10 Shocking Television Deaths That Showed Us Nobody Is Safe

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When you watch television, especially modern television that thrives on shocks and surprises, you need to be prepared for the fact that just because someone’s a main character, it doesn’t mean that they will have a long and healthy life. Doesn’t matter who they are, or how big a role they have. These days, a major character can be killed off in the fifth episode of the first season with barely a second thought.

We often come into a television viewing experience with preconceived notions about what types of characters will be allowed to live and which will be killed off. Of course, showrunners wouldn’t be showrunners if they didn’t have a demonstrated ability to challenge and consistently wrong-foot viewers. But even shows that are used to keeping audiences on their toes sometimes have that moment when all of a sudden it becomes clear that there is no one they won’t kill in their bloody quest for viewership.

On that note, here are 10 shocking television deaths that showed us nobody is safe.

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10) Sophia – The Walking Dead

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In a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by bloodthirsty zombies, it was perhaps foolish to hang onto sentimentality. To set arbitrary rules in your head about who could die and who couldn’t. But there’s always been this taboo against killing children on television that made us think that Carl and Sophia, the two children of the ragtag group of survivors, would make it to the end. Big mistake.

With zombies roaming around, no one is safe, not even the innocent. At the start of the second season, Sophie disappeared after a zombie attack, and her fate remained a mystery until about halfway through the season.

We spent the entire first half in a slow burn, anxiously waiting to find out what happened to her. But nothing could have prepared us for the moment when we discover the stockpile of zombies hidden in the barn, we see a pair of skinny, childish legs wearing all-too-familiar trainers, and we realize that the worst has happened. Sophie is dead, and there’s a zombie wearing her face. It was like being punched in the gut. We probably should have expected it, but The Walking Dead sill gave us the harsh reminder that anyone could die on this show, and that nobody is safe.

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Doyle – Angel

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Despite the fact that Wesley and Gunn became integral parts of Angel Investigations in later years of the show, it began with the trio of Angel, Cordelia, and Doyle. He was a roguish half-demon coming to terms with his heritage, whose insecurities belied a man who was much smarter and braver than even he gave himself credit for. Doyle was cursed with visions, which allowed him to see flashes of people that Angel was supposed to save. He had an incredibly endearing crush on Cordelia as well, who unfortunately saw him as an alcoholic slob until it was too late.

Halfway through the first season, the gang encountered a group of demonic Nazi Death Eaters who were massacring any half-demons they could find. It forced Doyle to come to terms with his somewhat unconventional heritage, and he sacrificed himself in a truly heroic gesture.

When a fledgling new show establishes a power trio, you generally don’t expect one of them to die in the ninth episode. Thanks a lot, Joss. Every time we think that we can learn to trust someone again, you pull this kind of stunt.

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Lane Pryce – Mad Men

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The spectre of death hung heavy (no pun intended) over the course of the fifth season of Mad Men. We knew something bad was going to happen, it was just a question of when and where. We finally got our answer when Lane Pryce, caught in an embezzlement scheme to cover his growing debts and forced to resign, hanged himself in his office. It was a bold move from the series, which typically found other ways to use story to surprise the audience.

But suicide has been a subtle theme of the show since the very beginning, when we first saw the man in the opening credits experience his literal fall from a skyscraper coupled with a metaphorical fall from grace. Whatever viewers may have been expecting, Lane’s short precipitous fall from grace was an undeniable jolt, and quickly became one of the season’s biggest talking points.

Now, with the show reaching 1969 and Megan out in a Los Angeles that’s about to be shaken to its core by Charles Manson, the murmurs of an impending death are on the rise. And who knows? Mad Men has proven that it isn’t afraid to take things down a dark path, as evidenced by poor Lane’s fate.

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Sybil/Matthew Crawley – Downton Abbey

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Conventional wisdom says that on a show like Downton Abbey, you keep the popular characters around for as long as you think you can get away with it. What you normally don’t do is execute two well-loved characters in the same season, which is part of the reason why audiences were so shocked at the events of the third season. Sybil was the youngest Crawley daughter, a kind-hearted girl who was determined to be more than just another debutante. She had neither the prickly temperament of Mary or the self esteem issues of Edith, and we loved her for it.

