Five by Friday: Most Painful TV Deaths

This Is Us has been telling us from the beginning of the first season that Pearson family patriarch, and all-around GOAT Dad, Jack Pearson, died sometime before he got to watch his kids grow into adults, but they’ve been withholding the exact circumstances surrounding his death… until now. This Sunday, after the Super Bowl, the earnest family drama will finally air the much-anticipated, already infamous episode that will take us through Jack’s death in painstaking, tear-jerking detail. So whether or not your team wins, we all lose.

While only two of us (Sarah and Lauren) watch this show, we’re upset enough for at least three people. So today, like the true masochists we are*, we’re looking back at which TV character deaths have hurt us the most throughout the years. Obviously, there will be spoilers below, but because we’d like you to be able to read as much of this post as possible, even if you haven’t seen all of the shows, we’ll each put spoiler warnings in our own individual intros instead of sticking them all at the top of the post. So if one of us picks a show you haven’t seen, and you would like to remain blissfully ignorant, feel free to skip that person’s section and jump ahead to the next one.

*not really

Five by Friday

Join us in the comments or on your own blog–we’ve even provided a graphic for you, which you can either save to your own space or link from tinypic using the following HTML code: <a href=””><img src=””><*/a> Just remove the asterisks, and you’re all set!


[Spoilers in my picks for Grey’s Anatomy, Angel, LOST, The Vampire Diaries, and Vikings.]

This list was simultaneously impossible to make and very, very easy. Not only have I cried at nearly every episode of dramatic television that I’ve watched since having kids (this is not even a little hyperbolic; hormones are weird and having kids is weird and brains are weird and basically I am dehydrated all the time now), but I am also a character watcher, first and foremost. When a show kills off a character I love, the sting can last for years. 

So in that sense, making this list was difficult, because if I’m even the slightest bit attached to a character, their death will still deeply affect me. But it was also easy because although it will nearly always hurt me in the moment, I’m typically able to move on after processing for a few days or weeks. The ones that stick — the ones that still feel fresh, even years later — are the ones I’ve chosen below.

In the spirit of not unnecessarily spoiling anyone, I’m not going to do honorable mentions, but suffice it to say that I agree with most of Sarah’s and Teija’s picks. If I watched the show, it’s a safe bet to assume that those deaths wrecked me.

5. George O’Malley, Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy has killed off a lot of characters over the years, so many that the characters actually joke within the show about renaming the hospital “Seattle Grace Mercy Death.” And while each and every death has hurt, George — one of the first major character deaths, and the first member of the original cast to catch the metaphorical elevator up to that big hospital in the sky — hit me the hardest. Even though George was largely sidelined during his last season on the show, I still remembered him as the heart of the first few seasons, and the most inspirational success story out of the original group of interns. Calling back to his ‘007’ nickname, given to him after his very first time in the OR, served as a poignant reminder of how far he’d come, and how much we were losing with his departure.

4. Winifred Burkle, Angel

While Joss Whedon has developed a reputation for killing off his best characters, Buffy, his flagship series, is rather tame in this regard. The biggest deaths on that show were either recurring guest stars, as opposed to members of the main cast, resurrected, or killed off in the final episode, which is honestly par for the course in a supernatural show with life-and-death stakes.

But then along came spinoff series Angel, which apparently decided it had some serious ground to make up. While Angel killed off several members of its main cast throughout its run, for me, none was worse than the shocking and tragic death of Fred Burkle, a mere one episode after she’d finally gotten together with Wesley, who’d been pining for her since she first joined up with Angel Investigations. Not only did Angel decide to kill off Fred, its gentlest, kindest character (and its last surviving female character, to boot), but it did it in the cruelest possible way, infecting her with a demonic virus that not only allowed the ancient demon Illyria to take over her body, but destroyed her soul in the process. Considering the Buffyverse had already clearly established that a peaceful, happy afterlife existed for worthy characters, this just felt like a completely unnecessary twisting of the knife, robbing viewers both of the chance of ever seeing Fred again, and also the bittersweet comfort of knowing she was allowed to rest in peace.

