In television, killing off a character must be done just right. Too minor a player and no one cares; too major a character and everyone cares too much – unless it’s done with flare.
The element of surprise is key. For example, despite it being arguably the greatest series ever, Breaking Bad didn’t shock audiences when Walter White died. The guy had terminal cancer and even more terminal enemies, for God’s sake.
This list, rather, deals with surprise demise. Following are ten TV deaths that few viewers saw coming.
10 Roseanne Conner (Roseanne)
Arguably the most anticipated reboot of all time was the return of the beloved sitcom, Roseanne, after 21 years. Unfortunately for the Conner family matriarch, it was also one of the shortest-lived.
On March 27, 2018, the domestic goddess returned, shattering ratings expectations and quickly becoming the top-rated primetime show. Unlike some reboots, it’s nostalgia was both endearing and believable: The Conners’ working class roots made it likely they’d not only have the same house after 20 years, but much of the same furniture.
But the show was also as edgy as ever, leaning into the USA’s deep cultural and political divide. A rare Trump supporter on TV, Roseanne pilloried political correctness while allowing anti-Trump family members to land some blows as well. The result was simultaneously humorous and cathartic. We liked the Conners, and watching their low-grade culture war took the edge off our ever-escalating one.
And then Roseanne – the actress, not the character – called a Black woman an ape on Twitter. After just nine episodes, her show was promptly cancelled.
However, the reboot was so successful that the program soon returned as The Conners. Obviously, the family had some explaining to do regarding their former title character’s absence. A plotline that started before Roseanne’s cancelation – a budding problem with opioid pills – provided the perfect out. In the opening moments of The Conners, we learn Roseanne overdosed on prescription painkillers.
9 Christopher Moltisanti (The Sopranos)
A wise guy with New Jersey’s mob, typically one that crossed boss Tony Soprano, got whacked seemingly every episode on The Sopranos. But with the exception of Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero – whose downfall was anticipated due to his season-long role as an FBI informant – Tony’s immediate crew remained intact through nearly six seasons.
That changed with the death of Tony’s nephew and longtime protégé, Christopher. Of course, as war with a powerful New York family loomed and the show barrelled toward its controversial conclusion (“Did Tony die?” might be the most asked TV-related question ever), main characters were sure to get popped.
But it was the WAY Christopher died that shocked viewers. We find Christopher driving with Tony – the sort of innocuous scene frequently used for explanatory dialogue or, in The Sopranos’ case, a post-violence calm-down. Unfortunately, Christopher had recently relapsed on heroin and, his reflexes dulled, drifts into the opposite lane. He swerves to avoid an oncoming vehicle, and his truck careens down an embankment.
Tony was hurt but ambulatory. Christopher was alive but badly injured, bleeding and wheezing. “I’ll never pass a drug test,” he tells Tony. “Call me a taxi.”
Tony flips open his phone, starts dialling… then closes it. He pinches Christopher’s nostrils until the wheezing stops. At once stunning and fitting, the scene shows Tony grappling with his affection, disappointment and fury at his drug-addled mentee.
8 Zoe Barnes (House of Cards)
In the first season of House of Cards, it became quite clear how underhanded Frank Underwood was. Snubbed for a cabinet position by the incoming president, Frank starts his long-game revenge by convincing a congressman to run for Pennsylvania governor. With the help of hookers and booze, Frank ensures the candidacy will crash and burn. He then persuades the sitting Vice President to step down and run in the lapsed candidate’s stead and, to cover his tracks, murders the congressman by making it look like a suicide.
Meanwhile, he cozies up to the president, and when the VP slot becomes available… voila: Vice President Frank Underwood. So yes, we knew Frank was unscrupulous. But throw a girl in front of a TRAIN unscrupulous? Jesus.
Throughout, Frank is helping his cause by first confiding in and then sleeping with a young reporter named Zoe Barnes. The “friends with mutual benefits” relationship eventually turns sour as Zoe begins suspecting Frank of play far fouler than mere political wrangling.
As Season 2 begins we find Zoe digging into the congressman’s supposed suicide. Frank suggests a covert meeting in a shadowy Washington DC subway station. Zoe voices her belief that the congressman was murdered, suspecting Frank knows something but not that he’s the actual culprit.
Frank responds by pushing her in front of an oncoming train.
7 Jimmy Darmody & Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire)
This same-show double-entry features two character deaths surprising for different IRL reasons. HBO’s ambitious period piece about the golden years of Atlantic City and the NYC area’s mafia turf wars was a tribute to the violent, roaring 1920s centered around a real-life gangster: Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who lorded over the beachfront vacation town’s legendary boardwalk for decades.
