The Shocking 16: TV's Most Heart-stopping Moments - Rolling Stone
Home TV TV Lists

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


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


©HBO/Courtesy: Everett Collection


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.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.