TV Character Deaths That Were Devastating

TV Character Deaths That Devastated Us


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TV Character Deaths That Devastated Us

Small-Screen Sobs

Sometimes, you spend so much time watching a TV show that its characters feel like real friends, or even family. And when they die, often unexpectedly, you're surprised at how you really feel the loss. It’s not only good writing, but also a sign of how much we invest in our entertainment. Read on for a sampling of the deaths that have really rattled viewers over the years (spoilers below).

Related: 20 Movie Character Deaths That Were Devastating

This Is Us

'This Is Us' (2016-2022)

Character Death: Rebecca Pierson, family matriarch
Why It Was Devastating: Sure, she had Alzheimer's disease and slowly faded during the time-hopping series, but that didn't make the exit of Rebecca (any easier to watch. Still, as sad as it was, it was also poetic to see a younger Rebecca (Mandy Moore) greet her long-dead first husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia).

dexter:new blood

'Dexter' (2006-2013), 'Dexter: New Blood' (2021-2022)

Character Death: Dexter Morgan, serial killer

Why It Was Devastating: Sure he was a murderer, but he meant well? After the return of the Miami forensics expert (Michael C. Hall), we learn he's spent the last ten years in hiding. While his own son Harrison (Jack Alcott) killing him off is a dramatic end, it doesn't make it any less traumatic for viewers.

Luke Spencer from General Hospital

General Hospital (1963-Present)

Character Death: Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary)

Why It Was Devastating: While Geary hasn't been on the show since 2017 (and actually retired in 2015), the passing of Luke Spencer is the end of an era for "General Hospital" fans. He's been part of the show since 1978, and the wedding between Luke and Laura (Genie Francis) drew 30 million viewers, making the episode one of the highest-rated in daytime-drama history. Not surprisingly, Spencer's death seems to be driving a twist in the current story. Tracy Quartermaine (once married to Luke, played by Jane Elliot) revealed he had died off-screen in a cable-car accident overseas ... but — duh duh duhhhh — it may not have really been an accident. 

Related: Most Popular TV Show the Year You Were Born

Stuart Damon
Getty Images / Frank Trapper / Contributor / Corbis Entertainment

'General Hospital' (1963-Present)

Character Death: Alan Quartermaine (Stuart Damon)

Why It Was Devastating: Yes, this classic soap has the distinction of earning two spots on our list. After all, far-fetched storylines offer endless fodder for character deaths: People seem to die, but not really. Roles are recast. Previously unknown connections are revealed. But this was different — and shook the core of a daytime staple. Alan Quartermaine (a character first introduced in 1977 and portrayed through the decades by Damon) was a doctor and an adulterer, a sneak and a big bear of a man. But suddenly, he was a patient at General Hospital in 2007, and heart failure ended his character’s storyline. The death had repercussions that touched many a character, even though (in true soap-opera form) he did return on occasion as a ghost.

Patrick Dempsey Grey's Anatomy

'Grey’s Anatomy' (2005-Present)

Character Death: Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey)

Why It Was Devastating: Ask any fan of “Grey’s Anatomy” about the death of “Dr. McDreamy” and expect to still hear animated comments about how utterly shocking it was (apologies to “Dr. McSteamy” and other characters that were also killed off). Perhaps Meredith Grey’s one true love, Dr. Shepherd was killed in season 11. He stops to aid the victims of a car crash and returns to his own car, only to have it hit by a truck. After he's pronounced brain dead, wife Meredith has to make the wrenching decision to remove him from life support. Pass the tissues.

Related: 20 Crazy-Expensive Cars Destroyed by Hollywood

Michelle Dockery & Dan Stevens Color Downton Abbey

'Downton Abbey' (2010-2015)

Character death: Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)

Why It Was Devastating: Lady Mary’s rocky road to true romance concluded with what seemed to be a happy ending with her marriage to Matthew. In the season-three finale, the hero who survived temporary paralysis from World War I has just met his newborn son. Buoyed by the happy event, Matthew is driving home from the hospital when his car crashes. The fact that this pivotal episode originally aired in the United Kingdom on Christmas made the incident all the more shocking for its original viewers.

Nashville Connie Britton as Rayna James

'Nashville' (2012-2018)

Character Death: Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton)

Why It Was Devastating: Although this drama had an ensemble cast, at its heart was Rayna Jaymes, a country music legend whose career was starting to falter. She survived a tragic auto accident and subsequent coma at the end of the first season, which may have foreshadowed a dramatic fifth-season plot twist: Rayna escapes a stalker only to find herself being driven home by the police when their car is hit. This time, she does not survive and dies at the hospital, leaving broken lives behind.

