The 10 Most Gut-Wrenching Deaths in TV History

If you’ve been on the Internet at all in the last 24 hours, you’ve probably heard how last week Game of Thrones killed off not just one character, but several fan-favorites in one of the most brutal, horrific scenes in television history. So, in honor of those dearly departed characters, let’s reflect on 10 of the most soul-crushing deaths to ever air on the small screen.

Be warned: spoilers below for 24, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and The West Wing.

10. Denny Duquette on Grey’s Anatomy

Season 2, Episode 27: "Losing My Religion"
Season 2, Episode 27: “Losing My Religion”

Patients dying is no surprise on hospital-set shows. Over its many years, Grey’s Anatomy has devised many a grisly death for its stars, from shooters to car accidents, but none as heart-wrenching as Denny Duquette’s fatal turn for the worse after a heart transplant. The death itself is bad enough, but what made this moment stand out as one of the show’s best are the circumstances surrounding it: all the doctors are dressed in formal attire for a prom being held at the hospital, and Lizzie risks her career by cutting Denny’s LVAD wire to save his life. The result? A beautiful, sorrowful scene that marked the end of the show’s glory days. This was Shona Rhimes showcasing some her best work on Grey’s Anatomy: showing how a patient’s death can completely derail a doctor emotionally. While Grey’s Anatomy is a show about doctors, it was never afraid to show them as vulnerable humans too.

9. Lane Pryce on Mad Men

Season 5, Episode 12: "Commissions and Fees"
Season 5, Episode 12: “Commissions and Fees”

Lane’s downward spiral in Mad Men‘s fifth season is tragic in and of itself, but the method of his exit — hanging himself in his SCDP office only to be discovered days later — is so surreal and a distinctly iconic Mad Men moment. Perhaps the most powerful part of his death is not the act itself, but how the shadow of the event hangs over all of the characters for the season finale, “The Phantom.” Mad Men was never a show to kill off its characters; Sterling Cooper Ad Agency seemed to be a place of stasis in the show’s early years, but as the ad agency progressed through the 1960s, Mad Men showed us how that was far from the truth. With the tumultuous transformation to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Mad Men had to show how this change affected every single employee of the agency. Using Lane to highlight this and having us witness his downfall showed us how truly fragile all of the employees of SCDP really are.

8. Jane Margolis on Breaking Bad

Jane in "ABQ"
Season 2, Episode 13: “ABQ”

“Jane who?” Jesse’s ex-addict landlord and girlfriend was pretty much marked for death from her first appearance, but what’s so great about her exit is the ramifications it causes (and continues to do so!) for the series. On one level, her death indirectly leads to her air traffic controller dad to accidentally allow two planes to collide over Albuquerque. But, more importantly for the series, the death also highlights Walt’s changing personality. As he watches her choke on her vomit and does nothing to save her, we see Walt’s first true streak of depravity. To see a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher let a girl die is horrific, but it’s also Walt’s first major step from Mr. Chips to Scarface. In that sense, it is one of the top defining moments of the series. What we didn’t know then is how many of these violent acts we’d continue to see down the road.

7. Rita Morgan on Dexter

Rita in "The Getaway"
Season 4, Episode 12: “The Getaway”

In a show about a serial killer, you grow to expect a lot of murders. What you don’t expect is how close to home those murders can hit for the show’s protagonist (antagonist?), Dexter Morgan. After a season-long feud with the so-called “Trinity Killer,” it is ultimately Dexter’s sudden empathy, of all things, that leads to Trinity killing Dexter’s wife, Rita. It’s a death brilliantly unfair and brutal, throwing Dexter in a completely new arena for his character. Up until this point, Dexter’s serial-killer existence stayed safely removed from his personal life; his “dark passenger” was almost a completely separate entity from the cheery step-dad to Astor and Cody. Rita’s death completely shatters this notion to Dexter, highlighting the real danger he brings to everyone around him.

6. Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under

Season 5, Episode 9: "Ecotone"
Season 5, Episode 9: “Ecotone”

Like Dexter, you grow to accept that a lot of people are going to die on Six Feet Under… it’s a show about a funeral home, for crying out loud. Nate’s death seemed somewhat inevitable over the course of the series; his AVM, discovered at the end of the first season, was a major harbinger of doom. So by season 5, as a viewer, it felt pretty easy to say that his death would close out the series. Everyone was wrong. In one the show’s best moves, Nate dies three episodes before the finale, sending the Fisher family into deep grief to perfectly close out a show that, at its heart, was always about grief. “Everyone’s Waiting,” the show’s finale, instead was opened up for Claire’s departure from the family’s home and featured one of the most moving sequences in TV history: Claire, driving out east, as we witness a montage of each and every major character from the series meet their end.

