21 TV Deaths That Destroyed Us

From Game of Thrones, Buffy and The Walking Dead to This Is Us, 24, and Grey's Anatomy, it was hard to say goodbye to these favorite TV characters. Plus, tell us your picks for the most heartbreaking TV deaths.

by and | May 23, 2019 | Comments

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 ThronesThe 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.

21. Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), Arrow 86%

The CW

(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.

20. Lizzie Samuels (Brighton Sharbino), The Walking Dead 80%

The Walking Dead, season 4 episode 14 "The Grove" Melissa Mcbride as Carol and Brighton Sharbino as Lizzie screencap (AMC)

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”).

19. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), Mad Men 94%

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.

18. Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope), 24 87%

Teri Bauer - 24

(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.

17. Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), The Sopranos 92%

Adriana - The Sopranos

(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.

16. William (Ron Cephas Jones), This Is Us 93%

William’s death was inevitable from the beginning of This Is Us. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) found him already in the final stages of cancer. On a father-son road trip to Memphis to find out more about William’s childhood, William’s health declined before they could make it home. At least they got to reconnect with one final trip, and William got to leave this Earth with the love of his family.

15. Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), Nashville 90%

Rayna - Nashville

(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.

14. Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), The Walking Dead 80%

Carl was just a kid when The Walking Dead started. As he grew up, he grew into more and more of a central character, much to some fans’ discontent. Still, few wished him actual harm. Carl went out the way most supporting characters do on The Walking Dead: death by zombie. At least his bite gave him time to say goodbye and gave Rick a chance to wail “Caaaarrrruuuullll” once more with feeling.

13. Rita Bennett Morgan (Julie Benz), Dexter 71%

Rita Bnnett/Morgan - Dexter

(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.

12. Will Gardner (Josh Charles), The Good Wife 93%

Will Gardner - The Good Wife

(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.

11. Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan), Lost 85%

(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.

10. Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), The Wire 94%

(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.

9. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Game of Thrones 89%

Game of Thrones season 8, episode 6, series finale "The Iron Throne" (HBO)

(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.

8. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey 86%

Matthew Crawley - Downton Abbey

(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.

7. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), Prison Break 60%

Sara Tancredi - Prison Break

(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.

6. Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), Buffy the Vampire Slayer 83%

(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.

5. Denny Duquette (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Grey's Anatomy 84%

Denny Duquette - Grey's Anaomy

(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.

4. Catelyn, Robb, and pregnant Talisa Stark + direwolf Grey Wind (Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Oona Chaplin), Game of Thrones 89%

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.

3. Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), The Walking Dead 80%

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee, Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon - The Walking Dead _ Season 7, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

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).

2. Ned Stark (Sean Bean), Game of Thrones 89%

By the end, almost no Game of Thrones death was shocking, but this was the first — and it was the one that told viewers that if the star of the show could die, anyone could. It happened just when things were looking up for Bean, after famously dying in Goldeneye and Lord of the Rings too. For a while, the meme #DontKillSeanBean became a thing.

1. Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), This Is Us 93%

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.

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