3. Charlie Pace, LOST

I can’t say I didn’t know this one was coming — a significant chunk of LOST’s third season is devoted to foreshadowing Charlie’s death — but that didn’t make it any easier to watch. From very early on in the series, Charlie was my favorite character (due not in small part to my rabid love of Lord of the Rings), and I’d been simultaneously dreading this moment and feverishly hoping they’d somehow find a way to circumvent it from the instant Desmond first revealed that he was seeing visions of Charlie’s death. And yet, when it finally happened (following the Charlie-centric “Greatest Hits,” one of the strongest episodes in LOST’s entire run), it felt earned, breathtakingly heroic, and utterly devastating. I still can’t watch his final scene without sobbing (right now, I’m determinedly avoiding looking at the GIF I picked for this entry), and even though LOST went on to kill most (okay, all) of the rest of its cast, this is still the one that hurts the most.

2. Alaric Saltzman, The Vampire Diaries

This is the only death on this list that I’m not still broken up about, because Alaric eventually came back (yay for supernatural shows and their endless abilities to resurrect people!) but at the time this episode aired at the beginning of the fourth season, I was devastated. Technically, he died at the end of the third season, but I was still holding out hope that he’d come back somehow, until his spirit appeared in the graveyard, as a grieving Damon ranted at his best friend’s headstone about the unfairness of his death. Not even my significant powers of denial were strong enough for that one.

Alaric was my favorite character on the show, and losing him was a dealbreaker for me (one of only two shows I have ever quit because of a character death). I couldn’t bring myself to keep watching after that, and figured I was done with the show forever… until the end of the fifth season aired and I found out they brought him back. Then I caught up as quickly as I could, and stayed loyal until the end.

1. Athelstan, Vikings

No TV death has ever, or likely will ever, hurt me as much as what happened to Athelstan, Vikings’ erstwhile priest and conflicted viewer proxy. Athelstan wasn’t just my favorite character on Vikings; he was one of my favorite characters on any show, ever. Athelstan served as the indisputable heart of the show, but more than that, he provided a conduit for the viewers to access the unfamiliar world of the show, asking the questions and having the reactions that most of us would probably have when thrown into the midst of such a foreign culture. His death was not only shocking, the culmination of an episode featuring some staggeringly sloppy writing and jarring character inconsistencies, but it robbed the series of a character that was vital to its alchemy. The episode’s only saving grace was Ragnar’s powerful, grief-stricken monologue at the end, which is the most I’ve ever liked Ragnar (probably because he was the only one as upset about Athelstan’s death as I was).

It took me months to be able to pick the show up after this episode aired (and if my husband didn’t watch the show with me, I probably wouldn’t have continued at all), and I’ve still never forgiven Floki for what he did, even if the show has. While there have been some strong, even brilliant, episodes following his death, Vikings has never fully recovered from the loss of Athelstan, and I still miss him horribly during every single episode.


[Spoilers in my picks for LOST, ER, The West Wing, Bones, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.]

As with Lauren and Teija, this list was both incredibly easy to put together and way more difficult than I imagined. I am, hands down, a character watcher when it comes to television and I latch on to characters I love more than I should. I will stick with a show long past the plot going off the rails if I love and am invested in the characters, so when they kill off someone I love? It HURTS. There are some deaths that hurt in the moment but the hurt fades and is lessened upon repeat viewings. Then there are the deaths that I still remember vividly and have a difficult time rewatching the show or episodes because of it.

Unlike Teija and Lauren, I’ve traditionally not been much of a crier when it comes to television and movies. Yet even in the days when I rarely cried over anything television related, there were some character deaths that gutted me and shocked me by just how much I cried.

