If you’re the type of person who likes to unwind with a frivolous, no-strings-attached sitcom after work — like The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother — then the TV shows featured on this list may not be for you. However, if your idea of relaxation involves diving head first into a world with tragedy, bloodshed, and character strife, then we have just the thing for you!
A long, long time ago, it used to be unheard of for TV shows to kill off their main characters. In fact, when M*A*S*H* unexpectedly killed off Lt. Colonel Henry Blake back in 1975, the show’s producers infamously received over 1,000 letters of protest from grieving fans. But in the subsequent 40 years, TV shows have grown increasing bold, and they have resorted to upping the death ratio in a last ditch effort to satiate their blood-thirsty fans.
There’s plenty of reasons for a show to kill of their characters; but whether it’s for dramatic purposes or contractual obligations, killing off a fan-favorite runs the risk of alienating your audience. We’re taking a look at the shows that have taken this risk the most by killing off multiple main characters throughout the series (not just in the last few episodes). As you’ll see, this dramatic plot device has done everything from skyrocketing the series’ overall viewership to inciting the show’s cancellation.
Here are 15 TV Shows Not Afraid To Kill Off Their Characters.
This groundbreaking Fox series centers around Jack Bauer, a counter-terrorism agent who kills and tortures so many characters throughout the series that real-world experts declared that only a psychopath could do what Bauer did and remain unaffected. But that didn’t stop the show from being a massive hit. 24 was a nerve-wracking thriller that shattered TV conventions, which included killing off a number of its main characters during its eight-year run.
There’s a multitude of shocking deaths throughout the series, including the unexpected assassination of David Palmer in the season five premiere, as well as the time Jack Bauer turned the gun on his fellow CTU operative, Curtis Manning, at the end of season six. But the most shocking death by far was when Jack’s wife, Teri, died in the final moments of the season one finale.
An alternate ending to the episode was filmed, in which Teri would have survived into the second season, but the show runners ultimately decided to go with the more tragic ending, which set the stage for the seasons to come.
When a show takes place in a hospital, you can expect that at least a few characters probably won’t make it to the season finale. But when a show takes place in an emergency room, you better get used to saying goodbye on a weekly basis. Throughout its lengthy 15 season run, ER killed off hundreds of characters, most of them being patients of County General.
The show wasn’t afraid to kill off a number of its doctors as well, which can really take a toll when you’ve literally spent hundreds of hours getting to know the characters.
The most heartbreaking death on ER would have to that of Dr. Mark Greene, who succumbs to a brain tumor by the end of season eight. Unlike many TV deaths, which try to take the audience totally by surprise, the demise of Dr. Greene had been a long time coming, as we watch the slow decline of the character over the course of a few seasons.
13. Sons of Anarchy
During its seven-season run on FX, Sons of Anarchy saw many of its main characters reach a brutal end, and we must admit that many of them had it coming. Clay arguably should have been killed off much sooner by Jax. But Jax finally got his vengeance on the Former Son’s President in the season 6 episode “Aon Rud Persanta,” when he unloaded a gun into his step-father’s chest.
Gemma’s death was another impending fate, though it’s unfortunate that Jax’s conniving mother couldn’t have been killed off in place of Tara during the season six finale.
And then there was Opie, a fan-favorite who died at the beginning of season five. Opie was brutally beaten to death while serving a term in the San Joaquin County Correctional Facility after he decides to sacrifice himself in place of Jax. The brutal ending to such a beloved character definitely changed the landscape of the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy and ended up leading Jax Teller down an even darker path.
Of course, you’re not going to make a show about a serial killer if you’re too afraid to kill off your characters. And while much of the main cast of Dexter survives until the show’s final season, there are still a handful of deaths that took the audience totally by surprise.
For the first few seasons of the show, Sergeant James Doakes is the only character who seems to suspect that Dexter may be hiding something, and the cat-and-mouse game that the two men play feels like a sub-plot that will stretch out for the length of the series. That is, until Doakes is unexpectedly blown up at the end of season two, giving Dexter the freedom to continue his murder spree.
But the most shocking death by far is of Dexter’s wife, Rita, who dies at the end of season four. Despite Dexter taking out the Trinity Killer, he returns home to discover that Trinity has already murdered his wife — the one person who keeps Dexter grounded in reality. Rita’s death made for the perfectly macabre ending to the show’s best season, but unfortunately Dexter began to steadily drop in quality after the character was killed off.
11. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
With a title like that, this WB show created by Joss Whedon features its fair share of vampire killings. The vampire death that probably packs the most punch is when Buffy is forced to drive a sword through the heart of Angel during the season two finale, forever banishing him to hell. (And by forever, we mean until the following season.)
But the death that really took audiences by surprise was when Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mother, was found dead of a brain aneurysm in the season five episode “The Body.” Here, the characters aren’t up against another impending apocalypse, but instead must deal with the painstakingly slow process of grieving that comes when a loved one is taken away too soon.
The titular character, Buffy Summers, even meets her demise a few times. First, in the season one episode “Prophecy Girl” and again in season five’s “The Gift,” where the vampire hunter sacrifices herself to save the world from total destruction. Of course, the gang was eventually able to bring Buffy back in the next season, though the act was not without its consequences.
10. House of Cards
House of Cards may have one of the most fitting opening scenes of all time. It shows Frank Underwood, a corrupt politician living in Washington D.C., exit his house after hearing a dog get struck by a car. Frank delivers his first monologue to the audience about how he has zero tolerance for useless things. He then proceeds to strangle the dog to death. While you may think that Frank is simply doing the tough thing by putting the dog out of its misery, we later learn that Frank finds joy in snuffing out people who he deems to be weaker than him.
Numbers wise, very few characters die in House of Cards; but because of the scarcity, every death packs a bigger punch. The first major death on the show comes when Frank kills Peter Russo, the very man he tapped to run for Governor of Pennsylvania. Then, in season two, Frank pushes Zoe Barnes, an accomplished journalist and Frank’s former lover, into the path of an oncoming train after discovering that Zoe had suspected him of killing Peter.
And this was only Frank Underwood getting warmed up.
9. The 100
For a show that airs on The CW, The 100 is a surprisingly bleak affair — withholding happy endings and exuding agony on its audiences tantamount to AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s Game of Thrones. The series follows a group of teens as they return to earth following a nuclear apocalypse, and since its debut The 100 has been met with critical acclaim, even garnering a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes for season two. How fitting is that!
Instead of turning audiences off with its shocking deaths, The 100 has made fans feverishly speculate who will get axed in the show’s coming episodes. To date, the most shocking death on The 100 was that of Wells Jaha, who emerged as a strong leader to the group of survivors, only to be stabbed to death in the show’s third episode. Killing off Wells so early was a divisive moment for the series, but it quickly set the stage that no one on The 100 is safe, and the show has only grown in popularity since.
8. Grey’s Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy debuted in 2005 and, much like ER, this medical drama has turned out an impressive number of episodes. The show wrapped up its 13th season earlier this year with plans to return in the fall — and in that amount of time, you better believe that Grey’s Anatomy has killed off its fair share of characters. In fact, only four of the original characters currently remain.
The first major death took place in season five when George O’Malley was struck by a bus after pushing a woman to safety. The death was met with mixed reviews from fans, and it was later revealed that actor T.R. Knight left the show because he was not getting along with the series creator, Shonda Rhimes.
Patrick Dempsey’s character, Dr. Derek Shepherd, also met his demise during the season 11 finale, where Dr. Shepherd gave a lengthy narration despite his character already being brain dead. Grey’s still continues to pull in an impressive amount of viewers for a show going into its 14th season, though if it continues much longer, they may run out of characters to kill off.
Misfits is a British sci-fi/ comedy series that aired on E4 for five seasons between 2009 and 2013. The show followed a group of young delinquents who mistakenly obtain supernatural powers while they’re forced to work community service. The first few seasons of Misfits garnered critical praise for the show’s ability to blend multiple genres into one cohesive story, along the same lines as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, once the show started killing off their main characters, Misfits began to fall in quality.
The main characters at the start of series are Kelly, Nathan, Curtis, Simon, and Alisha. But at the end of season three, both Simon and Alisha meet their demise. New characters are introduced, but they weren’t enough to hook the audience before Kelly and Nathan exit, and even Curtis is killed off in the following season finale.
6. The Wire
The Wire is often hailed as one of the greatest television shows of all time and is notable for its realistic portrayal of urban life in the city of Baltimore. The show’s creator, former police reporter David Simon, has said that The Wire is less of a cop-drama, and more of a show about a real American city, which makes it that much more impactful when many of the characters meet a tragic end.
