No one likes it when a favorite TV character dies. While we all accept that to keep the drama and tension high, a character must make an exit, the demise of a beloved character can often feel as upsetting as if you knew them in real life. The loss of a character is a reminder that eventually we all move into the great beyond and often times the death can make or break a show. This list of the top 10 saddest TV deaths focuses on those exits that we’re still not over. Obliviously, major spoiler alert for shows!
10. Finn Hudson (Glee)
Perhaps one of the hardest deaths to process, the loss of the quarterback and lead singer for New Directions, was ripped from the real life headline that lead actor Cory Monteith had passed away. There was no easy way for the writers to handle such a tragic loss, but the Finn centered episode in season five, “The Quarterback,” met the task admirably. Without dwelling too much on how Finn actually died, the episode instead focused on Finn’s family and friends coming together to try and understand his passing and grieve together. The episode had some heartbreaking songs, particularly Rachel’s (Lea Michele) “To Make You Feel My Love” performance. The episode was a tribute and cathartic to the fans and actors who would miss Corey (and Finn’s) presence.
9. Dr. Mark Greene (ER)
Unlike many TV shows, the death of Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) was not a single episode, making the death a lengthy blow to the audience. Instead, Greene’s death was slow, told over a season long arc in which Greene learns of a terminal brain tumor and decides that he will not persue any sort of treatment. Over the eighth season of the NBC show, Mark Greene goes through ups and downs with his wife and daughter as they cope with his forthcoming death. Greene’s final appearance was an episode long goodbye in which he spent time with his family, his health slowly failing him. Greene’s death was sad not only because Greene had always been the major role on the show, but also because it was a reminder that death is not always quick and sudden, but can be slow and torturous.
8. Rita Morgan (Dexter)
On a show that centers on a serial killer, death is inevitable. Watching Dexter Morgan let his “Dark Passenger” out to feed his homicidal tendencies is simply part of the show, and a large reason why fans tuned in for 8 seasons. But one of the saddest deaths has to be Dexter’s long-suffering wife, Rita. The sociopathic Dexter always felt cut off from humanity and Rita was simply part of his disguise as an average man. Over a season long arc, Dexter goes up against another killer until Dexter finally gets the so-called Trinity Killer. Having disposed of Arthur’s body, Dexter feels a sense of hope that the love he has for his family is starting to outweigh his desire to kill and just maybe he can have that normal life. When Dexter arrives home to find Rita in a bloody bathtub and their baby Harrison sitting in a pool of blood, it is apparent that the Trinity Killer killed one more time before Dexter found him. The real tragedy of Rita’s death might not be her actual demise, but rather what it signaled for Dexter himself. His flicker of hope that he could have a happy life with is family died right along side Rita.
7. Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (MASH)
The death of Lt. Col Henry Blake, the goofy leader of the 4077th MASH in Korea, was an unprecedented moment in TV history—it was really the first time that a major character was killed in a tragic way. The final episode of the third season saw Henry get his discharge papers from the Korean War. The episode, in classic MASH comedic style, follows Henry and his two top surgeons, Hawkeye and Trapper, as they celebrate in style with plenty of drinking and hilarity. When Henry gets into the helicopter at the end of the episode, audiences expected that the beloved Colonel would land back home in Indiana. In a bold move, show writers decided that the final scene of the episode would have Henry’s assistant, Radar, enter the operating room to deliver the news that the helicopter was shot down over the Sea of Japan and there were no survivors. The cast, apart from lead actor Alan Alda, was not aware of this plot moment until moments before shooting and the tears in their eyes were genuine. The death of Henry was a statement that all too often, men do no return home from war.
6. Matthew Crawley (Downton Abbey)
Sometimes, there is no happily ever after for a couple who struggled to finally come together and for whom the audience had such high hopes. Such is the case with Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens, who decided to leave the hit British show. The writers felt that the only way to write Matthew off was by tragically killing him in a car accident. If the death of the character wasn’t enough to induce crying, Matthew’s death comes only moments after he and his wife Lady Mary—a romance three seasons in the making with many twists and turns— celebrate the birth of their first child. To top this already tragic affair, Matthew dies during the winter special, which aired on Christmas Day. Bah humbug, indeed.
