The best spoilers, twists, and surprises are different experiences on television than any other medium. Some are payoffs years in the making. Others rely on deft serialized storytelling to deliver maximum impact. Still more count on the intimate relationship between viewers and characters.
And yet some twists barely need any time at all. On the list below, there are moments fans have been waiting for since the first episode, as well as scenes pulled directly from the first episode. Some surprises are good for just the one episode in which they’re unveiled. You never know when something big is going to happen on TV, nor do you know how that twist might affect the future.
Twists are a big risk so they should be respected accordingly. Because they can irreparably ruin a show or make it come alive, it takes skill and foresight to execute shocks and surprises properly — after all, even overindulging on twists can make the viewer numb. What follows are the year’s best twists, turns, shocking moments, and exciting reveals. The creatives behind each should be proud. The audience should take note, and anyone who saw them will never forget what they saw.
Ain’t TV great?
[Editor’s Note: Though this should largely go without saying considering the headline, the following list contains spoilers for each included series. The bolded show titles and descriptions are spoiler-free, so feel free to scan the article in its entirety, but know individual paragraphs contain spoilers for the designated series.]
24. “The Young Pope” – Opening Credits
The opening credits sequence for “The Young Pope” didn’t debut until Episode 3. That alone made it surprising, especially following the comparably short and sweet ways in which the title popped up in the first two hours. But there is so much to unpack in the recurring 70-second sequence, and every aspect of it is meant to provoke. From the electric chords of “All Along the Watchtower” to Pope John Paul II being struck by a meteorite (in a nod to Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial art exhibit), each moment is meant to shake the sacrosanct ground the church was built on — and that people come to expect from religious narratives. Creator, writer, and director Paolo Sorrentino is winking at the audience just as Lenny does; clueing us into what’s coming in playfully blunt fashion. Let the neon spark live as long as The Young Pope reigns.
23. “Dark” – Ulrich Rocks Helge’s World
Julia Terjung / Netflix
Oh “Dark,” how we love you and your time fuckery and all the reveals those involve. Whether it’s the Mikkel revelation, Hannah’s history of pathological lies, or the almost incest, “Dark” went to some really disturbing places. But none more so horrible than when Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) bashes in the head of young 9-year-old Helge (Tom Philipp) with a rock. Sure, Helge ends up surviving and has the scars to show for it, but Ulrich didn’t know that. In his mind, he committed straight-up, cold-blooded child murder with his bare hands in order to correct the equally messed-up timeline and save the lives of other boys. As horrified as we are by Ulrich’s actions, we’re also sort of fascinated by how he’s able to rationalize it to the point that he’s able to act. There really is something amiss in Winden, and it’s not just time travel.
22. “Girls” – Hannah’s Big Life Change
Sure, guest star Matthew Rhys (in a truly fascinating episode) exposing his half-hard penis had some major shock value on screen. But really, Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) unplanned pregnancy courtesy of a one-night stand with a hot surf instructor played by Riz Ahmed was an unexpected choice for the final season of the HBO comedy. However, it was a decision that forced Hannah as a character to grow up, completing a series arc by the end which didn’t position the character as a model of adulthood — but did showcase her trying to make a real choice about not just her own life, but that of her child. While Hannah’s decision-making has never been one of her character’s strongest qualities, the most shocking thing is that we can genuinely believe that everything might be all right for her, after all.
21. “Jane the Virgin” – The Narrator Doesn’t Lie About Michael
Colleen Hayes/The CW
In one episode, “Jane the Virgin” upended everything for its poor heroine Jane and the horrified viewers at home by having Michael’s (Brett Dier) fate come true. Earlier in the series, Michael had stated that he and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) were fated to be together, and the omniscient Narrator had butted in ominously, “And for as long as Michael lived, until he drew his very last breath, he never did.” Unfortunately, this means that after taking his LSAT, Michael collapsed and died from complications from his earlier gunshot wounds.
“Jane the Virgin” had always reached beyond its telenovela-inspired roots, which is why Michael’s death was a true shock. Not only had their love story been built slowly and organically, but his death occurred after viewers had been lulled into complacency after his first death scare and during a random episode – it was neither the midseason or finale. Moreover, the show then executed a three-year time jump directly after his death, not giving viewers time to grieve, but promising that there will be those moments built in. Overall, it was a ballsy and unexpected move, yet worked so well because we did care so much.
