Warning: contains spoilers for Battlestar Galactica, Chernobyl, Line of Duty, Ozark, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Knick, Lovecraft Country and Succession.
Considering that most of us watch TV to relax, it’s remarkable how many shows leave us adrenalin-flooded, with hearts beating like hummingbird wings. It’s TV characters’ fault; those guys never know when to stop. They’re always attempting a hostile takeover of the family firm, escaping a race of murderous cyborgs or trying to dismantle a totalitarian regime. It’s exhilarating but exhausting behaviour. And the better a drama is, the more invested we are in its characters, so the more we care when they put their life on the line. That means more fingernails chewed, more faces clawed in horror, and more nervous foot-tapping while we should, by rights, be melted into our sofas like… all the chocolate melted into my sofa.
Forget slow TV, canal boat travelogues and laundry-folding background series, these are the TV episodes that left us in need of some quiet time in a dark room listening to whale song. Add your own suggestions below.
Succession Season 1, Episode 6 ‘Which Side Are You On?
Succession is a brilliant show populated by the richest and most terrible people you could ever wish to spend time with – hell, the patriarch of the family at the centre of this capitalist nightmare, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has the catchphrase “Fuck Off!”. But this episode, the sixth of season one, is the most Succession-y episode of the lot, and therefore the most anxiety-making. In this episode Kendall Roy’s push to get the board of Waystar to stage a vote of no confidence to remove his father from office comes to a head. Attempting to sway enough board members without alerting Logan to his plans, he’s on a knife edge from start to excruciating finish. Meanwhile this ep has some of the greatest subplots of all time. Logan goes to visit the actual President of the United States who can’t see him because of a threat to security – Logan is obsessed that he’s been snubbed. Tom decides to take Greg out for a ridiculously decadent evening which involves eating a whole deep-fried rare songbird as part of the tasting menu, while we know that Greg has actually had to eat already in an awkward meal with his austere Grandfather, who’s in town specifically for the vote. Also there is an actual terrorist threat. It all culminates in a horror show of lateness, betrayal, disaster and a lot of ‘fuck offs’. Brilliant, tense telly. We love it. RF
Battlestar Galactica Season 1, Episode 1 ‘33’
While Syfy’s (at the time Sci-Fi Channel) superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica technically began with a two-part miniseries, “33” is the show’s first proper episode and it’s amazing. “33” catches us with Battlestar Galactica and its fleet of the last human beings in the universe being pursued across the reaches of space by Cylons. But the Cylons, ever-proficient machines that they are, have found a fool proof way to track down the fleet wherever they are in the universe…every…33…minutes. This episode is a perfect introduction to the themes of the series and the stresses its characters will endure. It’s hard not to empathize with the terror of the exhausted fleet as they face an existential threat every 33 minutes on the dot. AB
Line of Duty Series 3, Episode 6 ‘Breach’
Series three was the crossover point for Line of Duty, when it went from thinking crime fan’s drama to a show watched by everybody and their dog (it’s huge with dogs. They love all those flashing blue lights). The series three finale was the show at its most thrilling, specifically in the 10 minutes that followed the sending of a now-famous text message: “Urgent exit required.” That text was sent by ‘The Caddy’, a corrupt police officer and lifelong organised crime gang member who’d framed one of our heroes for murder. Mid-interrogation, The Caddy realised that he’d been rumbled and so alerted his criminal fraternity. They broke him out of HQ and into one of the most tense street chases on TV, courtesy of director John Strickland. Gunfire, shots taken from moving vehicles, cars spinning, people leaping in front of flying bullets, a woman in her mid-thirties being forced to do cardio… Sunday nights on BBC hadn’t been this stressful since that presenter broke that fifty grand vase on The Antiques Roadshow. The culmination of a multi-series arc, it was heart rate-racing TV – the sort of finale that makes you stand up and jog on the spot until your husband tells you to sit down, you’re scaring him. LM
Kitchen Nightmares Season 6, Episode 2 ‘Amy’s Baking Company’
The formula for Kitchen Nightmares (based on the British series Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares) is a simple one. Renowned chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay enters into a failing restaurant, yells at the owners and staff for a little bit, then some lessons are learned and business turns around. To say that the infamous Amy’s Baking Company episode of Kitchen Nightmares doesn’t follow this formula would be putting it lightly. This is a stressful episode of television because our hero Gordon Ramsay comes across two genuine sociopaths. Amy’s Baking Company (or ABC) is an Arizona restaurant owned by husband and wife team Amy and Sami Bouzaglo. When Gordon first enters the premises, everything seems relatively normal. But it’s not long before he discovers that Sami is a former mobster who steals tips from the servers and threatens to fight several customers a night and Amy is a bug-eyed fire demon from hell who sees enemies and conspirators around every corner. While it’s usually cathartic to watch Gordon yell at delusional small business owners, this episode has viewers praying Gordon will escape Arizona with his life intact. AB