So, of course, she had to die, abruptly and painfully, afflicted with eclampsia while giving birth to her daughter. After that happened, we kind of thought that was going to be it for major deaths in the third season. But then there was Matthew. Deliriously happy after the birth of his son with Mary, he gets into a car accident and dies on the scene. Ouch. While logistical issues were at play there (Dan Stevens wanted to leave the show and they needed to write him off somehow), it was nonetheless a jarring loss that made us wonder how many characters we’d be losing in season four.

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Will Gardner – The Good Wife

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This is an example of the most unnerving way to kill off a character. Josh Charles didn’t have any issues with the production team, and The Good Wife isn’t the kind of show that routinely executes its characters. There was no real reason to get rid of Will Gardner, but they did it anyway. Just because they could.

In the most recent season, the charismatic lawyer was the victim of a courtroom shooting, which left him dead and the law firm emotionally ravaged. It was a shocking moment, and one that was deeply felt.

Gardner was a highly beloved character on the show, and losing him as suddenly as they did made audiences realize that The Good Wife was not a show that was always going to play it safe. It gave the fifth season of the show a much needed shake up, and allowed them to wade into greater emotional depths.

In terms of manufactured drama, seeing all of the characters react to Will Gardner’s death was painful, but at the same time, tremendously satisfying to watch from an acting perspective.

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Emmett – Chuck

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Although Chuck was about an NSA/CIA black ops team that went on dangerous missions every week, it was pretty much well known for being primarily an action-comedy. There weren’t a huge amount of character deaths, and we always thought that whatever happened, Chuck, Sarah, and Casey would probably be safe. Some of the most clever aspects of the show were when they blended elements of the spy world with the more pedestrian life at the Buy More, but regardless, we weren’t expecting the serious events to happen in the Buy More world.

That’s why it was such a shock when Store Manager Emmett was coldly gunned down by a hit man he unwisely mocked. He was shot in the forehead and left for dead out by the dumpsters, with remarkably little fanfare. Sure, it was something that we’d all be secretly hoping would happen since Emmett’s very first episode, but we never thought it would actually happen. Maybe if we were lucky he’d get shipped off to Hawaii like Harry Tang, but shot? Never. Tonally, it was a major departure from what we were used to seeing on Chuck, and it served as proof that they weren’t pulling any punches.

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Nikki – Misfits

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Misfits is a show about a group of youthful offenders, who find themselves superpowers after a freak lightning storm. While it was always theoretically possible that one of our unconventional heroes could die, it never seemed particularly likely. After all, Nathan is functionally immortal and Curtis can go back in time. Not exactly characters that seem likely to be killed. Oh, how wrong we were. There’s carnage all around, but the central group of Misfits were survivors…at least for the first couple of series. But then they decided to sell their powers to a shady dealer, and all the rules changed.

They’re not the all-powerful antiheroes anymore, and while they’re glad to be free of the perceived burdens of their abilities, they’ve forgotten what it feels like to be vulnerable. So they get sloppy. When a robber threatens them at gunpoint, Nathan tries to fight back, resulting in the death of Nikki. She dies quickly and pointlessly, and although she wasn’t a main member of the cast, her death serves as a harbinger of things to come. In the next season, Misfits start dropping like flies, but Nikki was the one who shocked us into remembering that they could actually be killed. Real, permanent deaths, not like Future Simon or Nathan’s stint in the coffin.

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Joyce Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that faces death head on. People die in pretty much every single episode of the show’s seven year run, so in a way, we were starting to get desensitized to it. Think about it. On most shows, a teenager getting gruesomely murdered would be a big deal. On Buffy though, that’s exactly what happened during the pre-credits sequence. But somehow, the fact that these were supernatural deaths helped us to distance ourselves from them. When Buffy found Joyce dead on the couch, though…that felt shockingly real. Joss put us through 45 minutes of hell on earth, a barrage on our emotions that left us a weeping emotional wreck huddled in the corner (metaphorically speaking).

Joyce was the mother figure of the Scooby Gang, a comforting presence even when she sometimes wasn’t making the right decisions with Buffy. In the same way that as children we were convinced that our parents were immortal, the idea that Joyce could die never occurred to us. A regular, everyday death that had nothing to do with the supernatural made her passing all the more poignant, and her absence left a gaping hole in the hearts of everyone who watched the show.

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Adric – Doctor Who

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Sure, Adric was not the first companion on Doctor Who to die. He was, however, one of only three companions to officially die on the show in its entire fifty year history, so it’s fair to call his shocking death scene something of an aberration. What’s more, he was a young teenager who died alone, trapped on an exploding spaceship while the Doctor watched helplessly safe aboard the TARDIS with Nyssa and Tegan. If that kind of character can die, who can’t?

