The past few years have seen new highs for television deaths: HBO’s gloriously gaudy swords and dragons-cum-softcore porn Game of Thrones, and the far less watched NBC horror-drama Hannibal have elevated the act of killing characters to an art form. Eyes gouged, torsos stabbed, heads lopped off, people turned into carrion sculptures or filet mignon — no characters are safe on these two shows. Sometimes they even come back, only to be killed later. Hannibal‘s brilliant Season 2 finale saw our title character killing everyone. Literally, everyone with whom Hannibal comes in contact during the last episode dies, or appears to be in the process of dying when the credits roll. Of course, as Season 3 revealed, not everyone did die.
Television deaths are nothing new. Starting with the first episode of Hill Street Blues in 1981, television viewers have slowly been purged of any assurance that their favorite character will love. No one expected Ricky to waltz into his living room and shoot Lucy in the face, and the first truly violent TV show, The Untouchables, was derided by mainstream writers and mothers everywhere for its graphic (by ’50s standards) violence, but Steven Bochco’s sprawling cop drama put into motion the momentous ploy of unexpectedly killing characters.
There have been some great TV deaths that channel Bochco’s sense of visceral spontaneity: Deep Throat, Fox Mulder’s pseudo-mentor, getting shot at the conclusion of The X-Files’ first season; Leland Palmer, possessed by the evil entity BOB, ramming his gray-haired head into the wall in the second season of Twin Peaks after beating his niece to death; Principal Flutie being eaten by The Pack of possessed students (and subsequently replaced by the mean Principal Snyder) halfway through the first season of Buffy; virtually everyone in The Sopranos, etc.
But not every show has been so liberal with its slaughter. Some shows — even the most violent ones — let characters live who we’d really rather see die. We give you five television characters we wish were killed, but sadly weren’t. In case it wasn’t obvious: major spoilers everywhere.
1. Ben Hawkins, Carnivàle
Daniel Knauf created the first fantasy cable program intended for adults (despite its name, Oz has nothing to do with wizards or magic ruby slippers), and for his innovation he was rewarded with a canceled show and a legion of sad fans.
Our main character is Ben, played with quiet, brooding agitation by Nick Stahl. Ben has some sort of mental powers, which he inherited from his late father whom he never knew. Or something like that. The show only ran for two seasons, the first of which was an atmospheric slow-burn that conjured stirring imagery and sounds while slowly, oh-so-slowly dripping clues like eye drops. It’s truly one of the most enigmatic shows of all time, and its short run (only two of the planned six seasons were produced) offers next to no answers. It never even got the chance to ask all its questions.
The problems with Carnivàle are two-fold: Firstly, the story unfurls so slowly, and Knauf amortizes his ambiguous scheme in a way that demands such intense persistence on the viewers’ part, that the uninitiated were offered no way in, and those who committed to the show were often kept at arms’ length; each episode feels like 50 minutes of atmosphere and ten minutes of plot puzzles. This wouldn’t be bothersome if the show didn’t set itself up as a mystery of sorts, a rebus that, like Twin Peaks, promises an impending conclusion but really thrives on the circuitous journey to reach that conclusion.
Secondly, Nick Stahl’s Ben is a boring character. Stahl’s career never took off like it was supposed to – Carnivàle bombed, and his turn in Terminator 3 was overshadowed by everything else in that movie, including Arnold in his last role before Governating California — but he does an admirable job with what he’s given here. He’s not really sympathetic, since he’s kind of a stubborn jerk, and as our ostensible lead, Ben is unfortunately enveloped by far more interesting people, places, and things. There’s Michael J. Anderson’s dwarfish freak show ring leader Samson, Tim Dekay’s ex-baseball player and lapsed alcoholic sad-sack Jonesy, Clea DuVall’s fortune-telling Sofie and her catatonic but telepathic mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger), and, of course, the show’s other main lead, Brother Justin Crowe.
Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) is a maybe-insidious Methodist minister whose consciousness is slowly being corroded by fleeting images of pain and hellish rapture. He develops psychic powers, or rather remembers that he has them, and realizes his destiny is to kill a man named Henry Scudder, who happens to be Ben Hawkins’ maybe-dead father. Brother Justin, with his baritone voice — soothing until it’s sinister — is far more compelling than Ben. Peccant and repentant, Brother Justin is mysterious in the right kind of ways, and his story is far more interesting than Ben’s, even though Ben lives with a traveling freak show.
