Some TV episodes entertain us and enliven our evenings. But other seem primarily designed to break a viewer psychologically, and take bloody bites out of our sense of well-being. Today, we’ll be looking at the latter.
I’ve seen TV shows that are good. I’ve seen TV shows that are bad. And I’ve seen TV shows that go beyond that – TV shows that don’t just make me sad or angry, but leave me unhappy. Not just unhappy in the moment, but a less happy human being in general. Whether they be born of creator frustration, an error in judgment, or just free-floating maliciousness, there are some TV episodes that forego things like entertainment in favor of all-out psychological warfare on the viewer. Here are some of the most unsettling episodes of TV ever.
1 and 2. Doctor Who: Family of Blood and Doctor Who: Blink
Doctor Who does a good job of giving people a different way of thinking about time, space, and the sweep of history, but these episodes decided to opt, instead, for making viewers feel profoundly unsafe. “Family of Blood” involves a group of aliens who came to Earth searching for immortality. They kill local people and take over their bodies, ready to hunt down the Doctor and claim his immortal spirit. When the Doctor gets the upper hand, he punishes all of them, but to a greater degree, he punishes all of us. He gives them an unpleasant forms of immortality, like falling forever towards an event horizon. The little girl – or rather the member of the family that killed the little girl and took over her body – he puts in a mirror.
As the brother puts it, “He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If you ever look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her.” Between that and “Blink,” in which statues come to life when you turn away from them, the show does a very good job of suggesting that your every moment is watched by a malicious group of hellish creatures who always lurk at the edges of your vision, waiting to strike. Oh, and since most mirrors are in the bathroom, an evil entity in the body of a murdered child has probably watched you pee.
3. The World of David the Gnome: The Mountains of Beyond
This is the episode that proves that something is fundamentally wrong with the souls of people who write for children’s television. Perhaps it’s arrogance. Perhaps it’s a misguided sense of near-religious desire to force a worldview on the impressionable. Whatever it is, it reached its highest form in this abomination of an episode that had to have left trembling wrecks in most of the living rooms of the 1980s. The World of David the Gnome was a show about a friendly old gnome who had adventures in the forest with his fox and his wife and his gnome friends. The shows taught children valuable lessons about ecology and community, until the final episode, when David dies.
Knowing he is going to die – gnomes just conk out when they reach a certain age and turn into trees – we get treated to a long, painful episode in which a lot of gnomes cry and say goodbye to each other forever. We even get a scene of the sad fox running to catch up with the David and his wife, and arriving only in time to see them die. Never mind that this is basically a magical propaganda version of Logan’s Run. Never mind even that this probably caused a lot of damage both to the children that watched it and to the adults they ran screaming to after it ended. The real, ongoing psychological terror of this episode is that a whole group of adults decided that it was okay to air it. From the moment of first inspiration to the person who finally put it on the air, there’s a group of adults out there who thought, “You know what I’d really like to do today? I’d really like to callously, remotely, and randomly, introduce a massive amount of small children to the concept of death.” This aired in 1989, which means those people are probably still out there.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Killed by Death
Some would say that Hush is the best Buffy contender for this list. After all, a monster coming after you when you are unable to scream? That’s pretty awful. But this list isn’t about articulating your fears and miseries. It’s about introducing you to more, and this episode did exactly that. It’s a little-known episode in the second season in which Buffy gets sick with the flu and is sent to the hospital. At her sickest, she sees a monster moving through the halls, and it’s identified by other sick children as death itself. When Buffy gets better, she can’t see the monster anymore, but knows that it’s still there. It ends up being Der Kindestod, a monster that stalks hospitals and sucks the life out of children.
Only the sick can see it, so it hunts them, often in front of people who are healthy, and so don’t know that there is a monster in the room. Just to drive the horror home, Buffy remembers watching her cousin die exactly that way, attacked and killed by a monster that only the cousin could see or feel, while everyone around her watched it kill her. So yeah, are you sick? You could go to the hospital, but then you’d only be entering the hunting grounds of a monster that will kill you in public. I truly don’t understand how anyone could watch this and enter a hospital any other way than being dragged by the ankles.
