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The weirdest television episodes of all time

After a new episode of Stranger Things left fans scratching their heads, we look at the biggest curveball episodes to ever hit the screen

What the hell was up with episode seven of Stranger Things 2? That’s the question that’s been lighting up the internet, Byers family Christmas-style, since the sci-fi show returned for a second season at the end of last month.

With the ailing Will threatening to go ‘full-Reagan’ and the rest of the gang under siege from a slavering pack of demo-hounds, the Duffer Brothers sent Elle on a voyage of discovery that came close to derailing the whole series’ momentum. Stropping off to Chicago as all hell broke loose back home, Elle teamed up with older-sister figure Eight, a fellow victim of parapsychiatry looking for a spot of light revenge on her oppressors. Eight enlisted Elle into her gang via a quick 80s montage, only for her young protege wuss out of killing some guy at the last minute and hotfoot it back to Hawkins, Indiana.

How did all of this advance the plot? Well, it didn’t, leading some to accuse the Duffers’ of road-testing a potential spin-off series while everyone was happy with the one they were already watching, thanks very much. That spin-off seems unlikely to happen now, given the backlash the episode has faced online, but it got us thinking about some of the other television episodes to twist free of the shackles of plot and give us something altogether... stranger.

Breaking Bad, “Fly”

Few episodes split fans like “Fly”, a slapstick-heavy instalment from the third season of Breaking Bad. Directed by Rian Johnson, soon to take the reins on the new Star Wars film, the episode follows Walter and Jesse’s frustrated attempts to swat a fly that risks contaminating their crystal meth lab. Walter, who is suffering from insomnia, becomes obsessed with this literal fly in the ointment, and it’s only when the episode progresses from funny to tediously drawn-out that the subtext starts to creep up on you – the whole thing is an extended metaphor for Walter’s conscience. When he wearily sighs, “It’s all contaminated” to Jesse after coming this close to confessing his part in his girlfriend’s death, we know he’s not talking about crystal meth – it’s a rare moment of tired reflection from a man in the grips of madness.

Bojack Horseman, “Fish out of Water”

Netflix’s sadcore comedy reached new heights even as it plumbed new depths with “Fish out of Water”, a third-series standout that sees our depressed hero adrift at an underwater film festival. Bojack – a faded TV star who also happens to be a horse, for the uninitiated – has to wear a helmet throughout his underwater soujourn, so he’s basically unable to hear anyone he encounters, except for a vague underwater murmur. It’s a clever conceit that sets the scene for moments of Wall-E-esque, near-silent comedy (watch for a great running gag about sardines) and swirling currents of Lost in Translation-ish melancholy. Like that film, the whole thing builds to a poignant, wordless exchange between two characters – but, this being Bojack, even that doesn’t work out as expected. (Note: spoilers in the video below)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More With Feeling”

OK, so the songs aren’t exactly Rogers & Hammerstein-worthy, but there’s a reason this all-singing, all-dancing episode of Buffy is loved to this day, and it’s not the chance to see chorus lines of the undead backing our strappy-topped slayer with uplifting harmony parts. “I’ve been going through the motions, walking through the part / nothing penetrates my heart,” sings Buffy in the overture to the episode, which manages to be a musical, a meta treatise on the formulaic nature of most TV, and an astute portrayal of depression all at the same time.

The Sopranos, “The Test Dream”

Half the fun of The Sopranos always lay in deciphering the weird psychic undercurrents that drove its murderous mob-boss lead, and this episode’s deep-dive into Tony’s subconscious via an unbroken 20-minute dream sequence provided more clues than most. Co-written by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, the dream features a host of accusing Banquo figures from Tony’s past, including tragic ex-mistress Gloria and close friend-turned-snitch Puss (who already appeared as a talking fish in season two https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo6cNQwN6LQ). Annette Bening also turns up Tony’s late mum Livia played by Annette Bening, a genius bit of dream-logic casting that might well have influenced Gordon Cole’s Monica Bellucci dream in the new Twin Peaks (the actress who originally played Livia, Nancy Marchand, was written out of the show after her death in 2000).

Twin Peaks, “The Return, Part 8”

Halfway into its run, Twin Peaks: The Return was already among the weirdest things David Lynch had done. Then he dropped part eight, an origin-story of sorts positing Trinity, the first atom bomb detonated in 1948, as giving birth to BOB, the evil psychic entity at the root of Twin Peaks’ tragic chain of events. But really, that is far too neat a description of what happens here, with highlights including a five-minute journey into the heart of a nuclear blast (think Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life in reverse), a charred-looking tramp reciting satanic poetry over the radio while caving a man’s skull in, and bits in-between I couldn’t even begin to describe. It’s also the episode that gave us the closest thing The Return had to a water-cooler catchphrase: Got a light?