As we approach the 10th anniversary of Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” on Saturday, join us in celebrating the highs and lows of one of television’s greatest exercises/flexes/budget-saving tricks: the bottle episode.
For all that’s said about TV’s unparalleled ability to tell stories that span time and space and large swaths of characters, sometimes the medium’s greatest trick is going small. Once a way for network shows to up their episode counts without spending a ton of money, the bottle episode is now a way for shows to distill their meaning, focus on their most important characters, and flex their creative muscles. Because while trimming down an ensemble and keeping them contained to a single location sounds like a challenge, those restrictions can often result in moments of genius. You now know these results by simple names: The Suitcase. The Fly. Teddy Perkins.
But there can be only one best bottle episode. So we give to you this bottle ranking. (Just one note before we begin: The following ranking was limited to one episode per show.)
20. “Ice,” The X-Files
“Ice” was a failure from a budget-saving standpoint—although it was intended to cut costs, it had the opposite effect—but a precedent-setting success in terms of storytelling and tone. The suspenseful stand-alone episode sent Mulder, Scully, a trio of scientific specialists, and an unsuspecting pilot to an outpost in Alaska whose occupants had killed each other (or themselves) shortly after retrieving ancient ice core samples from a meteor crater. The culprit, of course, is an alien parasite, brought to disturbing life via CGI and wires embedded beneath fake skin to simulate the creature making its wormy, murderous way to the brain. The key is the collaboration between the two leads, who have to team up to take out the parasite but can’t entirely trust each other because either could be carrying an extraterrestrial stowaway. “Ice” took a tense, claustrophobic cue from The Thing and its antecedents, and the basic setup of an isolated setting and mysterious assailants inspired subsequent episodes of the series. —Ben Lindbergh
19. “The Box,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine
What happens when Andy Samberg, Sterling K. Brown, and Andre Braugher walk into a room and don’t come out for an entire night? Comedy gold, it turns out.
In Season 5 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Samberg’s Jake Peralta and Braugher’s captain Raymond Holt are tasked with interrogating Philip Davidson (Brown), a successful dentist who police believe murdered his business partner and dumped the body in the woods. The only problem is they have no physical evidence tying Philip to the crime, so they need a confession. Enter 22 minutes of Smart Cop–Dumb Cop, insults to Peralta’s intelligence, and interrogation techniques that range from asking Philip to repeat the victim’s name over and over again to, well, whatever this is:
This episode is hilarious (at one point, Jake’s angry voice is compared to “being yelled at by a children’s cereal mascot”) and illuminating (Holt and Peralta’s relationship deepens), and when the duo finally get their confession, it’s thrilling. It’s got everything you want in a bottle episode, with the added bonus of Sterling K. Brown. What could be better than that? —Megan Schuster
18. “Mornings,” Master of None
With so many TV creators these days touting their projects as elongated movies, the two seasons of Master of None are refreshing in their commitment to stand-alone episodes—some of which even push Aziz Ansari to the sideline. You never quite know what you’re going to get from Master of None, including its poignant spin on the bottle episode.
The first season’s penultimate installment, “Mornings,” ought to come with a warning for anyone who’s just gotten out of a long relationship. Following Ansari’s Dev and Noel Wells’s Rachel after they move into his apartment, “Mornings” charts the couple’s highs and lows over many months and seasons—from spicing up their sex life to petty arguments about not leaving clothes on the floor. It’s a snapshot of love and dating and heartbreak with all its idiosyncrasies; how so much of a relationship is the little things you do together each morning, rather than the moments worthy of a Hallmark card. “Mornings” is Master of None at its most compelling—but, as I learned the hard way, maybe don’t watch this right after a breakup. (Seriously, don’t.) —Miles Surrey
17. “Vision Quest,” Archer
There’s nothing particularly dramatic or profound about Archer’s elevator-set bottle episode. (Thank God.) Cowritten by show creator Adam Reed and Ben Hoffman, it’s just 20 pure minutes of jokes. Every character is distilled down to his or her essence, and within six minutes, they’re brawling over food.
Archer keeps calling Cheryl “Carol” and temporarily deafens his secret agent colleagues by shooting his gun into the ceiling; Lana denies being a chronic lecturer; Pam chugs a 40-ounce, burps up the linguine and clam sauce that she ate for breakfast, pees on the floor, then drops trou and dries the puddle with her skirt; Cyril denies that he’s thinking about masturbating and everyone makes fun of his sweater vests; Ray becomes obsessed with the toast-making office robot Milton; Cheryl is reminded that she’s claustrophobic and screams; and Krieger seems very concerned about everyone finding out what mysterious liquid is in his thermos.
