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The Shocking 16: TV’s Most Heart-stopping Moments

Stunning revelations! Flawless finales! Before you fill out your bracket, bone up on TV’s biggest surprises

TV's Most Heartstopping Moments

Ben Leuner/AMC; ABC/MARIO PEREZ

If this is television's New Golden Age, you're about to hit the motherlode. The 16 contestants in Rolling Stone's TV tournament are the best examples of what small-screen drama does best in this anything-goes era: make you say "I can't believe what I'm seeing!" Whether they're lengthy sequences of suspense, sudden surprises that turn a story upside down, or moving emotional moments that come to define a series, they're the reason you tune in. Which of these heart-stoppers will take the top spot? Before you start filling out your brackets, here's a quick primer on all of the candidates.
By Sean T. Collins

true detective

Jim Bridges/HBO

‘True Detective’

The Shootout (Season One, Episode Four: "Who Goes There?")
Six minutes. One take. No prisoners! (Well, okay, one prisoner: that biker dude with the ginger goatee.) The seemingly endless continuous shot of an undercover Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) desperately trying to survive a housing-project drug raid gone bad was a technical marvel, rooting the viewer in a breathtaking action-adventure sequence and proving the show had the cinematic chops to match its movie-star leading men. It also came from out of nowhere — the best demonstration yet of True Detective's truly unpredictable pacing.

game of thrones

Helen Sloan/HBO

‘Game of Thrones’

The Red Wedding (Season Three, Episode Nine: "The Rains of Castamere")
A plot twist so shocking its nickname became a permanent part of the pop-culture lexicon within hours of airing. The wedding-night massacre of Robb, Catelyn, and Talisa Stark by their turncoat followers Walder Frey and Roose Bolton didn't just kill off a trio of main characters — it eliminated the show's central Stark vs. Lannister conflict, driving a dagger into the heart of what we thought the story was about. Series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss came right out and said this sequence was the reason they wanted to make Game of Thrones in the first place, and it showed.

the shield

ABC/ERIC MCCANDLESS

‘The Shield’

Vic's First Victim (Season One, Episode One: "Pilot")
It would continue for seven seasons and rack up countless bodies, but Shawn Ryan's bad-cop saga established its rules, or lack thereof, with a single shot. The show's opening episode made it look like it'd be the story of a good cop, Detective Terry Crowley, trying to root out the corruption of a bad cop: his Strike Team commander Vic Mackey. Instead, Vic seized the opportunity of a violent drug raid to kill his would-be arch-enemy off, and with it our expectations. "I'm a different kind of cop," Mackey said earlier in the episode. Indeed.

lost

ABC/MARIO PEREZ

‘Lost’

The Opening Sequence (Season One, Episode One: "Pilot (Part 1)")
After years of mysteries and Easter eggs, questions and answers, numbers and hatches and Ben (oh my!), it's easy to focus on one of the J.J. Abrams/Damon Lindelof/Carlton Cuse sci-fi smash's mindbending moments. But none of them would even have happened if the first few minutes of the very first episode weren't among the most intense and engrossing in TV history. A crashed plane, a beach full of lethal dangers, a motley crew of panicked survivors, and a heroic doctor trying to save them all: the ingredients for a phenomenon, packed into a single sequence about the drive to survive.

walking dead

Gene Page/AMC

‘The Walking Dead’

Daryl vs. Merle (Season Three, Episode 14: "This Sorrowful Life")
The Walking Dead takes many of its most memorable characters and shocking twists from its source material, the comic of the same name by producer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Daryl and Merle are different: These rough-hewn redneck brothers are the TV show's original creations, as well as its breakout stars. So when Daryl was forced to put his zombified older brother Merle down, it was a heartbreak no one could see coming.

breaking bad

Ben Leuner/AMC

‘Breaking Bad’

Walter White and Gus Fring Face Off (Season Four, Episodes 13, “Face Off")
It began with a nervous breakdown in a crawlspace and ended with a potted plant in a suburban backyard. In between, it was the most remarkable three-episode run of television that Vince Gilligan's meth-dealing morality play Breaking Bad produced. The kill-or-be-killed conflict between genius chemist/fallen family man Walter White and drug kingpin/fast-food entrepreneur Gus Fring involved betrayals, car bombs, poison — and in the end, the ding ding ding of a little bell and the New Golden Age's most memorable make-up effect. 

battlestar galactica

Justin Stephens/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

‘Battlestar Galactica’

The Final Five Revealed (Season Three, Episode 20: "Crossroads (Part 2)")
"There must be some kind of way out of here…" A lot of shows have teased out big questions, only to offer unsatisfying, anticlimactic answers. When it came to the matter of revealing the identities of the final five hidden Cylons — the genocidal robots in human form who served as the shadowy al-Qaeda analogue for Ronald D. Moore's War on Terror-era sci-fi parable — Battlestar Galactica succeeded like few others. Using inexplicable snippets of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (!) as almost subliminal cues that certain characters were more than they appeared to be, Battlestar solved its big mystery while still preserving its sense of mystery.

house of cards

Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix

‘House of Cards’

