Death is an interesting component of television storytelling. On the one hand, sudden character deaths are sometimes used as a means of covering up an actor leaving the show. For instance, Matthew Crawley’s sudden death at the end of Downton Abbey’s 3rd season was an event necessitated by actor Dan Steven’s exit from the show, but was so poorly written and paced that it tarnished the show’s reputation as a result. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the death of a character is an momentous occasion for a TV show when handled properly. Viewers invest hours, even years of their life in these characters and their loss can be a source of considerable grief. The following characters wormed their way into our hearts, making their deaths something we’ll probably be mourning forever.
10. Beverly Katz – Hannibal
Considering Hannibal has only aired two full seasons so far, it makes sense that the show doesn’t have as many notable character deaths as other series with multiple seasons under their belts. Still, for a show that features gruesome, visually elaborate murders every week, the surprise death of plucky crime scene investigator Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) came as a harrowing shock to the system. She was the first major character other than Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to discover Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelson) secret, which led to her murder by Hannibal’s hand. Killing off Beverly right when she was starting to come into her own as a fleshed-out (pun unintended) character was painful enough, but seeing her body sliced into layers and displayed in glass cases for Will to find was just too horrific to handle.
9. Seymour – Futurama
Futurama, like most animated sitcoms of its ilk, is known more for its humor than character drama, but it could have a surprising level of emotional depth when it wanted to. Case in point: Fry’s dog Seymour, who is introduced in the season 4 classic, “Jurassic Bark”, becomes the central character of one of the show’s most emotional plotlines. Looking back, it’s incredible that the show’s writers were able to make us care about a character so much in one short 22 minute episode. The devastating final reveal of Seymour’s fate — waiting for Fry for 12 years outside Panucci’s Pizza until his death — is an unexpected gut-punch for a show whose tone typically concerned things like beer-guzzling robots and the wacky hijinks of a humanoid crustacean doctor. Later episodes built upon Seymour’s fate and made things less tragic, but it still doesn’t quell the initial hurt of “Jurassic Bark.”
8. Hank – Breaking Bad
For a gritty, modern crime drama, Breaking Bad was pretty light in terms of major character deaths. Once it rolled around to its final string of episodes though, all bets were off and the bodies started piling up. The most tragic death of all was DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), whose seemingly contradictory role as an antagonist and hero made him someone you wanted to see fail in the beginning, but ultimately succeed as protagonist Walter White’s morality slowly decayed. Hank’s death was teased in the middle of the 3rd season, when he was brutally attacked by a group of Mexican Cartel assassins, but the show was finished toying with its audience by the time we got to the best episode of the entire series, “Ozymandias.” His brutal execution comes on the heel of what looked like a victory, as Hank was about to take his drug kingpin brother-in-law into custody, resulting in one of the most shockingly brutal twists in modern television.
7. Billy/Dee – Battlestar Galactica
The cult hit science fiction series Battlestar Galactica pulled no punches when it came to presenting its universe of conflicted morality and hard-fought survival. Amid the tumultuous battle between humans and cylons, there were little nuggets of heartfelt romance, like the one that springs up between presidential aide Billy Keikeya (Paul Campbell) and Petty Officer Anastasia “Dee” Dualla (Kandyse McClure). During a hostage situation in the appropriately-titled season 2 episode “Sacrifice”, Billy dies protecting Dee. It was an incredibly sad death that turned many fans against Dee, as she hooked up with another character leading up to, and after, Billy’s death. That being said, Dee’s life would eventually end in tragedy as well. In one of the darkest turns the show ever took, Dee takes her own life by shooting herself in the head after discovering that “Earth” is a radioactive wasteland incapable of sustaining human life. Billy and Dee are literal star-crossed lovers and their losses were mourned by the show’s characters and viewers alike.