The mayhem ends with Malory saving the gang from themselves. When she opens the elevator door, everyone is arranged in a hideous, orgiastic tableau. She then reveals that the morning staff meeting that she called was actually a team-building exercise—a viewing of the 1985 teen movie Vision Quest with Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino. —Alan Siegel
16. “Out of Gas,” Firefly
It’s a universally acknowledged truth that Firefly got screwed. Despite containing some of the best single-season storytelling in sci-fi television history, the short-lived series fell victim to Fox, where good shows go to die—and in the case of Firefly, get aired out of order. Thus, the show’s best episode, “Out of Gas,” ran as its fifth episode instead of its eighth—a mistake that can thankfully be fixed via streaming for viewers discovering the series years later. “Out of Gas” uses flashbacks to lay out the backstory behind the crew members of Serenity, Captain Malcolm Reynolds’s ragtag crew. Flipping back and forth between three timelines with an ease that would make Christopher Nolan proud, the episode culminates in the story of how Mal and his ship came together to begin their journey through the stars. Every character gets their moment, but it’s the love story between Mal and his trusty steed—Firefly is, after all, a Western set in space—that really shines. —Kate Halliwell
15. “Reynolds v. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
So many of Always Sunny’s episodes are contained stories, but only a handful keep the gang within the confines of Paddy’s Pub. The best of those is “The Cereal Defense,” a deftly constructed episode that starts with a dispute between Dennis and Frank over a minor car accident before delving into everything from superhumans to evolution to Galileo (who was a bitch … sometimes). Each of Sunny’s main characters shines in this 2012 installment: Charlie dons his alter ego as a trial lawyer (“Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished collies …”); Dee hilariously steps up to defend Dennis, desperate to set a precedent after having several of her cars destroyed by the gang; Dennis’s simmering anger boils over (“I will scratch everybody’s eyes out of their sockets!”); we learn that Frank has been exonerated of any and all donkey-brainedness; and Mac, in defending his right to refute evolution, presents the most prescient political argument to be aired on TV in the 2010s:
It’s that incredible mix of lowbrow humor and pointed satire that makes this Sunny’s greatest bottle episode—if not its greatest episode, period. —Andrew Gruttadaro
14. “International Assassin,” The Leftovers
Most dream sequences are bad; it’s hard for the conscious mind to mimic the sheer oddity of the unconscious set free. That’s what The Leftovers—and Watchmen, and all Damon Lindelof shows—truly excelled at: the feeling that you’re in a dream, something wildly fantastical but, at some deep and primal level, essentially true.
“International Assassin” is not technically a dream sequence. What it is, like much in the stubbornly ambiguous Leftovers, is the subject of much debate. Maybe it’s a vision quest, a man sending himself to actual purgatory so he can defeat his demons and restore inner peace. Maybe it’s a delusion, a DMT-induced hallucination of a brain on the brink itself. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Actually, it definitely doesn’t matter, because that’s the whole point of The Leftovers: You can’t explain the unexplainable, you can only settle on the explanation that works for you.
A move to Texas hasn’t freed Kevin Garvey from the general angst that comes with 2 percent of the world disappearing into thin air, nor the specific angst of having witnessed the death by suicide of a cult leader whose maybe-ghost continues to haunt him. So as a last resort, Kevin maybe-kills himself, wakes up in a generic hotel, and has to take Patti’s life by force—this time with a gun, then by pushing a child version of her down a well. The device is so bizarrely effective The Leftovers would return to the same well (pun intended) twice more. Whatever Kevin does in the maybe-afterlife, it works, and he wakes up vision-free. But that’s not until the next episode. In “International Assassin,” all we know is that Kevin’s journey has taken him to a place at once very strange and utterly banal. —Alison Herman
13. “Part 8,” Twin Peaks: The Return
12. “Unfinished Business,” Battlestar Galactica
Bottle episode purists might scoff at us throwing in Battlestar Galactica’s “Unfinished Business,” but it’s a messy inclusion befitting a wonderfully messy episode. The crew of the ship are in the midst of a time-honored tradition: squaring off in a boxing ring to let off steam and pent-up anger at one another, regardless of rank. (This “we have our own Fight Club and punch each other for catharsis” thing was never mentioned in the show’s first two seasons and truly comes out of left field, but we’ll let that slide because it’s such a fun concept.)
