Death comes to us all, but when you live your life vicariously through that little square box in the living room, waving goodbye to your favorite character can be like losing a family member.
Nothing can boost TV ratings like the promise of a big death, and while it could be as simple as closing their eyes and peacefully passing on, most are an all-guns-blazing swan song. We have seen it all: you should also avoid weddings, births, and even other funerals if you expect to make it to the next season of the network's biggest show alive.
Shows like Lost and Prison Break became famous for killing anyone and everyone, while rom-com medical dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy have some pretty low survival statistics. Elsewhere, on AMC's The Walking Dead, literally no one is safe - just remember, though - if they kill Daryl we riot. Don’t even get us started on George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, which have gleefully found themselves and equally gory home on television.
Even comedies like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Ugly Betty juggled the belly laughs with the shadowy presence of death hanging over them.
With all this in mind, let’s check out the 20 Most Shocking Deaths On TV, Ranked.
20 Poussey - Orange Is The New Black
The most recent entry to the list, have we finished drying our eyes over Orange is the New Black’s Poussey Washington yet?
The tension built to the finale, and as a riot broke out and the guards sprung into action, it was clear that tragedy was just around the corner. Poussey drew the short straw and actress Samira Wiley got a beautiful send-off in her own centric episode. Prison shows like Wentworth are always littered with deaths, while Orange is the New Black had always represented the lighter side of life behind bars.
Poussey’s death is sure to have a huge impact on the coming season of the show, and don’t expect the rioting inmates of Litchfield to forget what happened to their sister-in-arms.
Some may call it out as another “bury your gays” scandal, but the death of Poussey felt like a tragically natural part of the show. Especially with so many people dying at the hands of law enforcement, it was a brave statement for Netflix’s spunky comedy to make.
19 Dan Conner - Roseanne
The last season of Roseanne goes down in history as one of the most critically-panned in all of television, mainly thanks to the bizarre twist to kill off the titular lead’s husband. Jon Goodman’s Dan had memorably suffered a massive heart attack (and survived), but the final episode retconned this to reveal he really did kick the bucket several years earlier.
The real clincher was that the entire final season had all been a ruse. We had been watching through the eyes of a deranged Roseanne, who now found herself writing her own fan-fiction after Dan’s death. With both the show and Goodman returning in 2018, ABC is going to have to pull the ol’ Dallas shower dream gag to rectify this one.
18 Maude Flanders
It may be all sunshine and sniggers over on FOX’s The Simpsons, but behind the laughter beats a dark underbelly.
There have been only a handful of deaths on the show, but none quite shocked like Maude Flanders’ demise back in season 11. There was no long-term illness, no murderous whodunnit, and she was killed in perhaps the most ludicrous demise to ever grace TV - death by T-shirt cannon. With the Flanders family always being the holier than thou neighbors to the Simpsons, it poignantly reminded us that bad things happen to good people.
Ned has since remarried to Edna Krabappel, but with voice actor Marcia Wallace sadly passing away, it makes Ned the unofficial black widower of Springfield. Thankfully, The Simpsons stuck to its guns, and unlike so many shows, Maude has only returned via flashback or the occasional ghost story since.
17 Mrs. Landingham - The West Wing
As the personal secretary to President Josiah Bartlet, Kathryn Joosten’s Mrs. Landingham had her usual sharp wit about her and became a staple of the show’s first two seasons. However, with Aaron Sorkin being the wicked writer that he is, Landingham was about to bow out in the most tragic of ways.
At an age older than most Mrs. Landingham finally got her driving license and excitedly bought her first car. On the way to show her new purchase to the POTUS, she was tragically killed by a drunk driver and caused audiences everywhere to stare in disbelief at what they had just seen.
Bartlet and Langindham shared something of a brother-sister relationship and she was rightly the only member of staff he addressed formally. Landingham’s death affected Bartlet greatly and even lead him to question running for re-election. How could you, Sorkin?
16 Nathaniel Fisher - Six Feet Under
The moral of the story in television should basically read, “Don’t get in the car.” Now, we spend our days anxiously looking away from the screen whenever our favorite characters step foot in an automobile and the camera zooms in just a little too long.
Don’t get too attached to the narrator on Six Feet Under. Way back when in 2001, and the very first episode of Six Feet Under, we were right in assuming that Richard Jenkins’ Nate Fisher Sr. would play a major part - we just didn’t realize that it would be from beyond the grave. After a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve, the show honed in on the Fisher family and all their dirty little secrets. Nate did pop up to give some fatherly advice every now and then, while his loved ones struggled to continue his eerie legacy of a funeral home.