My Way or the Subway (Season Two, Episode One)
It's one thing to portray a hungry journalist as a hyperambitious overachiever who's willing to sleep with her source and betray her principles for access. It's another thing altogether, however, to suddenly have that same character pushed in front of a subway when she starts nosing around a bit too much. You could practically hear a nation of binge watchers gasp when Kate Mara's brash young Zoe Barnes met Vice President Frank Underwood on a darkened D.C mass transit platform — and then quickly met her demise.

the sopranos

©HBO/courtesy Everett Collection

‘The Sopranos’

The Final Scene (Season Six, Episode 21: "Made in America")
There'd be no New Golden Age of TV without The Sopranos, and The Sopranos wouldn't be The Sopranos without this divisive, daring finale. Does Tony get clipped? Does he go to prison? Does he dodge both bullets? Only creator David Chase (and maybe that man in the Members-Only jacket) know for sure. The rest of us can only contemplate that sudden cut to black. Years have passed, and series finales shot in this scene's shadow have either accepted its influence or rejected it entirely, but its perverse perfection has only increased in impact over time. Don't stop….

orange is the new black

Jessica Miglio/Netflix

‘Orange Is the New Black’

Yard Duty (Season One, Episode 13: "Can't Fix Crazy")
We all knew that fresh-fish inmate Piper Chapman and the resident unhinged holy-roller Tiffany "Pensatucky" Doggett were going to face off before the first season of this female-prison drama ended. What was unexpected was how much pent-up anger Piper would release once Pensatucky cut her in that snowy, abandoned prison yard. The beatdown that ensues is nothing short of savage. This is the moment when our heroine truly loses her shit —and, momentarily, her humanity.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

The Death of Buffy's Mom (Season Five, Episode 16: "The Body")
When you've routinely battled vampires, demons, and other entities that go bump in the night before graduating high school, can anything shock you anymore? The answer provided by "The Body," creator Joss Whedon's masterpiece to this day, is a harrowing, heartbreaking yes. When Buffy returns home to find her mother dead of an aneurysm, what follows involves long silences, gutwrenching sobbing, vomit, anger, denial, grief, love — in short, one of the most emotionally insightful and devastating depictions of death in small-screen history, vampires or no.

deadwood

©HBO/Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Deadwood’

Dan Dority vs. Captain Turner (Season Three, Episode Five)
What do you get when you stage a street fight in a frontier town so raw it doesn't even really have a street? You get this gut-wrenching, eye-popping battle between the right-hand men of the two biggest villains in David Milch's revisionist Western. No flashy choreography, no stunning stunts, just two beefy brawlers struggling to stay alive long enough to beat one another to death. As a metaphor and as an action sequence, it was impossible to peel your eyes away from. The greatest fight scene in TV history, cocksuckers.

twin peaks

New Line Cinemas/courtesy Everett Collection

‘Twin Peaks’

That's Who Killed Laura Palmer (Season Two, Episode Seven: "Lonely Souls")
It was the greatest mystery of its era, a question that passed into pop-culture legend — and series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost didn't intend to answer it until the show was over. But ultimately, the network called the shots, and so the identity of the person who killed the deeply troubled high-school homecoming queen Laura Palmer was disclosed a few episodes into Twin Peaks' second (and as it turned out, final) season. Blending supernatural horror with the all too realistic cruelty of domestic abuse, the haunting revelation — itself accompanied by another brutal murder — remains arguably the scariest sequence the small screen has ever seen. 

mad men

Frank Ockenfels/AMC

‘Mad Men’

The Lawnmower Incident (Season Three, Episode Six: "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency")
I know what you're thinking: We took the richest, most subtle show on television and boiled it down to a bloody animated gif — one that doesn't even involve Don Draper? Yes, and here's why. First, Mad Men's violence is almost always of the emotional variety, so its single moment of genuine gore was genuinely shocking. Second, it's a perfect example of creator Matthew Weiner's masterfully unpredictable plotting: Introduce a brand-new status quo in the form of an English advertising wunderkind set to take over the office, then mow it down like a John Deere. Like all the best Mad Men moments, you can't see it coming.

the wire

©HBO/Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘The Wire’

The Fall of Omar (Season Five, Episode Eight: "Clarifications")
Part Robin Hood, part Batman, part Punisher, Omar Little — the whistling gay stick-up artist who never cussed and robbed only drug dealers — was the only truly larger-than-life character on David Simon's rigorously realistic urban epic. So when his time came, his unceremonious murder—shot to death in a convenience store by a little kid looking to make a name for himself by bagging a legend — was the show's single most shocking moment.

downtown abbey

©Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

‘Downton Abbey’

Matthew Crawley's Last Ride (Season Three, Christmas Special)
To paraphrase Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes' fellow Englishman William Shakespeare, some shows are born to shock, and some have shock thrust upon them. When actor Dan Stevens decided to leave the sumptuous soap following its third season, Fellowes made the most of it, serving up one of the most OMG twists in TV history. In the very last seconds of the very last episode (airing on Christmas Day in the UK, no less!), he killed off Stevens' Matthew Crawely — the show's romantic male lead, heir to the fortune, and hope for the future — in a car accident. Shocking? Senseless? Yes. And such is life.