Last night's Southland was a knockout episode of a knockout show — as shocking and unsentimental as the series has ever been, but now with an added urgency since the show seems like a long shot for renewal. On Southland, the LAPD is fighting a losing battle against entropy: Theirs is a world marching toward disorder, and attempts to resist that march will eventually kill you, either with gun violence or just by wearing you down. [Spoilers for the episode from here on out.] "Chaos" is an appropriate title, then, for an episode that found the show's conflicted hero John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) and his less-than-lovable partner Hank Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar) kidnapped by a bunch of tweaker meth heads who beat and tortured them. At the end of the episode, Lucero was dead, and Cooper had to pretend to be, just before making his agonizing, shoeless escape from the grave he'd been forced to dig for himself and his partner.
I watched the closing moments of the episode with my mouth agape and eyes wide, even though at this point in my life and career I'm accustomed to scenes of murder and torture and sundry violence. But some episodes — some scenes, some moments — transcend that disengagement. They force their way into my brain and haunt me for the rest of my days. "Chaos" reminded me of three other TV episodes in particular:
The Six Feet Under episode "That's My Dog," where David gets carjacked and tortured. (Maybe I am just really sensitive to kidnapping stories?) That episode wrecked me for weeks. It was so frightening and so random, so not what the show was usually about; I had zero defenses up and was totally unprepared for how psychologically twisted the episode would be. Aaaghh.
The Shield's third-season episode "Mum," in which one gang member rapes Aceveda while another films it on his cell phone. The Shield is one of my all-time favorite shows, and there were plenty of instances of extreme and surprising violence. But "Mum" trauma was course-altering for Aceveda the character and the show in general. Good God.
The ER episode "Random Acts," from back in 1997. That's the one where Mark Greene is viciously beaten in the ER bathroom — and it's as big a shock to him as it was to the audience. (It's also the reason I will never, ever take off my glasses in public. I have to stay alert!) Again, ER was not a show that shied away from bloodiness or the darker aspects of the human condition, but Mark's beating was such an affront to the natural order of things — he was our hero, and then post-assault, he was a total mess for months and months.
These are episodes I will never forget, episodes that knocked me on my ass when I first saw them and still serve as a yardstick for how other shows affect me. ("Is this more or less emotionally destabilizing than David getting carjacked?" Spoiler: Everything is less destabilizing than that.) What episodes haunt you? That just stick in your brain as the episode?