TV writers learned long ago that a great way to get an audience to react in a major way is by killing off a character. It shakes up the storylines, keeps fans emotionally invested, and reminds everyone of how high the stakes are. The only downside is that it gets rid of a character that writers and fans alike have become too invested in. And thus we were given the fake-out death: cutting away from a character just as it looks like there’s no way they could possibly survive— only they somehow do.
It’s a cheap way to maintain tension. At best it's emotionally manipulative, at worst it makes fans resent the show for toying with them. Fake-out deaths have become the boy who cried wolf of television, conditioning viewers to remain skeptical, even if they see a character shot in the head. It could always have been a dream sequence, right? Or maybe a clone, or a hologram? Fans have seen every whacky death-escaping explanation at this point, and a lot of people just don’t buy it anymore.
There’s going to be SPOILERS for quite a few shows ahead, so consider yourself warned. With that, here’s our list of the 12 Most Irritating Fake-Out Deaths on TV.
11 GLENN RHEE - WALKING DEAD
One of the more recent inclusions on this list, but certainly no less irritating. After Glenn's companion Nicholas decided to kill himself in the middle of a zombie horde, he of course had knock Glenn to the ground and land right on top of him as the walkers converged. The camera cuts to a close-up of Glenn’s horrified face as we see zombie’s ripping out intestines, and Glenn screaming a lot, like someone losing his organs would. Only those weren’t actually his intestines we saw the zombies feasting on.
Fans were left in the dark about Glenn’s fate for weeks before the show returned to his character, confirming a seemingly ridiculous theory that many online had discussed: Glenn survived because the zombies were too busy eating his dead friend on top of him to bother with the man pinned underneath. He was able to work his way free and crawl into hiding, emerging once the zombies had eaten their fill and dispersed. So basically, fans had their emotions toyed with due to a deliberately misleading camera angle. Thanks for that, Walking Dead.
10 OLIVER QUEEN - ARROW
Suspension of disbelief is a must for any fan of superheroes. The ability to fight off a crowd of people at once, have accelerated healing after a beatdown, and many other perks just for being a hero are pretty standard. What’s not so standard is a hero being able to get impaled through the chest with a sword, be pushed off the side of a mountain, and subsequently bounce back the very next episode like he was sleeping off a cold. If Superman did it? Fine, we know how overpowered he is. Wolverine? His actual mutation is his ability to regenerate from pretty much anything, so that won’t bat many eyes. But Green Arrow? Nothing against Oliver Queen, but his major skill is archery, and we don’t see a scenario in which Katniss Everdeen survives a sword to the chest.
Arrow's fake-out death is an irritating one, because it’s obvious to most viewers that a show is not going to kill off its titular character midway through a season. It does less to further the tension and more to take away from the credibility of the show. What was especially baffling was the fact that Queen’s opponent during the fight was Ra's al Ghul, and the show had introduced the concept of the Lazarus Pit into this storyline. Rather than utilize a plot point that can reverse death, Queen simply survives because mortal wounds suddenly aren’t enough to stop Green Arrow.
9 THE MOLDAVIAN MASSACRE - DYNASTY
Long before Game of Thrones brought us the Red Wedding, there was Dynasty and the Moldavian Massacre. The primetime soap's fifth season finale shocker had terrorists burst into the chapel of a royal wedding, unloading on everyone with guns and seemingly killing a number of people in attendance, including several primary characters. Viewers were stunned, and worse yet, had to wait until the beginning of the next season to see the aftermath of the slaughter. The sixth season premiere became the most watched episode of the entire series, because so many people wanted to see which characters were killed off.
Unlike the Red Wedding, the results were nowhere near as devastating as they appeared. Viewers quickly learned that they had been anxiously running through the possibilities of everyone who might have perished for nothing. Two minor characters were the only casualties of the "massacre," and rather than the audience being relieved, they seemed quite disappointed, judging by the huge drop in ratings as season 6 went on. After promising so much and delivering so little, viewers began giving Dynasty the royal decree that it was unworthy of their time.
8 SARA TANCREDI - PRISON BREAK
Season 3 of Prison Break was plagued by mishaps from the outset, namely a writer’s strike that cut the number of episodes in their season in half. But the biggest setback was that the actress playing one of their main characters, Sara Tancredi, was pregnant in real life, and consequently couldn’t appear at all for the episodes. Unable to advance her character, the writers felt forced into killing off her character, and in gruesome fashion, with her decapitated head being found in a box. Luckily, when Sara’s actress was healthy enough to act again, she was simply brought back in season 4, where it was revealed that the head we saw was just a head that looked like her.
