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The 25 Most Momentous TV Deaths of This Century

Death holds great meaning — in life and on television.

Saddest TV Deaths House of Cards The Walking Dead Breaking Bad

Netflix/AMC

“Downton Abbey”

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery, "Downton Abbey"

Anglophiles were prepared for a certain amount of melodrama from Julian Fellowes’ series, which focused on the upper crust Crawleys and the lives of their servants downstairs. But on the heels of losing the beloved Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) from pre-eclampsia after giving birth, anything more would just be cruel. Unfortunately, series star Dan Stevens decided not to re-up his contract, and the show was left scrambling after his character Matthew had finally, at long last after three seasons, won the hand of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Their marital bliss and new status as parents was short-lived: After visiting his wife and newborn son at the hospital, Matthew perished in a car crash, his dead staring eyes killing the hope in viewers, many of whom jumped ship (or at least claimed to) after that. While the rest of the cast remained relatively intact, critics deemed that the show never fully recovered its storytelling momentum after that tragedy.

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“Fargo”

FARGO - Pictured: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard . CR: Chris Large/FX

Fargo had a number of hurdles to clear before it became one of the premiere anthology series on TV. But at the end of the pilot episode, viewers got quite the answer to whether (and how) the show could exist beyond its Coen Brothers DNA. Lester literally hammering his wife over the head was shocking in how much it diverted from the movie, how much it reveals its protagonist to be someone capable of true evil, and also introduced to the world to a terrifying version of “Ah jeez” that will forever make us squirm. It’s brutal, bloody, and teetering on the verge of a particular brand of dark comedy that made the show so distinctive, right from its opening season.

“Game of Thrones”

Sean Bean, "Game of Thrones"

Sean Bean, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

It was the beheading heard ‘round Westeros and beyond. In its first season, the HBO fantasy series was still drawing in newcomers who didn’t know what to make of this vaguely Medieval world that was obsessed with an uncomfortable seat of power and an imminent cold snap. Fans of George R.R. Martin’s books waited with bloodthirsty glee for that fateful ninth episode when Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the series’ obvious hero and moral center, was cut down in his prime in front of his daughters’ horrified eyes. Good did not triumph over evil. Justice did not prevail. The bad guys didn’t just win, but ascended the throne and laughed about it. And the world fell in love with this cutthroat batshit-crazy show one episode before even meeting those damn dragons.

“The Good Wife”

Josh Charles Actor Josh Charles poses for a portrait in New YorkPeople Josh Charles, New York, USA

Well, that’s one way to quit a job: When “Good Wife” star Josh Charles decided to leave the show in Season 5, he exited in a blaze of tragic gunfire that was technically one of the least violent primetime deaths in recent years, but also one that left us genuinely shaken to the core, in part because Charles and the producers had kept it so very much under wraps. Because it seemingly came out of nowhere — the way so many tragic deaths do in real life, but not on television — Will Gardner’s demise at the hands of a random gunman still echoes in the TV landscape; one which made any CBS procedural viewer wary about the fates of their favorites.

“Grey’s Anatomy”

Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo, "Grey's Anatomy"

Sometimes, TV couples are just meant to be, and Shonda Rhimes’ long-lived medical series set up the grand love affair between Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), aka MerDer, from their first drunken hookup in the pilot. Despite all that they had been through, their relationship remained a staple on the show… until Dempsey decided to move on from Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital and race cars or something. Enter the tragedy porn. After a fakeout situation when he helps victims of a road accident, Derek’s car is hit by a semi-trailer truck as he pauses in the middle of the road to make a phone call. Because of his loss of speech, he can’t communicate at the hospital that he needs a CT scan, which would’ve detected his brain hemorrhage. He dies, killing the most signature relationship on the show, and proving that Rhimes truly knows “How to Get Away With MerDer.”

Homeland

Homeland Season 3 Damian Lewis death

Damian Lewis’ Brody was never supposed to last long on “Homeland.” In the original series, “Prisoners of War,” the character died at the end of the first season. So after surviving two finales, it was finally time for the loyalty-torn POW to face his end. Showrunner and co-creator Alex Gansa didn’t make it easy, though. Not only did the twist-heavy nature of the series demand an indisputable death — which translated to a public, lengthy hanging — but his offing was made doubly torturous when we found out Carrie (Claire Danes) was pregnant with his baby. Throw in the extra attachment formed from so much time spent with the series’ co-lead, and Brody’s death goes down as one of the all-time most difficult scenes to watch. [Author’s Note: This writer couldn’t even go back to re-watch the scene. Four years later, it still hurts too much.]

“House of Cards”

House of Cards Zoe Barnes Train

The opening season of the Netflix version of “House of Cards” mirrored many of the story beats of its UK predecessor. One that didn’t happen in those first batch of episodes was the death of the intrepid reporter character, played by Kate Mara. Lulled into a false sense of security that maybe she might survive much longer stateside, both her and the audience ended up with the biggest of surprises when Zoe got tossed in front of a moving DC Metro car. For a show that definitely likes to take its time (remember that multi-episode arc about franchising BBQ restaurants?), this lightning-quick murder didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but was still shocking nonetheless. Anyone having doubts about Frank Underwood being a complete monster had some pretty irrefutable proof at that point, and we were only 14 episodes in.

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