“Oh my god, I can’t believe they killed off — “
Character death used to be unusual on TV, but not in the 21st century. Whether they're on thrillers, sitcoms or space operas, characters kick the bucket and shows wring every possible drop of pathos and shock out of the corpse. It may be tragedy, black comedy, or supposed realism (“See, viewers? In our gritty milieu ANYONE CAN DIE!") but it happens.
Killing characters can save a troubled show. It gets rid of actors who are too pricey or too unpleasant to work with. It removes characters whose stories have ended. Even if it angers viewer, many creators prefer that to an apathetic audience. The director who told enraged fans “it’s great that you’re all up in arms about it” probably spoke for many colleagues.
Even so, death isn’t always a winning move. Some shows lose fans when death trims the cast. Some shows alienate minority viewers by showing how disposable their on-screen counterparts are. Even unpopular characters have devoted fans ready to tweet up a storm if their fave bites it.
Whether by eliminating a great character, enraging off fans, or leaving writers scrambling for new storylines, some of these deaths seriously hurt their shows. Other deaths on the list made the shows better and stronger. And our number one death both saved and ruined a hit show.
Here are 8 Characters Deaths That Saved The Show (And 8 That Ruined Them).
16 Ruined: Lexa - The 100
For a lot of LGBT viewers, the warrior Lexa on the CW’s The 100 was a character they could look at and identify with. Then she fell in love with Clarke, one of 100 troublemakers sent from orbit to explore Earth and see if it had become habitable again. Seven episodes into season 3, Lexa died after she and Clarke finally got together.
This is a disturbing trope: a gay woman on TV, particularly one with an active love life, will often die. In a year that had already seen other LGBT women die on various shows, Lexa’s death ignited a firestorm of criticism. The producers’ arguments that this was a natural outcome to the story and would help shape Clarke’s character going forward didn’t help.
The 100 is still going, but its ratings never recoved from Lexa's death.
15 Saved: Laurel Lance - Arrow
Laurel Lance began her life on Arrow with lots of potential: an idealistic public defender who shared a romantic history with Oliver Queen. It seemed quite possible that she’d eventually don the costume of Oliver’s comic-book love, Black Canary.
Somehow, though Laurel's potential drizzled away.
Her downward arc — abusing substances, keeping her job through blackmail — didn't seem tragic as much as miserable and pathetic. She finally replaced her sister Sara, as Black Canary, but her fighting skills were a pale shadow of Sara's. Finally Damien Darhk killed her.
Laurel could have been a great character, but instead she wound up muddled — not good enough for a hero, not bad enough for an antihero. As things turned out, the show is better off without her.
14 Ruined: Cottonmouth on Luke Cage
There’s a lot to love about Netflix’s Luke Cage. There was less to love as the series progressed, though, particularly after the series killed Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and replaced him with the much less popular Diamondback.
In Stokes’ eyes, there's no shame in being Harlem’s crime kingpin. He's a businessman, entitled to respect, as much a part of the city’s power structure as his cousin, Councilwoman Dillard. Cage doesn’t buy Stokes’ self-justifying view, which puts the two men on an inevitable collision course. But mid-season Stokes starts to lose his grip, so Dillard ends up killing him and framing Cage.
Cage vs. Dillard would have been a blast, but instead we get Diamondback, Cage’s illegitimate, hate-filled half-brother. Where Cottonmouth had control and style, Diamondback had ranting and Bible quotations. It proved a poor trade-off.
13 Saved: Lori Grimes - The Walking Dead
A zombie apocalypse is guaranteed to have a high body count, and The Walking Dead’s death toll is pretty steep. Still, some deaths, such as Lori Grimes in the third season, stand out more than others.
The show isn't noted for sweet, lovable characters, but even by that standard Lori was unpopular.
Two weeks after her husband Rick had supposedly died, she’s done with mourning and taking a new lover, Shane. A lot of fans were happy to see her buy the farm.
Lori left the show with a memorable death. Giving birth in a zombie attack, the only way to deliver turns out to be a C-section. The operation kills her (quality medical care is rare in a zombie apocalypse), then her son shoots her before she can rise as a zombie.