Whacking us with quite a punch from the get-go, Six Feet Under continued to wallop through its cast members over the next five seasons. The show controversially ended with literally everyone dying (well, we all do at some point) and showcased how one story can deal so frankly with death, but in such a meaningful way.
15 Joyce Summers - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
It is no mystery that Joss Whedon managed to turn a teenage vampire drama into one of the best TV shows of all time. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we laughed, we cried, and we cowered behind the cushions.
Kristine Sutherland played the part of Buffy’s naive mother during the show’s first four seasons. Then, in an otherwise lackluster run the for the show's fourth season, Buffy tore our hearts out and killed off Joyce Summers. Joyce had been the glue that held together the Scooby Gang and fans of the show will never get over the image of her corpse laying on the sofa.
In a show where death by vampire, demon, or hex was commonplace, Joyce dying of natural causes was made all the more devastating. Not only as one of the best non-Buffy Buffy episodes, but one of the show’s best hours of scripting, "The Body" is remembered by its title alone.
14 Jimmy Darmody - Boardwalk Empire
HBO’s prohibition boozer was a glorious stroll down the boardwalk, however, most only remember Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire for its first two stellar seasons. Steve Buscemi played the shady Enoch Thompson for the show’s entire run, but in its early days, he was helped out by Michael Pitt as the floppy-haired Jimmy Darmody.
Once friends and ending as sworn enemies, Nucky and Jimmy had jostled for power over the entire second season. After several attempts on both their lives, and Jimmy’s wife Angie being caught in the crossfire, things came to a head in the season 2 finale.
It was clear that Atlantic City wasn’t big enough for the two gangsters, but the end of Nucky and Jimmy’s father-son relationship was a tragic one to watch. In the pouring rain, we saw Nucky gun down his former protégé in cold blood after rejecting his apology. Don’t cry too much, though. Jimmy got his revenge from beyond the grave when his son Tommy returned the favor to Nucky in the show’s finale.
13 Charlie Pace - Lost
Picking a most shocking moment from Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s mind-warping Lost would be tough enough, but to narrow down the extensive list of cast departures is an even harder task to take on.
"Through the Looking Glass Pt. 2” briefly gave our Losties the promise of rescue before cruelly snatching it away from us. As Dominic Monaghan’s Charlie Pace finally got in touch with Demond’s beau Penny, the pieces clicked into place and our hero realized that the freighter was not here to save our Oceanic 815 survivors.
Few had expected Charlie's happy ending and new life to be cut so short - even if it was a season finale. After overcoming his heroin addiction and even finding love on the shores of the island, Charlie was giving a final noble turn; scrawling “Not Penny’s Boat” on his hand before Patchy blew the hatch open.
Charlie went down in an ocean of glory. The shot of Charlie breathing his last breath just as baby Aaron began to cry was Lost’s circle of life theme at its strongest.
12 Omar Little - The Wire
It was never going to be a fairytale ending for Omar Little’s gangland war on The Wire, however, Michael K. Williams was brilliant in the role until his character’s death. Anyone who can survive a four-storey jump and carry on limping is made of stronger stuff than most, but even the invincible iron man of Baltimore finally ran out of lives. Little bowed out not on the mean streets he battled, but in the cramped aisles of a corner shop.
Williams has always been a brilliant character actor, but Little goes down as by far his greatest performance. Also, in the motley ranks of The Wire, Omar stood out among the rest of the gangsters and hoodlums.
The shock of Omar’s death wasn’t the timing, but it was how we were lured into a false sense of security with who was behind the trigger. Just like Joyce Summers’ departure coming from the wings, Omar was gunned down by a juvenile delinquent and without the hero’s death he probably deserved.
11 Zoe Barnes - House Of Cards
Kate Mara played upstart journalist Zoe Barnes for an annoyingly short stint on House of Cards. Netflix’s political powerhouse may have long since moved on, but Ms. Barnes once looked to be the show’s second lead under Kevin Spacey’s villainous Frank Underwood. Alas, just like in the original British version, Zoe was about to have her ticket punched.
Zoe’s dogged desire to uncover the truth landed her in some hot water and on the windshield of a speeding train. It was a gobsmacking turning point for the show and took Frank from standoffish puppetmaster to full-blown killer. Getting his hands dirty, Frank shoved an unsuspecting Zoe (and the audience) in front of the train.
Covering his tracks as well as he could, Frank was left to walk free while Zoe was assumed to have jumped. The visceral violence was grim to behold, but it set the tone of the show’s second season on an uncompromising course to the White House.
