TV's most shocking character deaths

Feature Jamie Andrew 19 Apr 2013 - 07:00

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. 

The Wire 

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. 

The Shield 

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.

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I can't believe that you left Ryan Chappell from 24 out of this list. Right until the very last moment I was sure they would manage to work some trick to save his life, I really didn't expect them to actually go through with killing him.

The Game of Thrones TV death happened BECAUSE ITS IN THE BOOK! So it wasn't shocking at all.

So no mention of any of the numerous characters from Spooks? Not even death by chip fryer qualifies as shocking?

I was watching Stargate SG1 on "Pick TV" last night and it was the episode when Daniel Jackson died from radiation poisoning. I remember at the time when I first watched it it was quite shocking as they were killing off one of the principle cast members (and this was in the days before internet spoilers) so I didn't see that coming at all.

It's just a shame that they then re-introduce his character a couple of seasons later and completely undid the shock value of his death.

Joyce Summers?

Yep, still remember the chip fat fryer from about episode 4 in series 1. Best. Death. Ever.

I thought the death of the motorcycle boy
in season 5 of Breaking Bad much more shocking because unlike Gus Fring
it wasn't telegraphed, that is you weren't gee-ing Walt up the whole
season to do it. And isn't it almost always the case that the kid and
the dog always live?

I remember I couldn't wait until the next episode to see how they managed to "fake it"

I agree so many on 24 alone but Chappell Ranks up there as one of the shocking ones

Wesley's death on Angel. It's the last episode so it's kind of expected but the way it goes down is just so tragic. I don't consider the comics as canon so really I guess everyone dies at the end.

Also, Anya on Buffy and Dualla on BSG.

I seem to remember a well known face dying in the first (or one of the first) episodes of Spooks, I remember being shocked by that pretty badly

Uggggggh I still have nightmares about that. Just. Brutal. A rare time when shooting someone was actually a kind thing to do!

Buffys mom was the first name that popped into my mind as well. A really heartbreaking moment when Buffy finds her. Also Jenny Calendar from season two.

"Mom, whatcha doin'? Mom? Mom? Mommy...?"

No Adric? I mean, we all hated the little brat, but back in the early 80s it was utterly draw-joppingly shocking for the Doctor's 12-year-old child-genius to get killed off at the end of Earthshock (and it then turns out that his sacrifice was utterly unnecessary - when he sacrifices himself to - unsuccessfully - stop the Cybermen from screwing the Earth's history by crashing into the planet with a meteor-like impact, it simply ends up being the crash that wiped out the dinosaurs - not only do they kill of the 'kiddy child-audience surrogate' character, but they don't even give him a heroic death to lift the mood.

They even film it in a way that it ends with a close-up of his face, showing that he's utterly terrified, clutching the necklace his brother gave him while trying not to cry.

Frankly I think that even in the modern era, it would still be considered so shocking that the audience (like those who saw it the first time around) would stare at the screen in disbelief. I note that the new doctor who hasn't dared come close to killing off a child, let alone a child companion who's the doctor's ward.

I've not seen any of these Series'

What about Tara's death in Buffy? That moment when you realise she's gone, then Willow turns around with black, oh so BLACK eyes! :D

As for Walking Dead, the massacre scene was a bit shocking... but I also found myself more shocked, when the Governor shot his doctor (Milton?), leaving him with a slow death, and then resulting resurrection to kill a handcuffed Andrea. I think that, to me, was more shocking!

I'd also add Dualla from Battlestar Galactica, that was rather surprising...

I'm very surprised NOT to see Etta's death, from Fringe. That, to me was one of the more shocking deaths in recent TV history. Never saw that coming!

I also forgot Mr Eko from Lost! That was a shocking death!

Then you've lost the game

Very good point, Azrael. I remember the first time I saw that...shocked!! The silent credits at the end were so very fitting. However, it has to be said that, although his age is never actually given, Adric certainly isn't 12 years THAT would be a shocking death. He's a young teenager, but your point is well-made.

Buffys mum

And what about Opie from 'Sons of Anarchy'? It was probably most brutal and unexpected death I've seen in TV and it shocked the whole fandom (you should have seen reactions on tumblr!). Kurt Sutter is an absolute genius, no doubt, but there's also that sadistic vibe...

If you're talking about Spartacus, then the most shocking death has to be Lucretia. Seriously, the swan dive? I was catatonic after that.

