We’re in a new “Golden Age of Television”…not to mention a “Golden Age of Unexpected TV Deaths.” With the dramatic uptick in the quality of TV shows came a commitment to verisimilitude, and keeping audiences on their toes with as many surprises as possible. That means that on major shows, almost no character is safe.
Ziva David, NCIS
Former Mossad officer and NCIS agent Ziva David (portrayed by Cote de Pablo) is one of the most beloved characters on what, after 13 seasons, is still the most-watched drama on TV. Or rather, Ziva was—until De Pablo left the show to pursue new roles in 2014 (she’d been playing Ziva for 11 years and was ready to move on) and her character’s story was wrapped up with a nice sendoff. There really wasn’t much need for Ziva to ever be mentioned on NCIS again. Which is why it felt cruel when it was announced that the character had died—offscreen—in a missile attack on her family home.
Denise, The Walking Dead
Emmy winner Merritt Wever really had a nice arc going as Denise on The Walking Dead. She took over as town doctor in Alexandria after her predecessor’s untimely demise, survived a hostage situation with a captured Wolf, and even entered into a romantic relationship with Tara despite a fear of commitment. She outlined her reasons for diving into love during an impassioned monologue on a supply run with Daryl and Rosita, explaining she finally felt ready to stand up and fight for her life—only to be cut off by an arrow through her eye and brain, shot from the woods by a lurking Dwight.
Robin Hood, Once Upon a Time
The long-running ABC fantasy show that has deftly thrown together fairy tale icons, mythological characters, folk legends, beloved figures from children’s books, and Disney favorites only got darker and more complicated in its fifth season. Sean Maguire was bumped from recurring to regular cast for his role of Robin Hood…who could never catch a break. First, he found out his beloved and pregnant Maid Marian was actually Zelena, the Wicked Witch of the West. And then Hades (as in the Greek mythological king of the underworld) threatened the life of his other true love, Regina, and Robin sacrificed himself to save her.
Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones
What with all the sociopathic killings and sexual assaults, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) was arguably the most evil character in the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, which is saying something on the show that gave us Joffrey Baratheon. Well, the bad guys always seem to get what’s coming to them, and Ramsay is no exception. After he goaded Jon Snow into war, their conflict erupted into the bloody “Battle of the Bastards.” Finally face-to-face with Jon, Ramsay tried to avoid a physical fight by firing arrows at him—only to be tackled, beaten to a pulp, and tossed into a dungeon, where he suffered the final indignity of being eaten alive by his own dogs on the order of the wife he once gleefully tortured.
Barb, Stranger Things
In spite of being a collection of warm ’80s movie references held together by a thick thread of nostalgia, Stranger Things is decidedly at home in today’s TV landscape in that it’s not afraid to kill off its characters—even children. The plot of the Netflix hit, which follows the disappearance of young Will Byers to a monster unleashed by a government conspiracy, raised the stakes quite shockingly when lonely, innocent Barb (Shannon Purser) was taken by the beast. Sure, her death advanced the plot because it gave her best friend Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) a reason to team up and go monster hunting, but not soon enough to save poor Barb.
Poussey, Orange Is the New Black
Poussey (Samira Wiley) had been an inmate at Lichtfield since the start of the Netflix dramedy, and had a particularly heartbreaking backstory. She’d lived all over the world as an Army brat, until a relationship with the daughter of one of her father’s superiors derailed her father’s career. He disowned her, she tried to kill him, and then she went to prison.
In season 4, Poussey started a relationship with fellow inmate Soso (Kimiko Glenn) and jailed TV chef Judy King (Blair Brown), who promised her a job in her organization upon release. Things were looking up—but then, just like in real life, tragedy struck from out of the blue. During a peaceful protest in the cafeteria, a scuffle broke out and Poussey was caught up in it when a guard restrained her, accidentally crushing her windpipe with his knee and killing her.
Hodor, Game of Thrones
The good news is that Game of Thrones fans finally learned how Bran Stark’s gentle giant protector, Hodor, developed the one-word vocabulary that earned him his name. The bad news? We found out through one of the most heartbreaking plot twists in the show’s history. Turns out his name was really Wylis—but in a bit of time-travel adventuring while trying to piece together his family’s past, Bran inadvertently forged a mental connection with young Wylis, showing him a vision of his own death while serving as a human barricade against a horde of ravenous wights. The poor kid collapsed screaming “hold the door,” and heartbroken viewers looked on helplessly as the action moved between past and present, as “hold the door” became simply “hodor”…and Hodor made the ultimate sacrifice. We’re really gonna miss you, big guy.
