In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future.
The mortality rate for television characters has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Really, since cable shows like Game of Thrones — with its Stark family curse — chucked out the rule book governing the survival of beloved characters, no one is safe.
Spoiler alert! This article contains plot details for major character deaths in Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and 19 other TV shows.
The best surprise deaths can make viewers mourn for fictional characters. When it’s just a publicity stunt or a blatant contract termination, it doesn’t hurt quite as bad. Real-life losses like John Ritter (8 Simple Rules), Phil Hartman (NewsRadio), and Bill Paxton (Training Day), are a different sort of heartrending tragedy.
Rotten Tomatoes rounded up 21 of the most shocking and heartbreaking TV deaths of the last 21 years, which you can read below. Fictional characters only.
Want to argue for a more heartbreaking death? Tell us in the comments below.
(Photo by The CW)
This most certainly was NOT in the comics! Laurel returned so that softened the blow a little bit, but Cassidy’s goodbye episode of Arrow was brutal. Sent to the hospital after fighting Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), the doctors made us think she was going to be OK before flatlining her.
Carol (Melissa McBride) had a crushing decision to make in season 4 episode “The Grove.” After Lizzie killed her own sister and indicated that she planned to kill more — and saw nothing wrong with that — and knowing that there is no way to manage a person having a dangerous psychotic break when you’re on the run with an infant during a zombie apocalypse, Carol made the call to shoot the girl. It was a shocking turn of events in the series and even became a meme (“look at the flowers”).
Lane takes his own life after Don discovers he’s embezzled money to cover debts and insists that the SCDP partner resign. The series plumbed the depths of Lane’s despair over his perceived failure, and yet his extreme response was still somehow thoroughly unexpected for the buttoned-up Brit.
(Photo by Fox)
24 was a game-changing show for executing its real-time format an hour at a time for 24 hours, and showing the toll it takes on Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) — beginning with the loss of his wife Teri.
(Photo by HBO)
When a family member cooperates with the FBI, there’s really only one thing for a Soprano to do about it. That didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to Adriana when Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) drove her out to the woods and chased her through the forest.
(Photo by CMT)
After an automobile accident, country superstar Rayna James passed away in the hospital. It’s still sad to see an exit so permanent, but Britton’s heartfelt thank you note to all the fans and her colleagues jerked even more tears.
(Photo by Showtime)
Why didn’t Dexter (Michael C. Hall) kill Trinity (John Lithgow) sooner? Once Trinity was onto Dexter, he knew how to hurt him. By the time Dexter finished him off, it was too late. Dexter came home to find his wife, Rita murdered in the bathtub. This was the ultimate reminder that killing serial killers doesn’t make anything right. The victims they took away are still gone.
(Photo by CBS)
When it came time for Charles to depart the series on which he’d starred for five seasons, his character, Will, didn’t just move to another city. He was shot to death by his own client in the courtroom in a legitimately shocking episode made all the more impactful by the fact that news of Charles’ imminent exit did not leak beforehand.
(Photo by ABC)
It’s hard to single out one death from Lost since the show was so good at making us attached to every character. In the end, it had to be Charlie sacrificing himself to warn Desmond it was NOT PENNY’S BOAT radioing the Oceanic survivors.
(Photo by HBO)
Jordan was only 15 when he played a teenage drug dealer on HBO’s landmark series The Wire, making the moment when druglord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) orders his murder all the more tragic.
(Photo by HBO)
The Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains went power mad in the final moments of the series as she ascended to became ruler of Westeros. Ultimately, however, she wasn’t even able to sit on the Iron Throne she’d dreamed about as a kid; she was betrayed by her lover-nephew, Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen (Kit Harington), who professed his loyalty, then kissed her while stabbing her in the heart mere feet from her father’s throne.
(Photo by ITV)
Crawley estate heir Matthew was so happy to be a new father that he took his eyes off the road to appreciate nature, causing the fatal accident that shocked viewers. Fans later found out that Stevens wanted off the show to explore other opportunities.
(Photo by Fox)
Callies could have made our list as Lori Grimes in The Walking Dead for her death during pregnancy, but on Prison Break her head was in a box! Fans demanded her return, so she came back and even showed up in the Fox reboot for a fifth season. At the time during season 3, her demise sure felt permanent.
(Photo by The WB)
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) herself came back to life twice, but her mother Joyce did not have magic to resurrect her. For all the supernatural demons and monsters on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Buffy spent one very real hour dealing with a loved one’s death.
(Photo by ABC)
Denny’s death was a real gut punch, because throughout the entire second season of the long-running medical drama, it looked like Izzie (Katherine Heigl) had done everything to save her patient-boyfriend, including violating protocol to get him a heart transplant. The transplant itself took, but Denny still died of a blood clot and stroke. The silver lining is this role made Morgan a star.
While earlier deaths in the HBO hit fantasy series tipped fans off that anyone could go at any time, the episode nicknamed “The Red Wedding” (season 3, episode 9 “The Rains of Castamere”) took Game of Thrones death pools to another level. Half of the surviving Stark family died in the massacre carried out by Lord Walder Frey and his murderous brood: family matriarch Catelyn, King in the North Robb, his wife Talisa, and their unborn child. And while Roose Bolton was thrusting a dagger into Robb, his men outside killed Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind, further stunning an audience that was perhaps hoping the animal might avenge its faithful human companion.
On another show where anyone could go at any time, The Walking Dead really psyched people out over the death of main character Glenn. First they made everyone think he died in a walker horde, but then he was somehow safe under a dumpster. Later, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beat him beyond recognition as, with his last words, he called out to wife Maggie (Lauren Cohan).
After Jack escaped the Pearson family’s burning house — saving everyone and the dog — fans all breathed a collective sigh of relief. But he wasn’t safe yet. Viewers were gobsmacked when This Is Us delivered the cruelest twist, killing Jack with a massive heart attack related to smoke inhalation. Because of the NBC series’ unique format, however, this is one character that fans get to spend time with even after he’s dead.