1. This Q-tip.
Where It Appeared: Girls
What It Was: A seemingly innocuous Q-tip, used repeatedly by Hannah (Lena Dunham), whose OCD was quickly spiraling out of control, to clean out her ears. But she inserted it too deeply into her inner ear canal.
What It Did: It punctured her eardrum (“I heard hissing,” she later said), leading Hannah to seek medical attention at the hospital.
What It Meant: That Hannah had truly hit rock bottom with her psychological condition and that she had seemingly lost control of her life and mental state. It was an excruciating scene to watch, not just because of the physical discomfort it manifested, but for the emotional fallout it wrought: At the end of the episode, she inserted a Q-tip into her other ear and started counting once more.
2. This Sharpie.
Where It Appeared: Homeland
What It Was: A Sharpie permanent marker used by a very pregnant Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in the Season 3 finale after Andrew Lockhart (Tracey Letts) denied her request to add the slain Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) — the father of her unborn child who was publicly executed in Iran while on a mission — to a memorial wall at the CIA.
What It Did: Carrie used it to draw a star on the memorial wall that honored the slain heroes of the CIA, thus disregarding Lockhart’s directive and commemorating Brody’s actions in Iran. Vandalism!
What It Meant: That Carrie saw Brody as having redeemed himself through his actions in Iran and that he was worthy of recognition for being a hero, a Marine who had been tortured for eight years and turned against America, but who fulfilled his mission in the end. Also, as I’ve previously argued, it’s a reminder of the transitory, fleeting nature of our lives. Much of what we do has permanence. It’s an effort to remember Brody and to honor him, rather than forget him.
3. This automobile.
Where It Appeared: Downton Abbey
What It Was: A fancy automobile, purchased by Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) as a honeymoon present after his nuptials to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Matthew took a triumphant ride through the idyllic countryside after meeting his newborn son and heir, with life full of possibility. Oh, no. What is that milk lorry doing?
What It Did: The car crashed and flipped over, after a jubilant Matthew swerved to avoid an oncoming (and oddly slow-moving) milk lorry, killing Matthew and seemingly the hopes and dreams of the great estate.
What It Meant: One of the final images of Downton’s third season was Matthew’s horrific death, coming on the heels of his happiest moment. It left new mother Lady Mary — glowing in the hospital with her wee baby in her arms — an unknowing widow and opened up the issue of succession and inheritance once more, given that the baby is, well, a baby.
4. This Cytron card.
Where It Appeared: Scandal
What It Was: An electronic card, used in a slot machine that was acting as a voting booth. This particular card was used in Defiance, Ohio… and allowed a cabal to steal the presidential election, putting Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III in the White House.
What It Did: It caused all kinds of mischief, including: the murder of seven employees at Cytron headquarters, carried out on the order of Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry); the framing of Lindsay Dwyer (Katie Lowes) for said explosion, leading her to become Quinn Perkins with the help of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Huck (Guillermo Díaz); the attempted assassination of Fitz (who is shot in the head by a sniper); an investigation by reporter James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen (Joshua Malina) that threatened to bring down an administration… the latter of which led Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) to put a hit on James, his husband. (He recalled the order at the very last second.)
What It Meant: Fitz, a sitting POTUS, committed murder when ailing Supreme Court justice Verna Thornton (Debra Mooney) confessed to everything that happened with Defiance and her involvement in his assassination attempt, and told Fitz that she planned to reveal everything to David in order to preserve her own fragile legacy. Fitz smothered her with a pillow… and then lost all faith in Olivia for defrauding the American people and lacking faith in his ability to be elected legitimately. After various machinations, Cyrus got his hands on the Cytron card at the end of the season and promptly smashed it to pieces.
5. This knife.
Where It Appeared: Game of Thrones
What It Was: A knife wielded by Black Walder Frey (Tim Plester) during the “Red Wedding,” which saw the Starks betrayed by Walder Frey, their host at Edmure Tully’s (Tobias Menzies) wedding.
What It Did: Swiftly ended the life of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), who was brutally murdered by one of the Freys. (Cue “The Rains of Castamere.”) After the Freys murdered her son, Robb (Richard Madden), and his pregnant wife, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), Catelyn tried to engineer an escape by taking a Frey girl hostage. But Catelyn slit her throat when it became clear that there was no way out for her. Winter had come for the Starks, it seems.
What It Meant: That just when you thought things couldn’t get more brutal for the residents of Westeros, they did. It upped the narrative stakes for Game of Thrones, underlining the notion that no character was safe, no matter how pivotal or important they appeared to be. As it followed the destruction of Winterfell the season before, it also ended the Starks’ role in The War of Five Kings. Valar morghulis.
6. This packet of stevia.
Where It Appeared: Breaking Bad
What It Was: A seemingly innocuous packet of sugar substitute, unwittingly emptied by high-strung Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) into her usual order of chamomile tea with soy milk and stevia, but which actually contained ricin. (Lesson: Always change up your drink order.)
What It Did: Well, it killed Lydia in the series finale, though she didn’t realize that Walt (Bryan Cranston) had poisoned her until later. (Serves her right: She was trying to get Walt killed.) When she called her accomplice Todd (Jesse Plemons), unaware that Jesse (Aaron Paul) had already killed him and that her men had been murdered, it was Walt who answered the phone… and only then did a panicked Lydia learn that she has been poisoned and would die.
What It Meant: That Lydia finally got her comeuppance in the end. Also, that Walt, who had previously considered poisoning Lydia with ricin, carried through his plan to eliminate her.