A seek-sorrow show full of semes and signs and sequential thoughts wreathed around lurid visual motifs, Carnivàle would have been better off (though still very likely short-lived) if Ben died at the hands of Brother Justin, since Ben was taking his sweet time trying to solve his life-long mystery anyway.
2. AJ Soprano, The Sopranos
Arguably the greatest television show of all time, David Chase’s paramount crime-drama changed television. Yeah, it had its ups and downs — Tony’s cousin (played with bravura restraint by Steve Buscemi) is underused in Season 5, and the first half of season 6 gets side-tracked with a subplot about an outed gay mobster who fleas to New England before (rather stupidly) coming back and getting himself beaten to death — but no other show, before or since, has created such a deep and vast cast of intricate characters. Further, no other show has made character deaths feel so heavy.
When Tony (James Gandolfini) finds out his best friend is a rat, he does what he has to do: kills him. Chase chose to close the second season with the death of Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), and then gave viewers a whole year to contemplate what effects this would have on Tony. Those effects, it turns out, were nearly insurmountable. Tony’s moments of flagitious violence are always shrouded in morality and moral ambiguity — is he a bad person, or does he just do bad things? — and his guilt-streaked nightmares further obscure Tony’s “badness.”
Family members were also susceptible to sudden death as well, and none was more upsetting than the murder of Christopher’s long-time girlfriend Adriana (Drea de Matteo, who deservedly won an Emmy for her work.) Adriana’s arch is maybe the most tragic of the large cast of characters, and her boyfriend’s (necessary) betrayal was simultaneously shocking and inevitable, and its ripples were felt for the rest of the show.
But there’s one character that could have, and maybe should have been offed: Tony’s annoying son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler.) Lazy and entitled, AJ spends the show lounging about, spending money, hating his family, and occasionally flirting with enlightenment (though his random liberal outbursts may just be his way of agitating his parents.) Whereas his sister (Jamie Lynn-Sigler) grows and progresses and regresses and struggles with her identity, AJ stagnated around season 4. He has a few bouts of frightening anger, not unlike his father, but he’s too inept to do anything with all that fury. He’s far more developed as a character than, say, the breakfast-loving Walter Jr/Flynn in Breaking Bad, whose sole purpose is to remind us that Walt was once a good father (sorry, Breaking Bad fans, but he really isn’t a well-developed character at all.)
Tony’s issues with his parents and his issues as a parent are integral to the show, of course, but that doesn’t make AJ Soprano any less irritating. Imagine the consequences of AJ’s death, the things it would do to Tony, and the things he would consequently do. That could have been interesting, and spared us having to listen to AJ fighting with his mother for the billionth time.
3. Dexter Morgan, Dexter
Perhaps more than any other show in recent memory, Dexter took an insufferable tumble downhill. From the intense second season (a phenomenal improvement over the first) through the enthralling fourth (featuring the always-compelling John Lithgow as a seriously creepy killer), Dexter was the closest Showtime ever came to HBO levels of greatness. Then, of course, it all fell apart, as season 6 gave us yet another eccentric serial killer (you can only have so many serial killer vs serial killer stories before it gets stale), and the show never really recovered, despite a few great moments and the valiant attempts of the cast (especially Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter’s long-suffering sister, who eventually kills — and dies — for her brother.)
All of this could have been avoided if they just killed Dexter in season four. They had a great villain that wouldn’t be topped, plus they were beyond the realm of believability with Dexter always deftly outsmarting the police no matter what. The writers tried to weave more drama with Dexter’s co-workers hunting him, but that had already been done quite well with Doakes in season 2. Seasons 5, 6, 7, and 8 were all just slight variations on seasons 1-4, with the addition of Lumber Jack Dexter.
The worst part is that they had the perfect chance to kill Dexter at the end of season 7 and again at the end of season 8, but both times he survives. You just have to know when to kill your darlings, and the writers of Dexter just didn’t have the self-control.
4. Annie, Twin Peaks
David Lynch’s show has engendered countless imitators, impersonators, and acolytes, but none of the ersatz Lynch legion hold a candle to the first truly weird, truly popular network show. The second season has an unfair reputation for being a huge let down, but that’s not really true: the first half is just as good as anything in the first season, and the big reveal of Leland Palmer as Laura’s killer is expertly handled by Lynch. It’s the second half of the second season that stinks.