12 Ruined: Tara - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Long before Lexa, Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was TV’s most infamous lesbian death.
Initially bonding with Willy as a student of magic, Tara soon became much more than a friend. It was a popular pairing, especially in a period when happy lesbian couples were even rarer than now. But at the end of season 6, one of the season’s villains attacks Buffy, shoots wildly and kills Tara. The season climax was Willow going crazy with grief and trying to destroy the world, which didn’t strike anyone as good representation either.
What made it particularly infuriating for fans was that the creative team had acknowledged the homophobic trope (already a thing by that time) and stated that no, there was no way they would ever kill off Tara.
11 Saved: Pru - Charmed
The series began with Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs as sibling sorceresses whose magic protected San Francisco from evil. It was marked by backstage feuding among the cast, and Doherty also reportedly locked horns with the executive producer. So at the end of S3, Doherty’s Pru Halliwell died.
Replacing a core character is always risky, but in Charmed it paid off.
That posed a problem for a series structured around three magical sisters. Enter Rose McGowan as Pagie Halliwell, a half-sister the women didn’t know existed. McGowan was actually a stronger presence on the show than Doherty and Charmed ran another five seasons — though Doherty’s defenders still wish she’d stuck around.
10 Ruined: Elena - The Vampire Diaries
When The Vampire Diaries began, high-schooler Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) was its heart and soul. Orphaned in a car accident, she found new life in the arms of vampire Stefan Salvatore and new danger as their love entangled her with the supernatural world.
Elena remained the core of the show even after she broke up with Stefan and fell for his brother Damon - and even after she became a vampire herself. But at the end of season 6, Dobrev left the show, so Elena plunged herself into a deathlike sleep to save her friend Bonnie.
That might have steered the show in an exciting new direction. Instead, the writers did little for the remaining two seasons but fling ideas at the screen and see which would stick. Without Elena, none of them did.
9 Saved: Chuck - Pushing Daisies
Chuck Charles’s death in the pilot of Pushing Daisies didn’t just save the show; it defined it. When it comes to prolonging romantic tension, “if you touch, you die” is darn effective.
The show’s protagonist, pie-maker Ned, has a second job working with a private investigator. Ned’s resurrecting touch lets him grill murder victims about their deaths, then use second touch to return them to eternal rest. Only when he brought back Chuck, his childhood crush, he couldn’t bring himself to kill her again — which meant he couldn’t touch her, ever.
That relationship gave the show a romantic backbone rather than being just a murder mystery with a very strange protagonist. It's too bad the show didn't even get a full second season, forcing a rushed wrap-up. The end came way too soon!
8 Ruined: Rita - Dexter
When your protagonist is a serial killer, you can expect the show to have lots of death. But for fans of Dexter, the death of his wife Rita was one death too many.
Initially, Dexter’s involvement with Rita, a single mom, was strategic, a way to help the antiheroic sociopath pass for normal. Over time he seemed to develop genuine feelings for her, or as close to feelings as he can come. They married, Dexter became father to her two children, and they had a child of their own.
Perhaps it was inevitable that in Dexter’s world, things would go wrong.
At the end of the fourth season, John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer murdered Rita. Dexter found her body in their bathtub. With Rita gone, the emotional heart of the show was too.
7 Saved: Kenny - South Park
Running gags and catchphrases are one of the things that give a show buzz. For South Park in its early years, the catchphrase was “Oh my God, they killed Kenny.”
Crushed by lava. Devoured by a goldfish. Zombified. Cut by a chainsaw. Crushed under a statue. Heart replaced by a potato. During the early seasons of the show Kenny McCormick died over and over. And over. And over.
Even people who never watched the show’s mix of imaginative satire and calculated in-your-face offensiveness knew that on South Park, they killed Kenny. Hard to miss when multiple unrelated shows found ways over the years to work “They killed Kenny” or some variation on it into the dialogue.
Killing Kenny certainly wasn’t the only reason South Park became a smash. but it didn’t hurt.