Like any crooked official, Nucky has henchmen, the most prominent being a young World War 1 veteran named Jimmy Darmody. Season 1 sees their relationship strengthen but, in Season 2, Jimmy makes the seemingly inevitable behind-the-scenes power play. Even though they iron out their differences, Nucky shoots him anyway.
For a show that ranks among the greatest dramas ever, Jimmy’s death didn’t quite fit. It seemed somewhat shoehorned, lacking sufficient setup. Then an explanation emerged: Michael Pitts, the actor who portrayed Jimmy, was so impossible to work with they killed him off. His Hollywood rep is so poor that he hasn’t landed a major role since.
Jimmy’s revenge came posthumously: in the series finale, his son, Tommy, shoots and kills Nucky on the very boardwalk he rules. Why was this surprising? Because the show’s main plots paralleled with historical events, and the real Nucky Thompson died peacefully at the ripe old age of 85.
6 Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie)
Eight years after her screen husband, Tony Soprano, starred in the most controversial finale in TV history, Edie Falco tried to pull off her own enigmatic exit. The only thing that didn’t work was the attempted ambiguity. While a solid argument can be made both for and against Tony getting whacked, it’s commonly believed that Falco’s title character, Nurse Jackie Peyton, dies from a heroin overdose as the show – and Jackie – fades to black.
But despite the attempt at a permanent cliffhanger – the show’s creator admits he wanted the audience to wonder whether his heroine died from… well, heroin – the scene gives the clear impression that Jackie perishes, with the final camera shot ascending from Jackie’s eyes-affixed, flat-on-her-back body. At a time before NARCAN made heroin overdoses largely reversible (the show ended just months before the wonderdrug’s introduction), Jackie was a goner.
It’s a credit to the Emmy-winning show that Jackie’s death, unintentional or not, was surprising. After all, its entire premise is an emergency room nurse with an opioid addiction and access to a hospital’s well-stocked pharmacy. Through seven seasons, Jackie’s lives the rollercoaster existence of an addict whose clean time is interrupted by discouraging, consequence-laden relapse.
Those with addiction know it is rarely realistically portrayed on television. Nurse Jackie did it better than any in TV history and, when Jackie paid the ultimate price, the result was gut-wrenching and eyebrow-raising.
5 Maude Flanders (The Simpsons)
The Simpsons broke a lot of ground for animated series, including becoming the first to permanently kill off a recurring character. And as with many conventional “IRL” sitcoms, The Simpsons called upon the Grim Reaper when many were calling the show a bit stale. (Well, that and the voiceover actress asked for a huge raise.)
In the 11th season’s 14th episode, the forebodingly (albeit confusingly) titled “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily,” Homer, Marge and the family attend a racecar event, where a vendor is shooting free T-shirts into the crowd from an air cannon. Excited, Homer jumps up, removes his shirt and makes a bullseye on his tummy with a ketchup squirter. The T-Shirts come flying at high velocity…
… and Homer ducks, distracted by a shiny object. The shirts hit the wife of Homer’s God-fearing neighbor, Ned Flanders, and she falls off the top of the bleachers. RIP, Maude Flanders.
The odd thing about Maude’s fatal plunge was how unfamiliar audiences were with a cartoon death being final. Viewers trained to see Wile. E. Coyote back on the Roadrunner’s tail after falling off a jagged cliff were instead shown a funeral.
Years later, Family Guy permanently killed off two recurring characters – Muriel Goldman and newscaster Diane Simmons – in a special whodunnit episode. Initially, most thought the plot wouldn’t carry over to Quahog proper, but it did. Neither character was ever seen again.
4 Susan Ross (Seinfeld)
Something major was about to happen in a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.” Jerry and George, both longtime bachelors, were on the verge of marriage.
The uber-particular, narcissistic Jerry falls in love with… well, someone just like him. In what at first appears just another of his whirlwind, short-term romances, Jerry meets his mirror image in Janine Garofalo, who does a hilarious episode-long Jerry impression complete with hokey observational humor (“What’s the deal with decaf?” she muses) and conspicuous cereal consumption.
On the other hand, George has been engaged for quite a while and, in true George fashion, is regretting it. But as his fiancé, Susan, prepares to send out the wedding invitations, George gets “lucky” in the most twisted way possible. Susan, licking and sealing envelope after envelope, suddenly faints. She is rushed to the hospital, seemingly no big deal.