5. Mrs. Landingham, The West Wing

Mrs. Landingham wasn’t a main character on The West Wing, but she was a pivotal one. Her maternal relationship with President Bartlet, her interactions with the staff, and her no-nonsense attitude towards her job were some of the highlights of the early seasons. In the episode leading up to her death, we finally got to see more of her backstory, learning that she had outlived both her two sons and her husband and that she was on her way to buy a brand new car.

Mrs. Landingham’s death was difficult enough given that it was unexpected and hit the staff out of nowhere, but the thing that made it so difficult for me was watching Bartlet deal with it. His reaction to her death was one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of television I’ve ever seen.

4. Jin-Soo Kwon and Sun-Hwa Kwon, LOST

I didn’t watch LOST when the rest of the world did and I only just finished my binge watch in early January. I have never grown so attached to characters so fast as I did with this cast, and Jin, Sun, and Sayid quickly established themselves as favorites. I knew going in that everyone would die; I had been spoiled for that long ago, so I thought I was ready and okay with what was going to happen.

Spoiler, I was not ready. Not even close. This episode absolutely gutted me, and while Sayid was one of my favorites, Jin and Sun’s deaths overshadowed his by a long shot. The fact that they refused to leave each other despite knowing exactly what was about to happen broke me into itty, bitty pieces.

3. Lance Sweets, Bones

Lance Sweets was not the first character to die on Bones. It’s a crime drama, after all, and murder and death are at its core. But he was the first character where I up and quit the show over his death. I’d been watching Bones for years and I simply stopped watching for years, only going and finally catching up in order to watch the finale live.

While Sweets wasn’t a main character from the beginning, he was an integral part of the show and arguably its most human element. He was such a delight to watch on screen that it pained me to continue the show without him.

2. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As Lauren said about Alaric, this is the only death on my list that I’m not still broken up over, because she was similarly resurrected. Her death is also different in that she actively chose to die: she sacrificed herself for her sister, her friends, and, of course, to save the world. Her death was beautiful and giving and embodied everything Buffy had always been. Watching all the characters come together at the very end in realization of what happened was one of the most emotional moments of the entire series.

And her resurrection only worsened the pain of her death when we learned that she’d been ripped out of heaven and her very own peaceful existence.

1. Dr. Mark Greene, ER

I started watching ER in its second season (which honestly I was probably far too young for the show, but hey thanks, Dad!) and it was one of the first times I can remember being so invested in a show and its characters that I anxiously waited for Thursday nights to arrive. From the beginning, Dr. Greene was my favorite and I enjoyed watching the character grow and change.

Dr. Green’s death wasn’t entirely unexpected. He’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor a year prior, but had undergone a successful operation and resumed a happy life with Elizabeth and his two daughters. When the tumor returned, this time inoperable, it was inevitable that he was going to die, and as viewers, we had to sit back and simply wait for it to happen. Compared with the other deaths on this list, Mark’s was quiet and peaceful, but no less painful.


[Spoilers in my section for The Vampire DiariesGame of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The West Wing, and Gilmore Girls]

I spent a lot of time in coming up with this list, if only because I kept coming up with choices that, upon reflection, were not so much painful as they were infuriating. Differentiating between TV deaths that made me sad versus the ones that just made me straight-up angry turns out to be a very important distinction. I decided that to make the list below, I had to come out on the side of sadness when weighing the two emotions, but as it stands there’s still a couple of them that would easily land themselves on a list of “most infuriating TV deaths” as well on here.

As a character watcher, I’m the kind of person who will continue watching a show for years and years just because a character means enough to me to keep following, so watching a beloved one bite the dust is always a difficult situation. There are some agonizing TV deaths that didn’t even make this list that I found myself choking up over as I narrowed things down. I won’t list them all here, but as I’ve already warned for Game of Thrones spoilers, let me tell you: Viserion taking that ice javelin last season definitely broke my heart. If I hadn’t binged The Vampire Diaries this past year, you’d probably be watching a GIF of it right now.

