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The Most Astonishing TV Twists of the 21st Century, Ranked

A good twist is worth remembering again and again. These will stand the test of time.

Best Twists Most Shocking TV

AMC/HBO

16. “Bates Motel” – A Twist on “Psycho”

Bates Motel Season 5 Episode 6 "Marion" Rihanna

“Bates Motel”

Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC

Season 5, Episode 6, “Marion”

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the shower-stabbing death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) set the twisted suspense-mystery in motion and sparked plenty of phobias in its audience members as well — who eventually opted for clear shower curtains. When Rihanna revealed she was a huge fan of the “Psycho” prequel series “Bates Motel” and then would eventually take on the role of Marion Crane, viewers prepared to witness their favorite songstress meet the business end of a knife.

Instead, the darkly cheeky A&E series took advantage of the audience’s expectation, and during that fateful moment in the shower, Marion emerged unscathed and squeaky clean. Instead, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) killed her lover, the cheating Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols) in an epic bait and switch (or rather a Bates and switch), bolstering the series’ identity separate from the source material.

15. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – Dark Willow

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886115bw)Alyson HanniganBuffy The Vampire Slayer - 200320th Century Fox TelevisionUSATelevision

Season 6, Episode 18, “Seeing Red”

This is not the most shocking twist of “Buffy” ever (for that, we have to look at 1998’s “Surprise/Innocence,” which occurred pre-2000). But this one definitely threw us for a loop, and what made it shocking was how fast it all happened. At the end of “Seeing Red,” Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had seemingly defeated the nerd Trio of villains who’d been tormenting her all season, and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and her formerly-estranged girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) had been reunited. Then, evil nerd Warren (Adam Busch) stormed into Buffy’s backyard with a handgun (notably the first time a gun had ever had been fired on “Buffy” with real impact) and shot both Buffy and Tara — Tara, almost at random, but directly through the heart, killing her instantly. Willow, after dealing with an overdependence on magic all season, full-on snapped as a result, becoming the Dark Willow who would nearly tear the world apart in the subsequent season finale. Because of how showrunners Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon had set up the Trio as the season’s primary villains, Willow’s abrupt turn towards vengeance led to a shocking final endgame for the year.

14. “Westworld” – Bernard Doesn’t See Anything At All

Westworld Jeffrey Wright

“What door?” For “Westworld” fans who’d been plugged into the online easter egg hunt, this twist may not have come as such a shock. To be fair, even some casual watchers had put together the nature of Bernard‘s true identity before the show confirmed it. But for those who hadn’t seen it coming, the reveal that Jeffrey Wright’s character was a host hammered home the idea that the show was less about orgies and fantasy than a consideration of what makes us human and how we create our own reality. It’s another case of how a TV twist is made even more effective by what comes in its aftermath. The resulting drama between Bernard and his creator only served to heighten the impact of the later reveal that not everything that we had been seeing from this Westworld world was happening at the same time.

13. “Grey’s Anatomy” – Not Another Patient

"Grey's Anatomy"

Season 5, Episode 24, “Now or Never”

While killing off Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) sent shockwaves through Shonda Rhimes’ long-lived medical drama, another main character’s demise was far more unexpected and stealthy. At the end of the series’ fifth season, a patient comes in so mangled after getting hit by a bus that he’s unidentifiable. As they treat the John Doe, he eventually is aware enough to trace three numbers in the palm of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo): 007. Yep, 007, license to kill. This was the grim nickname given to George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), who unfortunately flatlines and dies. George’s loss was particularly distressing because he the first among the central five friends who began the series as a surgical interns to exit the show. It also established how far the show would go (pretty damn far) to gruesomely and unsentimentally off one of its own.