5. The X-Files: Monday
There are so many shows and movies out there that promote the idea of getting a second chance. Oh, if only you could have that day, that year, or that life over again! What would you do? In some movies, like Groundhog Day, time repeats are meant to teach the protagonist a lesson and make them a better person. Some movies, like Peggy Sue Got Married, the repeated time is meant to make the protagonist realize the value of their own life. The universe is taking an interest in you, and that means you are going to come out of it a more fully-realized human being! That should put a spring in your step every time you get a sense of déjà-vu or experience a funny coincidence.
“Monday,” from The X-Files, makes it clear that the universe is not in the business of teaching helpful lessons. A bank-robber’s girlfriend repeats a day over and over – a day that always ends with the robber killing Mulder and Scully and then himself. The woman tries everything, taking in every possible measure she can and hoping against hope that this time the event will be different. It’s not. That is, until one day she throws herself in front of the robber's gun and is killed herself, which allows everyone else to live and time to go on. So remember this the next time you find a lucky penny or think about a long-lost friend just before they coincidentally call you on the phone. The universe doesn’t want to make you a kinder human being or get you a girlfriend with a wonderful early-nineties Andie MacDowell mane of ringlets. If the universe is contacting you? It’s because it wants you dead.
6. Supernatural: The Dark Side of the Moon
Sam and Dean die and go to heaven. It sucks. Heaven allows people to relive their happiest memories, but also leaves them trapped in separate mental worlds. It’s a heaven so angst-ridden and lonely that turning into a tree suddenly becomes a better alternative. At least that way, you’re close to other trees.
The thing is, this isn’t even a thoughtless depiction of someone's stupid idea of heaven. This is an episode that implies that if you allow for individuality, give everyone the best moments of their own lives, and drive out anything that hurts them or is less than ideal – the world still sucks. A CW show has proved that there is no such thing as perfection and any heaven you get stuck in will be lonely and sad eventually. Why even bother dying?
7. Justice League: A Better World
In A Better World, the Justice League is contacted by another Justice League from another world. They’re evil. They’ve just killed the president. They’re here to take over this world. As villains, these facts don’t make them any more disturbing than any other villain. As a concept, they are truly something else. Not only do they inhabit a world that’s darker and more hopeless, they inhabit it because one member of their team – the Flash – was killed.
Hey, kids. Did you know that there could be millions of other worlds out there? And in many of them – you’re probably dead. Not only that, but your death has done terrible, horrible things to everyone who has ever cared about you. Just think of the misery that’s out there in this infinite multiverse of ours! Why are you crying? Do you miss your gnome? He’s probably dead in those other universes, too.
8. Futurama: Jurassic Bark
It was tough finding an episode to top this list. Most of these shows take good shots at anyone’s mental well-being, inducing paranoia, sadness, or outright terror. But none of them ambush the audience as completely as this episode did. Futurama is supposed to be a wacky comedy about a hapless delivery boy and his horny robot friend. When we see a show in which Fry finds the fossilized body of his pet dog, and launches into a Frankenstein parody, we expect almost anything from the resulting resurrection. We don’t expect the episode to turn bittersweet. Fry realizes that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry had left him, and gives up the project, declaring that the dog had a good life. We don’t expect it, but it’s okay.
What’s not okay is the moment after that, when the show cuts back to the dog, patiently waiting for an owner that never returned. In the last few seconds, we see the dog close his eyes and die. And that's when we know that, whenever we lie down for the night, and close our eyes, just as we're drifting off to sleep it will be like the creators of Futurama walked into our bedroom, crouched down beside our beds, and whispered, “Just so you know? Somewhere out there a loyal animal is suffering. Sleep well.”
Sleep well, everyone!