7. This ramshackle building.
Where It Appeared: Mad Men
What It Was: The long-neglected childhood home of Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm), a.k.a. Don Draper. After the death of his mother and father, he and his step-mother moved into this building, a whorehouse where a pubescent Dick would be raped by a prostitute.
What It Did: Damaged Don’s psyche in so many ways. But it’s also a piece of himself that he’s long hidden away and when he brings his children to stand outside the decrepit building, he’s revealing that huge piece of himself to them.
What It Meant: That Don didn’t want to remain a mystery to his children anymore; that he wanted to show them who he was and where he came from, particularly after his estrangement from his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka). Silent, they stood together looking at the dilapidated house before Don and Sally shared a look. Did it represent a rapprochement? Or a sense of understanding and acceptance between father and daughter? It’s too soon to tell. But it signals that there is at least the possibility of rapport between the two of them.
8. This notepad.
Where It Appeared: The Good Wife
What It Was: A notepad, used by Will Gardner (Josh Charles) as he prepared for the testimony of his former lover and partner, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), in court.
What It Did: Allowed Will to imagine several possible outcomes for his line of questioning, as displayed by the decision tree (also the episode’s title) he created. The framework also captured the amount of preparation necessary for questioning a key witness on the stand and the complex thought processes that such an endeavor would require. Most importantly, it put the audience in Will’s mind set in a visual and thrilling way to depict his conflicting perceptions of Alicia.
What It Meant: Between flashbacks to a happier, sexier time between him and Alicia and projected outcomes of his questioning in court, a portrait of Will’s inner conflict emerged. Just how much did he want to punish Alicia for leaving the firm? And how much for leaving him personally? The sequence demonstrated how animosity poisoned Will and Alicia’s once tender dynamic.
9. This dildo.
Where It Appeared: Masters of Sex
What It Was: Ulysses, a glass dildo that was equal parts magnifying glass, vibrator, cold light, and (later) camera, was the invention of Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and came in quite handily during his research with his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
What It Did: Simply put, it revolutionized human sexuality research, allowing for photography to be taken of the female sexual response, challenging long-standing myths and false beliefs about women and their bodies. It also startled the hell out of university provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) the first time he saw it.
What It Meant: It was emblematic of the entire crusade that Masters and Johnson were waging: cold, clinical, and scientific, yet probing the depths of human sexuality and attraction.
10. This cheeseburger.
Where It Appeared: The Americans
What It Was: A cheeseburger, offered by FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) to Russian KGB officer Vladimir Kosygin (Vitaly Benko). Stan kidnapped and questioned Vlad in connection with the disappearance of his partner, Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández), believing Vlad to be the KGB resident, Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn). While working for the KGB resident, Vlad was a reluctant combatant in the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. And all he wanted was something to eat.
What It Did: It ended up being poor Vlad’s final meal. As soon he took a bite of the cheeseburger, Stan shot him in the back of the head as retaliation for Amador’s disappearance, which he had nothing to do with. (It was actually Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Jennings respectively who had taken Amador after he discovered Philip outside his FBI co-worker’s residence.)
What It Meant: That Stan experienced a loss of innocence that pushed him over the line into violent retaliation. While Amador’s death was an accident (he died from a morphine overdose under Elizabeth’s care), this was a cold-blooded murder. An awful, bloody mess all around.
11. This screwdriver.
Where It Appeared: Orange Is the New Black
What It Was: A screwdriver, which might seem like a fairly quotidian tool, but in the hands of a prison population, it could easily become a weapon. Piper (Taylor Schilling) absentmindedly stuck it in her sweatshirt pocket during her work duty in the electrics shop… and inadvertently kicked off a prison-wide search for the missing screwdriver before it was used as a shank.
What It Did: Became a major plot point in the first season of Orange Is the New Black. In searching for the screwdriver, Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) groped Piper and Watson (Vicky Jeudy) was sent to SHU for arguing with the guards over the search. Piper tried to ditch the screwdriver, only to have it cause a strain on her relationship with her cellmate, Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). Then, it disappeared altogether. It was later returned to her by Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), who had been using it as a makeshift dildo… and who urges Piper to use it as a weapon against Doggett (Taryn Manning).
What It Meant: That things were heating up in the war between Piper and Doggett to the point where actual weapons were involved. While Piper didn’t use the screwdriver, she was attacked by Doggett with a sharpened crucifix; though Healey (Michael J. Harney) saw the altercation, he turned his back and walked away. Piper kicked Doggett in the crotch and then beat the hell out of her. Did prison change Piper? Was she trying to make good on her promise to get Doggett new teeth? Or did Piper become savage in order to survive?
12. This purse.
Where It Appeared: Orphan Black.
What It Was: A purse belonging to well-heeled copper Elizabeth Childs (Tatiana Maslany), who jumped in front of a moving subway train while grungy lowlife Sarah Manning (also Maslany) looked on, stunned to see a woman who looked just like her commit suicide.
What It Did: Connected Sarah with Beth, even if only briefly in a trippy La Double Vie de Véronique sort of way, and allowed Sarah to steal Beth’s identity, thanks to the phone, keys, and identification that Beth left behind before she made the leap.
What It Meant: That Sarah wasn’t alone… and that she had a way to escape her no-good boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) and perhaps create a better life for herself and her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler). Also: that the clones had potential mental instability issues. It also set up the entire first season of Orphan Black, which put Sarah on a collision course with several other clones (all played by Maslany!). In other words, this was just the beginning.