6 Ruined: Curtis - Misfits
Who needs The Flash’s particle accelerator? In the first episode of the UK’s Misfits, a freak storm was all it took to turn a bunch of young adults on community service into metahumans. The show followed them as they tried to exploit their powers, protect themselves from other metas, and occasionally do something heroic.
The creators apparently thought that they could change the core cast without losing viewers. By the fourth season, Curtis (a time traveler, though his powers later changed), was the last of the original Misfit left in the show.
Midway through the season, he took his own life. The newbies weren’t able to keep things running for more than another season.
5 Saved: Teri Bauer on 24
24 was revolutionary when it debuted in 2001. Twenty-four episodes, each taking up one hour of real time, less commercials, adding up to one day of nail-biting suspense.
Along with suspense, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer had a day of personal drama to deal with. His family was fractured and Jack was having an affair with his colleague Nina. It turned out Nina was an agent for the bad guys trying to kill the president. Her employers didn’t succeed, but in the last hour, when Jack and his wife Teri had reconciled, Nina killed Teri.
If they’d let Teri live, 24 would have been different.
Jack would have been different; a married man instead of someone increasingly alone. The creators made the right call in going dark.
4 Ruined: Brody - Homeland
For some fans, the death of Nick Brody in Showtime’s Homeland was the waste of a good character. For the show-runner, it was the one thing left to do with the character.
Homeland's early seasons focused on Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent, and Nicholas Brody, a former Marine held captive by terrorists. Brody has been turned by the enemy but Clare can’t convince her superiors the war hero is a threat. Finally Brody’s daughter talks him out of committing an assassination. Circumstances, however, lead to terrorists framing Brody for a bombing; things go bad for him from then on. He winds up publicly hanged in Iran at the end of seaosn 3.
The showrunner argued that while Brody could have been saved, his storyline had run his course. Brody fans thought ending his story that way was a major blow to the show’s drama.
3 Saved: First Doctor - Doctor Who
In its own way, the death of the First Doctor was just as important to Doctor Who as Chuck’s death to Pushing Daisies.
The BBC originally conceived Doctor Who as an educational show starring veteran actor William Hartnell. His travels through history would teach kids about the past under the guise of adventure. Then the second serial introduced the Daleks and sci-fi began squeezing out the history material
An even bigger change came when age and ill health forced Hartnell to step down. Rather than cancel Doctor Who or find some way to keep the show going without the Doctor, the Doctor died — and regenerated into Patrick Troughton. The show stayed popular as it did when Troughton regenerated into Pertwee, Pertwee regenerated into Baker, and on and on.
2 Ruined: Bobby - Dallas
Bobby Ewing’s death on Dallas was a mistake, but his resurrection became a TV legend.
Patrick Duffy left the prime-time soap at the end of season 7, believing he’d taken his character — the moral voice among the conniving Ewing clan — as far as he could. Bobby died in a car crash, but series star Larry Hagman became increasingly frustrated with Duffy-less season 8. When Hagman talked to Duffy about returning, Duffy’s wife joked it could only happen if season 8 had been a dream.
And so it was. The season episode stunned viewers with Bobby appearing in his wife’s shower — how was it possible? At the start of season 9, it turned out season 8 had indeed been nothing but a dream. The resurrection continues to divide fans long after the show’s cancellation four years later.
1 Ruined/Saved: Charlie Harper - Two and a Half Men
Charlie Sheen’s departure from Two and a Half Men is a textbook example of how a character’s death can save a show, but also how death can ruin it.
Sheen's character, Charlie, died offscreen at the end of the eighth season because Warner Bros. wanted to cut Sheen loose. The studio said it was fed up with Sheen's “inflammatory comments” about coworkers, his “dangerously self-destructive conduct” and problems caused by Sheen's drug and alcohol issues.
Rather than axe a hit show, the studio replaced Charlie with a new lead, Walden, played by Ashton Kutcher. Ratings remained good at first but critics described the new show as “laugh-free.” Then ratings went down, but the show lasted to the end of season 12. If Sheen hadn't been fired, Two and a Half Men might have lived on. Or it would have gone up in flames way sooner.
Are there any deaths you think saved a show? Trashed a show? Tell us in comments.