Interspersed with flashbacks from the crew’s peaceful, pre-Cylon times on New Caprica, “Unfinished Business” is as much about emotional wounds as what the characters dish out in the ring. The main event, if you will, is the showdown between Kara and Lee: a moment all the more wrenching with the knowledge that the on-again, off-again couple hooked up on New Caprica and declared their love for each other before Kara spontaneously married Anders. (Those two never made it easy for themselves.) That one of Battlestar Galactica’s finest episodes had little in the way of epic Cyclon battles or other cool space moments is a testament to the series’ true strength: its deep bench of compelling, emotionally complex characters. —Surrey
11. “One Man’s Trash,” Girls
“Please don’t tell anyone this, but I want to be happy.”
I thought about this line and the ensuing monologue, without exaggeration, at least once a day for a full year after “One Man’s Trash” first aired in February 2013. So much of the discourse around Girls is an extended disclaimer that this show didn’t really chase the zeitgeist, that Lena Dunham herself made fun of such ambitions in the pilot’s opening scene, that it isn’t attempting to capture anything broader than its characters’ tiny, self-obsessed world. Disclosure: As a 20-something former New Yorker in media, I was squarely in that world, and Dunham had our number.
Yes, “One Man’s Trash” is partially wish fulfillment; by having her character enjoy an intense weekend tryst with a doctor played by Patrick Wilson, Dunham gets to make out a whole bunch with Patrick Wilson. It’s also a profound expression of what happens when people’s self-image runs up against their repressed desires. Raised in material comfort, people like Hannah — like me — think they’re above it. They’re made for bigger things, like Great Art. Except being an artist is, in its own way, just as indulgent as buying a tricked-out Brooklyn townhouse. More, if the money that bought the townhouse comes from helping sick people. It’s just a lot less comfortable.
“One Man’s Trash” climaxes with Hannah admitting that, yes, she does want the more conventional trappings of happiness, the ones she’s just spent 48 hours steeping herself in: money, and a hot guy, and a high-tech shower. Pursuing your dream while the better part of your college classmates go into sensible things like law school and med school and finance involves telling yourself a story, usually about how you, too, are doing something important and not just dicking around, and how you’re sure of your path and don’t have a nagging feeling about what you could be doing instead. “One Man’s Trash” is Hannah admitting her story is bullshit. —Herman
10. “Leslie and Ron,” Parks and Recreation
Parks and Rec revolved around the unlikely connection between temperamental and philosophical opposites Leslie and Ron. After the series’ seventh season leaped forward in time, a four-episode arc explored the dissolution of their relationship. This eponymous two-hander, written by series creator Mike Schur, wrapped up that saga by focusing on the fallout in a semi-serious, emotionally memorable way that was atypical for the normally lighthearted, laugh-filled show. Confined to the office alone overnight in order to work out their differences, Leslie and Ron retrace their relationship, identify where it went wrong, patch up their problems, and emerge with their rapport renewed. It’s not a normal half-hour, but it may be the best demonstration of why Parks transcended the standard sitcom fare. “Leslie and Ron” showcased the dramatic acting talents of the series’ night-and-day comedic duo, meditated on how and why friendships sometimes disintegrate, and still managed to make us smile, all while accurately predicting the derailing of Game of Thrones. —Lindbergh
9. “Blackwater,” Game of Thrones
More than many other TV shows, Game of Thrones was a series about moments. “Blackwater,” the ninth episode of Season 2, was full of them. The Hound finally tells Joffrey to fuck off. Tyrion rallies the troops. Joff asks about “urgent business.” Pod kills Ser Mandon with a spear. Cersei nearly poisons Tommen on the Iron Throne. Tywin rides in to save the day. And of course, the big one: Tyrion’s wildfire gambit erupts in a stunning blaze of green glory, cementing the youngest Lannister sibling as a strategic force and a series hero.