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, Episode 13 ‘Mayday’
You could pick almost any episode of The Handmaid’s Tale as one of TV’s most stressful watching experiences; relaxation is not this show’s vibe. Set in a dystopia where the most dreadful things happen on so regular a basis it’s genuinely a wonder to get between two ad breaks without somebody being de-tongued or stoned to death, it’s a contender for the most stressful drama on TV. The series three finale is a particularly tense watch because the stakes are so high. Heroine June has decided to hit the brutal theocracy of Gilead where it hurts – right in its kids. She’s got the word out among resistance channels that she’s getting the children out. Bring her a child of Gilead (all of whom were either stolen from their birth parents and forcibly adopted by members of the ruling elite, or born as a product of state-sponsored rape that is the Handmaid system) and she’ll put it on a plane to Canada. What makes it particularly stressful is that when the kids start coming, they keep coming, and coming. Far more than June had allowed for. With Gilead’s thug soldiers going house to house down the street and a constant threat that somebody could betray her at any minute, June has to think and act fast. A terrifying night-time escape, a heavily patrolled airfield and 86 children to herd and keep quiet… my blood pressure’s up just remembering. LM
The Knick Season 2, Episode 10 ‘This Is All We Are’
Thanks to its dim lighting, superb early 20th century set dressing, and gallons and gallons of blood, surgical drama The Knick is always a pretty stressful viewing experience. Its series finale, “This Is All We Are” is particularly intense though. Through 20 episodes, cocaine (and then heroin)-addicted surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen) has performed countless gory procedures. When his bowels begin to fail (due to the aforementioned) drugs, there is only one person he trusts to perform the corrective surgery on himself: himself. And that’s how viewers are entreated to the sight of our protagonist cutting open his own guts and playing around inside. That, combined with the usual finale stressors, make for one hell of a stressful episode. AB
Lovecraft Country Episode 1, ‘Sundown’
The first episode of this excellent horror drama is also one of the best and the most stressful. Setting out its stall early on, the show follows Atticus (Jonathan Majors), his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) as they travel into the Jim Crow South in 1950s in search of Atticus’ father. Racism is pervasive from the off but the final act of this ep sees the three racing to cross county lines before sunset to avoid the barbaric ‘sundown’ law that prohibits people of color from being out after dark and the racist sheriffs who want to enforce it. It’s a madly stressful car chase against the actual sun and even though the gang just about makes it, the law men pursue them into the woods to lynch them anyway. Fortunately, just in the nick of time a Shoggoth (many eyed, sharp-toothed killing machine) arrives increasing, but levelling out, the peril. It’s a smart, thrilling, break-neck episode that makes it clear that gore and death are definitely on the table and that monsters come in many forms. RF
Chernobyl Episode 5, ‘Vichnaya Pamyat’
Clearly, watching Chernobyl is a stressful experience. Unless the real-life nuclear disaster drama were very badly made, there’s no way it wouldn’t be. Craig Mazin’s five-part HBO series is extremely well made, which makes it extremely stressful and very involving. The first episode, in which Reactor 4 of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant explodes, unfurls like a fast-paced sci-fi thriller. In it, we see the true version of events that will go on, over the course of the next episodes, to be minimised, lied about and suppressed by a Soviet government determined not to let any chinks appear in its flawless façade, whatever the risk to its people. We meet the key players – those who will lie about the explosion, and those who will tell the truth at dire consequences to themselves. It’s the final episode though, that crushes all the air from your lungs. In it, Jared Harris’ chemist character Valery Legasov lays the blame for truth suppression and the subsequent endangerment of life squarely at the government’s feet. Legasov does the right thing despite knowing it will cost him everything. Watching it feels like witnessing a man get buried alive. LM
Ozark Season 3 Episode 9, ‘Fire Pink’
Heartbreak is stressful, no? The sensation of one’s heart being squeezed hard, steadily, for 62 minutes, until the point that it breaks, is anybody’s definition of stress. That’s exactly what season three Ozark episode ‘Fire Pink’ does, thanks to Tom Pelphrey’s performance as Wendy Byrde’s tragically unstable younger brother Ben. When an All-American family the Byrdes start laundering international drug cartel money in secret, the key word is ‘secret’. Loose lips sink ships, and just when the Byrdes really can’t afford to fuck up, enter: Ben. He doesn’t mean any harm, but off his bipolar meds, he also can’t be trusted to keep quiet. In ‘Fire Pink’ Ben makes one slip-up after another and his every attempt to right those wrongs only digs him and the Byrdes in deeper. As the hour unfurls, we watch Wendy fight inwardly against what she knows to be true: Ben is just too great a liability and something has to be done. It’s a remarkably stressful hour, involving a speed boat escape, a stomach-dropping appearance from the cops, a road trip, a diner and a phone call. And it’ll break your heart. LM