5. Ned Stark on Game of Thrones

Ned in "Baelor"
Season 1, Episode 9: “Baelor”

It just didn’t seem possible that Game of Thrones could execute its most honorable, heroic character nine episodes into the series. You just didn’t do that. Well, they did and Ned’s death brilliantly sets the tone for the series; if you thought that Game of Thrones was going to have a happy ending and that all the Starks would fairly rule the Seven Kingdoms, you were dead wrong. Every aspect of Ned’s execution is so perfectly calculated: we think Joffrey will spare him, but when he sentences him to death, it all breaks loose — Arya tries to save her father, Sansa faints, and even Cersei tries to stop her son – but it’s too late. In one moment, Game of Thrones loses its biggest star and one of its most likable characters, but then also suddenly jumps to a higher echelon of prestige, all while defining itself as anything but a traditional fantasy series.

4-3. Sun & Jin Kwon on Lost

Sun and Jin in "The Candidate"
Season 6, Episode 9: “The Candidate”

A double gut-punch here. Lost racked up a fairly high death toll over its six seasons, with Charlie and Locke’s death being some of the most memorable. But then, partway through its final season, Lost took away not one, but two major characters in one very wet fell swoop. At least we knew (somewhat) that Charlie’s death was coming – this one instead comes out of the blue and slays us with its tragedy. Husband and wife both! They’re leaving their daughter an orphan! It matters not to the masterminds behind Lost. Lost was never afraid to off some of its fan-favorite characters; in the crazy world of the island, the show established both how no one could leave their past behind, and how no one’s life was safe in this new world. Sun and Jin’s departure, so close to the show’s end, shows that Lost never forgot that.

2. Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos

Adriana in "Long Term Parking"
Season 5, Episode 12: “Long Term Parking”

One of the best parts of Adriana’s death on The Sopranos is the fact that it’s no surprise whatsoever. In the world of The Sopranos, this is the only reasonable solution to her “crime” of being an informant to the FBI. Despite the fact that Adriana was a part of “the family,” she gets no forgiveness for her betrayal. That in and of itself, perfectly epitomizes the upside-down view of the world we’re absorbed into during the course of the series. The (painful, soul-draining) icing on the cake, then, is the carrying out of the action itself: how both Silvio and Adriana both know what’s about to happen even though both of them don’t want to go through with it, Silvio’s awkward small-talk, and the sheer length of the lead up. The actual moment of the kill is horribly pitiful to watch, with Adriana crawling away feebly on her hands and knees… it’s a visceral image that still remains so vivid, nine years later. This was a moment where The Sopranos made us feel the gravity of “whacking” someone; it was so easy to become desensitized to all of the murders that fill up the 4 preceding seasons. So, to subvert the status quo, The Sopranos kills off one of the show’s only characters selflessly trying to do something good, and by doing so, forces the viewer to recognize the utter brutality and wrongness of Tony Soprano’s world.

1. Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones

Catelyn in "The Rains of Castamere"
Season 3, Episode 9: “The Rains of Castamere”

Some may think it’s premature to give the top spot to the most recent of all these deaths, but the response to Cat’s death (and Robb’s and Talisa’s and Grey Wind’s) sent the Internet ablaze in a way I have never seen. It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible, and there’s no way around it. While Ned Stark’s beheading set the tone for the series, it’s Catelyn’s betrayal and murder (and the events of the so-called “Red Wedding”) that truly define the series; it subverts every expectation we had and goes against every single convention of storytelling we’ve seen in every book, movie, and television show. That’s why it feels so wrong, and also why it’s so horrifically brilliant. The calculated lead-up to her death is painful to watch, but it’s Michelle Fairley’s performance as Catelyn, watching everything around her fall apart, that’s simultaneously so unbearable to witness and yet impossible to turn away from. It’s this moment that exemplifies that the show’s pessimistic brutality in killing off Ned Stark was not a fluke, but wholly honest to the world of this story.

So, why do these deaths stand out?

Character deaths are always a memorable part of a television series. Unlike film, television grows with us over several years – it becomes a part of our routine, and we grow accustomed to these characters’ presence in our lives. So, when a character suddenly dies, it gets under our skin. And, because we have no control over it, it sometimes feels all the more unfair.

