10 Insane TV Episodes From the 2010s We'll Be Talking About Forever
When you think about memorable television episodes from the 2010s, you might immediately think of the juggernauts. You know, the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones or the Breaking Bad finale. And, sure, those are great. But there was a lot of TV in the decade and some of it got super weird.
This will forever be known as the Peak TV era, when, thanks to the rise of streaming services and binge-watching, there was perpetually "too much to watch." And while having so many choices was, frankly, exhausting, the mountains of episodic content also yielded some wonderful and wild episodes, the kind of stuff that we'll be obsessing over for years to come. We're singling out 10 of our favorites here, some that have been rightly deemed brilliant by fans and critics alike (see our picks for Fleabag and Atlanta), while others are notable only for their insanity. At least one seemingly resulted in an actual murderer's confession. Another seemed like a late-night hallucination. And one even involved a person named Jax. What unites these episodes is our extreme love for them and their indelible strangeness. The 2010s were a trip -- let's celebrate that.
Downton Abbey, "Episode Three"
Airdate: October 10, 2010 (UK); January 9, 2011 (US)
What happens: By now, Downton Abbey feels like an odd fit for a list of "insane" television episodes. But think back to 2011 when the show hit the U.S. and its blend of British nostalgia porn and soapy plot twists made for must-see TV. The third episode of the entire series perhaps best defined this. Sure, there is a lot of puttering about. Gwen (Rose Leslie, pre-Game of Thrones) frets over her desire to leave service and become a secretary. Edith, poor Edith, tries to impress Cousin Matthew despite the fact that he has zero interest in her. But we will always remember this episode as the one where a very hot guy just suddenly dies in the middle of sex with Lady Mary. The Crawleys invite the slightly less hunky Evelyn Napier over as a potential suitor for Mary, and he brings along his Turkish friend Kemal Pamuk, for whom Mary immediately has the hots. Mr. Pamuk is, shall we say, a little forward. (In 2019 his behavior would certainly be considered creepy.) He comes to her room in the middle of the night, and while she at first resists, explains she's not as rebellious as everyone thinks she is, eventually gives into his dreaminess. Alas, it seems as soon as he climaxes, he dies, and then she has to wrangle her lady's maid Anna and her mom to help move his body. It's like Weekend at Bernie's, only with titles of nobility.
Why we'll be talking about it forever:Downton Abbey is one of the most underrated cultural forces of the decade. Look at the money the movie made! And, no, we will never forget the moment that Mary's first time turned deadly. -- Esther Zuckerman
Vanderpump Rules, "I Lied"
Airdate: February 3, 2014
What happens: The #PumpRules Season 2 finale winds up at Scheana's engagement party (remember Shay???), the kind of alcohol-and-resentment-drenched environment where reality TV drama grows and thrives. The latter half of this season built to the inevitable moment in the closing episode when Kristen has to admit that, yes, she did indeed fuck Jax, just as all the extraordinarily explicit evidence has suggested. Kristen's boyfriend/Jax's nominal best friend Tom Sandoval has tried every trick in the denial playbook, but eventually even Sandoval has to admit that Kristen and Jax obviously slept together. When she DOES eventually say the words that give this episode its name, it's a brutally casual reversal of what she's claimed for months, and it immediately raises the question of what Tom will do about it. We get the answer just after den mother Lisa Vanderpump ominously suggests everyone leave the party, which is Tom's cue to deliver a canned line about Jax not feeling anything, but maybe he'll feel THIS as he wildly swings at his friend's surgically sculpted face. Chaos ensues. With typical sociopathic self-awareness, Jax takes a moment to break the fourth wall and stare down the camera, his face covered in blood and an evil grin, giving the world a snapshot of the full Jax Taylor experience.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: The punch seen round the world cemented Vanderpump Rules' reputation as a next-level reality show that defined the 2010s as much as Obama, Trump, Facebook, Google, and Twitter... put together. -- Anthony Schneck
