The Primetime Emmys do not have a category for The Most Devastating Episode of the Television Season, but they should. Television has never been better at delivering sternum-obliterating gut punches, and showrunners have been remarkably good at hiding their fist right up until the knock-out blow. Television is no longer passive escapism; it’s hard, y’all. Those bastards are finding fantastic new ways of pulling the rug out from beneath OUR SOULS.
The Primetime Eligibility period is June 1st, 2012 through May 31,2013, but due to the “hanging episodes” rule, if a season runs a week or two into June, those episodes are also counted (therefore, last week’s episode of “Got” will count toward this year’s Emmy Awards). Of the last year, these were the most devastating moments, the ones most worthy of consideration for our fake Emmy award.
Because I don’t want to spoil you on any of the shows ranked, I won’t provide a spoilery image, but do avoid the text for each entry if you’re not caught up on the individual series.
10. Homeland, “The Choice” — “Homeland” had been downgraded from a stellar series in its first season, to a good but uneven series its second season, and part of that reason is because — for better or worse — the Showtime drama began chewing through plot at a rapid pace. Near the end of the second season, as shows that chew through plot too fast are wont to do, it began to veer toward the absurd. However, the surprising and devastating season finale redeemed much of the last half of the season, although it came at a cost: The lives of David Estes, Cynthia Walden, Finn Walden, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security. We weren’t hugely emotionally attached to any of them, but the shock of the event — which happened at the same time that Abu Nazir was being dropped into the sea — turned it into a mind-blowing sequence.
9. Boardwalk Empire, “A Man, a Plan…” — Some others claim they saw it coming, but I had to pick my jaw up off the floor and screw it back in after Nucky Thompson opened the box containing a dead Owen, who had become my favorite character of season three. It wasn’t just Owen’s death, either, that rattled us; it was the the horrified sobs of Margaret, who had just revealed that not only was she pregnant with Owen’s baby, but they had planned to escape together. Crushed.
8. House of Cards, “Chapter 11” — The once promising politician, Peter, once again begins to sink under the weight of his own vices in the 11th episode of the season, and when a drunk Peter drives by his ex-wife’s house, has a drunken phone conversation with his kid from outside the house, and tries to turn himself in, we’re almost able to feel the relief of Peter, who will get to unburden his guilt. Alas, he can’t even get himself arrested. Frank bails him, takes him home, and frames his murder as a suicide. In a series full of scheming, manipulating assholes, Peter was one of the very few who actually had a conscience about it, which sadly cost him his life.
7. Sons of Anarchy — “Sons of Anarchy” actually could’ve occupied two slots on this list, first in the season finale when Tig’s daughter was burned alive in front of him, and second, with the death of Opie, a fan favorite and the heart of “Sons of Anarchy.” It was a brutal death, noble only for the way that Opie accepted its inevitability. The series has never recovered.
6. Walking Dead, “This Sorrowful Life” — The death of Lori earlier in season three of “The Walking Dead” was sad, but also something of a relief, since Lori had been weighing down the season. Likewise, Andrea’s death in the season finale was hard, but mostly for the way in which it was redeemed her (at least a little bit). However, it was the sacrifice of the otherwise villainous Merle that was the most devastating moment of the season, coming just when we were starting to like him as a human being.
5. In the Flesh, “Episode 1.3” — I could never have expected to be devastated this emotionally by what was ostensibly a zombie series, nor could I have anticipated getting so emotionally invested in characters after only three episodes. And yet, it was the death of a character (Rick), who had already died, and by his own father’s hand, that was so devastating, not only for the loss of a genuinely good guy, but for the effect it had on Keiran, who had himself already died once, having taken his life the first time Rick died. Minutes later, the consequences of Rick’s death would lead to the series’ most heartbreaking sequence, when Keiran’s father would finally be able to process his son’s suicide with his undead son.
4. The Hour, “Episode 6” — The season finale of “The Hour,” presumably, was meant as a cliffhanger, but after the cancellation of the series (unless there is a wrap-up movie as has been rumored), it looks like “The Hour” will end on a horrifyingly devastating moment that left the lead character’s (Ben Wishaw) life in the balance. Early reviews of “The Hour” often compared it to “Mad Men,” but nothing in “Mad Men” so far compares to a likable journalist being beaten up and left for dead for protecting a source. It a cold, harrowing fate.
3. Southland, “Reckoning” — In a way, “Southland” ended much like the above show, with a likable character’s life hanging in the balance, although — at least, if you ask me — Officer John Cooper was closer to death, having put up with the stresses of the daily job — including a grueling experience in which he was tortured and forced to witness his partner shot in the head while handcuffed to him — it was something as small as a loud generator that broke Officer Cooper. In the end, he was shot by his own brothers in the force, a gruesome end to a stellar series.
2. Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere” — Because it is in the cultural zeitgeist more than any other show on television right now, save for possibly “The Walking Dead,” the Red Wedding episode will likely go down as the most shocking episode of television in years, if not of all time (at least, for now). Given how beloved Ned Stark was compared to Catelyn and Robb Stark, I still find his death more devastating, but “The Rains of Castamere” was definitely more shocking, the kind of episode that rendered with immense powers of shock and awe, a bloodletting that sneaked up on us then rendered us speechless, robbed of movement or words. It was flabbergasting.
1. Rectify, “Jacob’s Ladder” — I’m sure “Game of Thrones” fans would expect that the Red Wedding would hold the top spot, and in any other year, it probably would. People who haven’t seen “Rectify” might wonder how, exactly, any show could top “The Rains of Camstamere” in terms of devestation, but I think most who watched “Recitfy” will agree that “Jacob’s Ladder” belongs at the top of the list, after having delivered the single most devastating hour of television I’ve witnessed in my life, and second to only the documentary, Dear Zachary in terms of grief. I honestly felt a kind of televisual PTSD: A kind of numbness, a disbelief, and a sense of helplessness I’ve never felt watching a TV show. The developments weren’t even that surprising; maybe it was the inevitability of it that made it feel so … painful.