5. Delores Landingham (The West Wing)
She may not have been a lead character, but the death of President Bartlet’s saucy and sassy secretary was deeply felt. The indomitable Mrs. Landingham was loyal to the President, and, after loosing her two sons in war, believed in serving her country. In the penultimate episode of season two, Mrs. Landingham bought her first new car in several decades and was looking forward to proudly showing it off to the President. Then, the phone call came—a drunk driver had crashed into Mrs. Landingham and killed her instantly. You never expect the nice old lady to suddenly be killed in a such a senseless manner, but if there is one good thing to come out of her death, it’s the performance Martin Sheen gives as President Bartlett in the following episode. Resentful and angry over the death of his friend and confidant, Bartlett yells at God in Latin in the National Cathedral. It’s an incredibly powerful performance that only makes Mrs. Landingham’s death even sadder.
4. Catelyn and Robb Stark (Game of Thrones)
It’s hard to decide which death was worse: the beheading of the honorable Ned Stark, or the death of his wife and eldest son two seasons latter at the so-called Red Wedding. However, for this list, the scope and general shock value of loosing not only Catelyn and Robb, but also Robb’s wife, their unborn child, and the retinue of Stark men in one fell swoop tops what happened to Ned on the steps of Baelor. After Robb Stark breaks a promise to Walder Frey, the King in the North and his mother go to apologize and celebrate a Frey wedding. Everything seems to be forgiven. It is only in the last few moments that a plot is uncovered to murder the Stark clan. Within seconds, the happy atmosphere is gone as knives are pulled from their sheathes and plunged into the hearts of the Starks. Catelyn Stark begs Walder Frey for the life of her eldest son, but her pleas fall on deaf ears and her own throat is slit. The final image of a blood soaked room left audiences open mouthed, and no music played as the credits rolled.
3. Charlie Pace (Lost)
Sometimes, you can’t outrun your destiny. In season three, Charlie Pace is told that no matter what he does, the universe demands that he die. Trying to avoid death all season, the final episode of season three finds Charlie in an underwater station, having narrowly escaped death yet again. All seems well for Charlie until a mysterious radio message comes through the station. The woman on the other end tells Charlie that the boat sitting just outside the border of the island is not hers but a group of mercenaries who have no intention of taking the castaways home. As a madman with a grenade, determined to keep this information from surfacing, blows up part of the station and water begins to pour in, Charlie’s final act of heroism is to quickly scrawl on his hand that the boat does not belong to whom they thought, before the water takes his life and carries him out to sea. Charlie’s death was tragic because audiences had bonded with the former drug addicted rock star. Surely, the guy who had beat cocaine on the island would make it home. But it wasn’t meant to be.
2. Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Buffy Summers endured quite a bit over the course of 7 seasons—vampires, demons, hell portals, goddesses, government initiates. But the season 5 episode, “The Body,” had the chosen one face the death of her own mother. Arriving home, Buffy finds her mom’s cold corpse on the couch. The shock and hurt of Buffy transcended beyond TV as the audience simply couldn’t believe that series creator Joss Whedon would take away Buffy’s mom. What made the death truly tragic was that after everything Buffy had endured, everything she had given up in order to be the Slayer, Joyce Summers did not die from some supernatural force but rather an aneurysm. Unlike other episodes of TV where the characters end a “death” episode with some sort of life affirming message for themselves, Buffy and her friends got no such closure. Instead the episode focused on how death can tear people apart and result in a numbing feeling.
1. The 10th Doctor (Doctor Who)
Rule number of watching Doctor Who: never get too attached to the Doctor. In a show where the main character, the Doctor, regenerates when close to death only to come back with a new face and personality, the ending of one Doctor shouldn’t be too upsetting as audiences know it could happen at any moment. However, the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant, singled the transition for the show from quirky British drama to international phenomenon. To this day, he remains the most popular of the 11 faces to have played the Doctor. In his final performance, the 10th Doctor defeats his enemies and it looks as though he’ll make it out alive, until his friend and companion Wilfred is discovered trapped and the Doctor sacrifices his life to free Wilf. Knowing that his regeneration is only moments away, the Doctor travels in time to say goodbye to his companions. Afterwards, broken and bruised, the 10th Doctor enters his time machine one final time and utters maybe the most heartbreaking goodbye in the history of the show: “I don’t want to go…” echoing the sentiments of audiences everywhere who lost their Doctor.
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