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.
Come on, it’s got to be Gus, right? OK, Mike’s death was shocking, but only because it was Walter who killed him. Walter: not Heisenberg. By executing Mike in a clumsy fit of petty rage, Walter betrayed his origins as the simmering, neurotic chemistry teacher who’d been pushed too far by life. Heisenberg wouldn’t have apologised to a dying foe, nor would he have allowed his victim’s final words to be an exasperated, but still chiding, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ That was the problem. Mike never let Walter be Heisenberg, because he never shared Walter’s ego-maniacal assessment of himself. To Mike, Walter was always a selfish and dangerous lunatic. I guess in his final moments he must have felt somewhat vindicated.
But forget that. Really, as shocking deaths go, the one that’s most likely to stick in your mind, like a shank in one of Mike’s incarcerated crew, is Gus Fring’s. What a fiendish trap Walter sets for his former mentor. Gus goes to visit his old, fucked foe Hector Salamanca in his hospital room, and thinks he’s there to finish the old man off, but it eventually dawns on Gus that something a bit iffy is happening. Just as Gus realises that he’s the one about to be served that coldest of dishes, Hector begins hammering his trademark bell, which serves as the detonator for the very powerful bomb hooked up to his wheelchair. Then it’s Goodbye Gus! Or is it?
We’re all shocked as Gus emerges from the blam, rubble and smoke of that freshly-bombed hospital room, wholly intact and even pausing to adjust his tie in a defiantly suave manner. Is this guy the terminator or something? Has he doused himself in super-protective layers of processed chicken batter? Did he deflect the blast with his fucking cufflinks? And then we get our answer, in one of the most delicious CGI-sleight-of-hands committed to film. As the camera pans from one side of the corridor to the other we hear the screams of a gaggle of nurses, and then we see why they‘re screaming: the other side of Gus’s body is a charred, skeletal mess, helping him to resemble a Harvey Dent screen-test for Hellraiser 2. Then, with an almighty thump, he abdicates his throne, and settles into his second career as a lump of dead flesh on the floor.
Well played, Walter. Well played.
Game of Thrones
Televisually speaking, Game of Thrones is the bastard child of a steamy threesome between Lord of the Rings, The Wire and The Sopranos. Certainly, it’s one of the few shows on television where you’ll find both a dragon, and a man calling someone a c***. Alongside its devilishly intricate plots and sprawling scope, Game of Thrones boasts political skulduggery, beautifully realised landscapes and characters, interfamilial blood feuds, war, love, death, intrigue, swords, savagery, honour, and betrayal, all served up with a soupcon of magic and monsters.
The show features approximately eighty-five billion cast members; each character arguably just as important to the sweeping narrative as the next. This can make things a little… confusing (there’s no playing Minesweeper or checking your Facebook messages whilst you watch Game of Thrones). Close attention is demanded, but also rewarded with the full and rich enjoyment of one of the finest television programmes ever made. Still, no promises that, like me, you won’t find yourself watching an average episode and muttering to yourself: ’Hang on, what’s the wee dwarf’s name again? And who’s that guy again? He’s married to the… isn’t he, the one with the…? They went to that castle, didn’t they, with that other one? How’s he related to that family? But he’s the… isn’t he?… I thought that was the other bearded guy… It’s not Ronnie, is it? Ah, no! I’ve got it, I‘ve got it… he’s the one who called somebody a c*** last week!’
Within this sea of people two names stand out, and sink effortlessly into memory: those of Ned Stark and Joffrey. The first, because he’s a staunch, noble warrior-king whose iron-will, manner and reputation resonates throughout all of Westeros, and the second, because he’s the most despicable person ever created by God or man. Joffrey inspires so much bile and hatred that before long you’ll find yourself substituting ‘Joffrey’ for that rather unpleasant c-word I’ve mentioned a few times already. And that’s even before we reach the point in episode nine of the first season where the newly-installed Boy King orders Ned Stark’s execution. As if we didn’t hate the little cock enough already.
Okay, so those who’d read the source novels wouldn’t have been shocked by Ned’s death, but those ignorant of George R.R. Martin’s works, myself included, doubtless greeted the execution with wide-mouthed disbelief, and perhaps a few choice expletives. They killed Ned? NED? Where was the last-second reprieve? Where was the arrow whizzing out from the crowd and into the executioner’s neck? Where was the valiant, sword-clanging rescue?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but my shock – intense as it was – quickly gave way to relief. I was glad that my wishes hadn’t been fulfilled, like they would have been on so many other star-vehicle, play-it-safe network television shows. ‘Sometimes,’ as Herman Munster tells us in Pet Sematary, ‘dead is better.’ Thank goodness, then, for the narrative legacy of trail-blazing shows like The Sopranos, where the story is king, and nobody cares how many films you’ve been in: if you’re dead, you’re dead. Sean Bean or no Sean Bean! The source material – the story – needed Ned to die, and the meddlesome opinions of test audiences, network heads and advertisers alike went unsought.
