TV's most shocking character deaths
Gargantuan spoilers lie ahead, as Jamie counts down 7 of the most shocking deaths from US quality drama feat. Dexter, The Wire, & more...
The below contains major spoilers for Dexter, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and The Walking Dead. Read on only if you're up-to-date with all of those.
We’re about to take a stroll through the vast graveyard of deceased TV characters. Be warned. Each gravestone carries a spoiler. So if you aren’t up to date with, or haven’t watched, Dexter, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, or The Walking Dead, and decide to read on anyway, then on your head be it. Quite frankly, you deserve to have your sense of surprise murdered, just like Bruce Willis was at the beginning of The Sixth Sense.
I’m going to be looking only at those dearly departed characters whose deaths have been, in my opinion, the ’Most Shocking.’ By that I don’t mean, per se, the manner and mechanics of a particular death, but rather the ability of that death to render a viewer numb and speechless. A game-changing death; an inventively gruesome death; or the kind of on-screen death that stabs you in the amygdala as surely as if it happened to your own kith and kin.
By its fourth season Dexter was in danger of following a stagnant and predictable pattern. Season begins. Dexter encounters the work of a fellow serial-killing psychopath, who becomes that season’s ‘Big Bad’. Dexter stalks/analyses/befriends the Big Bad. Dexter learns a few things about himself in the process, but also learns, shockingly, that it’s not such a great idea to become best mates with another serial killer (in later seasons he learns that it’s much better to have sex with them instead). Dexter kills the Big Bad. Everything goes back to normal. Repeat until cancellation.
So perhaps Rita’s death wasn’t that shocking after all. In a way it was inevitable. Rita had to die in order to propel the show out of its comfort zone, and Dexter the character out of his, too. There had to be change, and what more apt way to achieve it than through blood and heartache? Besides, how much longer could Dexter allay his wife’s suspicions about his ‘other life’ before she discovered the secret, killed him, left him, or we started questioning just how stupid one woman could be. Something had to give. That being said, Dexter’s wife becoming the final victim of the Trinity Killer (Arthur Mitchell, season four’s Big Bad, played brilliantly and disturbingly by go-to-weirdo John Lithgow) was a bold move, and one that shocked me to my core.
By choosing to keep Arthur Mitchell alive in a bid to better understand his own origins and motivations, Dexter inadvertently offered up Rita as a sacrifice. He found Rita bled out in his bath-tub. On the floor next to her, drenched in blood and bath-water, was their young son, Harrison. ‘Born in blood’, just like Dexter. Whatever your opinion of the seasons that followed - and there are former fans who would count the show itself as Trinity’s final victim - there’s no denying the horror and the power of season four’s closing moments. Dexter would never be the same again.
Omar died while he was working his way through a list of Marlo Stanfield’s crew, intent on systematically wiping them from the face of the earth for the brutal murder of his friend. We assumed that he would succeed, or die trying. After all, this was a man who took gun-fights and three-storey falls in his stride, and always came back meaner, angrier, stronger… but not this time.
His death was sudden and senseless, a reminder that none were exempt from the ever-rolling death lottery on the streets of West Baltimore: not even the mighty Omar, the man we’d convinced ourselves was invincible by virtue of his roguish charm and righteous zeal. He was more legend than man: a black Jack Bauer with Robin Hood’s blood. He who robbed the robbers. He who hunted the hunters. Wherever he roamed, the whisper of, ‘Omar’s comin’, Omar’s comin’’ followed him on the wind, the mantra recited like a plea to Olympus to call off a vengeful God. One whistle from Omar could empty a street like a gunshot through a flock of birds. Grown gangsters feared him like kids do the boogeymen in their closets; his long coat and shotgun haunted nightmares like Freddy Krueger’s glove.
In the end, it wasn’t cinematic. Omar was buying cigarettes when he was shot in the back of the head by a young gang-banger hungry for rep. Jack slays the giant. Except nobody in the wider world would ever realise just how large the figure of Omar had loomed over the streets. The significance of his life, and death, was missed by the newspapers, which could no longer afford to have correspondents plugged into the streets. They reported his murder like it was a dull re-run of yesterday’s news: another black man dead on the streets of West Baltimore. Yawn. Tell us something new. Perhaps that’s the most shocking thing of all.
Lem was one quarter of the Strike Team: a police super-squad with gang jurisdiction within LA’s fictional Farmington district. If Vic Mackie was its brains and balls, and Shane Vendrell was its arsehole, and Ronnie Gardocki was its beard, then Lem was its heart. Sure, Lem was corrupt just like the rest of the unit, but he was different from the other three: he had a conscience; a nobility; ethics that weren’t solely self-serving. In contrast to his peers, Lem remembered from time to time that he was actually a cop.
Besides, for whom else within the team could you root? Ronnie? Ronnie never spoke until approximately the final episode; and even then it was only to ask the guys if they preferred him with or without a beard. Shane? Shane was a preening, whining, swaggering redneck thug, the kind of guy who probably spent his teenage years staring at himself in the mirror and practising the coolest way to smoke before screeching off in his pick-up truck to go drinking and black-bashing.
Vic? Any slack we cut Vic probably sprang from the acknowledgement that being married to Corinne would’ve driven Gandhi to a life of crime (he could’ve saved himself a lot of bother by shooting Corinne in the head instead of Terry Crowley). We did root for Vic, but only because we were desperate to see what he would do next, how far he would go. Vic was our own id run amok: a flesh projection of the little part inside of each one of us that wants to hold a fist or two fingers up at the world instead of bowing and scraping, or following the rules.
But Lem you rooted for because you loved. There was an innocence and a righteousness about him; a fierce dedication to doing the right thing, even when he found himself on the wrong path. And when he found himself on the wrong path it was usually Vic who’d led him there. Thus, Lem’s place in the Strike Team was as a kind-hearted Golem co-opted by demons. Lem never saw it that way. To him, Vic, Shane and Ronnie weren’t just friends, they were family, and he loved them accordingly. The sheer number of times he was prepared to sacrifice himself in order to protect them would have made Jesus blush.
Which is why when Shane dropped a grenade into Lem’s lap, falsely believing that he’d sold out the Strike Team to Internal Affairs, we felt like our own hearts had been detonated. For a whole season we’d watched poor Lem - the member of the team least deserving of persecution - arrested, hounded, imprisoned, chased and then betrayed and brutally murdered by one of his best friends.
My girlfriend cried for seven whole minutes. ‘Not Lem,’ she howled. ‘Not Lem!’
‘I’m sorry!’ cried Shane, but it was too late. Despite bearing witness to Shane’s consequent unravelling, and eventual destruction, we never forgave him. Lem’s death served to dehumanise Shane at the same time as it handed Vic his humanity. Finally, Vic was on an ass-kicking crusade that we could get on board with. The Bald Destroyer vowed to kill the beast that slew his friend, and he didn‘t care what he had to do, or who he had to smash out of the way, to satisfy his thirst for vengeance. And neither did we.
After all, Lem was our friend, too.