10 Adriana La Cerva - The Sopranos
It is a well-known fact that snitches get stitches, and a show as brutal as The Sopranos wasn’t about to forget that in its fifth season. Admitting to your mobster fiancee that you are actually an FBI informant can go one of two ways, but unfortunately for Drea de Matteo’s Adriana La Cerva, it made her a marked woman in the eyes of the New Jersey mafia.
We had already seen Vincent “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero meet his maker after being exposed as a rat, so when Adriana took on the role as the show's next mole, she may as well have cast her own pair of cement boots.
The already morally questionable Christopher looked like he could turn over a new leaf and stick by his woman, but then, siding with his crime family instead, Christopher abandoned all hopes of the simple life. Pretending that Christopher had attempted suicide, a stoic Silvio drove Adriana out to the woods in a stirring finale. Adriana met a Godfather-style end and was gunned down against the picturesque backdrop of some isolated woods.
9 Helen Flynn - Spooks
While some may not have heard of the BBC’s bloody spy drama Spooks (and even fewer of the film starring Kit Harington), it was a shining example of the Beeb’s original drama. For 10 seasons, a memorable cast of MI5 agents tried to save the city of London and beyond.
Pretty much everyone eventually died in the line of duty, but the very first season contained its biggest shocker. Lisa Faulkner’s Helen Flynn was tipped to be one of the show’s main characters and featured front and center in Spooks' marketing campaign. So, let’s say that we were more than a little shocked when Helen was killed just two episodes in.
Not only shocking for its timing, Helen’s death received a wave of Ofcom complaints (154 to be exact) for the way in which she died. Kidnapped by a far-Right extremist, Helen had her head horrifically dunked in a deep fat fryer. Somehow she survived her injuries, only to be shot in the head moments later in front of her comrades. Even post-watershed, it was uncomfortable to watch and brought a whole new meaning to getting “battered.”
8 Hank Schrader - Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad was a meth-fueled tour of the New Mexico desert, and unlike so many shows, actually got better the longer it went on. Its season 5 episode “Ozymandias” is immortalized as the most shocking in the show’s entire run. Away from acid baths and Gus Fring’s facelift, the death of Hank Schrader is something we still struggle to get over.
By Breaking Bad’s final season, our Y-Front-wearing chemistry teacher had taken on the full Heisenberg persona, but even Walt drew the line at murdering his DEA brother-in-law. While Walt didn’t pull the trigger himself, he was forced to helplessly watch as Neo-Nazi Jack shot Hank point-blank in the skull.
While the show continued for two more episodes, “Ozymandias” is heralded as the “first” end of Vince Gilligan’s show. In a year that was packed with big character deaths, Breaking Bad rejigged the formula to critical acclaim. Sure, Hank was a bit of a blowhard, but no one deserves a shallow grave on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
7 Will Gardner - The Good Wife
Even big-death shows like Game of Thrones tend to skirt around offing a central character, so actually killing off the male lead of any show is a rarity reserved for the likes of Homeland. However, 2014 left us in awe as we watched the death of Will Gardner on The Good Wife.
After happily meandering along for five seasons of legal and marital strife, Will was written out in a horrifying turn of events. Unless you are Harvey Dent in Batman, a courtroom is usually a relatively safe place to reside, well, that was until The Good Wife’s "Dramatics, Your Honor”.
There was always something unnerving about Hunter Parrish's performance as the deranged Jeffrey Grant and this shows us exactly why. As Will defended Grant, the client seized his chance, grabbed an unsecured firearm off a cop, and proceeded to unloaded a bullet straight into Will's neck.
Josh Charles’ contract may have run out, and we know that Julianna Margulies had asked him to stay on a little longer, but no one expected Will to quite have “that” sort of ending.
6 Lucy Knight - ER
Grey’s Anatomy may currently win the award for most dangerous hospital workplace, but let’s not forget that ER was joyfully swinging the scythe of death before Meredith Grey had even picked up a textbook. Whether it be exploding ambulances or rogue helicopters, Chicago General kept us on the edge of our seat cliffhanger after cliffhanger.
Season 6 of the medical emergency gave us a Valentine’s Day episode that didn’t quite make our hearts flutter, but it did tear them out and stomp all over them. As a schizophrenic patient stabbed Noah Wyle's Dr. John Carter, he fell to the floor, only to discover Dr. Lucy Knight already lying there and suffering a much more grim prognosis.
While Carter survived his wounds (and went on a path to addiction), Kellie Martin’s plucky Lucy wasn’t quite so lucky. To make it even worse, Carter had just discovered a Valentine’s card from Lucy to him, and soapland split up another star-crossed couple before they could live happily ever after.
5 Fred Burkle- Angel
Joss Whedon has a lot to answer for. Sure, the death of Tara on Buffy is a painful reminder of the director’s cruel streak, but even this pales in comparison to the passing on Winifred Burkle on Angel.
