No one is safe on
— except for maybe Rick ( The Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln). Other central characters can be killed off week to week, and the uncertainty has often been the most exciting part of watching the show. In the midseason premiere of season 8, AMC’s hit zombie series said goodbye to a character who has been on the show since the very beginning.
Spoiler alert! This article contains plot details for a major character death in The Walking Dead and 18 other TV shows.
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. 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, who was starring in CBS series Training Day when he died in 2017, are a different sort of heartrending tragedy.
Here are 19 of most heartbreaking TV deaths of the last 20 years. Fictional characters only.
Want to argue for a more heartbreaking death? Tell us in the comments below.
Laurel Lance – Arrow This most certainly was NOT in the comics! She’s back now so that softens the blow a little bit, but Katie Cassidy’s goodbye episode of Arrow was brutal. Sent to the hospital after fighting Damin Darhk (Neal McDonough), the doctors made us think she was going to be okay before then flatlining her!
Adriana La Cerva – The Sopranos 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 Drea de Mattteo when Sylvio drove her out to the woods and chased her through the forest.
Rayna Jaymes – Nashville This is still so fresh. What a week for TV deaths, first William and then Rayna (Connie Britton). After an automobile accident, Rayna passed away in the hospital. Britton said she was ready to move on from Nashville. 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.
Will Gardner – The Good Wife Josh Charles left the show in season five and The Good Wife would continue another two years. Being a TV drama, Will Gardner didn’t just move to another city. He was shot to death by his own client in the courtroom.
Maude Flanders – The Simpsons Bleeding Gums Murphy misses the 20 years cutoff for this list but Maude Flanders still affects The Simpsons. She fell from the top of the bleachers after being shot with a T-shirt cannon. That’s funny, but the show took Ned Flanders’ mourning seriously and stuck to Ned being a widower.
Matthew Crawley – Downton Abbey Mainly just because it was Dan Stevens and who would ever want to say goodbye to Dan Stevens? Times were tough in 1920s and cars didn’t have the sort of seatbelt and airbag technology we take for granted today. It didn’t even take texting and driving to cause Matthew’s fatal accident. He was just so happy to be a father he took his eyes off the road to appreciate nature. Always watch the road, kids.
Glenn Rhee – The Walking Dead On a show where anyone but Rick (Andrew Lincoln) could go at any time, The Walking Dead really had to psyche people out when a main character like Glenn (Steven Yeun) was done for. First they made everyone think Glenn died in a walker horde, but then he made it out. Only later, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beat him beyond recognition as he called out to Maggie with his last words.
Sara Tancredi – Prison Break You didn’t think we forgot about Sarah Wayne Callies, did you? Perhaps her death in The Walking Dead was foretold, but on Prison Break it was her head in a box! Fortunately, fans demanded her return so she came back and she’s in the new Fox reboot, but for season three it sure felt permanent.
Denny Duquette – Grey’s Anatomy This was a real gut punch because the whole season, it looked like Izzie (Katherine Heigl) had done everything to save him, 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 Jeffrey Dean Morgan a star.
Ned Stark – Game of Thrones It’s hard to get too emotional about a GOT death anymore, but this was the first and it was the one that told viewers anyone could die, even the freaking star of the show. And just when things were looking up for Sean Bean after famously dying in Goldeneye and Lord of the Rings too. For a while he had a meme going, #DontKillSeanBean.
Teri Bauer – 24 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, beginning with the loss of his wife (Leslie Hope).
Charlie Pace – Lost 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 (Dominic Monaghan) sacrificing himself to warn Desmond it was NOT PENNY’S BOAT radioing the Oceanic survivors.
Curtis Lemansky – The Shield The clincher were Lem (Kenneth Johnson)’s last words. Starving from being on the run, Shane (Walton Goggins) handed him a sandwich and a hungry Lem said, “My favorite” before seeing the grenade drop beside him.
Lexa – The 100 Alycia Debnam-Carey became a series regular on Fear the Walking Dead so could no longer appear on The 100. Her death became a source of controversy, seen as yet another gay TV character punished for being in a healthy relationship (with Clarke). Lexa returned one last time in the City of Light helping Clarke fight A.L.I.E.
Wallace – The Wire Michael B. Jordan was only 15 when he played a teenage drug dealer on HBO’s landmark series The Wire. That made the stark reality of druglord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) ordering his murder all the more tragic. When kids get in this deep, they can’t get out.
Rita Bennett Morgan – Dexter 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 Rita (Julie Benz) murdered in the bathtub previously by Trinity. This was the ultimate reminder that killing serial killers doesn’t make anything right. The victims they took away are still gone.
Joyce Summers – Buffy, The Vampire Slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) herself came back to life twice, but her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) 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.
William – This Is Us
William (Ron Cephas Jones)’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 a family.
Carl Grimes – The Walking Dead
Carl (Chandler Riggs) 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.