Dwelling on death isn’t exactly healthy if you think about it the wrong way. “This Is Us” certainly spent a questionable amount of time wallowing in the grisly details of Jack Pearson’s demise (up until “Super Bowl Sunday”), but you don’t have to be so uncouth when re-examining loss. Historically, television is an emotionally helpful medium to contemplate a life’s end, given how personal it can feel to lose a character you’ve spent years with, you grew up watching, or you’ve come to count on seeing every week.
When looking back over the most memorable departures of the 21st century, it’s not simply about the saddest TV deaths or the most shocking offings. The most indelible deaths hold far more meaning than tears alone can convey. Below, IndieWire has gathered 25 of the most meaningful deaths we’ve seen so far. Only characters who suffered a permanent death were considered (with all due respect to “The Leftovers”), and the list only goes back as far as 2001.
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So take a moment to remember what these characters brought to your life, what you learned from their loss, and why they meant so much to you. Just be warned: Spoilers follow in each blurb, so be careful what you read.
Would “24” have been elevated to the annals of TV history without that final awful moment of Jack cradling the body of his dead wife Teri, after a very long “day” spent trying to save her? Perhaps, but the show’s ballsy choice to end in explicit tragedy rather than triumph spoke to the very immediate post-9/11 environment — and also set up Jack Bauer for so many seasons of crazy to come.
“Battlestar Galactica” featured no shortage of shocking deaths over the course of its four seasons, but the unexpected suicide of Dualla at Season 4’s midway point was a major blow, cementing the show’s descent into a nihilistic depression that made the last several episodes extremely heavy viewing.
More importantly, the death of Dualla during its initial airing led to arguably the most tragic/hilarious/painfully sad cut-to-commercial of all time, as the ad immediately following her suicide proved to be… badly timed, on both an audio and visual level. Fortunately, YouTube remembers:
“Big Little Lies”
“Big Little Lies” told viewers right off the bat that someone was dead, but that didn’t make the death itself any less shocking. If anything, Lianne Moriarty’s story — adapted by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee — was made even more moving because it asked us to consider that each and every beloved character could be the victim. Be it the secretive and scared Jane (Shailene Woodley), the outspoken and grudge-bearing Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), or the victimized and courageous Celeste (Nicole Kidman), there was only one person who could’ve provided relief if ID’ed; and wouldn’t you know it, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) turned out to get exactly what he deserved. Fear washed away with the receding tide, and “Big Little Lies” delivered one of the most exciting, memorable, and, perhaps, the least sad death on this list.
Although Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) didn’t gouge out his eyes, his wretched life and death were as Oedipal as they come. The former protege of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) had been locked in a power struggle with his father in spirit if not by blood for control of the Atlantic City booze trade during Prohibition. But after losing the love of his life, drunkenly sleeping with his own mother (such Greek tragedy!), and botching an assassination attempt on Nucky, the bloody writing was on the wall. Jimmy died from two bullets to the brain, courtesy of Nucky himself. Killing off the second-most important character on the show by the end of Season 2 was a bold and unexpected move, and cemented Nucky’s true potential as a gangster and the series’ ability to shift its dynamics at the height of its popularity.
The crown jewel in Netflix’s animation stable (sorry) has never shied away from the darker side of life, much less a life lived in Hollywoo. After establishing that it is a show that takes an honest look at mental illness and addiction and the general feeling of loneliness, the end of Season 3 brought one story of a child actress to a dark and unexpected close. Credit Kristen Schaal with tracking the progression of Sarah Lynn from adorable TV moppet to someone the industry failed and left behind. Her death wasn’t simply a ploy for pathos in an emotional minefield of a series. It was the show’s very real way of acknowledging the brutal steamroller of fame.
“Breaking Bad” was always defined by the danger that lurks around every corner. Even beloved characters could disappear in the blink of an eye, not to mention villains like The Cousins. Against all this, it was inevitable that the Walt/Gus showdown of Season 4 would end in only one winner. When an intricately laid wheelchair plot finally took down the chicken entrepreneur, it was the perfect example of the show’s bittersweet notions of victory. The best part is that for those three or four steps of Gus emerging from the nursing home room unscathed, there was the tiny thought that he might be able to survive even a bomb blast.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
The least-supernatural death of “Buffy” will always be its most memorable and heartbreaking, as creator Joss Whedon devoted an entire episode to the passing of Buffy’s mom Joyce (Kristin Sutherland). Season 5’s “The Body” featured some incredible acting work on the part of its ensemble (Emma Caulfield’s monologue about fruit punch will haunt us forever) and in years past has gotten a fraction of the attention it deserves for how it took on the truth of what happens immediately after a loved one passes away. In the days before “Game of Thrones,” when genre-focused shows were struggling for mainstream acceptance, “The Body” shouted for real acknowledgment beyond the basic.
“Dexter” was never an easy show to watch, but the sympathetic serial killer series got exponentially harder to take as the seasons went on. A breaking point for many fans came when Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) innocent wife, Rita (Julie Benz) — who remained ignorant of her husband’s hidden hobby until the bitter end — was killed by Arthur Miller (John Lithgow), the Trinity Killer. Lithgow’s performance won him an Emmy, and Season 4 is arguably the last great season of “Dexter.” Rita deserved such quality, and her death was anything but cheap. (Miller wanted to show Dexter that his way of life would never last, especially with loved ones in harm’s way.) But what made Rita’s demise even more painful was that Dexter had already caught and killed Miller before he found his wife’s body in a blood-red bathtub. It had seemed like he’d won, making his ultimate loss — and ours — all the more heartbreaking.
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