When infected with an ancient virus that was eating her from the inside out, the entire team of Wolfram & Hart raced to save Fred at no avail.
Forget Willow’s bullet trick - nothing will beat Fred’s parting words of "Wesley, why can't I stay?" With the fires of resurrection destroying Fred's soul, there is also another knife twist.
Adding more shocking insult to injury, the characters spent the rest of their episodes living with the demonic Illyria inside of Fred’s hollowed corpse - it was chilling stuff. Amy Acker has revealed that season 6 of the show could’ve explored splitting Illyria from Fred, or even her return to life, but Angel already axed to leave us with this unfortunate reality.
4 Rita Morgan - Dexter
The entire premise of Showtime’s Dexter was about a show that trod the morally fine line, but some people will never, ever, get over the death of Rita Morgan. Love her or hate her, Julie Benz’s motherly blonde was the focal point of Dexter’s “normal” life and her death was never going to be as simple as slipping away in her sleep.
As well as giving us one of the worst finales ever and (sort of) letting the bad guy get away with it, Dexter also had some incredibly strong and moving story arcs. John Lithgow excelled as the Trinity Killer and once again showcased why he is one of the best villain actors out there. Although Dexter got the better of Trinity in the season 4 finale, Arthur Mitchell had one more surprise for our forensic analyst.
It was extending the game of cat and mouse longer necessary and Dexter’s own ego that forced him to pay the ultimate price. Rita’s body was discovered in a bath of her own blood, while her lifeless eyes stared at her blood-covered baby. It is still a struggle to forget the image and the show was never quite the same after it.
3 Henry Blake - M*A*S*H
Sometimes it is the old ones that are the best, and not only does M*A*S*H have the most-watched finale to a series ever, it also has one of television’s most shocking deaths. Up until moments before the big reveal, only the producers knew what was coming our way.
Underneath his fishing hat, Colonel Henry Blake was clearly the best man for the job to command the 4077th, while McLean Stevenson was also perfectly cast in the role and rightly won a Golden Globe for his performance. However, when Stevenson was tired of being part of an ensemble (a decision he would live to regret), he was written out in the season 3 finale and “Abyssinia, Henry.”
After a happy swansong as Blake took off into the skies, the next scene revealed that his plane had been shot down over Japan with no survivors. As the first character death on TV, it was groundbreaking for the time and you can see exactly why it deserves its place in history even now. However, perhaps even more shocking was the fact that not even the cast knew it was coming, meaning that the reactions filmed were 100% authentic. We salute you, Colonel Blake!
2 George O'Malley - Grey's Anatomy
After covering the Whedon woes, it looks like there is actually one creator out there who can top his malevolence. Shonda Rhimes has us reaching for the tissues on almost all her shows, but can anything top the death of George O’Malley on Grey’s Anatomy?
Cheeky chappy George O’Malley was preparing for a new life as a field doctor and proudly stepped out of the doors of Seattle Grace in Season 5’s "Now or Never." With the episode focussing on various other dramas inside and outside the hospital, none of the doctors thought that the arrival of a bashed-up John Doe would ever be their fallen co-worker. Saving an innocent woman from in front of a bus, O’Malley had put his life on the line with devastating consequences.
Calling back to his intern days, the disfigured man managed to trace “007” on the palm of Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey. As audiences and characters realized his tragic identity, it was already too late for George. Grey's is a show mired in tragedy and whether it be Lexi crushed under a plane or Denny's terminal illness, we have sobbed at them all. That being said, nothing will ever take away from George's heroic sacrifice.
1 Robb And Catelyn Stark - Game Of Thrones
Oh those poor Starks. If HBO’s Game of Thrones does one thing better than any other show, it's killing off its favorite family in imaginative ways. Ned Stark lost his head to Joffrey and little Rickon took and arrow to the chest; but it was the deaths of Robb and Catelyn Stark that scarred us the most.
As the show overtakes the books, who knows what ghastly ways our favorites will be dispatched in the show’s final two seasons or how the show will end. Looking back, it would be all too easy to pick the death of Ned Stark for the top spot, but in terms of pure shock, the phrase “Red Wedding” is forever etched in our nightmares.
Just moments after Robb Stark was stabbed by a treacherous Roose Bolton, his dear mother had her throat slit in front of a court of baying Freys. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard “The Rains of Castamere” and we lost two more of those noble Starks. Even fans who knew what was coming from the books couldn't prepare for what we saw on our screens.
Which do you think is the most shocking death to ever grace our TV screens? Sound off in the comments below!
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