5. Enzo St. James, The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries killed off and resurrected so many of its characters by the time we reached the final season that I’m actually a little surprised with myself that I feel so strongly about Enzo’s death, but there are a few factors that push it past all the other deaths on this show. First, his death comes at a time when his relationship with Bonnie (a relationship I did not see coming and also found myself extremely invested in) was at its happiest and most hopeful. Bonnie’s probably the single most emotionally abused character on this entire show. She gets put through the wringer time and time again. So to have to watch her watch Enzo die just as she thinks she’s finally getting to experience some happiness in her own life was hard.

But the other thing that makes Enzo’s death so hard is that it’s perpetrated by a main character you are supposed to care about. To my mind, The Vampire Diaries shot itself in the foot with this character death, and it actually genuinely soured my feelings about his murderer so much that they did not recover even a little bit. They needed way more time to redeem him than they had, so it didn’t work. Enzo’s death likely would have been a showkiller for me had it not been so close to the bitter end.

4. Catelyn Stark, Game of Thrones

During graduate school, I somehow managed to find the time between all of my millions of readings for class to read the entirety of what was available at the time of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I still don’t quite understand how I did that, looking back. But there was a day somewhere in the middle of it all that I came to the infamous Red Wedding, and my paperback copy of A Storm of Swords flew across my now-husband’s living room, hit the wall, slid to the ground, and then stayed there for over a month because I was too mad at it to pick it back up.

Reader, that’s where Catelyn Stark came to her bitter end. At least in the books, we get her back, in a way, as Lady Stoneheart, who then spends the rest of her pages (so far) exacting sweet revenge upon the people who wronged her and her family. But Game of Thrones did not give us that satisfaction, and Catelyn lost her life forever that fateful night, losing the Starks their matriarch, and breaking my heart all over again.

3. Michael Cordero, Jane the Virgin

I am still not over this one, truth be told, and while it wasn’t a showkiller for me, it has definitely been a momentum-killer. I fell far enough behind on this show that I am now waiting for the entire season to conclude so that it’ll come up on Netflix before I catch up.

Michael was a character that I didn’t immediately like. The show worked very hard to get me to come to Team Michael, and it succeeded so much that when his heavily-foreshadowed death finally came, I was absolutely shattered by it. You spend seasons learning little by little why exactly Michael was so great. Not just for Jane, but just in general. He was a hard worker, a brilliant cop, a hopeful and happy partner, and to see his and Jane’s plans for a future together cut so abruptly short was a complete heartbreak.

2. Leo McGarry, The West Wing

And here we come at last, to the worst kind of TV character death: the one necessitated by the death of the actor. Leo McGarry, plagued throughout The West Wing by health issues that ultimately ended up foreshadowing his untimely death, was killed off in the show’s final season out of necessity after John Spencer died unexpectedly of a heart attack in the middle of filming.

This was, in fact, the last episode of The West Wing that I ever had the heart to watch. Even in rewatches, I’ve always petered out before getting to the episode in which Kristen Chenoweth’s Annabeth Schott finds him in his hotel room, thus making The West Wing hold the dubious honor of being the one show that I consider one of my favorite shows of all time but that I also never finished.

1. Richard Gilmore, Gilmore Girls

Richard Gilmore’s death is a bit different from the others I’ve listed here in that it happened off-screen. Edward Hermann, who portrayed the Gilmore patriarch, passed away before the Netflix revival was filmed, and thus Richard’s death was written into the revival as the core of Emily Gilmore’s personal story arc. His death resonates throughout the entire project, most strongly in Emily’s storyline but also throughout Lorelai’s. You even feel it in Rory’s story, in a way, as her self-centered spiral of awfulness is markedly lacking in the grief you would expect someone to feel upon the death of their grandfather, and you feel like her entire existence is just meant to make you wonder how people like Rory can live their entire life with their head so far up their own ass. It’s truly remarkable.

Richard was such a key part of the Gilmore family that it is only fitting that a revival of the show revolve around him, even in his absence. While the project was overall a lackluster and disappointing experience, the parts that revolved around this family losing and learning to live without him were phenomenally done.

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