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The Most Shocking, Grisly and Heartbreaking Deaths on TV — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Breaking Bad" to "ER" and everything in between, television has its share of memorable visits from the Grim Reaper.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Breaking Bad," "ER," "The Wire"

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Breaking Bad,” “ER,” “The Wire”

20th Television, AMC, Warner Bros. TV, HBO


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What’s the most memorable death — scripted please! — you’ve seen on TV? It could be disturbing, crazy, heartbreaking, etc. Old and current shows fair game.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

I can’t seem to scrape the death of Charlie in the Season 3 finale of “Lost” from my mind — I can remember every part of that scene so many years later. There was something about the way the scene was written and shot that was just perfect, and even though it was the perfect time to say goodbye to the character, it was still hard to let him go. Charlie died a hero, dudes. Driveshaft forever! Also, Opie dying in “Sons of Anarchy” was ROUGH. I do not need to see that one again.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), TV Guide Magazine

A side effect of watching way too much TV? I’ve watched way too many beloved characters die.

Sometimes on-screen death is handled incredibly well – as much as I missed Taraji P. Henson’s Carter on “Person of Interest,” her final episodes and the aftermath of her loss was perfectly gut-wrenching. Other times shows play with the threat so often, the stakes go away entirely. And if you kill off a character for a Very Dramatic Episode and then it never matters again? That is the biggest disservice you can do to your show and its fans.

But the death that still gets me every time is Jack’s series-ending demise on “Lost.” (No, they were not dead the entire time. Stop pushing that false narrative, pop culture.) The show opened up with Jack awakening on the island post-plane crash, as a dog (Vincent) examined what was going on. It was only fitting for him to end up back in that same spot, after safely securing his friends would make it off the island, with Vincent by his side as he passed away. Add in Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, and I am a mess every time I rewatch “The End.”

(A bonus hat tip to “ER,” which had two brutal deaths in Kellie Martin’s Lucy Knight and Anthony Edwards’ Mark Greene.)

Matthew Fox, "Lost"

Matthew Fox, “Lost”


Caroline Framke (@carolineframke), Vox

My brain says that the correct answer is Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mother and subject of the show’s most stark and heartbreaking episode. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” featured so many impactful deaths (and countless random ones), but “The Body” finds a way to make Joyce’s untimely death count by making it unlike any other on the show. She wasn’t killed by a vampire or a curse. She died of an aneurysm, and there’s nothing Buffy or anyone else could do about it. It’s a death that is shocking and awful in its banality, and I’ll never forget it.

That being said: anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that the answer from my heart belongs to “Zoo,” CBS’s dearly departed summer series about an animal-induced apocalypse that made a bloodsport of outdoing its own ridiculous twists at every turn. It’s hard to say which animal attack death was my favorite, though. Was it the double deaths of the married lesbian researchers in the Arctic, felled by evil bats divebombing their solar panels and dooming them to freeze to death? Was it the anonymous hordes of corporate stooges felled by a rampaging gorilla? Or was it the random lackey who tried to hide in the backseat of a car, only for that car to get pushed out of a jumbo jet alongside hybrid vultures and into the bubbling deaths of an active volcano?

LOL who am I kidding, it’s definitely the volcano. R.I.P. “Zoo,” you beautiful bastard. I’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know.

Kristine Sutherland, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Kristine Sutherland, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

20th Television

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

The most shocking TV death I ever saw (not counting ones I knew about in advance because they aired before I was watching, like Henry Blake on “M*A*S*H”) was Rosalind Shays falling down the elevator shaft on “LA Law.” Completely unexpected, particularly given how important a character she’d turned out to be, darkly comic, forever memorable. Still, it’s a joke, so let’s try for something that hit me viscerally in a different way. The explosive death of Gus Fring — and, particularly, what he does in his last seconds as an upright, living individual — is perhaps the most technically amazing TV death ever, in terms of both how that “Breaking Bad” episode was structured and the effects needed to turn half of Giancarlo Esposito’s skull into the Terminator. But in terms of a TV death that made me feel a level of grief akin to what the fictional characters were going through, it would have to be Wallace on “The Wire,” whose tearful pleas for his life — to his two best friends in the whole world, no less — still make me flinch just thinking about them. Plus, his death inspired another devastating “Wire” moment when it caused D’Angelo to turn against Stringer, screaming over and over, “Where’s Wallace? Where’s the boy, String?”

