It’s Time for a Departure From ‘Bottle Episode’

Me reading your tweet calling The Last of Us’s “Long, Long Time” a bottle episode. Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

In the grand tradition of “someone is wrong on the internet,” it’s time to have a conversation about the phrase “bottle episode.” It’s an alluring phrase, so alluring that in spite of having a very specific meaning for TV storytelling, it regularly gets deployed in completely inaccurate ways that have begun to empty it of all meaning. The most notable recent example is episode three of The Last of Us, which, despite having absolutely no relation to the actual definition of “bottle episode,” still got described as one all over the damn place.

I get it. Or at least, I understand the challenge. I have been fighting a largely Sisyphean battle against bottle-episode semantic drift for years, to no avail. “It’s a stand-alone episode!” I’ve been yelling into an unfeeling, uncaring cavern of bottle-episode misappropriation. But I accept now that the term “stand-alone” simply does not capture the same appeal, and so this time, I’m going to try something different. Instead of just explaining why “bottle episode” is incorrect, and instead of trying to put up yet another quixotic defense of “stand-alone” as a term, I am going to offer an alternative: They are departure episodes.

First, some brief bottle-episode history. In the purest, earliest definition, a bottle episode is a TV money-saving strategy, an attempt to make an episode with the least amount of budget required. The earliest versions of bottle episodes take place entirely on a show’s preexisting sets — ideally just one set — and only use members of the main cast. No guest stars that need to be paid, very few camera setups, no elaborate VFX or other expensive doodads. That financial restriction had the effect of creating a simultaneous sense of story restriction: characters all trapped in one space together, a sense of claustrophobic closeness, the feeling that an episode is unusually small and self-contained.

As bottle episodes became a recognizable form of TV storytelling, the emotional result of them — closeness, intensity, the sense of being trapped in one space for the whole episode — became divorced from the original budgetary definition. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” does not use a preexisting set, but it’s still working in the bottle-episode tradition. Breaking Bad’s “The Fly” has a few short framing scenes that technically mean that the entire episode is not on one set, but again, both the vast majority of the hour and the overall effect works as a bottle episode.

But with time, and for the lack of a better term, “bottle episode” has started to get misused to mean something like “any tangential, self-contained, strange, or otherwise notable episode that departs from a TV show’s norms.” This is bad. “Bottle episode” is a gorgeous and striking phrase with an important TV history, and it’s a terrible shame to water it down so that it no longer means anything! Worse, it flattens a whole lovely proliferation of types of TV episodes that do some version of this! Musical episodes, wordless episodes, flashback episodes, story-within-a-story episodes, episodes that shift the point-of-view character, episodes that tell a tangential self-contained story, genre-shifting episodes, clip shows, and, yes, bottle episodes are all examples of a larger TV-storytelling category. They’re all variations on the way TV can use episodes to break from a show’s normal rhythm. Why erase the connection between all of them? Why squash all that interesting narrative differentiation into one ill-fitting term?

For years, I (and many others) have tried to call these things stand-alone episodes, the idea being that they stand apart from the rest of a series. Obviously that’s not working, because the misuse of “bottle episode” is spreading faster than Cordyceps and because “stand-alone” implies something that’s not quite intuitive about how these episodes work. It suggests that an episode can be viewed on its own, separate from the rest of a series. It comes with this sense of a self-contained plot, a story that doesn’t connect to the rest of a show. And yes, sometimes these episodes do exactly that. But sometimes they’re like the wordless episode of Only Murders in the Building, which departs from the show’s typical busily talkative mode while also being a vital piece of the larger murder narrative. Sometimes they’re a musical episode where everyone sings all the feelings they’ve been burying for the whole season. Sometimes they are like The Last of Us’s “Long, Long Time,” which does tell a self-contained story, but is also meant to be viewed in the larger context of the show’s apocalyptic themes. “Stand-alone,” long though I have tried to defend it, just doesn’t encapsulate all that breadth.

So after much ranting and gesticulating and some frustrating moments of editing Wikipedia quietly in my room at 11:30 p.m., I am going to call them something else. I considered “breaker” episodes, as in “format breaker,” or like a circuit breaker that interrupts the typical flow of a series. I thought about “rogue” episodes, although that makes them sound like devilish knaves who’ve done something wrong. “Very Special Episodes” is silly and already means something else, anyhow.

I’ve landed on “departure episodes.” It’s a term I’ve seen bubbling up lately, and I think it’s the best shorthand for what these episodes do: They are self-contained installments of a TV series that depart from the established norms of how that TV series operates. The Last of Us is a show about Joel and Ellie wandering across an apocalyptic landscape; “Long, Long Time” is a departure episode that follows two completely different characters and is a sharp break from the way this series usually works. The Claire Danes episode of Fleishman Is in Trouble is a departure episode: The entire series until that point is spent with one point-of-view character, and episode seven abruptly departs and focuses on a different character. The flashback episodes of Mythic Quest are departure episodes; the musical episode of Buffy is a departure episode; failed spinoff episodes like Stranger Things’ “The Lost Sister” are departure episodes, and so too is the incredible show-within-a-show episode of GLOW. Bottle episodes like Breaking Bad’s “Fly” are a subset in the larger category of departure episodes, abandoning a show’s usual stylistic mode to spend one episode doing something very different. And it’s a nice bonus that The Leftovers happened to be exceptionally good at departure episodes.

These kinds of episodes are worth celebrating! Departure episodes are a way to let narrative epiphanies spring out of a formal shift. And although all kinds of departure episodes share that ability, an epiphany will feel pretty different if it happens inside a musical episode than it would while all the main characters are trapped inside a basement together. Departure episodes are a beautiful feature of TV storytelling. Please do not shove their light into a tiny, restrictive bottle.

It’s Time for a Departure From ‘Bottle Episode’