“It’s just a show,” is the common response from someone seeing a person crying at the death of a fictional person on screen. But TV acolytes will know that it can be hard to rein in the emotions when your favourite character for the past seven years has just been killed off.
In the battle of TV versus cinema, the former has always packed more of a punch when it comes to impactful deaths – probably because we’ve come to know the character better over a longer period of time. And when someone who you’ve grown used to seeing day-in and day-out suddenly vanishes from your life forever, there are going to be some emotional ramifications.
Sometimes, in the saddest of circumstances, the demise of a character even marks the demise of the show itself, with creators and writers failing to keep us interested beyond their death blow.
There are many ingredients that go into making a TV death as traumatic as intended: the character's likability, the circumstances of death, the impact their absence will have on the remaining characters and shock value.
Here’s a selection of the 16 character deaths we’re still not over… (Obviously, spoilers ahead – you have been warned!)
Marissa Cooper, The OC
Fans of the series still tear up thinking about Ryan cradling Marissa’s lifeless body on the side of the road. Jeff Buckley’s haunting cover of “Hallelujah” playing overhead certainly didn’t help. The death of Mischa Barton’s character at the end of season three also marked the end of The OC – as we knew it anyway. The teen show ploughed on with one more season but without Marissa, it was a shadow of its former self.
Ned Stark, Game of Thrones
People across the world let out a collective gasp when Eddard Stark was beheaded at the behest of King Joffrey. The HBO drama shocked audiences when Sean Bean’s main character got the chop in the penultimate episode of the first season. Unaccustomed to seeing such ruthless writing, even after the axe had swung, audiences reeled trying to figure out whether this was all a dream or if some supernatural force would bring sweet Ned back to us. The TV event cemented Game of Thrones as a show that takes no prisoners – even the ones we really, really like. Similar feelings were experienced when Catelyn Stark went out with a guttural scream in the notorious “Red Wedding” episode two seasons later.
Derek Shepherd, Grey’s Anatomy
By Derek’s death in season 11, fans of the medical drama had grown used to seeing our favourite characters brutally killed off. Lexie Gray, Mark Sloan, George O’Malley and Denny Duquette had all met a harsh end at the hands of writer Shonda Rhimes – but we thought surely McDreamy was safe. When Meredith Grey hears the police sirens and a knock at the door though, we all knew where it was heading. Fans got one final look at him when the late doctor appeared to Meredith in a dream sequence in season 17. It’s not the same though, is it?
Jen Lindley, Dawson’s Creek
Played by a superb Michelle Williams, Jen’s character never got the attention – or the send-off – that she deserved. The series finale of the hit teen soap flashed forward five years to reveal that party girl Jen had become a successful gallery manager and a mother, but also would soon die because of an undiagnosed heart condition. Pre-empting her own death, she records a heartbreaking video message for her daughter. Cue the tears – we’re done.
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Poussey Washington, Orange is the New Black
Both the show’s fans and fellow cast members were outraged to see Poussey die in season four. From the outset, Samira Wiley’s character had established herself as one of the most entertaining and beloved inmates at Litchfield prison. Her death – at the hands of a guard who wrongfully pinned her to the ground and left her unable to breathe – recalled the real-life 2014 killing of Eric Garner. After the episode aired, Orange is the New Black set up The Poussey Washington Fund to raise money for non-profit advocacy groups with a focus on criminal justice reform.
Adriana La Cerva, The Sopranos
Over the course of HBO’s mob drama, audiences had grown to love Adriana La Cerva, her great outfits and frank attitude. While her death was brutal to watch (who can forget her silently sobbing in the car with Silvio knowing what’s to come?), the lead-up was equally excruciating. Seeing Adriana unravel as she unwillingly becomes an FBI informant and then make the mistake of admitting her disloyalty to Christopher – who chooses his friends over her – is almost as bad as watching her get shot.
Tara Maclay, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Tara’s death came as a massive blow to the Buffy fanbase. Played by Amber Benson, the character was introduced midway through the fourth season and quickly became a fan-favourite character before being written out at the end of season six by way of a stray bullet, kickstarting the Dark Willow storyline. Her relationship with Willow is often cited as the first recurring depiction of a lesbian couple on a prime time network, which made Tara’s sudden departure from our screens all the more heartbreaking.
