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20 Most Intense TV Scenes Ever

It may be the small screen, but TV is capable of delivering big thrills. The medium requires you to invest multiple hours, even years, in storytelling and character arcs, which means there’s a heightened level of emotional involvement in the shows you watch.

That, in turn, means it’s even better when they ramp up the excitement. Whether it’s an electrifying fight sequence, a moment of pure dread, a sequence of complete suspense, or something that has a searing emotional potency, these are the television scenes that are so intense you’re left glued to the screen, feeling breathless, your heart pounding in its chest or stopped altogether.

20. Fight Scene – Daredevil

Netflix

Intensity is more or less the name of the game when it comes to Netflix’s Marvel universe, which offers up a much darker, more violent take on the MCU. And things don’t get much darker, more violent, or purely visceral than the fight scene that really showcased what it was all about.

Coming in just the second episode of Daredevil’s first season, the one-shot hallway fight is a brutal sequence unlike anything we’d previously seen in a superhero setting; the battered and bruised Matt Murdock making his way through the enemies, a cavalcade of bodies building up, and we feel every single punch and kick as he keeps on staggering forward. The quality of these shows has varied, and they’ve definitely got bloodier in parts too, but as a single, powerful sequence this remains the benchmark.

19. Subway – House Of Cards

Netflix

The brutality of this scene comes from how fast things take a turn: the conversation between Zoe and Frank, skulking around a subway station in disguise, is filled with a sense of both urgency and unease, but you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go.

You certainly don’t expect it to go where it does, with Frank suddenly pushing Zoe – who was getting too close to the truth – in front of an oncoming train, leading to her unceremonious death. As a moment that encapsulates the power-mad world of House of Cards, and the sheer, unabating ruthlessness of Frank Underwood, this is the defining House of Cards moment, and the one most likely to leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut.

18. In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen – The West Wing

NBC

From a grim political drama to a largely inspiring one, The West Wing did take its own dark turn with a shooting at the end of Season 1.

The two-part Season 2 premiere – In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen – picks up in the aftermath of this event, and it’s a scene of complete panic and confusion. It’s revealed that President Bartlet has been shot in the back, while Josh has suffered an even worse gunshot wound to the stomach.

It’s a race to the hospital, and a genuine sense of worry that he might not make it. The West Wing’s thrills usually came from grandiose speeches and triumphs for the good guys, but in this instance it was total dread and devastation.

17. Keeping Mum – The X-Files

Fox

An episode so horrifying it was banned, Home is among the scariest hours of television to ever grace screens. And there are a number of intense moments in there, but just about taking the prize is the moment Mulder and Scully decide to take a peek under the bed.

The tension builds as they head upstairs while the Peacock family are distracted, and it’s there they find the mother of the murdered child they were initially called out to investigate, discovering Mrs Peacock, the mother of the sons who has been breeding with her own children for years, and is also a quadruple amputee.

It’s a reveal so sickening, so disturbing that you’ll wish you could unsee it, but instead it burns itself onto your retinas.

16. I Believe You – The Leftovers

HBO

A rather different kind of scene here, as it’s not one that’s at all visceral or brutal, but instead hones in on the shared experiences of two people who’ve suffered, who’ve been to quite unbelievable places, coming back together after such a long time and believing in one another.

The direction from Mimi Leder is particularly incredible, with the camera’s gaze being held solely on Kevin, Nora, or both of them. The intensity comes from the lingering intimacy of the scene, of a moment so poignant being witnessed in a way you cannot break away from, and won’t want to forget. The purpose of an intense sequence is to make the audience really feel something powerful, and this certainly accomplishes it.

15. Don’t Tell – Sharp Objects

HBO

The entirety of Sharp Objects could be described as intense, with a slightly trippy, very dark, dangerous investigation of a killer, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction means there are a number of moments where the suspense ratchets up to points where it almost kills you.

And yet, in the kind, the most intense one was a complete left-field stunner, as it’s revealed that Amma was the murderer. It starts with Camille finding the teeth in the dollhouse, and things spiral quickly from there as it dawns on her and viewers just what it means, but the biggest punch is packed after the credits.

A short scene showing Amma committing the crimes, the imagery conjured up isn’t all easy to decipher, but the emotions it invokes – of pure shock and horror – are.

14. Look At The Flowers – The Walking Dead

AMC

The Walking Dead is a show built around shocking moments, of people being pushed as far as possible and then further still in order to survive. There are a number of moments that capture that, but none with such harrowing, raw power like Carol telling Lizzie to look at the flowers.

