- Killing off a character can propel a show in a new direction, but it needs to be done with respect to the character’s history.
- Some character deaths in shows are deemed unnecessary and anger audiences, while others push the series in a better direction.
- Character deaths can lead to major shifts in storylines, introduce new characters, and impact relationships between other characters.
Using a character’s death as a way to propel the plot of the show in a certain direction is a common strategy, but rarely does it do the series any good. No matter the genre, shows have killed off characters for years, and there have been a variety of reasons for that. A death might introduce a new story arc, shock viewers who are getting too comfortable, add drama to the pivotal moment, or simply serve as a way to write the character off if the actor playing them is leaving the series altogether. The important thing is to kill the character off with respect to their history.
There are so many examples of characters dying in vain that it seems to have become the norm in the industry. Those deaths are usually accompanied by angry audiences who can’t forgive the showrunners for taking out their favorite character for nothing. For instance, How I Met Your Mother killing off the Mother is universally regarded as the move that has ruined the legacy of the show because it was utterly unnecessary for Tracy to die like that. However, there are also quite a few positive examples of a character’s death pushing the series into a better, more innovative and daring direction.
10 John Winchester
- Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins, Jim Beaver, Jared Padalecki, Katie Cassidy, Lauren Cohan, Mark A. Sheppard, Mark Pellegrino, Alexander Calvert
In Supernatural season 2 premiere, “In My Time of Dying,” John and his sons were taken to the hospital, following their demonic car crash. Dean wasn’t going to make it due to his previous injuries, so John made a deal with Azazel to exchange his life for Dean’s. He died and was sent to Hell where he was tortured. While John’s passing was especially tragic because the boys had just reunited with him, it also allowed Sam and Dean to be on their own for the first time in their lives, saved Dean’s life, and hinted at a horrific truth about Sam’s destiny.
9 Simone Garnett
The Good Place (2016)
The Good Place
- Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, Ted Danson
In The Good Place season 3, Simone and Chidi, who was back on Earth, started going out, but Chidi later broke up with her, and that was it until the season 3 finale, “Pandemonium.” Simone died and came to the afterlife as the new resident recruited for the experiment, but Michael had to erase her memories of Chidi. Unfortunately, Simone’s appearance in the Medium Place pushed Chidi to ask for a memory wipe as well to keep the experiment clean. Not only did he forget Simone, but he was also unable to retain his memories of Eleanor. Their relationship tragically ended for the time being, but the experiment was carried out.
8 Jill Tracy
- John C. McGinley, Robert Maschio, Donald Faison, Christa Miller, Neil Flynn, Judy Reyes, Aloma Wright, Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Sam Lloyd, Ken Jenkins
Jill Tracy was part of Scrubs since season 1, and her heartbreaking death by suicide in season 5, episode 20, “My Lunch,” made quite an impression on J.D. and Dr. Cox who had seen her at the supermarket just a few days earlier and failed to notice any signs of depression. Jill’s death launched Dr. Cox’s dark arc — Jill’s organs went to three patients, but they all died because Jill had undiagnosed rabies, so Perry went off the deep end. It was Jill’s passing that essentially allowed the dynamic between J.D. and Dr. Cox to drastically change, as this time, Perry was the vulnerable screw-up, and J.D. was the wise mentor-type.
7 Ned Stark
Game Of Thrones (2011)
Game Of Thrones
- Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Richard Madden, Michelle Fairley, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Alfie Allen, Peter Dinklage
Game of Thrones was no stranger to killing off its major characters, and in season 1, episode 9, “Baelor,” it was Ned Stark’s turn. Ned was faced with an impossible choice, leading him to make a false confession of his so-called treason to save his daughters. However, things didn’t go as planned, and instead of getting sent to the Night’s Watch, Ned was executed by tyrant Joffrey right in front of Sansa. Ned Stark’s death was brutal, but it served a great purpose in terms of moving the political conflict between House Lannister and House Stark forward. In addition, Sean Bean’s exit made room for the other characters to get in the spotlight.