Then she dies, the victim of paste poisoning. The cheapness of the envelope material – courtesy of the ever-frugal George – was directly attributable to Susan’s demise. “We found traces of a certain toxic adhesive,” the doctor explains, “commonly found in very low-priced envelopes.”
A microcosm of the show’s anti-hero appeal, first George and then the other three main characters – Jerry, Elaine and Kramer – feign disappointment. Jerry then realizes that he doesn’t want to get married, either, and the gang dismissively decides to go grab some coffee. Back to normal – that is, back to nothing.
3 Maria LaGuerta (Dexter)
How can a murder in a show about a serial killer be surprising? When it’s the serial killer’s police officer sister doing the murdering.
The latter seasons of Dexter, chronicling the secret serial killer life of a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, lost some steam. Many believed the show jumped the shark when the title character’s sister, police officer Deb Morgan, discovered Dexter’s dark side by witnessing him ritualistically dispatch with a mass murderer she’d been hunting.
The subsequent season dealt with the newfound stressors between Dexter and Deb, who now knows her brother is the notorious Bay Harbor Butcher – a vigilante that only kills bad guys, per Dexter’s “taking out the trash” code. Deb grapples with the bad deeds Dexter does for the common good – but doesn’t turn him in.
However, Metro Homicide Captain Maria LaGuerta, a major character from the show’s inception, begins to figure things out. She sets Dexter up by paroling a man who killed his mother. But Dexter turns the tables: offing his mother’s murderer then drugging LaGuerta, he prepares to stage her death as a mutually fatal confrontation with the ex-con.
Then Deb shows up. Gun in hand, she realizes Dexter’s plan and works up the courage to do what must be done: shoot her bother to save LaGuerta’s life. The gun fires…
… and LaGuerta’s chest explodes. Immediately remorseful, Deb cradles LaGuerta’s limp body, sobbing hysterically. Dexter survived to slice for another season, with a much-anticipated reboot scheduled for later this year.
2 Bill Hendrikson (Big Love)
He did it! Our polygamist protagonist survived five seasons of threats from the plural marriage compound he escaped, and protected his three-wife life from the modern-day, strictly one-spouse Mormon Church.
Big Love was a subculture phenomenon whose main character, Bill Hendrikson, was a prominent businessman in Utah who, unbeknownst to society, had multiple wives. Bill had fled a fundamentalist polygamist compound – isolated, self-contained communities that practiced plural marriage despite the Mormon Church’s (and the law’s) strict forbiddance. The result was television gold: The Hendriksons were a DOUBLE fish out of water whose lifestyle was too liberal for their backwards roots and too backwards for Salt Lake City society.
By the final season, Big Love’s big family overcomes all of this, but Bill finds himself facing a new issue: polygamist women’s lib. His first wife wants to gain priesthood – strictly a male role – and his third wife wants to work.
Still, these are domestic problems, albeit ones multiplied by three. Bill is largely in the clear from the law and violent fundamentalist extremists. And then a deranged neighbor shoots and kills him for resodding his lawn without permission (LINK 10). How unneighborly.
Dying, Bill asks his first wife for a blessing – an implicit consent to her wishes, as this is something only a priest can provide. Bill’s random, post-climactic end becomes both liberating and unifying for the sister wives, suddenly empowered despite tragedy.
1 Ned Stark (Game of Thrones)
Oddly, television’s most surprising death ever occurred in a show that became infamous for killing off main characters with reckless regularity. But before Game of Thrones was known as the place protagonists go to die, the show did something truly unprecedented: killed off its undisputed main character in the first season.
That was Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell, who is tapped to become the right-hand man for his old friend King Robert Baratheon. Throughout the season, the show goes to great lengths to portray Stark as a classic protagonist. He gets the plurality of screen time, and is developed as an imperfect yet moral man willing to sacrifice and do his duty. So even when things started looking rough for Ned, no one really thought he’d get the ax.
Long story short: the king gets killed, and Ned learns that the widow, Cersei, had been sleeping – and procreating – with her brother. Yuck. But before Ned can arrange to have Robert’s brother assume the Throne, Cersei has him arrested.
Still, the stage is set for Ned to survive. As he stands shackled before the new king – Cersei’s young son, Joffrey – he makes a convincing yet false public confession. King Joffrey declares both his mother and Ned’s daughter Sansa, who Joffrey has eyes for, have called for mercy.
Instead, Joffrey has him beheaded and sticks his head on a pike. Ned was dead, and the series’ “no one is safe” bravado born.