McLean Stevenson MASH

'M*A*S*H' (1972-1983)

Character Death: Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson)

Why It Was Devastating: The Korean War provided the backdrop for this mega-popular comedy/drama. Death was a part of daily life for the doctors, nurses, and others stationed at the titular Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. But it hit shockingly close to home in the last episode of the third season. Unit commander Henry is being sent home to the States, and the celebrations and bittersweet goodbyes flow. But shortly after, the goodbye is permanent. Henry’s right-hand man, Radar, announces that his plane was shot down and “there were no survivors.” It was a first for TV, especially on a half-hour show; usually characters were written off in other ways. The death was kept a secret from most cast and crew until the last moment, series creator Larry Gelbart told Outsider. “It’s not often in your life that you see people stunned. And they really could not believe what was on the page,” he said. Same went for the viewers.

The Sopranos Drea de Matteo as Adriana La Cerva

'The Sopranos' (1999-2007)

Character Death: Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo)

Why It Was Devastating: Sure, there will be debates over the most devastating death on “The Sopranos” — after all, death encroached on many a storyline in this mob-family TV classic. Christopher’s death surely resonates, but Adriana’s was the killing of a character who had progressed from a status-obsessed Mafia chick to a woman far more complex. Her killing in the woods by Silvio in the fifth season, after her role as FBI informant was revealed, was perhaps even more shocking for it not being shown. Viewers simply heard those bullets.

This Is Us Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson

'This is Us' (2016-Present)

Character Death: Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia)

Why It Was Devastating: The flashback-format of this popular show means that Jack is onscreen throughout its run, although his death was featured late in season two. A gift of a slow cooker eventually causes a fire. While Jack saves the family, he ends up dying in the hospital from a heart attack sparked by smoke inhalation. Every storyline is impacted from this moment on. With the show's sixth and final season airing in 2022, it’s clear that Jack’s influence on every character’s life will continue throughout the run.

Peter Horton thirtysomething

'Thirtysomething' (1987-1991)

Character Death: Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton)

Why It Was Devastating: The quintessential “yuppie” drama’s fourth season traced character Nancy’s grueling experience with ovarian cancer. She finally receives good news, surrounded by friends, in the hospital one wintery night. The character of Michael then steps out to check messages only to have one from the police, who tell him that his dear friend Gary was one of seven killed in a chain-reaction highway crash. The truly shocking death affected every character in the tight-knit group of longtime friends and lovers. 

Charmed 8x10 Photo Shannen Doherty

'Charmed' (1998-2006)

Character Death: Prue Halliwell (Shannen Doherty)

Why It Was Devastating: This supernatural/fantasy show centered on a trio of good-witch sisters who live an outwardly normal life in San Francisco but battle demons and all kinds of evil (with special effects amazing or comical, depending on your love of the genre). Prue faced a number of seemingly final moments but was killed off for real following a pivotal confrontation in the season-three finale, when she was attacked by the demonic assassin Shax (we said it was supernatural). Prue’s fate was left hanging — the creators had reportedly considered recasting the role — until the show returned, with a previously unknown half-sister played by Rose McGowan becoming the third witch. 

Michael K. Williams, Omar Little The Wire

'The Wire' (2002-2008)

Character Death: Omar Little (Michael K. Williams)

Why It Was Devastating: The fan-fave character of this ensemble Baltimore-based drama gave the show its trademark depth. The idea that Omar, a Robin Hood-like thief with an impressive code of honor, would die after being shot by some kid at a convenience store encapsulates the push-and-pull of the show and its take on morality.

Josh Charles The Good Wife

'The Good Wife' (2009-2016)

Character Death: Will Gardner (Josh Charles)

Why It Was Devastating: The death of the show’s most promising love interest ensured that onetime college friends Will and Alicia would never end up together, no matter how much fans wanted it. Indeed, the shocking fifth-season, courtroom-shooting death of Will at the hands of a client had repercussions beyond the small screen. The actor who played the client, Hunter Parrish, told TVLine, “I wasn’t quite aware how the fan base really loved Josh Charles’ character, and him. I felt honored, in a weird way, to be asked to be the guy. ... But I certainly got a lot of negative tweets after that, and I didn’t expect to be so hated.”

Kate Mara House of Cards

'House of Cards' (2013-2018)

Character Death: Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara)

Why It Was Devastating: The young political reporter Zoe Barnes’ relationship with congressman Frank Underwood was a bad idea from the start. After many twists, turns, and shady dealings, Underwood needs to get rid of Zoe. After luring her to a train station, he convinces her they can have a new start, having her delete all her texts and contacts. Suddenly, out of security-camera range, he pushes her onto the tracks of an oncoming train. Her death, unseen by anyone but the viewers, is considered an accident. But her friends suspect more, and the tragedy and ensuing investigation shape the remainder of the show.

The Walking Dead Norman Reedus as Daryl with Emily Kinney as Beth

'The Walking Dead' (2010-Present)

Character Death: Beth Greene (Emily Kinney)

Why It Was Devastating: When you watch a “post-apocalyptic horror television series” based on a comic-book series, expect plenty of violence and death. One estimate puts the number of deaths on the show at 60-plus since its inception. But it was perhaps the fifth season’s unexpected, accidental shooting death of Beth Greene — a was-she, wasn’t-she love interest for the character ofDaryl — that was a turning point. Daryl carrying her body was memorably moving, and her death impacted him and the character of Maggie, as well. 

sean bean game of thrones

'Game of Thrones' (2011-2019)

Character Death: Ned Stark (Sean Bean)

Why It Was Devastating: This epic fantasy series was another where death was seemingly an everyday occurrence. The first-season death — a beheading, no less — of Ned (after exiling as an option was tabled) proved to be a real hint of what was to come, especially for those unfamiliar with the books on which the series is based. 

