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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

“How I Met Your Mother”

Cristin Milioti joined the cast of <em>How I Met Your Mother</em> to play the mother herself in the final season. Josh Radnor has played Ted for nine years. Tonight, they meet.

“How I Met Your Mother” began telegraphing the fate of the titular mother as early as Season 8, but even after the series finale confirmed that a woman named Tracy (Cristin Milioti) was the mother of Ted’s (Josh Radnor) children and theoretical love of his life, it was clear something more was in the works. As we discovered in the series finale, these nine years of Ted monologuing had been, really, about him asking for an answer this whole time: Should he try to pursue his still-living love interest Robin (Cobie Smulders), despite all the time and distance between them?

The storyline was a controversial one, which many saw as a betrayal but others embraced as a long-determined conclusion to the series. The hardest part was how well Milioti and Radnor connected on screen, creating a dynamic in their limited scenes together that made us truly believe in their love, and truly mourn for Tracy.

“Jane the Virgin”

Brett Dier and Gina Rodriguez, “Jane the Virgin”

Michael Desmond/The CW

The CW series had already proven to push beyond the bounds of its telenovela roots, so it came as an emotionally devastating shock when — only a few episodes after Michael (Brett Dier) had survived a gunshot wound and risky surgery — he dropped dead after taking the LSAT in pursuit of a new career path. This major blindside should’ve been obvious in retrospect, seeing as how Michael and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) were at their happiest point in their marriage yet and were making plans to grow old together. Never make rosy plans, people. But even more ominous were the narrator’s words from Season 1 after Michael had vowed to never give up on their relationship: “And for as long as Michael lived, until he drew his very last breath, he never did.” Michael had been fated to die apparently, but knowing this did not lessen the blow at all, but instead gave it a far more tragic flavor. And while it established that the intrusive narrator was reliable, it didn’t make him necessarily trustworthy.

“Lost”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Touchstone/ABC/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886300jh) Henry Ian Cusick, Dominic Monaghan Lost - 2004-2010 Touchstone / ABC USA Television

By the end of Season 3, “Lost” had not only become a network TV juggernaut, it had already established that none of its characters were ever completely safe from the true dangers of this mysterious island: Shannon, Boone, and Mr. Eko all faced down death and did not survive. So Charlie drowning in an underwater station accident wasn’t without precedent. But there was a certain kind of loss in seeing a character with something new to live for depart from the story the way he does, choosing his final moments to be an act of sacrificial heroism. “Through the Looking Glass” is a two-parter for the ages, and one that earns its farewell moment better than 99 percent of other shows that load up their season finales with a tearful goodbye.

“Mad Men”

Mad Men Lane Pryce

“Mad Men” didn’t attain TV supremacy by shielding its characters from consequences. Don Draper coming back home to an empty house, Peggy dealing with losing a child, even Duck bidding farewell to Chauncey the Irish setter were all personal moments of dealing with the aftermath of the unexpected. But when beloved partner Lane Pryce hangs himself in the season 5 episode “Commissions and Fees,” it represented an even greater sense of communal sadness and a necessity to rationalize the inexplicable. Watching all of these people grieve for something they both did and didn’t understand solidified the idea that the show was far more than just the foibles of a couple ad execs at the beginning of the ‘60s. Lane’s death opened up the show to a greater sense of loss, melancholy, and inability to cope with a changing world.

“The O.C.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885983ba)Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa BartonThe OC - 2003Warner Bros TVUSATelevisionDocumentaryThe Orange County / The O.C.

Praise be to Josh Schwartz, Marissa Cooper died before “The O.C.” ended. Mischa Barton’s troubled and problematic teen heartthrob had plenty of opportunities for a tragic ending over the first three seasons: There was her drug-fueled collapse in Tijuana; or when she chose to believe a kid she met in therapy over her own boyfriend and ended up held hostage in a hotel room; and, of course, there was her first night out with Ryan, when she passed out from overconsumption on the sidewalk of her parents’ house — an event meant to be seen as regular, given her friends’ blasé response.