The Late Late Show, "Ben Schwartz/Martellus Bennett/Eric André/Beth Stern/Death Cab for Cutie"
Airdate: January 30, 2015
What happens: There's no reason you should have been watching The Late Late Show on January 30, 2015. At that point in time the show didn't even technically have an official host. Craig Ferguson had stepped down and the reign of James Corden had yet to begin. A series of guests hosts were subbing in mostly just to keep the ship afloat. But if for some reason you had your TV tuned to CBS at 12:37 a.m. you would have caught something magical. For reasons that even he himself couldn't fathom or understand, the network had put The Mindy Project star Adam Pally in charge of the show for the night, making him host out of the abandoned CBS This Morning studio in the aftermath of a blizzard. There was no studio audience, just an annoyed Teleprompter guy, producers, and some camera operators. Parks and Recreation's Ben Schwartz was on hand as Pally's Andy Richter type and the whole thing was amazingly unorganized and unhinged. In lieu of a monologue or anything like that, Pally spends a long time describing a scene from the Nicholas Cage movie Bangkok Dangerous and riffing with Schwartz about how CBS clearly does not give a "fart," his word, as to what they do. He asks guest Martellus Bennett, then playing for the Chicago Bears and calling in from the Super Bowl location, whether his teammate Jay Cutler is a "super putz." Near the end, human agent of chaos Eric Andre shows up to spout nonsense and compare socks. Explaining what happened on this fateful evening doesn't begin to capture its madness.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: It's rare that you see something on a network run by a major corporation that's as deliriously unscripted as this. Corden would soon take over and bring the show into the Fallon era of viral clips, but for a brief moment there was true anarchy on national television. -- EZ
The Jinx, "Chapter 6: What the Hell Did I Do?"
Airdate: March 15, 2015
What happens: There's never been a TV "gotcha" moment quite like what happens in the bathroom during the final scene of HBO's The Jinx, a documentary about New York real estate developer scion and unfathomably creepy dude Robert Durst. Director Andrew Jarecki had spent five hours of air time grilling Durst about three murders he was connected to -- those of his wife, his best friend, and his next door neighbor -- but it's when Durst is alone, believing his mic is off, that he utters the now infamous self-incrimination, "Killed them all, of course." After the burping, the handwriting, the admission of dismembering his neighbor's body, the cross-dressing, the sandwich theft, and every other absolutely batshit twist and turn in the Durst story, it was difficult to imagine it could get MORE insane, but it did: The day before the episode aired, Durst was arrested in New Orleans and charged with murdering his old friend Susan Berman. Four years later, this line is literally getting litigated, as it turns out Jarecki and co. edited the audio-only comments to get the perfect final quote.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: The last few minutes of The Jinx are so memorably damning that Durst's defense lawyers will argue that seeing the documentary disqualifies any potential juror in his murder trial. It also set the bar for last-episode reveals in true-crime docuseries. -- AS
The Affair, "209"
Airdate: November 29, 2015
What happens: Trying to describe the most excessive, cringe-inducing episode of a show that has no qualms depicting an old-man boner during a physical therapy session is like trying to write a 500-word blog post on where the field of quantum computing stands. Fitting for a show some sites have described as Rashomon-esque, but here goes. It's a dark and stormy night -- hurricane-stormy, in fact -- and Noah Solloway is attending a drug-and-booze-fueled party at the Hamptons home of producer Rodney Callahan (good rich-guy producer name!) because he is An Author of Note now. The combination of Noah's drinkin' and druggin' and propensity for having… affairs… leads him to almost have sex with his publicist before he ditches her and heads down to the pool. Hot naked people seem to be everywhere at this party, so Noah strips down and joins them since it's obviously the perfect place for an affair. In the hot tub, he sees two