Admittedly, this was not a deliberate fake-out death from the writers. It was simply the writers feeling pushed into a corner without being able to have Sara do anything for a season, but then having to deal with severe backlash from fans for killing her off so abruptly. They tried to rectify this in the final season by giving fans the story they had originally planned for the character. But by then it became pretty difficult to simply forget the absurdity of a mistaken head, and to viewers who knew nothing about the behind the scenes situation, it felt like a cheap source of drama.
7 SHERLOCK HOLMES - SHERLOCK
There should really be a rule that shows named after the main character aren’t allowed to act like they would actually kill the protagonist. Yet in the finale of Sherlock’s second season, we see Holmes placed in a seemingly impossible situation that can only be resolved with his death. His nemesis Moriarty informs him that unless he kills himself, assassins will kill all of his friends. Sherlock’s cleverness finally seems to run short as he complies with the demand and jumps off of a hospital roof to his death. Sherlock’s friends later gather at his grave to pay their final respects, but before the episode ends, we see Sherlock watching the ceremony from afar. How did he survive falling off a roof? You had to wait a whole year to find out.
Compared to some of the other fake-outs on this list, at least Sherlock didn’t string viewers on until the next season over whether Holmes survived. But was that ever really in much doubt? It still put viewers through the same routine of an emotional goodbye, only to have that yanked away and instead make people wonder what outrageous explanation there would be for escaping such a fatal scenario. Nobody was buying Sherlock’s death. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t succeed in killing him off, what chance did BBC have?
6 7. FOX MULDER - THE X-FILES
In season 7 of The X-Files, it looked like Mulder and his like-minded conspiracy theorist fans would finally get some validation of their beliefs after he was abducted by aliens. This was another instance where behind the scenes disputes contributed to the misleading drama on the screen, and contract disputes put David Duchovny’s character in a position where they could afford to write him off. Season 8 saw him popping up to be tortured and experimented on by aliens, and ultimately killed when he finally returned to Earth.
Mulder is only thought to be dead for an episode, so he’s not gone long for the viewers. What really puts this in ridiculous territory is that for the characters on the show, Mulder is not only given a funeral and buried, but he is in his grave for several months before anyone realizes that he’s still alive. Viewers learned that the truth was indeed out there, and the truth was The X-Files was getting rather silly by this point, and Mulder’s fake-out death was a major part of that.
5 6. SPIKE - BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
The fan popularity of the antiheroic Spike has certainly made him live up to the immortal life of a vampire. He was supposed to die early on in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but fans of the show took such a liking to him that he got a reprieve from the writers. And after the success of Angel, the spinoff series to Buffy, apparently the writers figured if the angsty vampire worked once already, why not do it twice? Spike took on a major role in the remainder of Buffy, becoming a love interest for the titular heroine, and ultimately even dying as a hero in the series finale.
Or at least that’s what you’d be left to believe if you never watched Angel. In the final season of Angel, which aired after Buffy wrapped up, Spike was resurrected in the season premiere. The blonde Brit had become so much like Angel that he had even become entangled in a prophecy surrounding his counterpart about a vampire with a soul who would be the champion of the world. Honestly, it just seemed like an excuse to get a fan-favorite back on screen. While other characters in the show’s universe had died and come back, including Buffy herself, Spike’s death took it to another level. Not only was his emotional demise in the conclusion of Buffy undone, but he wasn’t even brought back on the show he died on.
4 5. KENNY MCCORMICK - SOUTH PARK
No, this isn’t referring to Kenny’s many deaths in the earlier seasons of South Park. This refers to the time when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said Kenny’s death was finally going to be permanent in season 5, and he wasn’t coming back. Until he later did in season 6, and he’s been with the show ever since.
After years of Kenny’s death being a recurring gag on South Park, it was suddenly supposed to be a big deal that he was dying yet again. But the audience had already been conditioned into viewing Kenny being killed off as something to laugh at, so many either didn’t believe Kenny was actually going to stay dead this time, or simply didn’t care. Either reaction was totally appropriate, since the writers couldn’t commit to killing Kenny off for real this time, and trying to milk some seriousness out of a running gag just felt pretentious.
3 4. BRIAN GRIFFIN - FAMILY GUY
Following in the footsteps of The Simpsons, the writers of Family Guy decided to try and recapture some of the lost buzz around their show by featuring the death of a character. While The Simpsons settled for killing off minor character Maude Flanders to fulfill their promise, Family Guy went big and killed off one of their main cast with Brian Griffin. Except not really.