Adric was annoying and whiny, and maybe in hindsight it might have been better to bring his older brother onto the TARDIS instead, with his rough around the edges demeanour far more appealing than Adric’s genius schoolboy routine. But it was still incredibly traumatizing to watch the little guy realize exactly what was happening, and to be stuck on board with no way of escape.

Fans didn’t see it coming at all, either, and many watched the following serial expecting him to somehow return. But Adric was really and truly gone. Having the courage to do that on Doctor Who reminded everyone that the Doctor was not infallible, and it was devastating to watch him lose one of the people that he felt responsible for.

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Ned Stark – Game Of Thrones

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Looking back, we really should have seen it coming. After all, it’s pretty common knowledge that George R.R. Martin’s favorite hobby is killing off beloved characters, and Sean Bean doesn’t exactly have a reputation for surviving many of his films. But at the time, the second when we realized that Joffrey was actually going to have Ned Stark executed…it was incredibly shocking. It was like the television version of the exact moment when you realized, as a child, that life wasn’t fair. Westeros was not a just land, and good people were going to die.

Since then, there have been a number of other fairly traumatic deaths on the show. That first one with Ned was huge in terms of impact, though. Viewers who hadn’t read the books never would have expected them to kill off the man who seemed to be the main protagonist, and Ned getting his head chopped off made it abundantly clear exactly what kind of show Game of Thrones was going to be.

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  • Joe Jusko

    What about Rita on DEXTER?

  • bibleverse1

    Joyce Summers really was shocking.

    • Sandra

      I sobbed the whole episode – and I don’t feel embarrassed about it at all. It was fucking -sad-. When Anya started her confused, grief riddled speech, I utterly lost it.

  • Dane La Born

    metaphorically speaking my ass, im perma-scarred from The Body

  • Anonymous

    Not a single death from The Sopranos?

    • sky_erosion

      Unexpected situations but not unexpected deaths. The shocking stuff began late in the sixth season but it was the end game, so I wouldn’t consider that in a special like this.

  • Flyerfan162

    I loved Doyle, but I think Fred was way more shocking and painful in comparison. I’ve never cried from a tv death before, but that had me sobbing for hours.

  • Sarah Johnson

    Interesting, the writer of this article has never seen 24, Prison Break or Farscape apparently.

  • Knic

    Rita from Dexter. Almost anyone and everyone from The Wire.

    • sky_erosion

      Definitely both. In The Wire it’s specifically the death of Wallace in the end of the first season that shows that everyone at the criminal part of the ‘game’ is about to die. The police on the other hand was fairly safe except the one undercover-thing of Kima and even then she didin’t die.

  • Eva Destruction

    Joss didn’t have much of a choice. The guy who played Doyle had a raging heroin addiction. He died from it a few years later.

  • Subtlety Rogue

    Not a word about The Red Wedding? Go back and do your homework. And it was a two-fer, to boot! Seriously.

    • Hz

      No, because as stated in the article, that is the kind of death that is expected in Game of Thrones – all the shock was in the manner not in the decision to kill off the characters – all explained in the Ned Stark portion of the article.

    • Stephie59

      The Red Wedding pretty well shocked me! I had to re-watch that episode.

  • Hz

    Spooks (MI-5 in the US) may not have had the impact in the US to make the lists but they were among the pioneers of the shock deaths and nobody being safe – the second episode saw a lead character (played by a reasonably high profile British actress) have her face shoved in a deep fat fryer. But the real shocker was the finale of season 1 when the lead agent took home a laptop to examine only to realise there was a bomb inside. Rushing home with the MI-5 cavalry in tow, you were to assume they’d save the day before his partner and her daughter could be harmed. But, due to the young girl having tripped the security measures he’d just introduced to protect them, he was unable to gain access and their final conversation was held through a letterbox.

  • Trey V

    Tara on Buffy was the ultimate…and saddest

    • Timothy Young

      And it really was unexpected…I remember seeing it for the first time…I swear my heart stopped for a minute. When it comes to other Whedon deaths in the Buffyverse, Doyle made a sacrifice, and Joyce had that brain tumor. Both were incredibly emotional moments, but nothing like that moment when Warren comes charging into the yard with the gun…

  • luxfare

    James Dormoddy in boardwalk empire?