The examples are only limited by the episode count, so thankfully that count ended in the Season 3 finale: Volchok (Cam Gigandet) — not the hero we deserved, but the hero we needed — drove Ryan (Ben McKenzie) off the road, killing his passenger in the wreck. Marissa needed to GTFO of the O.C. and “The O.C.” far sooner, given how redundant her stories became and how horribly she treated our protagonist, but seeing her axed before the final seeing was shocking in the best possible way. Bless you, Mr. Schwartz.

“Sons of Anarchy”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fx Network/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886275bg)Ron Perlman, Katey SagalSons Of Anarchy - 2008Fx Network/Fox 21USATelevision

Gemma had it coming — well, really, everyone had it coming on “Sons of Anarchy.” But Gemma really had to die after what she did at the end of Season 6. In a shocker, the character — played with a calm viciousness by Katey Sagal — killed her daughter-in-law, Tara (Maggie Siff), in the mistaken belief that Tara had gone to the feds and ratted out her son, Jax (Charlie Hunnam). It was the culmination of a power struggle between mother and wife over the ultimate control of Jax. In Season 7, a guilt-ridden Gemma fed Jax lies to blame the murder on others, but the truth was eventually going to come out. In the penultimate episode of the series, Jax learned what Gemma had done and shot her, execution-style.

“The Sopranos”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1631714a) The Sopranos , Steven R Schirripa, Drea De Matteo, Tony Sirico Film and Television

There was plenty of death on “The Sopranos,” but the most heartbreaking one is easy to choose: Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), who dies at the hands of Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) in Season 5. Adriana perhaps signed her death warrant when she began cooperating with the FBI. But her big mistake is making a deal with the feds to go into witness protection with her fiancee, Christopher (Michael Imperioli). Believing that her love and loyalty would win out, she confesses the truth to him and begs him to join her — but Christopher nearly chokes her to death. Later, when Tony Soprano calls her and says Christopher has attempted suicide and that Silvio will take her to the hospital, viewers then see Adriana in a car, alone, escaping. That may have been the cruelest moment of all, as it was just a dream: Nope, she took the ride with Silvio, even though she knew it was the end.

The Walking Dead

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee - The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It was the longest wait for “The Walking Dead” fans. At the end of Season 6, Negan had our heroes lined up and was ready to kill at least one of them in a twisted revenge. Who would get their brains bashed in by barbwire bat Lucille? Turns out it wasn’t just one: Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) were both given the most brutal death imaginable. Glenn, as one of the last remaining original characters from the show, was particularly heartbreaking — especially since the love of his life, Maggie, was pregnant with their child. Glenn was a fan favorite, a good soul who had grown a great deal in the zombie apocalypse, from pizza delivery guy to hero and heartthrob. The violence and heartbreak from the death of Glenn impacted fans — some of whom dropped the show — and set the series on a whole new trajectory of “all-out war” in Season 8. While most of the show’s major characters have died via walker bites, it turns out humans are the most vicious creatures of all.

“The West Wing”

The West Wing Mrs Landingham

“The West Wing” had killed characters before, but never so unexpectedly, and never with such impact. Losing the President’s erstwhile secretary Mrs. Landingham to a random accident gave the end of Season 2 a new level of tragedy, and also gave writer Aaron Sorkin the fodder necessary for one of the all-time-great season finales — “give me numbers” is a line that still makes us cry. Bless you, Mrs. Landingham, for reminding the President and the audience what really matters in the madness of the political circus, while also showcasing how a small-scale death can have seismic impact.

“The Wire”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Lee/Hbo/Blown Deadline/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883870n)J.D. Williams, Larry Gilliard Jr, Brandon Price, Michael B. JordanThe Wire - 2002Hbo/Blown DeadlineUSATelevisionMusic

Long before Michael B. Jordan wowed audiences in “Creed,” and even before he impressed Coach Taylor in “Friday Night Lights,” the future Oscar winner (yup, we’re calling it) embodied the innocence lost in the streets of West Baltimore. Not only did his young hustler by the name of Wallace initially escape the drug trade by turning police witness, but he was drawn back to his friends and family when the cops forgot about him. Wallace was a kid looking for a place in this world, and everywhere he turned, right or wrong, there were tragic consequences; none more so than when Stringer (Idris Elba) put a hit on the young boy, and two of his friends had to pull the trigger. Rightly, D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.) never came to terms with it, and his words forever ring in viewers’ ears: “Where’s Wallace, String? Where’s Wallace?”

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