Bobby Singer in Supernatural (I did not see it coming at all)
Moriarty in Sherlock (even though some think he's still alive)
Gwaine in Merlin (WHY?)
Michael Ezard in The last enemy (the entire ending was sad tbh)
Alisha in Misfits (still my most hated and gory death I have ever seen)
Mike Franks and Eli David, Jackie Vance in NCIS,
Nana in The Royle Family

....That's all I can think of right now.

Paul in The Big C was a bit of a shocker

Mrs Landingham in The West Wing - the only time I've ever actually said "Oh No" out loud at a character's death on TV or film.

Opie in Sons of Anarchy and two in LOST got me, Charlie and Locke.

Just one quick question. In the Game of Thrones section why did you censor the word cock in one place just to call Joffrey a little cock later in the very next paragraph?

Not everyone has read the books. Which I'd say is the majority of the TV viewers.

Cait Todd in NCIS and Deep Throat in The X-Files were the two that shocked me the most. Both were callous, unexpected and casual...very shocking.

I was pissed off when they killed Opie. Almost stopped watching SOA when they killed him.

Two words.....Blakes 7

All those Red Shirted guys from the 60's Star Trek show. I never saw it coming once.

Xena anyone? Shot full of arrows before having her head cut off and displayed on a table? Lovely way for your heroine to go.

Maybe the first one was referring to the rude kind and the second one referring to a small chicken.

Could be but the second one still sounded like an insult to me. Not a big deal just found it amusing.

I disagree with a lot of this. No J.R., what the actual hell?

Shame on you.

Buffy could probably carry this topic on its own - Joyce, Tara, Jenny etc.

And I'd add Deep Throat and X from The X Files as well. Maybe Andrea from Ghost Whisperer too.

Really? I have watched every episode of that show from the start, and they have been progressively worse since S2. Killing Opie after killing off Piney was a huge mistake. Sutter better have something good in store for S6.

Maybe because the word in question isn't cock at all. Just think of the other gender and you get it. ;-)

Nate from "Six Feet Under," maybe not shocking, but pretty emotional if you ask me.

That is the first thing that popped into my mind and Anya's death.

Yes to 24 - but I'd go with David Palmer - a major character killed off suddenly, shot from your viewpoint.

Piney and Opie had to die - one wasn't necessary for the plot and the other was a much needed push for Jax. For me personally the biggest disappointment in S5 is this whole Juice storyline. Just kill him already...

Fair play on that one, fella. I wanted to do Chappell, and also characters from The Sopranos, Misfits, Cracker etc., but the word count kept going up and I had to draw the line somewhere. Anyway, it's by no means supposed to be a definitive list, just a little sample cherry picked from some of my own favourite shows.

He didn't die, Peter. Back in the shower with you!

I will agree that Piney's death made since in that it saved us from a needless back and forth with he and Clay. Piney knew all about Clay's nefarious actions and was holding his feet to the fire about fessing up to the club. It moved things along to kill him and then have Opie go on an all out rampage, which ultimately and sadly led to his death.

I really felt like Opie could have made an impact as a character and help usher in a new era with SAMCRO. All his death did was give Jax another reason to want to kill Clay. Which we know is never going to happen because if he was going to do that it would have been done by now. Again, more of my frustration with Sutter and the pointless subplots of gathering evidence against Clay to have him evicted from the club forever. This leads me to you last comment of the character you felt should be killed...Juice

I really like Juice and now that Opie is gone I would say Juice is my favorite character besides Happy. The problem with Juice is that Sutter has turned his character into a pussy. This spying on Clay for Jax and setting him up has made him soft. I say man up and take a stand for what you believe in. The dumb ass story about his ethnicity and getting blackmailed by Roosevelt was just plain stupid and pointless. They need to re-establish Juice as a bad ass or get rid of him as much as it pains me to say that.

Col. Blake on M*A*S*H?

Why limit it to US Drama? UK drama is capable as well, Adric in DW, Gan in B7, The guy who was wrongly put to death in the original Survivors, Gene Hunt, FU...

That was really shocking, I had only seen the last couple of series and went back to the start and it was really brutal.

