Here are 10 TV show character deaths that left a lasting impression on us. Possible spoilers (obviously) for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Hour, Teen Wolf, Lost, House of Cards, Masters of Sex, Mad Men, and Firefly.
Joyce Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I never really liked Joyce Summers. She was over-bearing and annoying, yet simultaneously clueless. Nobody told her how out of place she was in this world. I didn’t realize how much I appreciated her, and her presence, and how important she really was, until she was gone. And isn’t that the way life goes? There’s never been another episode of TV that captured the all-encompassing, frustrating, mysterious, horrifying nature of Death better than “The Body,” the 94th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Joss Whedon characters would likely fill every spot in my top 5 most devastating character deaths, but none of them come close to matching the impact they had on me than when Buffy returned home to find her Mom lying prostrate on the couch, cold. Buffy is a hero, one of the greatest of all-time. She saved the world countless times, and could punch and kick her way out of anything. She even fought off death herself not once, but twice. But she couldn’t do anything to save her Mom. This wasn’t a fight she could win, because it wasn’t a fight at all.
Buffy is a show about vampires, demons, werewolves and quippy remarks. But Joyce didn’t die due to supernatural causes. She had a brain aneurysm, and it was over, just like that. Random. Meaningless. Inevitable.
It shocked us watching, but these characters we had grown to love ceased to become characters responding to another character’s death, but became humans reacting to a friend or family member’s passing. The acting is the best it ever gets. Sarah Michelle Gellar gets a lot of (mostly undeserved) flak, but her reaction (“What are you doing? Mom? Mom? Mommy?”) to finding “The Body” transcends the medium.
But it’s a speech from Anya, a demon who doesn’t understand human emotions, that tears us all apart:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s — There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And — and Xander’s crying and not talking, and — and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.
There is no reason why, and that unwavering, staggeringly honest portrayal of death in “The Body” is why it’s the most gut-wrenching, emotionally draining and absolutely overwhelming episode of TV I’ve ever seen. It’s also probably the best, a testament to what TV, and art, can do. [Andy]
Freddie Lyon, The Hour
It’s not technically a death, but thanks to BBC2 it can certainly be classified as one. In the season two and series finale of the 1950s period drama The Hour, the final shot of the show leaves one of its protagonists — the fierce, frustrating and dedicated BBC journalist Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) — lying in front of the studio that he tirelessly works for, left for dead. He’s been beaten to death (or at least pretty damn close to it) after his investigation goes wrong and the crime syndicate that he’s worked so hard to expose pays him back for the snooping that is sure to ruin them. The episode cuts between the airing of the show within a show and Freddie’s interrogation and abuse, while the rest of the journalists working on the show (Romola Garai, Dominic West and Anna Chancellor) anxiously wait for him to return home to the studio. It’s a tense and truly awful episode, and as the minutes left count further and further down, it starts to become clear that Freddie isn’t going to get out of this.
He wasn’t going to survive, and neither did the show itself, with the BBC heartlessly announcing The Hour‘s cancellation in 2013. Freddie Lyon doesn’t necessarily die at the end of The Hour, but he doesn’t get to live, either. He puts his life on the line for the public good and for the values of investigative journalism that fuel him, aspects which made him a reckless and passionate character on a bold and under-appreciated show. (Also, I’ve also never cried so much in my entire life.) Freddie Lyon closes his eyes just as Bel, his boss and romantic interest, runs down the stairs of their office towards him. They miss each other, just as they always have and, now, always will. [Laura]
Charlie Pace, Lost
Lost had many deaths over the years and unless your name was “Jack,” “Kate,” or “Sawyer” then you were never quite safe. Charlie Pace, played by Dominic Monaghan, was a fan favorite character who was given one of the most heroic deaths on the show. In season 3, Charlie sacrifices himself to save Desmond Hume and writes a chilling message on his head — “Not Penny’s Boat” — before drowning in the Looking Glass station. It’s one of the most heartbreaking, memorable, and harrowing moments of the entire series.
Charlie always felt like one of the “realest” and most genuine characters on the show, which is why his death was so devastating for fans.
Cordelia Chase, Angel
Cordy (Charisma Carpenter) was one of the show’s best realised characters, transforming from a bratty spoilt girl in Buffy’s earlier years, to a flawed but good person when she arrived in Los Angeles, to becoming a true, well-defined hero in her own right during the good fight. Her death in the 100th episode, ‘You’re Welcome’ is a sting in the tail during the episode’s coda, but it’s everything leading up to that which makes it elegiac and heroic in equal measure.
