Where the boy at, String?!: TV’s 5 Worst Character Deaths
Killing a major character is a go-to move for most TV dramas after a while. It freshens up the show, and – especially in shows with theoretically high stakes, like cop shows and shows about cooking meth in the desert – the odd death is neeeded to assure characters and audiences that there are real consequences to the actions unfolding on screen. When done right, these deaths provide episodes rich in emotion and gravitas, making us feel for these fictional people almost as much as we would a real person. Or exactly as much as we would feel for, say, a cat.
So, which are the worst TV character deaths? I don’t mean the deaths of the worst characters, or the ones presented in the worst way. I mean the ones that felt like a real kick to the balls because they came unexpectedly, and to characters we really loved. Which deaths made us want to find some a-hole Hollywood TV writer and strangle them in their sleep?
Well, you don’t need to think about it, because I have provided a handy list! Please note, I have not included anything from Game of Thrones, because picking one death to write about from that show would be like picking one murder case from Law and Order, or one pithy double entendre from Frasier.
Show titles are in bold, but not the character names. Hopefully that gives you a chance to skip past if you’re not caught up on a particular show.
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The Wire was full of dramatic characters meeting dramatic ends, as befitted a show about the dangerous world of drug dealing that focused on characters in high-risk professions like cops, dealers, and gay superheroes with one name. But the death that really hit home, that made you scream “COME ON, that’s not fair!” at your television screen and curse the very name of HBO, wasn’t a power player like Stringer Bell or Jimmy “Jimmy” McNulty: it was a kid. A relatively harmless little dude named Wallace (played by Michael B Jordan), who just felt bad about some of the bad stuff he was seeing and made a poor judgement call.
It happens late in the first season, and over the four seasons to follow we would be treated to a variety of on-screen carkings. But by the time, say, Frank Sobotka dies, we have a better understanding of this world and its stakes. But when Wallace died? That was our introduction. That was when we knew that life in this show was a lot like life in real life – nobody is safe, sometimes people die, and you don’t have to like it.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
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As in The Wire, and most other shows on this list, death was par for the course in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all, it was a show about a magic cheerleader who shoved sticks into things to make them die. By the show’s fifth season, Buffy had lost her principal, her teacher who was also a hot witch, that dude from the first episode, and Angel, like, five or six times. But in that season, Joss Whedon and his writers – having realised that they had been too damn nice to us for too damn long – killed Joyce Summers (Kristen Sutherland), Buffy’s kind/stupid mother.
It wasn’t vampires or werewolves or whatever Glory was that took Joyce. It was a brain tumor (a tumor which was perhaps the source of all that time Joyce went without realising what was up with Buffy. Like, there was blood all over her clothes! All the time!). This event demonstrated to Buffy that, no matter how many superpowers or poorly-matched stunt doubles she has, there are some things she just can’t fight. Also, don’t leave your little sister alone in a hospital, because she has inherited the Summers stupidity gene and will go wandering into the vampire room.
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The Shield, one of the greatest TV dramas ever written – seriously, if you haven’t seen it, it’s the perfect cure for Breaking Bad withdrawals – was not shy about subjecting its characters to horrible fates. Death, injury, sexual violence and vending machine fraud were all visited about the police offers working at Farmington’s “The Barn”. But at the end of season five, the cruellest blow was dealt, when Curtis “Lem” Lemansky (Kenny Johnson) was killed by his friend and colleague Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), after Lem had gotten himself into a position where he might take the whole team down. Also, Shane was crazy.
The impact on the viewers was immediate, although it should be clear that I didn’t cry, I never cry, YOU CRIED, shut up. The impact on the show was more gradual. As Lem had served as the conscience of the strike team, a group of corrupt cops around whom the show revolved, they regressed in his absence. Everything that comes after Lem’s death grows darker and more tragic, leading to the terrible, terrible decision making that drives the show’s finale (one of the best of all time, as it turns out).
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Yeah, I’m talking about Doctor Patrick Reid. Nina was finally happy, you monsters.
THE WEST WING
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The West Wing, unlike some other shows on this list, wasn’t known for a lot of death and violence. Its characters were more likely to engage in walking really quickly and saying a bunch of things rather than stabbing really quickly and killing a bunch of things. But at the end of season two, President Bartlet(Martin Sheen)’s longtime secretery, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), died in a car accident.
Mrs Landingham was only a supporting character, with only peripheral relevance to any main plotlines. But her influence was felt in every episode, an influence that had a calming and mood-lightening effect on the president. And when she died, it served as a reminder that certain things are beyond even the control of the most powerful man in the world. This led to one of the greatest TV scenes in some years, in which Bartlet rails against God at Mrs Landingham’s funeral. Later, when he is visited by her ghost (the one and only instance of a ghost in the White House, but building on this aspect of the show’s world would likely have led to a much more fun third season), his grief inspires him to run for re-election and work on the things he can control. Like moody montages set to adult rock, and education statistics.
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The Sopranos was another show that wasn’t afraid to whack people, including the best named TV character of all time, Big Pussy. But none of these deaths felt as harsh as the murder of Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), killed by the guitarist from Bruce Springstreen’s E-Street Band because she had informed to the FBI. And possibly because this town rips the bones from your back, which makes it a death trap, or a “suicide rap”, if you will.
Adriana was relatively innocent in the world of the show, which caused her demise to hit a lot harder than that of, say, Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), who beat a hooker to death, killed a horse, and nearly killed the Goonies. She was a sympathetic figure, and we all just wanted her to be okay and run away with Chris. Or even by herself. Chris was a douche.
And yes, I know I listed six deaths, not five. It’s almost as if I make all the rules here, isn’t it?
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Just about everybody died in Lost (But they weren’t dead the whole time, and if you think so, you are an idiot). Some died during the events of the show, others lived lives well after it, and I’m not entirely sure what happened to the dog. But the one that really hit home was the death of Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan). Now, Charlie was a lot of things: Musician, drug addict, idiot, Merry from Lord of the Rings; but he had never been a hero. No, the show’s writers left the heroism to characters like Jack, or Sawyer, or Sayid when they remembered that he existed, and sometimes to the big dude.
But eventually, Charlie got his moment. He did a thing so that other people could do a thing and possibly accomplish another thing (I could explain it all, but… if you haven’t seen the show, it will sound like the deranged rantings of a madman*).
*This will also be the case if you have seen the show.
In doing so, Charlie saved the life of Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick), who had saved Charlie so many times before, and was also probably the show’s best character (if you don’t count Ben). Charlie also died, because Pippin wasn’t around to take care of him. Life is harsh.*
*Why is this an honourable mention? Because it’s easier than choosing which ones to remove when you realise you’ve come up with way more than five. Also, we’d been told all season long that Charlie would die, so it didn’t hit quite as hard as the others.
BONUS FEATURE: THE BEST TV DEATHS OF ALL TIME
Some character deaths manage to feel uplifting, supporting the shows’ themes and leaving the audience feeling like the time was right.
Other deaths are just great because they involve a flaming helicopter falling on somebody, as observed in the ultimate fate of ER‘s Dr Robert Romano (Paul McCrane). It was awesome.