There’s a sad sense of inevitability to the same, and yet you’re still wondering if she’ll actually go through with it until the very moment it happens, when Carol is forced to pull the trigger on the little girl who cannot be allowed to live in this world.

We know the price being paid here, and while the camera mercifully cuts away, it doesn’t lessen the devastation of the moment, nor how utterly chilling it is.

13. Pulling Teeth – The Americans

FX

As a family drama masquerading as a cold war spy thriller, The Americans knew better than most how to do suspense, with a number of close calls. It also knew how to do brutality, like breaking a woman’s bones to fit her corpse into a suitcase.

And yet, it’s in a spot of dentistry we see the show at its best (and most painful to watch) in this regard. Elizabeth, following one of those aforementioned close calls, has a rotten tooth that needs to come out but can’t go to the dentist, so it falls to Phillip to perform the necessary ‘surgery’, sans anaesthesia.

It’s excruciating to watch in a way that’ll make your teeth ache, and the direction from Thomas Schlamme makes sure to go close-up on their faces, making this a surprisingly intimate affair. We see every bit of pain on Elizabeth’s face, and while it also works as a wider commentary on their relationship, it’s the sheer act – and how tight it’s shot – that makes it (and us viewers) – bristle.

12. The Opening – Lost

ABC

Over the following 120 episodes, Lost would get weirder, more mystifying, more complex, and at times more irritating. But in terms of providing such a raw viewing experience, it didn’t top its opening sequence.

The plane crash, directed by J.J. Abrams, showcases the great filmmaking skill that made the show such an instant hit. It’s complete carnage, a burning wreckage; bodies are strewn all over the place, chaos reigns supreme, and there’s a desperate race for survival, creating a dizzying, discombobulating effect that hits you like a brick.

11. The Woodsman – Twin Peaks: The Return

Showtime

There’s never been an episode of television like Twin Peaks: The Return – Part 8. It’s David Lynch at his most avant-garde, and its crowning moment comes with the arrival of the Woodsman.

As if the creepy repetition of ‘Gotta light?’ wasn’t enough, we then follow him into the radio station, where he kills the receptionist, assaults the DJ, and launches into his haunting broadcast:

“This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.”

Macabre, strange, and enough to chill you to the bone, the Woodsman’s design and delivery are befitting of everything The Return did so well.

10. The Final Interview – The Jinx

HBO

One of the finest true crime documentaries seen on TV, the format of The Jinx, largely made up of interviews with its subject Robert Durst, immediately lends itself to a sense of intensity, but while it might not be scripted TV, there’s nothing quite like the show’s very final scene.

After all the interviews have been conducted, we’re left with a static image, and audio of a Durst who seemingly has no idea his microphone is still turned on. Despite previous issuing denials, in the men’s room we hear him ramble:

“There it is, you’re caught. What a disaster… What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Only adding to the drama was that Durst was actually arrested a few hours before the finale ended, and those final moments, while open to interpretation, are so uniquely shocking it’s incredible to think they’re actually real.

9. Fight To The Death – Deadwood

HBO

Deadwood’s fight sequence between Dan Dority and Captain Turner doesn’t possess any of the balletic brilliance of Daredevil; instead, it’s a proper slugfest – a hard, dirty, scrap where only one can make it out alive.

A five-minute-long sequence that doesn’t break its focus from the pair rolling around beating the living daylights out of each other, it features just about every possible way to hurt someone using just your hands (or whatever you can get your hands on). Neither side is going to quit until they’re completely forced to, and the scene will leave you as empty as they are.

8. The Body – Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Mutant Enemy Productions

While Buffy frequently dealt with an array of terrifying monsters, there’s nothing quite so scary as the sight of Joyce Summers’ lifeless body on the sofa, being discovered by her eldest daughter.

Picking up where the previous episode left of, The Body moves slowly but deliberately towards confirming everyone’s worst fear, that Joyce is indeed dead. The way it plays out, an uncut three-minute sequence without any music, as Buffy tries in vain to revive her mother, is bleak, disorientating, and above all else emotionally shattering.

7. The Tracking Shot – True Detective

HBO

True Detective’s first season was a slow-burner, but it sparked into life in its fourth episode, Who Goes There, with an all-time great tracking shot from director Cary Fukunaga.

Running around six minutes in length, the single take sees Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle at a drug raid gone wrong, and having to attempt to make it out alive.

