Spoilers ahead for every show listed!
Witnessing the death of our favorite TV characters can be an unsettling experience. Much of the time, we’ll have followed that character’s evolution as a person from a very early point, only to see them meet an unfortunate demise. Sometimes, it feels like an inevitability. Other times, it catches us completely off guard, sending us in a tailspin of television depression as we cope with the TV deaths of these characters we’ve grown to love.
The shows that truly can be considered great are the ones that are fearless in their ruthlessness in killing off characters. A universe where anyone can die at any moment makes it so the stakes are always life or death, regardless of someone’s status as a lead or supporting presence. So which of these shocking moments stunned us the most?
Who died: Rita Morgan, Season 4
Season 4 of Dexter starring John Lithgow as the iconic “Trinity Killer” is widely regarded as the show’s best season ever, and for good reason. Lithgow’s unsettling performance dovetailed perfectly with the show’s darker themes, making for an epic throw down between serial killers that culminated with one shocking death. After Dexter vanquishes Lithgow in the final episode of the season, his typical closing monologue begins as he runs home to see his wife, only to find her dead in the bathtub. It was a moment that no one saw coming, throwing our main character’s life into complete turmoil, forever changing the climate of the show that in just two more seasons would go completely off the rails.
2. House of Cards
Who died: Zoe Barnes, Season 2
In the first season of the Netflix original series House of Cards, Kate Mara plays the ruthless yet pragmatic reporter Zoe Barnes to perfection. She’s a major character who constantly is a force for driving the story forward, acting as the dramatic foil to Kevin Spacey’s borderline sociopathic Frank Underwood. The show was setting her up for what audiences thought would be a healthy and long series run as a major character.
Then the first episode of Season 2 kicks off with Underwood pushing Zoe in front of a moving train, and everything changes. A once-main character was suddenly and unexpectedly offed in a series that (smartly) doubled down on Frank Underwood-related drama.
3. Game of Thrones
Who died: Oberyn Martell, Season 4
There are plenty of shocking deaths to choose from in Game of Thrones. But one (and final) death stands above all these, coming toward the end of the fourth season: Oberyn Martell. The charismatic and likable prince of Dorne was almost too charming to last, but the real kicker came when his death occurred after he’d achieved what appeared to be complete victory, only to have Gregor Clegane swipe his legs out from under him and cave his face in. It was violent, gory, and deeply upsetting. So basically, just another season of Game of Thrones.
Who died: Oliver Queen, Season 3
In the comic book world, heroes die all the time, only to be resurrected soon after. Even so, it’s still a surprise when a title character gets offed suddenly in the middle of a season. At the midseason finale of Season 3, Oliver Queen goes toe-to-toe with iconic comic villain Ra’s al Ghul. The battle ends with Oliver taking a sword through the chest and getting pushed off of a cliff, a harrowing and incredibly well-done sequence that saw the show boldly knock down its main hero.
Of course, Arrow couldn’t continue without the Green Arrow, so it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that the episode after Oliver died saw him brought back to life once again. There’s definitely a strong resurrection theme at play in this show — just try naming a character that only died once.
5. Sons of Anarchy
Who died: Everyone, all the time
Sons of Anarchy is a show that’s never been afraid to off its characters at any point. From Piney Winston’s death in Season 4, to Opie the following season, to Clay Morrow, Tara Knowles, Bobby Munson, and just about everyone you love on that show, no one is ever safe. In fairness, the crux of the show is that the SOA motorcycle club quite literally ruins every life it touches. It wouldn’t be true to that characteristic without killing off everyone all the time in every season, making it that much harder to get attached to anyone before they get their head beat in with a baseball bat.
6. The Wire
Who died: Omar, Season 5
The Wire is thought of as one of the greatest television shows in history, defined by its masterful storytelling ability that held a mirror up to society’s corrupt institutions. Omar Little, though, was a character that existed outside these institutions, appearing to rob drug dealers, make life difficult for law enforcement, and generally acting as the coolest character on the entire show. It was that much more shocking when in the very last season, he was gunned down not by a hardened gangbanger, but by a small child outside a convenience store. It was the final statement from the show’s creators that there are truly no heroes in our world, a depressing yet poignant exclamation point at the end of an incredible series.
7. The Walking Dead
Who died: Abraham and Glenn (for real this time)
The Walking Dead has never shied away from mercilessly stomping all our happiness by killing off any and everyone we love. Season 6 took the cake though: First we thought that Glenn was dead after the midseason finale, only to find out that he’d somehow survived. Then it seemed like Daryl was shot and killed, only to have him show up one episode later. The season finished out with our new villain Negan beating in the head of … someone? The perspective switches to first person, keeping the death a secret until Season 7’s premiere, where it was revealed that both Abraham and Glenn bit the dust at the hands of the show’s newest villain.
8. The 100
Who died: Lexa
There are few TV deaths in 2016 that were more controversial than Lexa’s in The 100. Many upset fans pointed toward a common trope in television where lesbian characters are killed off at frighteningly high rates. But as The Mary Sue aptly pointed out, Clarke, the show’s main character is still very much a significant part of the show. While “everyone was talking about the queer girl who died, no one was talking about the queer girl who’s still alive. The queer girl whose story this show ultimately is.” Either way, it was shocking to say the least when Lexa was shuffled off the series by a stray bullet.
9. Game of Thrones (again)
Who died: Jon Snow
After establishing Jon Snow as a key player in the coming war against the White Walkers, it sent shockwaves throughout the fandom when Game of Thrones killed him off at the end of Season 5. That left us all wondering whether he’d stay dead, or return to the land of the living at the beginning of the show’s sixth season. The network and cast remained cryptically quiet on the answer to that question up until the moment Snow draws breath once again, making for a stressful year of guesswork and speculation.
10. Grey’s Anatomy
Who died: Derek Shepherd
For a large majority of Grey’s Anatomy‘s run, Patrick Dempsey was a central character. As Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, he was used as a focal point for Meredith Grey’s romantic interests, while bringing the star power of Dempsey to the network TV show. That all made it that much more surprising when Shepherd was quickly killed off in a car accident, allegedly due to a feud between Dempsey and showrunner Shonda Rhimes. It was a death that shocked both the cast and fans alike, shuffling McDreamy off of Grey’s Anatomy for good.
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