Long live cable programming and the creative freedom its model inspires. One down, 84, 999, 999 to go.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
We knew that Varro (Jai Courtney) was doomed to die as soon as we realised that he was essentially Lem from The Shield with a sword and a pair of sandals. Varro volunteered to become a gladiator and sold himself into slavery so that his wife would want for nothing. He was even going to support the baby his wife was carrying even though he knew it was not his, but the product of a sexual assault suffered whilst he’d been busy clashing swords with an assortment of maniacal beefcakes. That level of Lemness in a man can spell only death.
The shocking thing about Varro’s death is that it comes at Spartacus’ hand. Well, sort of. Batiatus – the wicked and weaselly owner of the gladiator prison/training school and its gladiators – is keen to impress the local magistrate so that he can advance his own political ambitions. To that end he arranges a non-lethal exhibition match between Spartacus and rival gladiator Crixus to entertain the magistrate’s young son, Numerious, on the occasion of his birthday. The nicest thing that can be said of Numerious is that he isn’t Joffrey. He’s Joffrey-lite. Evil, but too spoiled, stupid and cosseted to realise that’s he’s evil. Perhaps that makes him worse. At least Joffrey’s honest about what a sadistic little bastard he is. Plus, Joffrey would never allow his will to be bent by the promise of a quick shag in the baths with some lusty, vengeful whore, which is exactly the method used to milk compliance from Numerious, and ‘persuade’ him to substitute Varro for Crixus in the forthcoming fight. Something else about the fight is changed, too…
Spartacus and Varro throw themselves into the friendly pantomime of their match, all clanging swords, cheeky smiles and light-hearted chuckles. Even when Spartacus wins and Varro lies on the floor at his feet, they both know it’s all a big laugh, really. ‘By Zeus’s cock, for all that is at stake between us, we mayest well be playing thy Mario Kart,’ Spartacus’ grin seems to say. ‘Still besties, Varro, yeah? Yeah?? Cool!’ But then, just at the apex of their chummy happiness, a nastier change to proceedings becomes apparent. Numerious stabs his outstretched thumb downward, a gesture that normally signifies to arena crowds that the ranking aristo-bastard watching over the fight wants to see the losing combatant gored like a sausage on a cocktail-stick at one of his fancy parties. But this is a friendly match. Is he joking?
Turns out he’s not joking. This was the other change… Varro has to die, and if Spartacus is not prepared to kill him, then they will both be slaughtered. In the end, as the crowds jeer and Numerious presumably gets a mighty hard-on, Varro saves them both by shoving Spartacus’s sword through his own chest. A noble, terrible sacrifice. How many of your own friends would even lend you five pounds? And so Spartacus has been robbed not only of his freedom and his beloved wife earlier in the season, but also of his best friend. Sadness stirs in his heart, blood and anger roars through his veins. A few episodes later, when the time comes for Spartacus to utter the immortal words, ’Kill them all,’ you’ll be baying for more blood than a thousand abattoirs could provide.
The Walking Dead
I originally chose Dale for this entry. His death certainly qualifies, as it elicited the requisite response: ‘Oh, Jesus, no, not Dale! Not Dale!’ Hershel officially took over the old-man-with-wisdom-and-moral-backbone vacancy within the group of survivors once they’d all left the farm, but Dale was the first to hold the position, and was arguably much more cuddly, avuncular and loveable in the role. Even after Hershel adopted a swanky new Dale-beard in season three he still looked more like an austere warrior-prophet than a man who’d permit you to squeeze his rosy red cheeks and go, ‘Awwwww.’
Dale met his death at the business end of a zombie after venturing out in the middle of the night to investigate a half-eaten zombie cow, which is an inscription that won’t feature on many of our gravestones. Carl had encountered the zombie in question earlier that day, and his failure to kill it, or alert the group to its existence, had set events in motion that would deprive the group of its most compassionate and conscientious member, and leave an agonisingly empty space in the driver’s seat of the RV. The group discovered Dale with half of his rib-cage torn out, and Daryl had to put him down.
But then I watched the season three finale and realised that there was a more shocking death. Or rather deaths. I’m talking, of course, about the Governor’s cold-blooded execution of a large handful of his own citizens, through the medium of machine-gun. Was I the only one shocked by this act? A brief perusal of various post-episode message boards tells me… ‘Yes. Yes I was.’ Post after post of: ‘That episode was a bit meh,’ and, ‘Nuffin really happened, so boring.’ What? A man cuts down his own people like dogs because they refuse to murder in his name, and it’s greeted by a collective shrug of the shoulders? It seems that the post-apocalyptic world’s constant carnival of death has left us dead-eyed, steely-jawed and jaded. Dale… we’ve never needed you more, my friend. Perhaps you could return as some sort of benign zombie mascot? I fear it may be too late. Never mind the on-screen survivors: too much walker-watching has transformed us into a herd of Carls.
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