20. “13 Reasons Why” – Hannah’s Final Act
Although Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide is not a surprise — it’s the premise on which the entire show is built — showing every single excruciating moment of the process was. In a way, her spirit is already dead before she steps into the tub fully clothed, but when she finally takes the next step to slit her wrists, the camera doesn’t flinch away. The pain, the finality, and the heartbreak when parents discover her are laid out there to horrify and stun: It’s hard to watch, and it should be. It’s a scene that still has shaken us to this day.
19. “Game of Thrones” – Ice, Ice, Baby
It’s gotten to the point where HBO’s epic fantasy series can’t really shock us with any deaths — not unless they’re going to off some actual major characters. But this year, it did pull out a game-changer that does not bode well for the heroes in the show’s upcoming final season. Just as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) swoops in on her dragons to save the day when Jon Snow’s hapless “to catch a wight” party gets surrounded by the undead, the Night King pulls out his Olympic javelin-throwing skills and kills Viserion with an ice lance. Oh, but killing a dragon isn’t the worst of it. Viserion has now joined the ranks of the Night King’s undead army, which means that the balance of power has shifted. With Zombie Viserion breathing fire and taking down The Wall, that was the final obstacle keeping the Others and their army from taking over civilization as we know it on “Game of Thrones.” It was nice knowing you, Westeros!
18. “Guerrilla” — Escaping with Glass
Sky UK Limited/SHOWTIME
Even before political prisoner Dhari Bishop takes a handful of shattered glass as a shocking means of escape, the path to get it into the prison where he’s being held is a harrowing journey. Those pair of sequences set the stage for John Ridley’s six-part drama about underground revolutionaries in 1970s London. Aside from an explosive finale and a haunting show of political protest, Ridley keeps the action grounded in the basic, incremental steps of their evolving plans. But as an opening statement of how far these characters are willing to go for their cause, this drastic course of action is a terrifying, incredibly effective way to set up the stakes for their actions to come.
17. “BoJack Horseman” – Hollyhock’s Coffee
The big twist of Episode 10 of Season 4, “Lovin’ That Cali Lifestyle!!,” is a slap in the face, after BoJack’s presumed daughter Hollyhock (voiced by Aparna Nancherla) collapses following her unwitting intake of diet pills. But what’s so remarkable about the reveal comes with re-watching the episodes leading up to that moment, and discovering the subtle ways that BoJack’s mother Beatrice’s drugging of Hollyhock had been planted ever since Beatrice moved in with BoJack in Episode 6 of the season. The details are so subtle, especially the way (if you know to pay attention) Hollyhock is losing weight, but not in a healthy way, and the complexity of blame involved here takes the rest of the season into unexpected territory. It’s not the most shocking moment in “BoJack” history, but it was an emotionally tough story to grapple with, one with no easy resolution.
16. “The Detour” — The Pool
There’s certainly no shortage of go-for-broke moments in this TBS comedy. (Just ask the cow from the season finale.) But none of the Parker family hijinks were as mildly plausible and genuinely upsetting at the same time as the chain of events that led to father Nate taking a face-first dive into a home birthing station. The delayed reaction on Jason Jones’ face as he tries to wipe away everything is exactly the kind of “Is this actually happening?” realization that the show has put forward time and time again, without being overplayed for outrageous, comedic effect. This family (even though they’re one of the best on TV) just seems to attract that kind of bizarre, cosmic misfortune wherever they go.
15. “Big Mouth” – The Pillow
It’s not what Jay (a young boy voiced by Jason Mantzoukas) does to a pillow in “Big Mouth” that’s ultimately the most disturbing aspect of it. After all, among all the pubescent urges expressed in Netflix’s charming and cathartic new comedy, having sex with a pillow — even one with a manmade slit to which bags of microwaved kidney beans are placed — is fairly low on the “Holy shit, kids are disgusting!”-scale.
What makes the pillow such a haunting memory and shocking memento of Season 1 is that Nick Kroll, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett, and Andrew Goldberg dedicate an entire episode arc to Jay’s love story — nay, love saga — with his sex pillow. They form a real relationship; she (it?) gets pregnant; they work through sexual fantasies involving pregnant sex and mature sexual experiences; the pillow even gives birth and then leaves Jay.
Whether we’re meant to believe this is all part of Jay’s developing sexual desires or how he copes with wanting to bang anything that moves (or doesn’t move) even though he knows what happens after sex, well, that’s unclear. What’s quite vivid is Jay’s pillow, and that memory isn’t going anywhere.