder already had us convinced we were there. “House of Cards” made some crazy moves over its second season. But its first was arguably the best.
3) “Hannibal” – Leftovers for Season 3
Bryan Fuller’s beautifully macabre serial killer drama kept us gasping all season long (man-on-woman-on-man-on-woman-on-wendigo five-some, anybody?) but the as-yet-unofficially-confirmed body count of the season finale ensured that the only one who was safe was the guy whose name was in the title. Everyone else? Not so lucky. Not only did the Season 2 finale fail to pull any punches (or shoves, or knife-stabbings), but it essentially relaunched the show for a third, European-set season that may keep many characters in awkward limbo for beyond just the season premiere — creating a brilliant new chapter for a show that never fails to shock.
2) “Mad Men” – Don Quits Drinking
We want that statement to settle in for a second. Don Draper, the best goddamn drinker in the history of the known universe; the man who needs an Old Fashioned before his morning coffee; the husband who prefers whiskey to a steak dinner; the father who can only build swing-sets when he’s cracked more than six cold ones; the co-worker who perfected the liquid, pre-pitch lunch; thee Don Draper gave up drinking in the seventh season of “Mad Men.” He quit. Cold turkey. Was it hard? You better believe it. Don crawled back to the sauce a few times during the early hours of his sobriety, but only because it would have killed him otherwise — even Ted, his arch-nemesis at the time, asked him to pick up a bottle again for the betterment of the company and his integrity as a man. The point is, Don’s benders are over. Don Draper the Alcoholic is no more. Now he’s just an ordinary appreciator of God’s nectar, just like you and me — though we all know, for better or worse, Don Draper will never be “ordinary” at anything.
P.S. Don’t think we’ve forgotten about “nipplegate,” either. That was nothing compared to Don’s decision to go dry.
1) “Homeland” – Carrie Finally Snaps
Carrie Mathison is the Stretch Armstrong of TV characters: She’s been pulled in every direction countless times, but she always snaps back to her original form. But after the devastating cliffhanger of Season 3, it wasn’t until “From A to Z and Back Again” did we see Carrie reach her limit.
During the climactic moments of the sixth episode, Carrie’s young male source (who she was sleeping with and may or may not have had feelings for) was murdered in front of her eyes by his own uncle. Then, just as she was ready to order an attack on the killer, out comes a kidnapped Saul Barenson, held hostage as a human shield against the drone strike the terrorists knew was coming. The CIA wouldn’t attack them as long as they had their ex-director alive and sitting next to them…right?
Kind of. Carrie ordered the attack in the heat of the moment, calling for the drone operator to “kill those motherfuckers” — Saul included. Luckily, Quinn stopped her, but Carrie’s mind had finally snapped. The double-barreled shock overwhelmed her, just as it did us, once and for all establishing “Homeland” as the King of Twist Endings.
A special thanks to Casey Cipriani, Andrew Fiouzi, Brendan Latham and Jeff Stone for suggestions and topical information.
Indiewire’s Year-End TV Coverage:
Tomorrow: Breakout TV Stars of 2014!