The illegal drug trade is a thread that runs through the entire series, and, much like real life America, it is where many of the characters meet their early end. D’Angelo Barksdale, Proposition Joe, and Stringer Bell all meet a violent end as a result of their criminal lives. Even Omar Little, a legendary figure in Baltimore and a fan-favorite character, is ultimately shot to death in a meaningless act of violence by the show’s end.
5. Prison Break
Prison Break was originally conceived to be a TV mini-series — an arguably better format for a story that revolved around a single event. Because of the success of Lost and 24, Fox went all-in with Prison Break and decided to stretch it into a renewable series. They even extended the first season of the show so audiences could watch the inmates finally escape from prison.
But then the show really started to lose steam, and to keep audiences on their toes in season two, Prison Break began an all-out murder spree. Veronica dies in the season two premiere after finding out that the man Lincoln had supposedly killed is alive and well. Then a few members of the Fox River 8 are also killed off, including Charles Patoshik, AKA Haywire, and John Abruzzi, who was played by the always excellent Peter Stormare.
The show kept killing off some of their most entertaining characters, which ultimately lead to declined ratings and a series cancellation. The main character, Michael Scofield, was even killed off during the events of The Final Break, but he was miraculously brought back to life for the delayed fifth season.
For being such a gargantuan hit, Lost killed off an impressive number of their main characters. Even if you’re still sour about the lack of satisfying answers during the show’s final season, you have to give the writers props for taking so many chances within the confines of network television.
The killing spree began with Boone, who died of internal bleeding in season one after falling off a cliff’s edge while exploring a crashed plane. Audiences knew that Lost wasn’t messing around when both Shannon and Charlie were killed off during the show’s second and third seasons.
Many other characters met a tragic end on Lost, including Ana Lucia, Libby, Mr. Eko, Jin, and Sun. But as the series wore on, these deaths began to pack less of a punch — not because we cared any less about the characters, but because the story as whole felt weaker. Not to mention that many deceased characters kept popping back up in flashbacks and during hallucinations, making the possibility of a character being killed off feel much less finite.
When a show is based on a Coen Brothers movie (which happens to end with Steve Buscemi getting fed into a wood chipper) you better believe that there are going to be a number of gruesome deaths throughout the series. Fargo debuted on FX back in 2014 and has featured an impressive line-up of actors during its first three seasons, including Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, and Ewan McGregor.
Fargo is an anthology series, which features a different story, time period, and cast of characters every season — the perfect set up to off as many of the main characters before each finale. And Fargo does just that.
Just like the original film, the show has no shortage of creatively gruesome ways to kill of their characters, which is on full display in season one where Billy Bob Thorton plays the trigger-happy hitman Lorne Malvo. Even if you can save yourself from being shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death on this show, there’s always the very real possibility that the North Dakota cold will put you in an icy grave anyway.
2. The Walking Dead
For season after season, The Walking Dead killed off character after character, only to have their audience continue to grow. But then they bashed in Glenn’s brains during the season seven premiere and have been hemorrhaging viewers ever since. So what gives?
Of course, Glenn had been a fan favorite since season one of the show, but even the most casual viewers knew that that didn’t mean he was immune to being killed off. Instead, it was the manner in which Glenn was ousted from the show — making the viewers wait between seasons just to see the extremely gratuitous death scene.
The show-runners seemed to have picked up the hint that, while they can still kill off major characters, they should give them a more appropriate send-off. They most recently killed off Sasha in the season seven finale, but they managed to make her death feel earned, as well as fittingly poignant.
1. Game of Thrones
Could any other show possibly replace Game of Thrones for the number one spot? Though other shows may kill off more characters, what sets this HBO series apart is how significant the character that they kill off are to the plot. Eddard Stark’s execution at the end of season one was simply unthinkable, as he was easily the show’s central character for the first nine episodes.
Then in the next few seasons, Ned’s eldest son, Robb, steps up to lead the North, only to be brutally murdered, along with his mother and newly pregnant wife, during the events of the Red Wedding. Then Joffrey was killed off. Then Tywin Lannister. Then King Tommen and King Stannis both met their demises. And Hodor, poor Hodor. Not to mention that we almost lost Jon Snow for good at the end of season five. And that’s barely scratching the surface!
But instead of letting these character deaths hinder the storytelling, they actually enhance it — as we watch power continue to change hands throughout the Seven Kingdoms. And we doubt Game of Thrones has any intention of ceasing the bloodshed as we head into the show’s final seasons.
So what TV shows have used these character deaths to their advantage? Which shows were they a giant misstep? Let us know in the comments!