Cordy wields a sword, stops an apocalyptic fail-safe in the Wolfram-Hart building, reunites with her friends and loved ones for a final time and helps save the world in a final moment of glory. Despite the fact she’s been in a coma since the maligned season four finale, Cordy dies with dignity and grace here, disappearing with a kiss for Angel and a hell of a legacy behind her. Did it break my heart? Yes, particularly as Cordy’s been my favourite for years – but if I had to pick a way for her to die, this was a beautiful, transcendent way to do it. [Chris]
Allison Argent, Teen Wolf
I loved Allison, and I loved her character development throughout the seasons. Some of my favorite scenes in Teen Wolf featured Allison, and also proved that Crystal Reed was one of the best actresses on the show — like in “Party Guessed,” where she found out her mother had killed herself, or “The Fox and the Wolf,” where she broke down in an elevator with Sheriff Stilinski.
“I’m not… fearless. I’m terrified. I’m always terrified. I act like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t. I don’t know if Isaac is dying right now. I don’t know if I made a mistake with Scott. I don’t know what my dad is thinking. I don’t know if we should trust Derek. I don’t know… I don’t know anything.”
Pretty much everyone saw Allison’s death at the end of season three coming, but that doesn’t mean it hurt any less. In the final battle to save Lydia from the Nogitsune, Allison is stabbed by one of the Oni while protecting Isaac and dies in Scott’s arms, telling him that she’s always loved him. Crystal Reed has been interviewed about this scene saying that even though it wasn’t what the producers wanted her to say, “I do feel like Allison still loves Scott. And I think in that moment, she said she loves him because that’s still there… So I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but it was interesting for me as an actor because I so strongly felt the urge to say it to him even though she wasn’t supposed to.” Ugh. My heart.
It’s also kind of gross that on a series that’s already treating women and people of color pretty poorly, when Colton Haynes and Daniel Sharman (read: white, male actors) want to leave to pursue other avenues of work, Jeff Davis gives them the rather uncreative “and then they go to France, possibly to return at a later date” out, but Crystal Reed (and Sinqua Walls, and Gage Golightly) get killed off. Just, y’know, food for thought.
I’ve given a few episodes of season four a try, but besides the fact that this show has added an unnecessary amount of extra characters and the plots have somehow gotten even more ridiculous, it just wasn’t the same without Allison. [Christine]
Peter Russo, House of Cards
The character death that had the most impact on me was, for a couple reasons, Peter Russo’s on House of Cards. First, Corey Stoll is very sexy. When I was little, I would draw pictures of me and my future lover and he would always be bald. Mr. Stoll fits the mold of my forever fantasy man perfectly.
Second, House of Cards is a very confusing show. There has been many a time when I know I’m supposed to be experiencing an epiphany, putting two pieces together to realize an alleged truth, but I never know exactly what those two pieces are, nor what I should be discovering. All I know for sure, through tone and tempo, is that I’m supposed to be understanding something that I am not.
With Russo though, things were clear. Russo didn’t play games with me like others did. R.I.P. Russo and his sexy bald head. [Hillary]
Lillian DePaul, Masters of Sex
Dr. Lillian DePaul’s life came to an end after a swift battle with cervical cancer, but what’s really impactful is the fact that she tried her hardest to find a cure, not just for herself, but for other women dealing with the disease too. Her reliance and determination to help other women suffering didn’t even stop when the cancer started metastasizing throughout her body, particularly affecting her brain and thoughts. Having to come to grips that she won’t be able to continue her work and research because of this, she hands the reins over to her friend Virginia Johnson and decides to end her life on her own terms.
It truly pained me to see her go so quickly, but it was her resilience and complete knowledge of what would happen to her if she didn’t that made me empathize with her and understand her choice to commit suicide. It was peaceful, calm, and even though it was expected when the episode heavily focused on her relationship with Virginia and dealing with her affairs of what would happen after her death, it was still hard to watch. We saw her evolve from being a woman focused solely on her job who didn’t let anyone in, to a woman, still absorbed in the work, but whose shell had been cracked by a woman who understood her better than anyone ever had.
Which is why it’s only right for it to be Virginia who gets into bed with her and stays with her after she chooses to overdose on pills. It’s their intimacy and deep love they have for each other that made this scene so memorable for me. Thinking about it now, it would’ve been worse to watch Lillian deteriorate into such pain that she just couldn’t function anymore. I have a deep respect for her that she chose to live and end her life her own way. [Isabella]
Adam Whitman, Mad Men
One of the most impactful television deaths for me was Don Draper/Dick Whitman’s brother’s death during Mad Men’s first season. Dick Whitman stole Don Draper’s identity during the Korean War and cut off all ties with his Whitman family who were violent, poor and unloving. Dick’s brother Adam was only about 10 or 11 when this happened, and was the only one in the family close to Dick. Dick was thought to have died in the Korean War, but in New York Adam accidentally runs into Dick/Don. Don Draper treats Adam with such cruelty because he has committed so fully to this upper crust life, marrying a former model and staying vague about his past, so his brother just feels like a huge complication.
