The main character of a series can make or break a show for the audience. After all, TV shows are about feeling something — be it empathy, disgust, or somewhere in between — for those up on screen. But in order for a show to continue, there must be progression of story. One way to do that? Kill off a vital player.
Though they don’t always stay in the ground, the death of a central protagonist always has ramifications. How the others on screen react to losing a loved one can vary greatly, as these deaths are often sudden or unexpected, allowing for a dramatic shift in the show’s dynamic. Whether it was done to save a floundering series or for reasons outside of their control, these 15 TV shows took the great risk of killing off a major character.
1. Game of Thrones
This series features a lot of violence, as well as a huge ensemble cast. So it’s no surprise that several of the primary characters on Game of Thrones have been killed off, even ones who are considered indispensable. However, the first major death that really shook audiences was that of Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, an actor who is known for often dying on screen.
Following Ned came the death of most of his immediate family, including his wife and two of his sons (though Jon Snow is famously brought back to life).
In the Lannister family, Tyrion murders his dad, Tywin. And the hated Joffrey Baratheon, a frequent killer in his own right, is poisoned on his wedding day.
2. Six Feet Under
When a series, titled Six Feet Under, revolves around a funeral home and the family that takes over its operations after the untimely demise of their patriarch, death as a theme is a guarantee. And after a while, the show ran out of supporting characters to kill. Several significant others and various friends kick the bucket before the writers turn to the main cast.
Nate Fisher, Jr., arguably the center of the show, discovers early on that he has a fatal brain condition. This offers a lot of room to play around, and he has surgery, as well as a heart attack. Though he “dies” during the operation, allowing the show to play around with the notion of reality, he survives. Seasons later, he suffers a brain hemorrhage and falls into a coma, then later dies after waking up. To top it off, the final episode of the series fittingly shows each main character’s death.
Can’t say they didn’t warn you with that title.
3. Grey’s Anatomy
A long-running show set in a hospital is bound to see the end of lives. But Shonda Rhimes’ tentpole ABC show, Grey’s Anatomy has gone above and beyond. The large, rotating cast of main characters has shifted so much over its 13 seasons that now just four of the original leads remain.
To list off the major deaths on the series would take some time, so let’s focus on the biggest ones. The very first lead character to pass away was George O’Malley. In the Season 5 finale, O’Malley quits his job to join the Army, only to die in surgery after being hit by a bus. Several years later, Derek Shepherd also fails to recover following a traffic collision.
Another similarity? Both actors were reportedly unhappy on set, and were in disagreements with Rhimes. Funny how those things work out …
4. The Wire
Acclaimed crime drama The Wire was a fairly realistic portrayal of the dangers of city life. The series shifted its focus throughout its five seasons, concentrating on law enforcement, politicians, the street drug trade, the education system, and the media, in turn. The writers weren’t afraid to get gritty “way down in the hole,” and thus death was simply a fact of life.
After D’Angelo Barksdale, a major drug dealer, begins to look for a life beyond the streets, he’s forced to pay for his crimes. He’s sent to prison, and is killed in an inside job. In a more shocking turn of events, the man responsible for D’Angelo’s death, Stringer Bell, is killed, also following an attempt to “go straight.” And in the final season, Bell’s former rival, Omar, dies in a sudden shooting.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This revolutionary The WB series, broke ground in many ways. Buffy Summers is an ordinary teenage girl who fights the literal monsters of adolescence, with some help from her friends. Oh, and she dies twice along the way.
That’s right, during the seven-season run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the titular character is killed not once, but twice: First, at the hands of the Master, in the Season 1 finale. The Big Bad drowns Buffy, who is revived a few moments later by her friend, Xander. Then, in the 100th episode of the series, Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister, Dawn, and is brought back from the grave at the beginning of the next season.
NBC’s sci-fi hit drama Heroes had quite a rollercoaster of a run. The series, which was about people who discovered they had superhero DNA and abilities, made an immediate impact and brought in a lot of viewership and positive reviews. But after a very successful first year, Season 2 brought a major shift. The third and fourth seasons were a bust, and it was then canceled — though a brief miniseries was commissioned years later in order to wrap up loose ends.
With a fairly large ensemble cast, there was a lot of room for flexibility. Combined with fantastical possibilities like alternate futures, a few main characters “died,” but not in the usual linear timeline. Among them are super-healing cheerleader Claire Bennet, time traveler Hiro Nakamura, and the power-absorbing Peter Petrelli. Of course, whether or not they’re actually deceased is up for debate …
7. South Park
For fans of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long-running adult animated comedy, South Park, there are many character catchphrases that have been popular throughout the years. One of the most notable? “Oh my god, they killed Kenny!”
For elementary school students, the kids of this Colorado town experience a lot, and they’re no stranger to death. Beginning with the pilot, Kenny McCormick dies in almost every single episode, through Season 5, when they kill him off for almost an entire season. But because it’s a cartoon, and anything can happen, Kenny comes back in Season 6. Lucky for him, he has only died a handful of times in the subsequent 14 seasons.
The British sci-fi series Misfits, lasted for a solid five seasons on E4. In that time, it went through quite a few changes. The initial premise was that a group of teens on probation are struck by lightning on the first day of their community service hours. They soon discover they’ve developed special abilities, and find themselves getting into more trouble than they started off in.