young women making out with each other, and Noah stares them down until (whoops!) he realizes one of the girls is his daughter, Whitney. That's not good! She screams! He's horrified! He runs out of the party, jumps into his car and immediately gets stuck because there's a hurricane out there! Meanwhile, Alison -- one half of the original affair -- is going into labor with a child Noah thinks is his, Cole is burning down a house, and Helen is making googly eyes with Dr. Vik, who will eventually die of pancreatic cancer. It is an absolute clinic on the pathetic fallacy, and it will likely survive for centuries as literary minds of the future attempt to emulate its greatness.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: Noah tried to HOOK UP WITH HIS DAUGHTER IN A HOT TUB AT A DEBAUCHEROUS 1% PARTY IN THE HAMPTONS DURING A HURRICANE WHILE HIS (OTHER) DAUGHTER (WHO'S NOT REALLY HIS DAUGHTER) WAS BEING BORN. -- AS
The Leftovers, "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)"
Airdate: May 28, 2017
What happens: To stop what his father (Scott Glenn) believes will be a second Great Flood, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) agrees to drown himself in order to transport his soul to some kind of alternate realm (Heaven? Hell? Who knows?) to get the words to a specific song from an Aboriginal man his father used to know named Christopher Sunday. When he gets there, Kevin realizes that he's become two people: Kevin, the suit-wearing international assassin, and Kevin, the President of the United States who seems to have brought the gospel of the white-clad Guilty Remnant cult to the rest of the world. Switching between bodies with the aid of any reflective surface (a super cool plot device in itself), Kevin portrays both the assassin and the President, as his two selves are bunted around in a kind of devilish improv game where only Kevin has no idea what's going on. Unfortunately, Christopher Sunday tells him there is no such song, and his Secretary of Defense, who happens to be Kevin's long-dead arch enemy Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), informs him that the key to the launch codes has been surgically implanted in the heart of his alternate "identical twin" self, and he'll have to kill the other Kevin to get it. After a lengthy, emotional scene in which President Kevin, overcome with guilt from a relationship he cruelly ended, reads aloud the final page of a book he never wrote, he cuts assassin Kevin open and jams his hands into his ribcage. As the assassin dies, he chokes out his final words: "We fucked up with Nora." President Kevin and Patty, hand in hand, watch as the nukes fly across the sky and turn the world into ash.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: The Leftovers, especially the last two seasons, was always full of weird shit, but this episode is the only episode of any show that features Justin Theroux scanning his junk in order to climb down into a bunker so he can blow up the planet. -- Emma Stefansky
Twin Peaks: The Return, "Part 8"
Airdate: June 25, 2017
What happens: *deep breath* After a seemingly dead Evil Dale Cooper gets revived by phantom oil-faced woodsmen, and after Nine Inch Nails performs at the Roadhouse, the camera takes in a nuclear test blast at White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:29am (MWT), and then dives into the mushroom cloud itself, down through the very explosion in all its colors and chaos, until it reaches ground zero, a gas station with a convenience store teeming with even more oil-faced woodsmen, until the service station explodes and we find ourselves in a netherworld lorded over by a vomiting beast who spews out everything ugly in existence, including the demented Lodge denizen known as Bob, before metaphysical counterbalance is introduced into the universe by an extradimensional giant and his muse residing in an opera house floating in a purple ocean, who team up to send good into the world in the form of a golden bauble bearing the face and soul of Laura Palmer, but not before we flash back to 1956 to meet a young New Mexico teenage girl, who is presumably Laura's mother, losing her innocence via a creepy frog bug that enters her mouth while she is mesmerized by a radio broadcast from a cigarette-smoking Abraham Lincoln lookalike who likes to ask people "Gotta light?" and repeatedly chants to listeners, "This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within."