6. Rita – Dexter
Looking back, it’s actually fitting that Dexter lost its way after Rita Morgan’s murder. The event was so shocking and ripped the show’s foundations so thoroughly that it would be tough to imagine Dexter finding a way to top it. Rita’s murder at the hands of the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) is one of those events that even people who never watched Dexter know about because it’s an incredible plot twist. Even watching “My Bad”, the episode in which her death takes place, the show offers few clues as to what’s coming (it helps that the murder happens off-screen). The death is hard to process; not only because Rita was a symbol of innocence on the show, but the thematic intelligence of it gives it full-circle significance for Dexter, who finds his infant son sitting in a pool of Rita’s blood, almost identical to the way he was discovered in his mother’s blood as a child. Although Dexter became a much weaker show in its later seasons, Rita’s death will always stand as its greatest, most harrowing achievement.
5. Lane Pryce – Mad Men
It’s hard to think of another show that tackled the empty promises of the American Dream as well as Mad Men did. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was a British financial officer, ironically brought low by his own financial struggles to the point where he takes his own life rather than bear the shame and humiliation of his discovered forgeries. Pryce was such a charming, likable character and his gradual descent into ruin is difficult to watch. Mad Men rarely used death for shock value and it shows in Lane’s death, as it is treated realistically and with a quiet acknowledgement of the utter despair and regret the man faced prior to his suicide; sentiments that were keenly felt by viewers that watched this tragedy unfold.
4. Sybill – Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey‘s third season was a rocky affair, to say the least: most of the storylines were boring and repetitive, while one character death — the aforementioned Matthew Crawley — was laughably amateur in execution. The saving grace of the season was the sudden death of youngest Crawley sister Sybil, who perished whilst giving birth to her only daughter. Sybil’s death was a momentous event because it not only brought the entire Downton estate to its knees in mourning, it was also the rare unexpected character death that didn’t feel calculated or forced. Ironically, Sybil’s death was also the result of actress Jessica Brown Findlay exiting the show, but Downton Abbey‘s writing team actually handled her departure in an emotionally satisfying way. Well, it still hurts to think about it, but it was an excellently-written character death all the same.
3. Ned Stark – Game of Thrones
In a way, Game of Thrones rewrote the rules when it came to character deaths. It’s practically a tenant of fiction writing 101 that you don’t kill off your main character in the first season (or book, since Game of Thrones is an adaptation). As such, ignorant viewers were lulled into a false sense of security when it came to supposed protagonist Ned Stark, as there was hardly a precedent for the lead being killed off in the first act of the story. Then his head was chopped off and audiences were left gobsmacked as a result. TV shows simply don’t do this sort of thing, and yet Game of Thrones did, leading to a love/hate relationship between it and its fans ever since.
2. Jin and Sun – Lost
Lost was a show that never shied away from death; heck, there’s even a character who remains on the show despite dying a season earlier). Still, it was primarily a character drama (as the finale rather awkwardly tried to hammer home) at heart, which meant that there were numerous deaths that were memorably tragic. While the death of Charlie Pace in the season 3 finale comes in at a close second, the biggest tearjerker has to be the simultaneous deaths of husband and wife Jin and Sun Kwon, who spend the better part of two seasons trying to reunite, only to drown together in a submarine mere hours later. Lost’s final season caught a lot of flack for taking some disappointing dramatic turns, but it’s difficult to argue that the writers delivered a tearful homerun with these untimely deaths.
1. Robb and Catelyn Stark – Game of Thrones
We should have known better. It’s not like Game of Thrones didn’t warn us with the spiked head of Ned Stark on the battlements of King’s Landing. Still, we went on just sort of assuming that everything would be alright for the rest of the Stark clan because why wouldn’t it be? By the time the Red Wedding rolled around at the end of season 3, so much tragedy had befallen the family that it didn’t seem possible that things could get any worse. Once the doors of the Frey dining hall are shut though, it was fairly obvious that author George. R. R. Martin and the shows writers were playing a long con with the audience, as the heart-stabbing of eldest Stark son Robb and the throat-slashing of his mother Catelyn only confirmed the truth that has always lain at the heart of this series: NO ONE is safe. It’s hard to imagine that the Red Wedding will ever be surpassed in terms of its sheer devastating level of tragedy.