Throughout the show, more people with powers begin to reveal themselves. The show uses this as an opportunity to replace old characters with new, with the original main cast exiting one by one for various reasons.
In the fourth season, the last original member of the group, Curtis, commits suicide, though he’s not the first main character to die. In various timelines, almost all of them die at one time or another — especially Nathan, the first core delinquent to exit the show. (He died several times, as his power was immortality.) Still, the original cast was beloved, so it’s not surprising the series didn’t last long after Curtis’ demise.
9. The O.C.
When wrong-side-of-the-tracks high schooler Ryan Atwood came to Orange County, he shook things up. The O.C., a popular teen drama, saw Ryan learn the ins and outs of the wealthy and pretentious, and fall in love with the beautiful, tortured girl next door, Marissa. The two have an on-again, off-again relationship, as he attempts to support her through her various acts of rebellion.
At the end of Season 3, Marissa is attempting to start fresh after high school graduation. While Ryan is driving her to the airport, they get into a major accident, and Marissa dies. And while she was a difficult and often annoying character, the show never recovers from her death. The final season jumps the shark and heads into “alternate reality” territory, resulting in its cancellation.
10. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is, among other things, the show that put AMC on the map. More than that, the crime drama is the most positively critiqued series ever on TV. Following chemistry teacher Walter White and his former student, Jesse Pinkman, as they make crystal meth, the series redefines the anti hero trope.
Though several characters die throughout the five-season run, just four were in the main cast. The ruthless and composed distributor, Gus, dies in Season 4, and his enforcer, Mike, dies midway through Season 5. Walt’s foil and brother-in-law, Hank, dies in the last few episodes of the series, not long after he realizes who Walt really is. And Walt himself eventually dies as well: In the closing moments of the finale, he collapses from a battle wound, dying as the cops arrive to arrest him.
11. Two and a Half Men
The “manly men” of CBS’ long-running sitcom, Two and a Half Men were the most consistent part of the show … for a time, that is. Arguably, the series was a vehicle for Charlie Sheen, who starred as Charlie Harper, a womanizing musician. His chiropractor brother, Alan, comes to live with him, and brings along his son, Jake. Though there are ups and downs, the Odd Couple-like dynamic made for a working formula.
Then, disaster struck, in the form of Sheen’s much-publicized breakdown. His character was written off the show, supposedly dying after being hit by a train in Paris. Ashton Kutcher came on the show to replace him, as billionaire Walden Schmidt. However, the series finale saw Charlie alive, though he was almost immediately killed by a falling piano.
This is what happens when off-screen issues shape the script.
12. The Good Wife
In a courtroom drama, death is usually the reason for the action on screen, not the result. In CBS’ acclaimed series, The Good Wife, this was primarily the case. The show follows attorney Alicia Florrick, who rejoins the legal world after a scandal finds her politician husband out of a job. Throughout the series, Alicia’s relationships toe the line between personal and professional, while she grows in her career.
Alicia has an affair with her old friend Will Gardner, who gets her a job in the beginning of the series. The two have their issues in the office and out of it, but in Season 5, Will is suddenly killed by an angry client during a contentious period between the once-lovers. While the reason behind the actor’s departure was a mundane one (he simply wanted to explore other opportunities), the tragic circumstances of the character’s exit caused reverberations that strongly impacted the future of the show.
13. 8 Simple Rules
Though a TV show death is usually planned long ahead of time, it isn’t always the case. This was the sad reality of ABC sitcom, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Star John Ritter, the vehicle for the show, died suddenly due to an undiagnosed condition during the second season. Those behind-the-scenes handled the event with grace. They aired the episodes that had already been taped, then took a hiatus to rework the direction of the show.
When it came back, Ritter’s character, Paul, had died in a similar fashion as his portrayer. The characters reacted appropriately in a two-part farewell episode, and then slowly resumed the regular format. Two new characters were brought in to try and fill the void, but unfortunately, the series (retitled 8 Simple Rules for the third and final season) never recovered.
Another dramatic series, The WB’s Charmed focused on three sisters, Prue, Piper, and Phoebe, who come from a line of witches. Their powers vary, but they generally use them for good, though they maintain a seemingly normal existence to those around them.
In the Season 3 finale, the eldest sister, Prue is killed. Her portrayer, Shannen Doherty, left the show, and rumors circled that this was due to a feud between her and Alyssa Milano, who played Phoebe. Though nothing was ever clarified, the show went on: Rose McGowan replaced Doherty as the sisters’ half-sister, Paige, and five more seasons were aired before the series’ cancellation.
15. The Walking Dead
With a horror premise centered around zombies, numerous character deaths are unavoidable on The Walking Dead. AMC’s award-winning hit has long engaged fans, even spawning a spin-off.
Considering its massive rotating cast, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of how many people have died on this show. Lori Grimes, wife of primary protagonist, Rick, died in Season 3 after giving birth. Season 2 arrivals Hershel Greene and his daughter, Beth, died in Seasons 4 and 5, respectively. And the Season 7 finale alone brought with it several deaths, including the character Sasha Williams, who commits suicide.
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