After the mystery is sort of solved, and the evil being known as BOB has moved on to other hosts, the show’s writers (sans Lynch, who left bitterly after being forced to reveal the killer so soon) didn’t know what to do for a whole half a season (which is what they get for solving the mystery halfway through a season.) So they decided to created some new romantic subplots.
Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the teenager Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) had genuinely interesting chemistry in season 1 leading into season 2, but MacLachlan felt that Cooper wouldn’t get involved with a high schooler (which is fair, but then again they cast gorgeous 20-somethings to play high schoolers), so the show gave us the much less interesting Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) as a substitute love interest. Annie altered the writers’ plans to further explore Cooper and Audrey’s relationship, and an entire backstory had to be constructed quickly, so Annie could have some sort of emotional resonance in a cast of characters whom viewers had been following for 20-something episodes.
What happens to Annie? She gets kidnapped by the evil entity, of course. What does Cooper do? He goes in to save her, of course. While this results in one of the finest final episodes in television history, and arguably the single most haunting image to ever permeate a television screen (I’ll fight to the death to defend that claim), Annie never really earned the love of fans. Cooper ends up saving her at the cost of his own soul, but she shouldn’t have lived. Not because she was annoying or boring (though she certainly wasn’t very interesting), but she should have died in the black lodge because it’s the logical (by the show’s logic, that is) outcome.
It would be poetic irony. Cooper sort of wins, but sort of loses, since he’s now possessed by an evil murderous rapist demon thing. Going into the lodge and losing his fight with BOB saves Annie’s life, but it shouldn’t. She should be dead, and Cooper’s failed attempts to save her would have been even more tragic. Sometimes the material just calls for a “sad” ending for a character, and this was one of those times. Then again, the line “How’s Annie?” may not have worked quite so well if Annie were dead.
5. Pete Campbell, Mad Men
Matthew Weiner’s show is arguably the second best written television drama ever behind only The Sopranos. Every character on Mad Men – no matter how fleeting their appearance may be, or how insignificant their contribution to the feint trace of plot that weaves and ebbs through each season, or how banal their existence — is articulately and carefully written and depicted. There are no bad guys, just guys who do bad things; no heroes or villains, just people. The closest the show came to producing a long-term antagonist for Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the egotistical, from-money financier Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), as expert at selling relationships and maintaining appearances as he is at sabotaging his and his family’s lives.
Don, effortlessly beautiful (even as he delves deeper into self-imploding alcoholism, only to pull himself out, only to succumb once again) is the cool kind of square. He’s a suit, but he’s mysterious and brooding. His clothes are impeccably tailored, his hair neatly slick, and his black stubble hints at something dark brewing beneath his composed veneer. He’s conservative by nature, self-centered, and seems to resent happiness — for himself or anyone else. His politics are deeply rooted in the Gray Flannel Suit and Martini Era; he thinks with his brain but follows his man parts, wherever they may point. Yet Don remains well-respected among peers; they are intrigued and sometimes disquieted by the opaque persona Don projects, and tolerate his strange behavior (to a point) because he gets the job done.
Pete, on the other hand, is not well-liked. His weaselly demeanor and receding hairline belong to a sketchy used car salesman, not a well-off, successful businessman. As Don Draper seems to get better with age like a fine wine, Pete Campbell looks paler, deprived of his hair, his face framed with awful sideburns that so desperately beg for relevance but just reveal how out-of-touch Pete is with the world around him. When he smokes a joint, it’s like a revelation, filmed in slow-mo, even as his coworkers angrily walk away from him to toke by themselves. Though he’s occasionally expressed his progressive politics, Pete is nonetheless a hateful, bigoted little man, however hard he may deny it. He’s the kind of guy who “supports” equal rights and then squirms when he thinks he’s in the same room as a gay person.
Make no mistake, Pete is a vital character to Mad Men, but that doesn’t make him any less of a jerk. In fact, he’s the essential jerk. He’s one of the very few people who knows anything of Don’s veiled past as Dick Whitman, and he tries to use that against Don (it fails.) He’s helped Don out on a few occasions, and he genuinely cares for Peggy Olsen (whom he illegitimately impregnates in the first season), but Pete clearly hates his job, and his co-workers, and his mother, and tries to undermine Don several times in the first season and take Don’s job as head of creative. The Campbell name is Pete’s only saving grace. Despite all the Internet theories on how Pete Campbell would die at the end of the show’s run, he manage to survive and even happily reunite with his family.