Well, I guess we all know that there are no happy endings in store when it comes to SOA - if I had to bet, I would say that it's Chibs who has probably biggest chance of coming out of this mess alive.
Jax had to discover his own darker side, maybe even his inner Clay ("footsteps of the right father", as Gemma said) and alive Opie wouldn't help him in that - so he had to die. I just hate the thought of his kids, robbed by SAMCRO of their whole family.
When it comes to Clay - I think he'll die in S6 finale, leaving something huge for Jax to deal with. Something that will be a main storyline of the show's last season. It won't be an actual shocker - as much as I love Clay as a villain, Sutter has to end it sometime and it would be better for all of us if he does it soon.
Juice is...hopeless. In both S4 and S5 he was that pathetic little man who makes stupid decisions and just needs to grow a pair if he wants to survive. But at this point I really doubt it happens so the best I can hope for is some gut-wrenching scene when the guys deal with the rat in the pack.
Oh, btw - sorry for all grammar mistakes, my English is far from perfect :)

I wasn't part of Who fandom at the time so I didn't have that hatred of Adric at the time, a little annoying but certainly not enough to hate him - mind you I was only 13 at the time....

LOL, the entire cast at various point, the finale is the obvious one but Terminal was pretty brutal as Cally dies while on a wild goose chase just like Gan.

certainly, and the baby in finale, what other comedy shows would wrap up the series with the main character have a breakdown because he feels capable for the death of a baby killed by her mother, real laugh a minute stuff that...

As a 13 year old myself I brought a large stack of Peter Davison's DVD's, and my general opinion of Adric was that he was at least less annoying that 95% of real teenagers I knew.

OBLIGATORY FIREFLY REFERENCE: Wash "I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I..Ugh" in Serenity. Ok it's a movie not TV but I'm playing the Firefly card so it gets a pass.

I would have said more shocking Walking Dead death was Lorie, not the Woodberry-ites. Also I have to vote for Dualla being shocking in BSG since I really didn't see it coming. At all.

You are so right about the walking dead. Even about Dale, since it showed us anyone can die at any time, regardless if the comics. Yeah I know, Sophia died prematurely too, but though her mindless upright I have no strings meat puppet was taken out on screen, we did not see her actually give up the ghost. But by the end of season 3, which i enjoyed every bit of and cant wait fir season 4, everyone expected a blood bath. Thing is, they got one! They wanted EVERYONE to die! Snap, snarl! We ARE the walking dead!

Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth.

Why is it always the good ones who have to die?

First that came to my mind too - when I think unexpected or shocking deaths, that's ALWAYS the first one.

Oddly, Jenny didn't really surprise me. I felt like she was doomed all along for some reason.

Spooks certainly set the table stakes from the get-go with that one!

I would pick Ben's death, by Connie's handy brassiere underwire garrote.

Well, that was a great one -- "Jack, I'm just going out for a smoke ..." -- but you can't beat the shocking murder of Terri Bauer to end Season 1.

You simply did not do something like that on American television.

He was my favorite character in the show. Then Michelle got killed minutes later ...

Excellent point. What I was thinking was a couple of weeks ago when Tyrion called some one a cock. I had that pronunciation stuck in my minds ear, so to speak, on second reading I believe you are correct.

Dualla's suicide in (new) Battlestar Galactica. When she pulled the gun out I almost jumped out of my chair to stop her like she was right in front of me.

Thank You. Up until the point where she shoots herself, the show had lured me into this false expectancy that she was going to be getting back with Apollo and then BAM. Re-watching now you can of course see clearly how they were setting her character up to be the symbolic death of hope for all the people of the fleet from the discovery of a nuked Earth, but at the time it shocked the living crap out of me.

Ever catch the reference to that "MASH" baby / chicken scene in Tina Fey's "30 Rock"? Alan Alda guests in an episode in which his character happens upon Kenneth the Page and Tracy Jordan crying about a dead baby / chicken. His character responds, " “What’s all this crying about babies and chickens? I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show.” That bit really summed up that scene in the MASH finale - if not that finale episode in whole.

Great article (though I only read the half from shows I'd seen. And I agree with the other commenters - there are a lot more examples to add to the list. Sequel article!

I personally love the fact (many people don't or didn't realise) that the episode had absolutely 0 music throughout. A complete vacuum that really made the physical and emotive emptiness that much more obvious.

What about Dualla (Dee) comitting suicide in Battlestar Galactica? I thought that was really shocking, especally since it looked liked she and Lee Adama had recconsiled.

Yes, Adric. At the time (when I was a teen), I was really shocked and saddened at Adric's death.

Oh, Darling!

I watch very little US stuff since Battlestar and Heroes finished, pretty much the only thing I watch is Big Bang Theory...

Derek's brutal death on The Sarah Connor Chronicles made me gasp in shock.