6 Jack Pearson
This Is Us (2016)
This Is Us
- Susan Kelechi Watson, Lonnie Chavis, Justin Hartley, Melanie Liburd, Hannah Zeile, Mandy Moore, Eris Baker, Sterling K. Brown, Milo Ventimiglia, Logan Shroyer, Faithe Herman, Niles Fitch, Parker Bates, Chris Sullivan, Chrissy Metz, Alexandra Breckenridge, Jon Huertas, Lyric Ross Asante Blackk Griffin Dunne Caitlin Thompson Chris Geere, Ron Cephas Jones, Mackenzie Hancsicsak
This Is Us perfectly balanced between the past and the present as it told one family’s story. Even though there had been hints at Jack Pearson’s death since the pilot, his passing wasn’t confirmed until season 1, episode 5, “The Game Plan.” This Is Us finally revealed how Jack died in season 2, episode 14, “Super Bowl Sunday” — he suffered a cardiac arrest from inhaling smoke during the house fire. Not only did Jack’s death provide the show’s unique hook, but it also made This Is Us a lot more difficult to watch because Jack continued to appear in the flashbacks for the entirety of the series.
5 Marvin Eriksen Senior
How I Met Your Mother (2005)
How I Met Your Mother
- Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan, Bob Saget
How I Met Your Mother had its dramatic moments, but at heart, it remained a fairly lighthearted sitcom up until season 6, episode 13, “Bad News,” where Marshall’s dad, Marvin, unexpectedly passed away. Just as Marshall finally heard from the doctor and wanted to call his father to share his fertility test results, Lily came to tell him that Marvin suffered a heart attack and didn’t make it. Marvin’s death gave How I Met Your Mother a dark, realistic angle and impacted Marshall’s story arc, as he was forced to grow up and get ready for fatherhood while still looking up to his late father as his role model.
4 Prue Halliwell
- Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan
Back in 2001, Charmed season 3 finale, “All Hell Breaks Loose,” shocked audiences by killing off the eldest Halliwell sister, Prue. While her death was incited by Shannen Doherty’s exit from Charmed, it did turn out to be the best decision the series ever made. Prue’s passing allowed Piper and Phoebe to become even closer, and it introduced the fourth Charmed One, Paige Matthews, who shook up the dynamic. The series lasted for five more successful seasons, and Paige was a vital element in many characters’ storylines — that is not to say that Prue was quickly forgotten. In fact, she served as a reminder to her sisters how important it was to take extra precautions.
3 The Doctor
Doctor Who (1963)
- Jenna Coleman, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Kingston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi
Doctor Who would not still be on air if it hadn’t been for the First Doctor’s “death.” When William Hartnell decided to leave the show due to his health problems in 1966, the creators devised the concept of regeneration. In season 4, serial 2, “The Tenth Planet,” the Doctor, Ben, and Polly came across the Cybermen for the first time, and their encounter left the Time Lord in critical condition, which prompted him to renew his body. The First Doctor regenerated into the Second Doctor, thus introducing the key success factor of Doctor Who‘s survival for the last 60 years.
2 Tara Maclay
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
- Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Dan Rubin, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, James Marsters
Tara Maclay’s heart-wrenching death was one of the most controversial plots in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet it led to the best arc in the show’s history. In season 6, episode 19, “Seeing Red,” the Trio closed in on Buffy and her gang, and Warren attempted to shoot Buffy, but got Tara instead. Heartbroken, Willow watched the love of her love die and later transformed into her evil alter ego, who went on a revenge rampage. Tara’s death jumpstarted Willow’s dark arc, which, in turn, spiced up the group’s dynamic and showcased Willow in a new light, adding depth and layers to the good-to-the-core character.
1 Sherlock Holmes
- Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rupert Graves
Sherlock Holmes’ death scene in Sherlock season 2, episode 3, “The Reichenbach Fall,” was one of the highlights of the series and the moment Sherlock finally showed that he did care for his friends and family. However, in the season 3 premiere, “The Empty Hearse,” it was revealed that Sherlock had survived the fall. Still, this plot twist gave way to the fascinating ups and downs of Sherlock and John’s friendship and, most importantly, allowed for Mary Morstan’s long-awaited debut in season 3. How Sherlock faked his death was never explained on-screen, and it is infuriating to this day.