  • Ronald Olson

    Most of the stars on Sons of Anarchy. Likeable charcters didn’t have a chance. Half-Sack and Filthy Phil we got to like. Piney then his son Opie, one of the biggest losses of the show but later on you knew why. Clay, you knew he was going to get it but not quite when. Tara, that was a rough one as Jax is losing the world around him. I’m waiting for Juice to get offed next as I never liked the character.
    The final season is going to be can’t-miss TV. New guest stars coming in.

    • Tigernan Quinn

      Time for us to get to yours. Remember to cut straight up and down, not across.

    • http://ginalouise.tumblr.com/ GinaLou

      Don’t forget David Hale! And, so brutally, too. Did they really have to run over his head with a car?! Rewatching the way season 2 ended, he was starting to warm up to the club a little, and also it looked like something might develop while he was comforting Tara. I was intrigued to see where that might lead, and then BOOM! Sutter kills him off, leaving us with his annoying brother who reminded me every time he was onscreen that he was our sorry consolation prize.

  • kperk014

    Most shocking of all time: Colonel Henry Blake on MASH. Even shocked the other actors.

    • Trouble2022

      I remember reading that their shock, horror and tears were utterly genuine because they truly didn’t know that would happen.

  • chewie402

    Caitlin Todd on NCIS

    • Selene

      I actually cheered when Cait got shot….sorry but couldn’t stand her at all <3ed Ziva though

  • MollyScandalicious

    Sorry but Sophia (WD) was not a main character.

  • MollyScandalicious

    How about Shane, Andrea, Lori, T-Dog, Hershel from TWD?
    How about George (Grey’s Anatomy)?

  • Blksknpwr

    Moira Queen on Arrow

  • Reece Adin Hart

    Pretty old now but Dr. Janet Fraiser on Stargate

  • Verity Webb

    doyle was killed off because the actor himself had passed away

    • Sam Axe

      Glenn Quinn’s character was killed off the show in 1999. He passed away in 2002.

  • Jacqui Preston

    What about Mike on Desperate Housewives? :(

  • RandomRedneck

    NOBODY missed Sophia but the characters in the show.

  • tim

    clay on SOA?.. Tara on SOA?.. Opie on SOA.. well.. i guess they’ve established that main characters die, so i guess these wouldn’t fit lol.

    • sweett21081

      No way – I’m with you. i was thinking the same thing … they may have established that main characters can die – but I’ll be if they didn’t do it at the most shocking times and in horribly and shockingly amazing ways (since its tv). one of these should have made it!! of course they could probably have a whole list of shocking SOA deaths … haha

  • Cadence Wallace

    Bobby Singer

    • Matthew Stone

      Yeah, but its Supernatural, so he’ll be back.

  • Mikayla Rae

    George on Grey’s Anatomy

  • Glenda Vick

    Now Sophia was not the only child to die on The Walking Dead.

  • Glenda Vick

    Captain Montgomery on Castle.

    • Stephie59

      Yes Captain Montgomery was a shocker. I really liked him and couldn’t believe how they portrayed him then killed him off.

  • Stephen Scanlon

    Criosetti and Felton on Homicide.

  • Dave

    What about Zoey in “House of Cards?” I bet nobody saw that death coming.

  • Plain Jain

    No Boardwalk Empire? Hands down Jimmy, and then later Harrow. Was their deaths inevitable? Sure but the timing was shocking.

  • Plain Jain

    Oh, I forgot. Practically everyone from Hannibal. Season finale was bananas!

  • whatevs

    Jack’s wife Terri on 24 definitely belongs on any Most Shocking deaths list.

  • whatever

    Prue Halliwell – Charmed…that was literally the most shocking death ever and a pretty fatal one too, because the existence of another sister and everything that followed (she never appeared as a ghost, eventhough pretty much everyone else did) made absolutely no sense.

    • Jason

      It was because they all hated Shannon Doherty. Any other character that died was played by an actor they still wanted to work with. They killed Prue because Doherty was such a bitch. True story

  • Nick K

    I loved Doyle and Cordelia! I always thought they created a scene to kill him off because he died in real life! I’m glad Will died…Alicia belongs with Peter! Am I the only person who thought Will was kind of a douche? I didn’t think he was friendly, he was gruff and harsh, he did a lot of bad things, and the women he dated weren’t very classy.

