Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010): Dobby’s death
“Such a beautiful place…to be with friends. Dobby is happy to be with his friend…Harry Potter.” These are Dobby the house elf’s final words in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, and they will haunt me until my dying day.
He utters them as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) cradles him on a gray, windy day on the beach after they’ve escaped Malfoy Manor, where Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) delivered a brief but moving speech about being a free elf before whisking the kids and Griphook the goblin (Warwick Davis) away to safety — but not before being struck by a knife thrown by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Harry begs Hermione (Emma Watson) to help him, but it’s a lost cause. Dobby passes and Harry is joined by Luna (Evanna Lynch), who closes the elf’s eyes. He digs Dobby’s grave, sans magic, and life goes on.
I remember this scene by heart, but I just rewatched it to make sure I got all the details right, so I’m currently a blubbering mess. Most of the major deaths in the Harry Potter books and films make me weep, but Dobby’s is different. Watching Dobby die was like watching a beloved family pet die: It breaks something inside you, which in the long run makes you stronger and more capable of dealing with loss, but you never really get your childhood back.
Dobby, like Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore and pretty much everyone else who died at the hands of Voldemort or one of his Death Eaters, wanted only to protect Harry, but there was an innocence to him that makes you want to curse J.K. Rowling for killing him off (which, yes, she apologized for last year, but I don’t care) and Harry Potter for not appreciating him enough.
Breaking Bad, “Cornered” (2011): “I am the one who knocks”
There are a few key scenes in Breaking Bad’s five seasons where viewers see Walter White (Bryan Cranston) transform before their eyes from a schoolteacher with cancer and money problems to Heisenberg, the drug kingpin.
Of course there was Jane’s death in Season 2, but a scene even more central to Walt’s metamorphosis came in Season 4’s “Cornered,” in which Walt’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), pleads with her husband to seek help from the police, telling him he is in danger and that he’s in over his head.
“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?” he tells her, seething with fury. “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to. So let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.”
One of the biggest challenges Breaking Bad faced was convincing viewers that Walt really had it in him to be pushed to the dark side of the drug underworld. This moment leaves the audience — and Skyler! — horrified as they realize who Walt has become.
Walt’s desperation from previous seasons has been overshadowed by Heisenberg’s ego, pride, and anger. He relishes the position he’s in, but the truth is, he has no way out. In a way, Skyler is right: her husband is in danger, and it’s in this aptly titled episode that we realize Walt is a prisoner of the world he’s created.
The Master (2012): The no-blinking interview
This scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is pretty simple: The motionless camera only cuts sparingly in a dark room between the faces of the two central characters, Freddie Quell ( Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The premise is simple as well: Dodd, the leader of a Scientology-like movement, is “processing” Quell, a WWII vet with alcoholism and PTSD, with a series of questions to be answered without blinking. The result is just very good.
There’s a strong element of personal bias in this selection; I’m a sucker for anything director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson has done in the last few decades, and I could easily write about whole chunks of The Phantom Thread here, too. But this scene sticks with me in part because of what it represents: two incredible actors peaking, one of whom would die soon after. The Master is one of my favorite roles Hoffman took on before his 2014 death: a cult leader with unclear motives, outside of advancing his own ego. His strength is all over this scene, even as it squarely focuses on Phoenix. The scene shows the power of leading questions, and how simple it can be to manipulate emotionally fragile people with questions disguised as a game. In that way, it shows how cults work. Hoffman projects as the steady questioner, unmoving as Phoenix’s character has a near breakdown trying not to blink, confessing to incest and murder, all in the name of trying to get the approval of someone he thinks may be the father figure he longs for.
Get Out (2017): The Sunken Place
“Sink into the floor,” says Missy (Catherine Keener) as she stirs a teacup, the click-clacking of her spoon hypnotizing Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). He falls backward into a dark, wall-less space where he floats, watching the world through a tiny opening, unable to be heard, to act, to influence anything that goes on outside of this abyss.
“Now you’re in the Sunken Place,” she says.
All that Chris wanted was to meet his white girlfriend’s family. But it just so happened that her family is in the business of lobotomizing and selling black people to elderly white folks (and one old Asian man) so they can have their consciousness transferred into their newly purchased humans — a fucked-up modern-day version of slavery in which black bodies aren’t just something to be owned but to be inhabited. The Sunken Place is where Chris’s consciousness is placed for a white person to take over his body.
“The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us,” said Jordan Peele about this scene from his debut feature film, Get Out.
The scene brought a visual vocabulary to the oppression that black people felt in the face of white supremacy and served as a commentary on race, slavery, and cultural appropriation through the lens of Chris’s character. The film also came out roughly a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration — gosh, remember that? — and has since become a much-used metaphor to describe “black people choosing an ideology that is racist against black people,” most notably MAGA-hat-sporting Kanye West and Trump administration official Ben Carson, Peele told Rolling Stone.