Trapped or isolated, bottle episodes usually feature stressful and fraught scenarios that put their characters to the test and allow us the opportunity to understand them. Focussing on character development rather than the overall story arc, these bottle episodes are examples of the singular ability of television to linger and luxuriate with our beloved characters to understand better them or the world they inhabit.
While sometimes considered a cost-saving measure or result of a lack of creativity, unsolved mysteries, satisfying whodunits, parallel universes, and one annoying bug show that the best bottle episodes give us all the plot required.
“The Box” – ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’
Trading on the chemistry of two members of the show’s ensemble cast, “The Box” features lead detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) as they attempt to break a case involving lead suspect (Sterling K. Brown) who is introduced for this single episode guest-starring role.
The episode features every interrogation cliché in the book as it unfolds in a traditional whodunit fashion, complete with red herrings as Holt and Peralta attempt to good-cop bad-cop their way through the investigation. With a ticking clock motivating the urgency of the investigation, the tight 22-minute mystery remains one of the show’s most satisfying single episodes.
“Leslie and Ron” – ‘Parks and Recreation’
Forced into isolation by the rest of the park’s crew, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) find themselves locked in the office until they can bridge their growing divide. Featuring a lengthy rendition of Billy Joel‘s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Poehler and a saxophone solo by the famously multi-talented Offerman, the interspersed segments detail the deterioration of the meeting.
Documenting the fallout of Leslie’s rise through the local government, the episode flashbacks provide context as to the eventual dissolution of the Parks crew we know and love. Finishing with the show’s usual commitment to friendship, the episode is a prime example of Parks and Rec‘s ability to inject heart into any scenario.
“Pine Barrens” – ‘The Sopranos’
Following Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), “Pine Barrens” has the pair suffer through a botched collection, a failed execution in the woods, and the following attempts at survival. Fielding calls from an increasingly frustrated and increasingly unhelpful Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini); The episode focuses on the growing rivalry between Chris and Paulie, as their inability to work together lands them lost in the titular Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
While the mystery of the missing Russian will remain forever unsolved, the first Sopranos episode directed by Steve Buscemi creates an uneasy tension that resonates throughout the rest of the season. The ambiguous nature of this episode, repeatedly emphasized by the show’s creators in the years since, shows the Sopranos’ dedication to subverting audience expectations. Widely regarded as one of the series’ best episodes and one of the greatest television episodes ever made, the legacy of “Pine Barrens” makes it an exceptional example of the form.
“Fly” – ‘Breaking Bad’
Following the gradual mental degradation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as he attempts to decontaminate his meth superlab, the episode provides extra context behind the unhealthy need for perfection which drives him. While the plot for “Fly” is as simple as it gets, the episode’s subtextual elements allow viewers to see firsthand how Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) are processing their current situation.
Initially conceived by creator Vince Gilligan as a dark comedy, “Fly” taps into Breaking Bad‘s early comedic inclinations as it focuses on the frustration of perfectionism using the structure of a workplace comedy. Directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) the episode also serves as a stunt showcase, as the titular fly is used to mentally and physically torment Walter in a surprisingly hilarious fashion.
“Teddy Perkins” – ‘Atlanta’
This self-contained episode of Atlanta focuses on Darius (LaKeith Stansfield) as he attempts to acquire a piano in a craigslist sale from the agoraphobic Michael Jackson analogy, Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover). The episode tension gradually grows as the accumulation of Teddy’s eccentricities builds, and the feeling of danger slowly overtakes the subtle comedy.
The unsettling performance by Glover borrows from music history while still creating an entirely new, singular character. As Teddy Perkins, Atlanta takes shots at the historic racial inequity of the music business while gradually and deceivingly building to a tense horror movie conclusion.
“The Long Night” – ‘Game of Thrones’
No matter how you felt about the show’s ending, the culmination of the battle for Winterfell is an all-time “stand up and cheer at your TV” moment. While it’s reasonable to argue that “Blackwater” in Season 1 is a more traditional bottle episode, “The Long Night” presents the culmination of multiple character arcs for eight seasons. While derided for its darkness and criticized for lack of visual comprehensibility, the unrelenting action of the episode makes for a propulsive hour of some of the most expensive television ever created.
While mostly remembered for its epic battle scenes between the alliance of Winterfell and the White Walkers, the episode’s quiet moments also allow for some of the most satisfying character development from the show’s entire run.
“Rixty Minutes” – ‘Rick and Morty’
Introducing interdimensional cable using the show’s trademark meta, improvisational comedy, this episode uses a somewhat traditional sci-fi premise to poke fun at the Smith family by displaying their vanity and obsession with their alternate universe doppelgängers. The rare combination of improvisation, animation, and science fiction, “Rixty Minutes,” excels by leaning into its unhinged creative process. The unique approach to creating Rick and Morty allows the show’s tangents to lead the way in this episode, as creator Justin Roiland riffs on cereal advertising, action movies, and reality TV.
With highlights such as “Ants in my Eyes Johnson,” Cloud Atlas starring Jerry Smith, and Two Brothers (Just Two Brothers), the episode even spawned a sequel in “Interdimensional Cable II,” creating an ongoing legacy of its own.
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