Ruth Evershed, Spooks
Nicola Walker has had a rough time with seminal TV deaths, but the collecting outpouring of grief when one of her characters dies is a testament to the actor’s strengths. At the top of that list was her death as Ruth. Jaws dropped when her character became the last ever character to be killed in Spooks. After being stabbed by a shard of glass, Ruth is held in Harry’s arms as they share one last emotional moment together. Viewers got one last glimpse of hope when Dimitri tried to revive her with an adrenaline shot but it was too late.
Matthew Crawley, Downton Abbey
Matthew’s death was not the festive gift viewers expected when tuning into the Christmas Day special of Downton Abbey. Fans were devastated when the much-loved Matthew Crawley died after meeting his newborn son at the hospital. The cause of death – a car crash – felt like even more of a kick to the stomach considering Matthew had already survived World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. Hadn’t he suffered enough?
Jane Margolis, Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad had its fair share of emotional deaths (special shout out to Hank) but Jane’s hit especially hard. Krysten Ritter’s character – a recovering heroin user and Jesse’s girlfriend – eventually gives into her drug addiction and goes back to smoking crystal meth before she and Jesse begin to use heroin. In season two, Jane, lying in bed next to Jesse, chokes on her own vomit after overdosing on heroin. The real tearjerker, though, is that Walt stands by and lets her die. Bryan Cranston said the scene was the hardest for him to film. The actor recalled being a “weeping mess” after shooting it. Him and us both.
Tiffany Mitchell, EastEnders
Before Martine McCutcheon stole hearts as Nadine in Love Actually, she had already won over the UK in her role as Tiffany Mitchell on Eastenders. The long-running soap shocked viewers on New Year 1998 when her character was mown down by Frank Butcher as she attempted to make a getaway from Walford with her daughter Courtney.
Rita Morgan, Dexter
Fans will remember the scene perfectly: Dexter comes home to find his wife Rita dead in the bathtub, murdered by Arthur (aka The Trinity Killer, played brilliantly by John Lithgow). While there were a few clues interspersed in the minutes leading up to the tragic reveal – the baby crying, lingering shots – Rita’s death was one of the biggest shocks to rock Noughties TV. The show – which is airing its reboot later year – was never the same again.
Ben Sullivan, Scrubs
Scrubs was known for its expert blend of laughs and emotional heft, an accomplishment that’s nowhere more evident than in episode 14 of season three. “My Screw Up” featured Brendan Fraser’s final appearance as Jordan’s brother Ben Sullivan. The episode threw viewers for a loop when it turned out that the birthday party Dr Cox was planning for his son is, in fact, Ben’s funeral. Joshua Radin’s “Winter”, which plays while everyone gathers at the cemetery, will forever be associated with that shockingly sad moment.
Sarah Lynn, BoJack Horseman
It’s not all the time that a cartoon can make you cry but BoJack Horseman is on par with the best dramas. Kristen Schaal played the former child actor and troubled pop star Sarah Lynn, whose death in season three from a heroin overdose had viewers sobbing. On the cusp of celebrating her ninth month of sobriety, she receives a call from BoJack asking her to party with him. She immediately says yes and their subsequent bender results in her death. The cover-up by BoJack only made it worse.
Although the comedy returned for a Millennium special, most fans consider the show to have ended with the aptly titled “Goodbyeee”. The sixth and final episode focuses on its main characters in the final hours before leaving their trenches and going over the top in slow motion. The instalment is darker than fans had come to expect of the historical comedy, with the main cast assumed to die in machine-gun fire.
Juliet Burke, Lost
Any other list ranking heartbreaking deaths would undoubtedly include Charlie's watery end in the season three finale. But Juliet's final moment deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. It's a tragic ending for a noble character who spends her time on the show putting other people's safety before her own. Arriving in the penultimate season finale, there's an air of inevitability to the moment, which is made all the more gut-wrenching due to the effect it has on reformed bad-boy Sawyer. For the death of a character introduced three seasons in to hit so hard is testament to Elizabeth Mitchell's razor sharp performance.
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