This hour of TV feels like cinema. Whereas Season 1’s Battle of the Green Fork was written around by knocking Tyrion unconscious, “Blackwater” throws our favorite halfman—and the audience—right into the thick of the action. It was the first true big battle episode of the series, and set the stage for some of the bigger set pieces that would come later. So sure, it’s a bottle episode—but “Blackwater” was fit for the big screen. —Riley McAtee
8. “The One Where No One’s Ready,” Friends
“A group of people, for many random reasons, never make it to their destination” can be one of TV’s most frustrating tropes. It’s the definition of promise unfulfilled. But this episode of Friends—which, like so many network TV bottle episodes, was conceived to save money—excels because of the show’s larger premise. What made Friends work—when it did work, because we all know it often did not—was the, well, friends. The core group. And this episode takes that group, traps them in a far-too-gigantic apartment, and strips away everything else. No Gunther, no monkeys—just Ross’s neuroses, Chandler’s sarcasm, and Joey putting on as many articles of clothing as possible. —Gruttadaro
7. “17 People,” The West Wing
“17 People” takes place entirely at the White House on one eventful night: President Bartlet weighs whether to increase airport security in response to a terrorist threat, Toby becomes the 17th person to learn about Barlet’s secret relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, and, on the lighter side, Sam, Josh, Donna, Ainsley, and others attempt to “bring the funny” to a lackluster list of jokes for Bartlet’s Correspondents’ Dinner appearance. The episode runs the gamut in terms of tone and stakes, ranging from life-or-death decisions to the prospect of scandal and impeachment to casual flirting. Aaron Sorkin’s script includes a number of classic lines and deliveries, among them Bartlet’s rant to Toby (highlighted by the blistering “Your indignation would be a lot more interesting to me if it weren’t quite so covered in crap!” and “Are you pissed because I didn’t say anything or are you pissed because there were 15 people who knew before you did?”) and Sam’s “I could’ve countered that, but I’d already moved on to other things in my head.” But best of all, it captures the complexities of the bonds between exhausted, impassioned, and stressed-out characters who more or less live at the office. —Lindbergh
6. “Cooperative Calligraphy,” Community
“I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head.” Leave it to Community to put a meta spin on the bottle episode, with Abed openly acknowledging the existing format in Season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” as the group tries to find out who stole Annie’s missing pen. (While missing out on an obviously adorable puppy parade taking place on campus.)
What starts out as a quest to find the pen culprit soon balloons into a stern and increasingly ridiculous test of the group’s faith in each other. Secrets are revealed—like how Abed inadvertently tracked the female members’ menstrual cycles in his notebook—and the study hall is literally torn apart in their futile search. Centering a bottle episode on such a trivial source of tension is impressive enough; that “Cooperative Calligraphy” stands as one of Community’s funniest episodes ever is the ultimate flex. —Surrey
5. “Pine Barrens,” The Sopranos
Strictly speaking, “Pine Barrens” isn’t a bottle episode—plenty of its running time is dedicated to advancing seasonlong stories, like the Tony-Gloria dynamic (she throws a roast beef at his head) and Jackie Jr.’s doomed relationship with Meadow (they play Scrabble, he gets a double-word score for “ass”). But the A plot has taken on mythic status for dropping two city-boy mobsters in the remote, snow-covered world of South Jersey. After an assignment to collect money from a Russian associate goes unnecessarily awry—over a universal remote, nonetheless—Paulie and Christopher find themselves lost, hungry, and half-frozen in the 1,700-square-mile titular wooded area. The Steve Buscemi–directed episode produced several of the show’s funniest lines (everyone remembers the “interior decorator” joke, but I’m partial to Tony telling Paulie he’s got mayonnaise on his chin) and rivals any Coen brothers comedy in the absurdist black humor department. It also loomed over the series as a whole: The question of “Will the Russian come back?” became a standard refrain during the show’s stretch run. But series creator David Chase has never been one for tidy resolutions. And while that approach frustrated viewers at times, it ultimately helped the reputation of “Pine Barrens”: It’s the perfect stand-alone Sopranos episode, the one to show the uninitiated to rope them in. That’s in part because Chase and Co. never revisited the episode’s events, leaving the “Pine Barrens” plot behind in the snow, much like Paulie’s shoe. —Sayles
4. “The Chinese Restaurant,” Seinfeld
“Remember when we were waiting for that table at that Chinese restaurant that time?” George asks Jerry in Seinfeld’s fourth season, which revolves around a particularly meta plot about the pair pitching NBC on a show about nothing. “That could be a show!”
Jerry rolls his eyes.
A sitcom in which nothing happens was a truly radical concept in the early ’90s. And nothing exemplifies the genius of Seinfeld like its second-season bottle episode, “The Chinese Restaurant.” It’s 20 minutes of Jerry, George, and Elaine waiting for a table. Minus a handful of minor events—George fighting over a pay phone, Jerry recognizing someone but forgetting their name, Elaine nearly starving to death—that’s all that happens here: the torturous, all-too-relatable experience of being thwarted by a waiting list.