12. “Dexter” – A Family Connection

"Dexter"

Season 1, Episode 8 and 12, “Shrink Wrap” and “Born Free”

In the Showtime drama’s first season, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) becomes increasingly intrigued by the so-called Ice Truck Killer, who seems particularly interested in Dexter’s double life as blood-spatter expert by day, and vigilante serial killer by the darkest of Miami’s sultry nights. In fact, the Ice Truck Killer begins to leave various mutilated body parts as calling cards in locations significant to Dexter’s childhood and even leaves one victim still alive but set up in a tableau to tempt Dexter to kill in his signature style. Eventually, it’s revealed that Dexter’s adoptive sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) has been dating a guy named Rudy (Christian Camargo), who is in fact, the Ice Truck Killer. But wait, there’s more! Rudy also happens to be Dexter’s long-forgotten older brother, which makes for a demented exploration about nature vs. nurture when it comes to serial killers, but also cemented the show’s reputation as one twisted family affair.

11. “Mad Men” – The Most Shocking Thing That Never Happened

Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel”

All season, Peggy’s weight gain was an issue, but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. The ambitious young secretary is stressed by her new work environment, the judging eyes of her peers, and the leering eyes of her bosses. And who doesn’t have a few extra snacks when you’re overwhelmed? But more importantly, the transition was subtle and slow. Costume designer Janie Bryant developed four different body suits to slowly amp up Peggy’s size, while makeup artist Debbie Zoller used two phases of prosthetics near the end of her pregnancy to honestly convey her status. (Zoller said even the cameramen on the show didn’t realize Elisabeth Moss was wearing prosthetics.)

Then it happened: After Peggy gets promoted to copywriter, she leaves the office because she’s not feeling well, and the doctor informs her she’s expecting. Well, he actually kind of chastises her for not telling him she’s expecting, and within the span of five minutes, Peggy had the baby, couldn’t even look at it, and proved once and for all how committed, independent, and resilient she could be. Her choice caused ripples in the fandom, especially as the baby made itself known in subsequent seasons, but it didn’t define Peggy; it merely helped define her, as arguably the series’ most dynamic character was only starting to grow.

10. “Battlestar Galactica” – Time-Jump!

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sci-Fi Channel/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886263cw) Edward James Olmos, Tricia Helfer, James Callis, Tahmoh Pinekett, Katee Sackhoff, Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas Battlestar Galactica - 2003 Director: Michael Rymer Sci-Fi Channel USA TV Portrait

Season 2, Episode 20, “Lay Down Your Burdens” (Part 2)

Prior to Season 2, “Battlestar Galactica” had already proven itself capable of changing our expectations of what a sci-fi show can do, outside of the realm of “Star Trek.” But in the lengthy two-part Season 2 finale, Ronald D. Moore and his crazypants writing team literally table-flipped everything. Let’s be clear: In 2018, a show time-jumping ahead by months or years has become surprising but not impossible to conceive. In 2006, “Battlestar” fans lost their frakking shit when the series, in just one exhausted moment, skipped forward a year in time. In this new era, Baltar is the drugged-out President of the Colonies, the settlers of New Caprica are struggling to muck out an existence, and most horrifyingly of all, Apollo has gotten fat. And just in case you’ve never seen more than this, we’ll limit future spoilers to this: Things get even crazier, scarier, and more engaging from here.

9. “24” – Nina Takes a Turn

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fox-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885413n)Sarah Clarke24 Twenty Four - 2002Fox-TVUSATelevision24 Heures Chrono

Sarah Clarke, “24”

Fox-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Season 1, Episode 23, “10:00 p.m. -11:00 p.m.”

Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) wasn’t perfect. After all, she had an affair with Jack Bauer while he was separated from his wife, Teri. But by the time of the events of “24” Day 1, Myers appeared to be making amends: She was in a committed relationship with Tony Almeida, and she was remorseful of her time with Jack. Early on, she was Jack’s most important ally, risking her career in order to protect him and his family as he worked to stop an assassination plot against presidential candidate David Palmer.

That’s why, even though producers apparently planted clues along the way, it was still a surprise to learn that Nina was a mole inside the CTU, and in cahoots with the evil Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper). Nina had one more twist in her, killing Teri before being found and apprehended by Jack. It was that thrill ride of an ending that helped fuel nine seasons of the show.

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