    • BMcGee

      Agree, agree! When Will dumped a gun that happened to be a murder weapon, and then told some random black guys that came along where they could find it, it clearly never occurred to him that they’d go get it and TAKE IT TO THE POLICE. So rather than the gun disappearing into the underworld that Will apparently thought all young black males inhabit, they sank his case, and his client(s). I never liked him before that; despised him from then on.

      • Stephie59

        Sorry but I loved Will, and by chance I had missed the episode and saw on the Internet the stories of the death. I read all about it, never watched the episode, and haven’t watched the series since. I think it was too harsh and I couldn’t stand it. I no longer watch that show. I would miss Will too much.

  • Jz

    Edith ..

  • Chelz

    I think when bobby died on supernatural :’(

  • Maria

    Rita’s death from Dexter was shocking and completely unexpected. It should’ve made the list.

  • mrtv

    Adebisi on OZ, Richie on Highlander are the two most shocking deaths ever. Rita on Dexter and Caitlyn Todd on ncsi should be on the list too

  • Cameron Simms

    We REALLY grieved for Tosh, Owen and Ianto on Torchwood! That left only Capt. Jack and Gwen to carry on the show. And they did a great job.

  • Guest

    In fairness, Joss didn’t have much of a choice. Glenn Quinn was in a downward spiral and died not long after he was forced off the show.

  • Sherri

    I CAN NOT believe that Opie being killed off on Son’s of Anarchy did not make it to this tip 10 list. Heck, it’s one of top 3 in my book of total shocking death moments!

    • Trouble2022

      It definitely should’ve because it was just a ‘WTF!’ moment. I cried so much and it was such an honest thing Ope did. Shame the show was never the same again……

  • Guest

    No mention of Bobby Singer? That one was a shock.

  • Krungle

    Can’t even lie, little Sophia walking out as a zombie made me cry.

  • Stephie59

    Caitlyn on NCIS. That really shocked me. Will on The Good Wife. I missed the ep, read about it after and haven’t watched another episode since. When they killed off Sean Bean in Game of Thrones, I was shocked, but it didn’t make me feel to stop watching. I was intrigued. But The Good Wife. I never expected that. It was too much for me. Moira Queen on Arrow really floored me as well.

  • Robigo

    Opie on Sons of Anarchy

    • Jason Cole

      And Tara not so much that she died but the how.

    • Trouble2022

      I cried for hours after he died; the show’s never been as good either. Which was a shame; it’s like he was the heart of it and without him, it just kind of withered away.

  • macsen

    Vincent Nigel Murrary on Bones. I really loved his character…. Dargo in Farsape Peacekeeper wars, and Hersel in the Walking Dead.

  • jacquej4444

    what about George O’Malley on Grey’s? Or Tara or Opie on SOA?

  • Luna

    Adric dying was not traumatizing. Adric dying was cause for much celebration and rejoicing

  • edinvestor1

    Life sucks enough without TV REMINDING ME.

  • PenguinMarco

    Yes but it’s ok. In the very last episode of Season 8, Dexter wakes up, realizing it was all a dream.

  • lo

    Lexi and Mark on Grey’s Anatomy.

  • Michu1945

    Edie in Desperate Housewives?!

  • Jettboy

    Not that good of a list. Should have included Deep Throat’s death in the X-Files first season finale. From then on the show proved that no one was safe, as other important characters died.

  • B1ackDiamond

    How about adding a previous and next option above the pictures?

    I only want to read the ones I know.

  • Glenn Griffith

    HELLO!!!! What about the wife on 24 in the first season. Killing her off after a WHOLE SEASON of her captivity, then freeing her only to kill her is the reason I never watched another 24 episode.

  • GOParty

    Not a single character death from NCIS? HOW COULD THEY? Caitlyn Todd, Jenny Summers, Eli David, and especially Mike Franks! Jackson Gibbs, unfortunately, had to be written out due to the real-life death of his portrayer, actor Ralph Waite.

  • Ryan Murphy

    The only 2 that have ever caught me supremely off guard, though in retrospect they shouldn’t have, were Teri Bauer and Rita Morgan. The really weird thing is that they are set up almost the exact same way too…

  • Jo :-)

    Claire Kincaid on Law & Order! I’m still not over that nearly 20 years later!! UGH!

  • misfit

    You mention Nikki from Misfits but not Alisha? I’m calling bullshit

  • emily graceffa

    um…Hershel???? and lori?!

  • emily graceffa

    like duhhhhh! lol