After Brian was seemingly killed and replaced by canine newcomer Vinny, fans were furious. An online petition quickly gathered nearly 130,000 signatures of people demanding Brian’s death be undone. In the following week’s episode Brian still wasn’t back, and it looked like this might actually be a long term change. The episode even featured a new opening credits sequence for the show. But then Brian's death was undone with time travel, revealing this as one giant fake-out.
There was clearly no intention to ever actually kill off Brian. It perfectly encapsulates exactly why fake-out deaths are so despised: this had nothing to do with advancing new storylines in the show, or doing something new with the characters. It was just the writers emotionally manipulating their fans for a couple weeks of shock value buzz. Now the buzz is gone, and the episodes focusing on Brian’s death are just remembered as the time Family Guy sunk to a new low of being provocative simply because they can.
2 3. MICHAEL SCOFIELD - PRISON BREAK
A bad side effect of Sara coming back from the dead was that it opened the door for other characters on Prison Break to do the same. It happened multiple times in season 4 with people who looked like they were out of the show for sure. And now it looks like it’s happening again for the Prison Break reboot.
In season 4, Michael is revealed to have a brain tumor that’s quickly killing him. Despite a procedure to eliminate the tumor, at the end of the original series, Michael’s symptomatic nose bleeds return to reveal the tumor is back. The show ends with his wife Sara and the couple’s adolescent son visiting Michael’s grave. Pretty conclusive stuff that Michael died, right? But then Prison Break received a made-for-TV movie sequel, where Michael breaks Sara out of prison, and knowing his death is inevitable due to the tumor, we learn he actually sacrifices himself by getting electrocuted so Sara can escape out the door of the prison. The movie made it even more definitive that Michael absolutely, without a doubt, died.
And yet we know Michael Scofield will be back in the Prison Break reboot, and that the episodes will be a sequel to the original series. How exactly does that work? Who knows. After Sara’s incident with the head in the box, maybe it’ll be revealed that Michael just does an excellent impersonation of a man being electrocuted.
2. JON SNOW - GAME OF THRONES
Probably the worst kept secret heading into season 6 of Game of Thrones is that Jon Snow probably isn’t as dead as he last looked. Readers of A Song of Ice and Fire have known this since 2011, due to all the prophecies in the book series that seem like suspiciously good fits for someone matching Jon’s description to return from the dead. Author George R. R. Martin has been playing coy on the subject for years, and in 2015 the Game of Thrones crew joined in, with Kit Harington making comments like “I’m dead. I’m not coming back next season.”
In a show where characters can come back as white walkers, by warging into animals, or be resurrected by characters like Thoros of Myr, there’s just too many possibilities open to believe a major character could die so easily at this point. Character deaths are supposed to be shocking, but so few people are buying that Jon isn’t coming back that it would actually be more shocking if Jon did stay dead. Jon Snow might know nothing, but fans know a lot about Game of Thrones, and they know a fake-out when they see it.
1 VINCE MCMAHON - THE WWE
The world of pro wrestling frequently blurs the line between reality and entertainment, and while the results can be good and bad, they don’t often end as horribly as this storyline. At the end of one of WWE’s weekly Raw events, Vince McMahon seemingly died when he climbed into his limo and it randomly exploded. This wasn’t treated with any of the over-the-top acting normally accompanying staged sequences. WWE’s official website released a statement saying that the owner of the company was, by all appearances, killed. News publications picked up on the story, and while some recognized the act for what it was, others legitimately believed a man might have died on live television. WWE made no effort to downplay this effect, instead doing a ten bell salute in honor of Vince, something normally only ever done for WWE performers who had actually died, like Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero.
A week after WWE started this storyline, wrestler Chris Benoit and his family were legitimately found dead in their home. Recognizing it would be in extremely poor taste to continue a death storyline while one of their performers had genuinely died, Vince was revealed to be alive and well, and the next show was a tribute to Benoit. Only after the tribute was over did WWE learn that the Benoit family deaths were no accident, and that Benoit had tragically killed his wife and young child before ultimately ending his own life.
Exploiting people’s emotions by pretending the owner of the company was actually dead was a horrible idea to begin with. But the circumstances afterwards went about as bad as they could possibly go. With a real life murder hanging over the company, Vince’s fake-out death goes far beyond irritation, and is simply one of the most foolish, ill-timed storylines ever attempted on TV.
Was there a fake-out death that irritated you more than any of the ones we mentioned? Tell us about it in the comments!