It’s so horrible to watch their interactions because Don attempts not to form any attachments to Adam so as to not encourage a relationship that could potentially damage his reputation. It’s as awful a problem as Dick’s childhood was, since Adam’s childhood seemed to be just as bad or worse, and Adam never got the opportunity to escape. Reaching out to Don was his last grasp at a meaningful relationship after a scarring childhood. The hardest part to watch is their meetings in crowded diners where both brothers want to connect, but Don just cannot sacrifice all he has worked for. Ultimately Adam hangs himself in a gross motel and Don isn’t even allowed a time to grieve because acknowledging their relationship would be harmful. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation, and tragic for all involved. [Sarah]
Hoban “Wash” Washburne, Firefly/Serenity
One of the most shocking television character deaths in my memory didn’t happen on the TV screen: it happened in the theater, where I sat in the dark with my best friend Kim, who’d never seen a single episode of Firefly. The sequel film Serenity was her first introduction to the verse, and my final visit to it, but when the impossible — the horrible — thing happened, we both gasped in equal horror.
There’s this intangible thing that writer-director Joss Whedon does with his scripts to make you instantly and vociferously care about the fate of his characters. Like a good fan I’d seen the entire fourteen episode run of Firefly before going into the theater, but Kim only had about 80 minutes of screentime to reach the same state of emotional connection. For 80 minutes, she and I had lived, laughed, and breathed the adventures of this wayward crew. We cheered their victories and we mourned for their lost friends. The end of the adventure was nigh, the resolution hovering just at the horizon. An exhilarating space combat scene concluded with the pilot, played with sincerity and laughter by Alan Tudyk, grinning at the controls of Serenity’s flight computers as he breathed out, “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I–”
When a Reaver’s space harpoon crashed through the viewport of Serenity’s command cabin to impale Wash in the chest, killing him instantly, the theater went nuts. This wasn’t supposed to happen: of all the characters who get in trouble on this franchise, Wash was almost always the safe one. Kim grabbed my hand while she shrieked in dismay. I was barely any better, gaping in horror as the red warning lights flashed over his bent form in the pilot’s chair. His stoic and unflappable wife Zoë (Gina Torres) was almost shattered on the spot, and had to be pulled away to safety by Mal (Nathan Fillion) with no chance to mourn. The whole event was too instant, too brutal. It remains one of the most shocking film deaths in my memory, as well as a tragic departure of a fan-favorite television character. Wash was a cheerful, pleasant person who provided joy and sarcasm to the often dark, unfair universe the characters of Firefly/Serenity found themselves in. Never without a joke or a smile, and always excellent at his job, Wash epitomized what today’s internet meme fanatics would call “a perfect cinnamon roll: too good for this world, too pure.” A decade later and the fans still miss you, Wash. Plastic dinosaurs and all. [Sara]
Winifred “Fred” Burkle, Angel
I think it says something about the quality of work Joss Whedon has put out that four different characters from his shows make it onto this list. Angel was a show that went to much existentially darker places than its parent show Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever could. Set in a Los Angeles that was forever consuming its own tail in the name of evil and desperation, it was not a televisual world of fluffy bunnies and rainbows. The closest we ever got to a baby animal was Fred Burkle, just a simple girl from Texas who got sucked into Shit-Oz and had to persevere until she could get herself back home. Help came in the form of series star Angel and his band of not-so-merry misfits.
After her time in a demon-eat-demon hell dimension, Fred had her work cut out for her integrating back into society. But once her “writing math equations on the wall” period passes — which is a great proto-River Tam move — she settles into her sunny, quick-witted disposition. Loyal to Angel Investigation almost to a fault, Fred becomes an invaluable member of the team. She is the brains, heart, and soul all rolled into one (which makes her sometimes role as “just another love interest” kind of annoying).
So when it comes time for Whedon to stab the audience in the heart (he does this when he gets bored, you see) he gleefully takes his fountain pen and drives it straight through Fred’s temple. The really hard part to swallow in Fred’s death from being possessed by a demon is not that she dies. No, it’s the fact that her death is so complete she doesn’t even get an afterlife. Instead, her soul is completely consumed by the new entity, such that there’s nothing left to pass on to a heaven dimension. Left behind is a demon that doesn’t know how to function in the world it finds itself in. But it’s looking at us with Fred’s eyes, and that’s the hardest thing to take. [Max]
Did we leave anyone out? What TV show character death(s) were you devastated by?