By Season 2, Seinfeld’s ingenuity was already on display, but “The Chinese Restaurant” takes it to another stratosphere. The episode was so unbelievable at the time that the NBC execs who read the script thought it was missing pages. In the face of that resistance, Larry David—in classic Larry David fashion—threatened to quit the show if the network refused to air the episode. It’s a good thing he did. —Gruttadaro
3. “Fly,” Breaking Bad
Like many bottle episodes, “Fly” was born out of a budget shortfall. According to Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan, the series didn’t have enough money to move production trucks from one location to another, so director Rian Johnson was stuck with Walt and Jesse in one location: Gus Fring’s superlab. The result is an unnerving two-hander that critics loved and that some fans allegedly hated, although I’ve never met one who actually did.
For 47 entertainingly exhausting minutes, mentor and protégé make meth while annoying the hell out of each other. Cowriters Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett perfectly capture both characters’ respective states of mind: The sleep-deprived Walt, who at this point realizes that he’s on borrowed time, ruminates on when he should’ve died and also comes close to admitting his role in the death of Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend; and the more carefree (and careless) Jesse, well, he wonders when the word “possum” became “opossum.”
Throughout the episode, Walt obsessively hunts the title insect, which he fails to kill. To his chagrin, there will always be things in his life that he can’t bend to his will. Including this damn bug. The absence of natural light in the underground setting helps create a sense of timelessness; the first time I watched “Fly” I felt as loopy as Walt did. In the end, the increasingly delirious future drug kingpin passes out—only after Jesse slips sleeping pills into his coffee. —Siegel
2. “Teddy Perkins,” Atlanta
Technically, most episodes of Atlanta are bottle episodes. And many of them are excellent. But none of them are quite like this. A jaunt mainly featuring Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius—the only time you see Earn and Alfred are via a quick, panicked phone call—as he travels to outer ATL to buy a rare piano becomes immediately and deeply weird thanks to the namesake of the episode, an alien-like man known as Teddy Perkins. Teddy, played by Donald Glover in astoundingly good makeup, is an eccentric loner who eats ostrich eggs, leaves messages for himself, and seems generally liable to kill Darius. As a viewer, you’re left in a discomfiting state of amusement and fear.
But what makes “Teddy Perkins” truly great is that it is far more than a spectacle. Simmering underneath the episode’s weirdness are profound thoughts on parents—particularly fathers—and the way we’re shaped by the personalities and deficiencies of those who raise us. There’s a question of greatness, and whether the means to achieving it can be justified no matter the cost. You’ll never forget “Teddy Perkins” after seeing it, but for more reasons than just Glover’s haunting visage. —Gruttadaro
1. “The Suitcase,” Mad Men
Don Draper and Peggy Olson are two very different people on two very different paths. He embodies the Marlboro Man masculinity that ruled the roost at the onset of the ’60s and found itself shaken, if not unseated, by the decade’s end. She’s a scrappy upstart who finds herself lifted up by a tsunami of social change, though it’s not a shift she fully supports or understands. But these two are, at their core, the same: workaholics whose genius is powered by their trauma. “The Suitcase” has Don and Peggy hit their heads against a creative wall until their superficial differences fall away, revealing the twin souls beneath.
In “The Suitcase,” neither master nor student produces their best work. All those hours spent on Samsonite lead to a riff on Muhammad Ali looming over Sonny Liston—a good idea, but not great. The breakthroughs in “The Suitcase” are not creative but personal, two concepts always connected in Mad Men but not always synonymous. Don can form a real connection with at least one more person in his life; Peggy can admit to herself that an unconventional life may be what she wants, and is certainly what she needs.
“The Suitcase” draws on the awesome power of simply saying out loud what’s been stubbornly left unsaid: Peggy talking about her baby! Don casually dropping details about his childhood on the farm! Still, its greatest moments are silent: Don watching Anna’s ghost fade into the afterlife; Peggy giving Don a reassuring smile as he clasps her hand. It’s both refreshingly blunt and gorgeously subtle, a shared dark night of the soul that fades in the harsh morning light. —Herman
To read all of Herman’s thoughts on our no. 1 bottle episode, click here.
A previous version of this article stated that Kevin Garvey killed Patti in The Leftovers’ “International Assassin.” She took her own life.