Why we'll be talking about it forever: This was the strangest, most enthralling hour of episodic television ever to air during prime time, and will rank among director David Lynch's most mind-blowing achievements, but it's also just fun to say "Gotta light?" in a really gruff voice. -- John Sellers
Nathan for You, "Finding Frances"
Airdate: November 9, 2017
What happens:Nathan for You, the satiric business advice reality series hosted by impeccably deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder, was always pushing the parameters of its own premise. In the show's final episode, which is long enough to function as a stand-alone feature documentary film, Fielder attempts to help Bill Heath, a Bill Gates impersonator previously used in one of the show's wildly elaborate prank-like stunts, track down a woman named Frances, who Heath claims is his long lost love. The journey to Frances is filled with odd detours: Fielder infiltrates a high school in Arkansa while pretending to be a crew member for Mud 2: Never Clean, a proposed sequel to a Matthew McConaghey movie; Heath sings a song titled "I'm A Ding Dong Dandy From Dumas" to a crowd of retirees at a 57-year reunion; at one point, Fielder strikes up an awkward friendship with Maci, an escort he initially hired to help Heath work on his manners. The tension between Fielder and Heath, particularly the degree to which they are both taking advantage of each other, pushes the episode into almost unbearably uncomfortable territory at times, especially as the viewer must confront some of Heath's cruder character traits. After much fruitless searching, the two eventually track down Frances at her home, but they don't end up going inside. Instead, Bill has a pleasant but mostly insignificant phone conversation with her, and he's forced to move on with his life. The episode ends with Fielder spending time with Maci in a shot that reveals a drone camera hovering over their heads, documenting every moment.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: Many TV shows in the '00s asked us to question the nature of reality or consider the loneliness of existence, but "Finding Frances" did both with real heart and humor. -- DJ
Atlanta, "Teddy Perkins"
Airdate: April 5, 2018
What happens: Many of the best episodes of Atlanta, Donald Glover's surreal comedy centered around the mundane realities of low-level rap music stardom, have simple location-based hooks. "The Club" is mostly set at a club, "Barbershop" starts off at a barbershop, and "Woods" takes place in the woods. After a quick stop at a hardware store, season two stand-out "Teddy Perkins" begins with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) arriving at a decadent home to pick up a rare piano that belongs to the aging musician Benny Hope. As a guest in this gothic hideaway, Darius meets with Teddy Perkins, an unnerving presence played by series creator Donald Glover in white make-up and prosthetics. (The look of the character, who presents himself as his brother's caretaker, is meant to call to mind Michael Jackson.) When Darius finally gets his hands on the piano, he attempts to unload it using the house's elevator, but he ends up finding a masked figure downstairs who warns him that Teddy will try to kill them both. "Great things come from great pain," says Teddy at one point, quoting his own abusive father and setting up the tortured psychological chaos to come. It all ends in a murder-suicide, with Benny shooting Teddy before turning the gun on himself. The events that play out in the house have a tinge of horror to them, which earned the episode plenty of Get Out and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? comparisons, but the episode is still laced with the dry wit the series is best known for, like when Darius describes Jay-Z to Teddy by saying, "He's like 65." Even at its most disturbing and outlandish, Atlanta never loses the voice that makes it so special.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: Packed with pop music allusions, showbiz trivia, and evocative symbols, like that creepy ostrich egg, "Teddy Perkins" is an episode of TV that resists simple readings but also encourages the viewer to search for meaning in each richly bizarre detail. -- DJ
Fleabag, "Episode 4"
Airdate: March 25, 2019 (UK), May 17, 2019 (US)
What happens: Let's get this straight: The fourth episode of season two of Fleabag is amazing television. Fleabag's confrontational flirtation with the man who came to be colloquially known as "Hot Priest," forces her to revisit the events of her mother's funeral, addressing a sorrow she has long repressed. But it's the final sequence that earns "Episode 4" a place on this list. She returns to his church to find him drunk, and he convinces her to confess. Cradling a glass, she finally opens up, breaking down about her feeling that she has done life all wrong, wishing someone would tell her what to do. He answers with a command: "Kneel." So begins one of the most devastatingly sexy makeout sequences in, dare I say, the history of television. That is, until it's interrupted by holy intervention. The whole episode serves as a primer on why the phenomenon of Fleabag's "hot priest" took hold: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott's chemistry is as excruciating as it is absurdist.
Why we'll be talking about it forever: "Kneel." Enough said. -- EZ
Writers: Dan Jackson, Anthony Schneck, John Sellers, Emma Stefansky, Esther Zuckerman
Editorial assistant: Sadie Bell
Graphic designer: Megan Chong