Negan’s victims, The Walking Dead
Millions tuned in to the season 6 finale of The Walking Dead for the highly anticipated moment in which the gang met up with the comic book source material’s most notorious villain, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as well as Lucille, his trusty barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. It was widely assumed that at the end of the episode, Negan would beat someone to death with Lucille—a murder that marked one of the most famous moments in the comics. But instead of a death, the screen cut to black when Negan unleashed Lucille, and viewers were forced to wait until the season 7 premiere. Rumors swirled during the hiatus about who would die. Would it be Glenn (Stephen Yeun), as it had been in the comics? Abraham (Michael Cudlitz)?
As it tragically turned out, the answer was both. And because The Walking Dead loves to toy with viewers as long as possible, the truth wasn’t revealed until about halfway into the premiere. Abraham met his grisly end first—and then just when viewers thought they could breathe a sigh of relief for Glenn, Daryl (Norman Reedus) responded to Abraham’s killing by punching Negan in the face, prompting the bad guy to unleash another dose of murderous violence—not against Daryl, but Glenn. The brutality, and the teasing way in which the episode doled it out, were perfectly in keeping with The Walking Dead’s overall arc…but it was all still too much for more than a few viewers to handle.
Robert Ford, Westworld
Has there ever been a TV series like HBO’s Westworld, in which so many main characters died and then came back to life and then repeated the whole process over and over? Probably not, because there’s never before been a TV series that so heavily utilized logic and mortality benders like multiple timelines and how almost everybody is a hyper-realistic humanoid robot. But it doesn’t look like the mysterious and calculating chief robot god Robert Ford is coming back to Westworld or Westworld. At the end of Westworld’s complicated and engrossing first season, he had robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) sacrifice him to demonstrate to his fellow board members that he was liberating his robots, and that they were now the ones in control of Westworld. While it’s always possible that a robot version of Ford died, it isn’t terribly likely that an actor with the stature and film career of Sir Anthony Hopkins would be sticking around series television for long, so we’re going to call him dead … for now.
Andrew Nichols, Scandal
Real-life politics might be as topsy-turvy as they’ve ever been, but things will (probably) never match the Executive Branch craziness that’s recently gone down on Scandal. In season 4, Vice President Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney) secretly arranged for fixer and presidential mistress Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) to be kidnapped, forcing the President to declare war on an African nation (and serving Nichols’ own political ends). Olivia was rescued and war was avoided, but when Olivia’s “Gladiators” found out Nichols was behind the kidnapping, they injected him with a drug to make it look like he’d fallen into a stroke-induced coma. A year later, Nichols woke up and headed to the White House, where he taunted Olivia about her kidnapping. Still suffering from PTSD after the kidnapping, she snapped—and beat him to death with a chair.
Abbie Mills, Sleepy Hollow
A combination of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” this Fox fantasy drama follows the adventures of Colonial soldier Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and the Headless Horseman revived in modern times. Crane has helped small-town police lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) investigate spooky crimes, primarily ones caused by the Headless Horseman and other supernatural monsters. Their partnership lasted until the third season finale, in which Abbie apparently died during an attempt to disarm Pandora’s Box.
Jodi Hubbard, Mom
CBS’s Mom is a show about people struggling with substance abuse and recovery, so it makes sense that a relapse-related death would be part of the story—even if the show is still a laugh-track driven sitcom.
Jodi (Emily Osment) was a teenage recovering addict trying to get her life on track, for whom Christy (Anna Faris) served as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. In February 2016, Mom aired a fairly standard wedding episode, but the characters were worried when Christy didn’t show up. In the end, Christy got a phone call from police telling her that Jodi had died from a drug overdose. According to co-creator Chuck Lorre, killing off Jodi had been the plan for the character since the beginning, to show that not all recovery stories have a happy ending.
Brother Ray, Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is famously not shy about killing off any character in the name of good story, including multiple stars of the show—Joffrey, Tywin Lannister, and Ned Stark, just to name a few. So it’s not terribly surprising that a character played by a well-known actor would meet his end, but it is a little shocking that it happened so fast with Brother Ray, played by Deadwood veteran Ian McShane. As the leader of a pacifist commune, Ray helps the Hound, find redemption—or he would have, if he hadn’t been killed in his first and only episode.
As fans are likely aware, the sting of the surprise was lessened a bit by an interview McShane did before his Game of Thrones appearance, in which he said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to commit to a series but it was okay because it was just one episode and he “dies at the end of it.” When called out for spoiling the show by hardcore fans, McShane retorted, “it’s only t— and dragons.”