Kal Penn House

'House' (2004-2012)

Character Death: Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn)

Why It Was Devastating: This medical drama was no stranger to life-or-death situations, but Dr. Kutner’s seemingly out-of-the-blue death still rocked the show. Having joined “House” in the fourth season, as part of the diagnostic team, the character appeared to be fitting in, if there were the occasional quirky mishaps. Undiagnosed depression proved the culprit, a shocker for viewers, to be sure, but also designed as an educational tool as the character of House seeks answers. At the time, Kal Penn told Entertainment Weekly, “That’s what art really is — when you can conjure up those kinds of emotions. And it’s rare nowadays to be able to do that on network television, but they managed to.”

Bianca Lawson Pretty Little Liars

'Pretty Little Liars' (2010-2016)

Character Death: Maya St. Germain (Bianca Lawson)

Why It Was Devastating: This teen horror drama focusing on a clique of girls that falls apart once their “leader,” Alison, goes missing was another show that had more than its fair share of brushes with death. This revenge story’s original focus on the death of Alison — and the fact that Maya was more of a newcomer — made Maya’s death by a stalker pretending to be her cousin a real shocker. 

Good Times DVD

'Good Times' (1974-1979)

Character Death: James Evans (John Amos)

Why It Was Devastating: The sitcom suddenly got serious. This groundbreaking show about the day-to-day life of an inner-city Chicago family — Florida and James Evans and their children — was the first mainstream sitcom to feature an African-American nuclear family. That was turned on its head after John Amos had creative differences with the show’s developer, Norman Lear, and was written right into an off-screen car accident at the start of season four. The death, which provided Esther Rolle’s Florida with great dramatic fodder, altered the dynamic of the show and its storylines. 

Mischa Barton The OC Signed Autographed Photo UACC RD AFTAL RACC TS

'The O.C.' (2003-2007)

Character Death: Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton)

Why It Was Devastating: This teen drama was never short of dramatic storylines — the characters were teens, after all. But season three wrapped up with a real shocker. Marissa’s downward spiral culminated in a most-unexpected event: Ryan, her on-again, off-again guy, is driving her to the airport when a spurned lover runs the car right off the road. Ryan pulls her out of the car, only to have her die in his arms as flames engulf the car. No one saw it coming, and the characters spent the final season playing out their storylines amid the loss.

Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) Sons of Anarchy

'Sons of Anarchy' (2008-2014)

Character Death: Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam)

Why It Was Devastating: The members of an outlaw motorcycle club are bound to live lives that border on violence, right? Well, this show packed in the action in storylines that touched on love and loyalty, brotherhood, and redemption. After seven seasons, the final episode ended with a shocker — Jax doing what he feels he has to do in order to stop the family legacy of violence. In true biker fashion, he rides his bike into the path of an oncoming semi. But he makes sure his outlaw legacy dies with him, sending his sons away before the end.

Rescue Me (TV) Poster

'Rescue Me' (2004-2011)

Character Death: Lt. Kenneth “Lou” Shea (John Scurti)

Why It Was Devastating: This post-9/11 drama about NYC firefighters certainly earned both its comedic and dramatic chops, so it went out as one might expect, with a final episode that was equally somber and silly. The firefighters reflect on the unexpected death of Lou, who had long battled health issues that made him a prime candidate for a heart attack but instead perished in the line of duty. Peter Tolan, co-creator of the show with Denis Leary (who also starred), told TV Guide the show was designed, in the end, to offer “some glimmer of hope.” Scurti returns as a ghost who comforts Leary’s character, Tommy Gavin, instead of haunting him. “It’s not a contentious thing or something that takes him to a dark place,” Leary said. “It’s really ‘Casablanca’ at that point with the two of them driving off. It’s the continuation of a beautiful friendship.” The way Lou’s ashes are unintentionally scattered provides a bittersweet farewell to a groundbreaking show.

When Calls the Heart Erin Krakow as Elizabeth Thatcher and Daniel Lissing as Jack Thornton in front of a pond

'When Calls the Heart' (2014-Present)

Character Death: Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing)

Why It Was Devastating: This historical drama set in 1910 explores life in a small, Canadian mining town. It might be considered cheesy, but don’t say that to the “Hearties,” rabid fans who feel the show has, well, a lot of heart. Many a heart was broken when Jack, a dashing Mountie, was killed by a landslide while on assignment. Making the moment even more tragic and touching was a letter he wrote to his new wife, Elizabeth, before he left, fearing he might indeed not return. As viewers hear Jack reading the love letter, they see Elizabeth flashing back to scenes of her husband. To this day, fans continue to judge the show’s relationships against that epic pairing.