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

I almost went with Joyce on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for the master class of “The Body” alone, but the image that still haunts me is Carter getting stabbed on “ER,” falling to the ground and seeing Lucy on the floor, literally gutted and bleeding. The loud techno music (for Valentine’s Day!) in the background is as jarring and genius as the silence in “The Body.” Maybe I was too young and naive in 2000, but even though I knew Kellie Martin was leaving, I never thought Lucy was going to die, let alone in such a chilling, horrifying manner. The ensuing episode, an all-hands-on-deck effort to save her and Carter (it’s titled “All in the Family” #subtle), was “ER” at its chaotic, riveting best. It almost makes you forget they later dropped a damn helicopter on Romano.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

To keep consistency with my answers from the past two weeks, I should probably say, “That time Landry killed that guy on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ instigating a multi-state reign of terror.” On a literal level, in terms of memorability, it’s hard to touch Rosalind Shays and the elevator shaft on “LA Law” or the death of Winnie Cooper’s brother Brian in the pilot for “The Wonder Years,” since those are two key shockers that I still remember from childhood TV viewing. There are at least five deaths on “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” that were both shocking and heartbreaking, but in my internal vote, they all cancelled each other out.

There are deaths that were legitimate surprises, like Joyce on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or Kutner on “House” and then there are TV deaths that didn’t surprise me, either because I got to the shows late or because I read the source material, that still packed a punch, like Terry Crowley on “The Shield” or The Red Wedding on “Game of Thrones.” There are deaths that are, for want of a better word, badass and awesome, like the end of Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad.” Then there are deaths that are crushing in their cumulative weight, coming at the end of a show’s long run when they could hurt the most, like the casualty and fallout on “Halt and Catch Fire” or the gutting tableau at the end of “Family Meeting” on, again, “The Shield.” And I can’t do a list like this without including something from “The Simpsons,” so here’s to Frank Grimes and his brief, tortured life. And if we just want to talk about gross and inspired deaths, well “Hannibal” had 10 or 15 of the most operatic, disgusting crimes ever shown on TV.

For my final answer, though, I’ll go with the television death that I watch and rewatch with the most feverish glee, the one that I reference most in conversation and writing and the reference it gives me the most pleasure when people recognize it and the one it will make me happiest to have Indiewire embed either directly above or below my answer. I’m speaking, of course, of Todd Mulcahy. Poor, poor Todd Mulcahy.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

The interesting thing about this question is how it makes me think about just how much goddamn death I end up seeing on TV on a regular basis, and when I say interesting I really mean depressing.

A lot of the deaths on “The Wire” stand out, especially the brutal heartbreak of Wallace’s slaying at the hands of Bodie and Poot. Yet, it wouldn’t be an IndieWire critics survey without at least one person bringing up “BoJack Horseman,” so I’ll make sure that happens. The tragedy that ends Season 3 is a seismic one for the series, bidding goodbye to a character who represented lost innocence in a corrupt world, while also sending BoJack into a tailspin that left him on deeply uncertain territory. It was a choice that dragged the show into darker territory than ever, but also represented the series at its most existentially bleak. You know, typical “BoJack.”

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Dating myself here, but as a kid, watching the very first mid-1970s (WGBH in Boston) showing of “I, Claudius,” which featured John Hurt as Caligula wins for most memorable and ties for most disturbing. Caligula (Hurt) EATS both his and his sister’s unborn baby (off camera but still) cut from her, and then eventually his death/assassination. The entire Caligula family nightmare in that series was just one memorable death after the other. During that time, the BBC2 series import was the most out-there of content brought over for American audiences, and there was controversy about showing any of it on the PBS affiliates.

Tied for second place in the disturbing category is “Sons of Anarchy’s” Tig (Kim Coates) watching his daughter Dawn being burned alive by Oakland crime boss Damon Pope in a classically subtle Kurt Sutter moment. Just horrific stuff.

Okay, third was the scene from Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” where Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) operates on himself and well, surgery isn’t really a DIY endeavor.

Clive Owen, "The Knick"

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

The most recent pick for me is definitely Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) drinking the poison on “The Leftovers.” For reasons I won’t get into here, this perceived death sent me into a state of emotional distress. I was sure he was dead. I was shocked the writers killed him. I was beyond consolation… until “International Assassin” proved to be a gift not just for my spirit, but for all of television.

That being said, the most memorable scripted death I’ve ever seen is Marissa Cooper’s on “The O.C.” — and for reasons very different than the ones above. While a future for “The Leftovers” was difficult to imagine without the glue holding the extended Garvey family together, Josh Schwartz’s glorious nighttime soap had been languishing in its second and third seasons because Marissa Cooper was still around. By the time Johnny Harper surfed up to the shores of Orange County, it was clear she had to go.

And despite Mischa Barton’s attempt to spoil her character’s death before it aired, I watched in stunned, gleeful amazement as Marissa’s trip to the airport (and a new life in Hawaii with her dad) was interrupted by a jealous former lover who, in driving Ryan’s car off the road and killing his ex-girlfriend, became a hero. She was gone, forever, and only two words can encapsulate the proper fan reaction: “F— yeah!”

Marissa’s death gave the show one last great season — Season 4 starts with cage-fighting and ends with Ryan adopting a wayward teen — and proved “The O.C.” was at its best when spending time with characters who cared, not spoiled rich babies who threw tantrums and got drunk. I’ll never forget how happy her death made me, and I’ll never apologize for celebrating it every stinking day.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Good Place” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Stranger Things” (three votes), “The Deuce” (one vote)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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