Edward Meechum, House of Cards
Poor Edward (Nathan Darrow), one of the few decent people in the House of Cards universe. At first just a temporary bodyguard for Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) after his regular guy, Steve (Chance Kelly), was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Edward was a loyal, stoic, and reliable presence for the Underwoods. He was even officially promoted to the Secret Service when Frank Underwood became vice president, and then president. Sadly, Edward died in the line of duty, protecting the president when reporter-turned-cyberterrorist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) opened fire at a speaking engagement. President Underwood took two bullets, but it was Meechum who suffered fatal gunshot wounds. He died right then and there, but not before taking out Goodwin.
Rhonda Lyon, Empire
Killing off a main character in a season premiere? Empire, who do you think you are? The Walking Dead? The only show with more intense drama than that blood-happy zombie show is Fox’s hip-hop soap Empire. In the Season 2 finale that aired in May 2016, audiences were left wondering the outcome of a rooftop fight between Anika (Grace Gealey) and Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday). Somebody falls off a balcony and five months later, audiences learned which unfortunate woman it was: Rhonda. Her body landed on a car. However, Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken says that while Rhonda is definitely dead, the character may not be. “We could still see her. I don’t want to say how long Andre will have this unusual relationship with his deceased wife, but there’s a good chance that we will see more of her.” You know what that means: dream sequences, hallucinations, and ghostly apparitions. Empire is, after all, a soap opera.
Margaery and Tommen, Game of Thrones
After falling under the controlling eye of the High Sparrow, everything went up in green flames for Margaery (Natalie Dormer). Her life was collateral damage at the hands of her vengeful mother-in-law. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) blew up the whole of King’s Landings with some heretofore undiscovered Wildfire. And then her husband — and Cersei’s son — King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) just can’t deal with the death of his bride and jumps out a window. The king and queen are dead.
Jack Pearson, This Is Us
This Is Us was one of the biggest new hits of the fall 2016 TV season, and perhaps millions tuned in if only to figure out what the cryptic promotional campaign was getting at. What was the connection between a couple having a baby in a hospital (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), another couple slowly falling in love (Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan), a sitcom actor (Justin Hartley), and an adult man (Sterling K. Brown) confronting someone who appeared to be his father (Ron Cephas Jones). All was revealed: the couple were Jack and Rebecca Pearson, and they were having triplets … in 1980. Two of those babies grew up to be Kate (half of the couple) and Kevin (the actor). The third triplet was stillborn, and so Jack and Rebecca adopted Randall — and that’s his biological father he confronts.
Because the show unfolds over the course of three decades in a non-linear way, deaths can be expected, but one of them is quite startling: Jack is not part of the 2016 storylines, and it’s revealed that he died and was cremated at some point in the past. Ventimiglia as Jack will continue to appear in the series because of the way the show is presented, but it’s still pretty sad for audiences knowing what he doesn’t know — that he won’t live to see his kids grow up.
Norma Bates, Bates Motel
Bates Motel is a prequel to Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic about Norman Bates, a psychopath who runs a motel and is so obsessed with his dead mother that he dresses up like her. It was inevitable that Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) was going to die at some point to set up the movie. But it was still shocking when we saw it onscreen … and when we saw Norman do it with carbon monoxide poisoning. It was an attempt at murder-suicide that was only 50 percent successful. The show has been renewed for a fifth and final season, however, so that’s going to be weird.
Angus Mhor, Outlander
Starz’s time-traveling drama Outlander is based on a series of best-selling fantasy novels by Diana Gabaldon. Like other shows based on pre-existing media, its major plot points can be largely telegraphed and predicted — but not always. As a servant and bodyguard to Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis), the hulking but kind Angus (Stephen Walters) does not die in the second book of the Outlander series upon which the second season of the TV show is based. (His partner in bromance, Rupert, is the one who bites it.) Angus ultimately succumbs to the darkness, after getting shot by a cannon during the Battle of Prestonpans, a major skirmish in the second Jacobite Uprising of 1745.
Mayor Cutie, Another Period
On this mock reality show set among the wealthy families of Newport, Rhode Island circa 1902, co-creator Natasha Leggero plays the self-absorbed Lillian Bellacourt. In one episode she recruits a Kanye West-like Scott Joplin (Cedric the Entertainer) to cut a record with her; instead, he uses her dog Mayor Cutie in a song, and the dog becomes a star. Lillian flies into a jealous rage, and in a simultaneously hilarious and mortifying scene, strangles her own dog to death. Mayor Cutie is Leggero’s real-life pet, prompting the show to run a disclaimer at the end of the episode ensuring that no animals were harmed and that only the character Mayor Cutie had died.