But why are these ten deaths the ones that truly stand out? Because each one of these broke the rules, or somehow challenged the world of the show. Each one of these helped to define the show they were, or are, a part of. A police procedural can have a victim die every episode with little to no impact. But with the very same action, these shows took a death and made it a way to change a character’s outlook, to highlight their depravity, or to truly reveal the realities of this world we’re watching. Killing a character isn’t a means to an end for a good show – it’s an opportunity, and each of these series used it well.

Honorable mentions:

  • Teri Bauer on 24
  • Sybil Branson on Downton Abbey
  • Juliet Burke and John Locke on Lost
  • “Natalie Six” on Battlestar Galactica
  • Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing

Agree? Disagree?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Great list, some of those deaths nearly brought a tear to my eye. That’s great TV.

  2. J. Bryan Jones

    In response to the episode just the other day? You work fast.

  3. Fun post about a dark subject 🙂 But how, HOOOOOW can you forget death in The Shield. Spoiler ahead:

    **Lem’s death**! HOW!

    Glad that I’ve already seen all of these shows. And I agree with your number one.

  4. *Revenge Finale Spoiler!*
    Declan’s recent exit from Revenge was one of the most upsetting for me as a viewer because of his strength through it. He didn’t even tell his own girlfriend that he was going to die just to see her smile one last time. His death had no rhyme or reason yet; Declan was one of the few characters left with a sense of innocence. Without him, I fear the show will lose its sense of hope.

  5. Gitana Duka

    Brilliant article, I might have let out a little sob here and there (especially to number 1, I don’t think I’m going to get over the Red Wedding for a long, long time). Great explanations on how these deaths have effected the story in the series!

    (And if Michelle Fairely doesn’t receive an award of some sort then there is no justice in the world.)

  6. Kevin Licht

    Great choice on article subject matter. I think the death of Adrianna is the one that I remember most (with the exception of maybe Catelyn Stark since it just happened).

    I’m wondering a little bit about the deaths in Lost though. Did the way that series end possibly cheapen those bigger moments? I know at the time when they killed Charlie off it was heartbreaking, but I’m thinking when audiences look back at that series and how they brought everyone back for that last episode, those deaths may not seem quite as “meaningful” for lack of a better word.

    I think the Teri Bauer honorable mention is a great one. At the time of the first season “24” was a very risky show, and the ending showed a somewhat uncompromising attitude, ending that particular network series season in such a devastating manner.

  7. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    The Adrianna death was so brilliantly executed in its bleakness. The way they left us with a little glimmer of hope as if she was ever going to get out of that lifestyle was heartbreaking. Christopher’s was memorable but I think more so because of what it said about Tony’s character.

    I also remember the knot-in-your-stomach feeling from Lane’s suicide. Powerful stuff.

    All in all, a strong list.

    • Phil Melanson

      Agreed! Christopher’s death was so out of the blue, but it was so great in what it revealed about Tony (or, at least, revealed what we already knew but tried to overlook throughout the series).

  8. Camille Brouard

    Jane’s death on Breaking Bad made me tear up! I agree with your analysis of Walt in this scene, I think that his facial expression, at first instinctively concerned and then holding back, evidently expresses this.

    Also, even though Rita from Dexter’s death was spoiled for me (by an irritating friend, not you!) it still had a massive emotional impact for me – poor Harrison, born in blood! I always wonder how he will turn out because of this. Season 4 was definitely my favourite, Dexter has never been as good since in my opinion (though it’s still very good.)

  9. Good list! You may not watch Boardwalk Empire, but it’s had some hard deaths as well. I’m particularly thinking of Owen’s, which was a sad one for me to accept (you sense it’s coming but never even see it happen – just the dead body).

  10. Dale Barham

    Having read the Game of Thrones books and being somewhat disillusioned with the past two seasons, the effect of Catelyn Stark’s death was lost on me, the only change I would make however is to switch the Game of Thrones entries around. Ned Stark’s death was perfectly executed … pardon the pun!

  11. Amanda Gostomski

    Six Feet Under got me. So did Rita. So did Denny. So did…

  12. VinceMoran

    For me nothing is worse than Adriana’s death in The Sopranos. Out of all the characters you expect to die in that series, she was probably last on my list. It was such a brave and brilliant decision by Chase and company to do it the way they did.

  13. While I agree with all of these, I would place Denny’s death on Grey’s or some of the other deaths on that show alone over Rita’s on Dexter. It might just be my own connection to each show, but feel like Rita’s death was not surprising and was bound to happen (I was surprised it didn’t happen sooner).

    I was also more heartbroken over the death of Robb’s wife on Game of Thrones than his mother. I knew about both going into the episode because of the books. But the show added to the slaughter by killing his wife and his unborn child, which didn’t happen in the book.

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