Though not exactly a *death* per se, Starbuck's last scene in Battlestar Galactica was a heavy hitter

Technically the comics are canon since they bear the name of the Holy Whedon, but if you prefer not to think of them that way fair enough. It may be worth pointing out though that even in the comics Wesley isn't alive, he is a ghost (sort of) that is kept around by Wolfram & Hart like Lilah and Holland Manners were when they died, because his employment contract with the Wolf Ram and Hart extended beyond his death.

Absolutely. We were stunned for the entire episode. How could they do that?

24 had at least five shocking deaths, but I somehow knew that none of them would have been listed here.

Jamie Summers? Steve Austin still hasn't gotten over that one.

And what about Ned Flanders' wife? That was disturbing on a lot of levels.

How are none of Joss Whedon's works in this list? He's know for it. Especially Joyce Summers. I am flabbergasted.

Issay- I like your passion for this show and it's clear you know your stuff. You are correct when you say there will be no happy endings for this group because after all, they are biker outlaws who sell automatic weapons, peddle drugs,solicit prostitution, etc.

You could be very right as to Chibs being the sole survivor in this god-awful sh*t mess that Clay and Jax helped to create, and you know that with Tara behind bars, and Lee Toric looking for revenge against the Sons, things will become more volatile for Jax. Throw in Gemma's antics and Wendy trying to get some form of custody over Able, and the next season(s) could be very explosive and gain back some of that heart pounding excitement it had in S1 and S2.

Just for the record, I think you English is very good!

Tasha Yar caught me completely by surprise. One minute the hottest member of the landing party the next, just an oil stain. for God's sake she wasn't even wearing the red jersey.

Excellent piece but, in keeping with this site's titular geekery, I have to point out that banter between Varro and Spartacus would have referenced the cock of Jupiter, rather than of his Greek counterpart.

Mike's death > Gus' death. Why? Because Gus "had to go." It was the theme of the entire season, from the moment Gus walked into the super lab, suited up and grabbed the box cutter. It was definitely one of the most EXPLOSIVE moments on TV (in one of the best episodes ever) but Mike's death was senseless. It was unforeseen. It took Walt's ego down a few notches. AND, it will continue to haunt him....

It was an absurd death for Gus. Gus knew he was as risk at the hospital and it seems highly unlikely Titus wouldn't have checked out the room beforehand.

I have to say, why isn't Opie on the list? Honestly who saw it coming?

As much as I loved Gus's death, it wasn't all that surprising, was it? The season opened with Walter White planning to kill him, the previous episode ended with a failed assassination attempt on him...

I mean, yeah, the death was great, but as far as "shocking" goes, it was downright expected.

Definitely some characters from LOST, 24, Twin Peaks, etc could make this list, but I noticed it's cable-only, so whatever...

Ned Stark was as much of a surprise for us on our first read-through. Considering that little trick of pulling the rug out from under the reader's feet was already done when GRRM wrote it though, years before The Sopranos, I don't think the modern trend in TV storytelling has much to do with it other than making it more palatable for the everyday viewer.

John Travolta getting killed in the middle of Pulp Fiction was a massive WTF ??!! moment.

Rita on Dexter season 4.

Really no Sons of Anarchy?

Ned Stark's death was shocking. I read the book first, and can equate my book shock with viewer shock because I was like, What? They did that? How could? OMG, I thought he'd go....That c***!

How about NCIS when Kate got killed at the end of season 2? WOW

These deaths are all shocking...but if you've read half the books i have they are nothing compared to the potential of shock one could face. Arguably, the game of thrones is perhaps the most renowned for it's shocking deaths, particularly in the later books. Similar books offer a similar experience, such as Unsung, which in my opinion has a better narrative than the Game of thrones books.

If you know what i'm referring to...
The death of Ser Guile after discovering his family crucified, or Cáim's literal Explosion at Vesteron after defeating Empress Katchlynn, driving his father insane. Or in the later books where Eleiss Repeatedly revives as her skin melts and rips her father's intestines out. The death of Teaghan at the white gates, Borri at the Green-Hill March or the hands of Ughfred, the High King of the Hilterlands after being torn inside out...'you know where' with his barbed club and being left to bleed to death for 2 days, kept alive so long by her Lycan blood. and That's in the 3 books i've read so far.

I just read your first line from the Game of Thrones description, might I suggest you read the books from which the show is based. I found them to be brilliantly writtten with twists and turns I could never anticipate.

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