The show’s leading men were two movies stars, and this was a moment of pure cinema: a stunning, pulsating sequence that put lives at risk and left you gasping for air.

6. Sil And Adriana – The Sopranos

HBO

Long Term Parking is one of the great Sopranos episodes, and this scene is a big part of the reason why. Adriana, who has spoken to the FBI, is waiting to be taken away by Chris, when she gets a call that he attempted to commit suicide, so Silvio is coming to take her to the hospital.

Already a panicked situation, it becomes worse when the car ride begins, and Sil cannot even stand to look at Adriana, overcome with a mix of disgust and sadness. It’s then, at the exact same time Adriana realises it, that it dawns on us he’s not taking her to the hospital. He’s been sent to kill her.

After driving into the woods she attempts to crawl away, but we know – and really, she knows – the inevitable is coming. But that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to watch.

5. The Red Wedding – Game Of Thrones

HBO

Ned Stark’s death taught us a lesson. We just didn’t fully heed it.

While Game of Thrones had established its severity and that almost anyone could die, no one (except book readers) could’ve seen this coming, and it remains the show’s crowning achievement.

Everything at the Frey-Tully wedding seems to be going ok, tensions smoothed over, and then there are a couple of quick shifts. The music subtly turns, the doors lock, and the hairs on the back of your neck begin to rise. It’s a masterclass in gradually building tension, before all hell breaks loose and you’re left looking a lot like poor Catelyn above.

4. Stringer, Omar, And Brother Mouzone – The Wire

HBO

After three seasons of running his empire, Middle Ground is where it all came crashing down for Stringer Bell. The rooftop scene with Avon is a better moment – hell, it’s one of the greatest in TV history – but there’s a real edge-of-your-seat, oh-sh*t-it’s-happening thrill to the moment he’s cornered by Omar and Brother Mouzone.

The moment is brilliantly executed, with Stringer seeing Omar and trying to run, only to come face-to-face with Mouzone at the top of the stairs. Trapped, there’s still a moment of hesitation before the pair open fire, followed by a prolonged silence while you just gasp at the drama of it all.

3. The Liberation – Band Of Brothers

HBO

One of the shows where you could point to an alarming number of moments of intensity, Band of Brothers’ greatest came in the episode Why We Fight, saving its biggest moment for the ninth episode long before Game of Thrones trademarked the idea.

While the series depicted the horrors of war, it was mostly from the headspace of the Allied soldiers, which meant we experienced what they did, and didn’t see the full extremes of the Nazi regime.

That is, until the soldiers come across something in the woods, and there’s that fleeting moment of questioning before the true evils are revealed. The discovery of the camp, with dozens of prisoners near death and many more already dead, is as harrowing a moment as has been committed to screen, the almost unimaginable scale of human suffering laid bare for all to see.

2. The Killer Revealed – Twin Peaks

ABC

Who killed Laura Palmer? It’s the mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks, and the show reaches it’s, er, peak with the reveal of the murderer.

The episode builds and builds to the moment, before exploding into one of the most horrifying, indelible sequences in TV history, as Leland Palmer violently murders his niece, Maddie, before waltzing her limp body the living room, as it’s revealed that he is possessed by the malevolent spirit BOB.

David Lynch’s direction here is impeccable, starting with the shot of Leland looking into the mirror and BOB staring back, before putting on the white latex gloves, and the figure standing in front of Maddie frequently switching between the pair as the horror unfolds. It’s confusing, savage, and almost unbearable to watch.

1. Hank’s Last Stand – Breaking Bad

AMC

Taking this as one scene, although split across the end of To’hajiilee and the beginning of Ozymandias (after the flashbacks), Hank’s last stand as he closes in on the truth and pays for it with his life are the most utterly stressful moments of Breaking Bad’s run.

The shootout in the desert is exhilarating, but also terrifying because of the fear you have for Hank’s life, and that only ramps up when he is eventually brought down and, despite Walt’s plea, his death warrant has already been signed.

With the thrilling, high-octane action stunningly captured by Michelle MacLaren and then Rian Johnson, this moment – especially in Ozymandias, the entirety of which seemingly wants to give you a heart attack – is when the end really begins. It’s Hank’s desperate crawl for a gun, Walt’s – Walt’s! – panic mirroring our own, the devastating acceptance of what’s about to happen, the need for a lie down afterwards and the realisation that WE’RE ONLY 10 MINUTES INTO THE EPISODE.

 

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