When an important character dies in a film or television series, we expect it to be a momentous event. With his or her head cradled in the arms of the hero, the dying character lets out an emotional or narratively important utterance with their last breath. The characters who remain mourn the loss and try to move on, perhaps even dedicating their future actions to their fallen comrade. Writers often challenge our relationship with mortality with such scenes. A character’s death can be touching, impactful, sometimes corny, sometimes even funny, be we notice it, and so do the other characters. Usually.
Sometimes, however, things don’t work out like that. Sometimes, a hitherto important character dies and... that’s it. We often see them die, as do some of the other characters, but... nobody really cares. And sometimes we don’t even get that. Sometimes a character just shows up and says, “Oh hey, Jake’s dead.” And we’re like, “wait, what?” But storytelling is difficult. Sometimes there are strict time restraints and writers/directors/ editors do not have time to give a character the impactful death they deserve. Sometimes there are off-camera squabbles with an actor that require they be written off. And sometimes writers try to make a point by killing off a once important character with little-to-no fanfare. Whatever the reason, it can be quite jarring when we realize what’s happened. So read on and see if you noticed (or cared about) these 15 massive character deaths.
Note: Each of these entries deals with big spoilers, so be forewarned.
15 Audrey Anderson as Lilly Chambler in The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is the first of many movies or series that will appear on this list with a high body count. And that makes sense; the more deaths there are, the less likely each one will stand out. To clarify something about this list, we’re looking at deaths of important characters. Terrorist Number Three from Die Hard or Sexy Teen Number Two from Halloween 4 won’t cut it. We need characters who mean something to the plot and/or other characters but whose deaths are not impactful. And Lilly falls into this category. Important enough to be the one to kill The Governor by way of a mercy blow, we only learn of her death, almost in passing, when Tara mentions that Lilly committed suicide by allowing herself to be devoured by the walkers.
14 Erik Weiner as Agent Sebso in Boardwalk Empire
The actual scene of Agent Sebso’s death is memorable, but not all for his actual death. What stands out from this scene is Agent Van Alden’s bizarre behavior. Van Alden suspects (correctly) that Sebso is on the take and has been helping Nucky Thompson and his gang. The two federal agents are looking for a still when they find a black church performing baptismals in a river. Van Alden wants to baptize Sebso, possibly as a means of making him confess. Sebso, who is Jewish, resists, but his bullied by the larger Van Alden. Seemingly possessed by religious fervour, Van Alden repeatedly dunks Sebso into the river, eventually drowning him before the shocked congregation. Van Alden mutters that divine justice has been done and wanders off. Sebso is never mentioned again.
13 Peter Bonnerz as Capt. J.S. McWatt/Seth Allen as Hungry Joe in Catch-22
This is a case of character’s deaths being intentionally meaningless. Catch-22 attempts to depict the utter absurdity and futility of war. As such, many characters die, some in pointless ways. This is true for McWatt and Hungry Joe. Trying to impress his friends on the ground, McWatt likes to perform tricks while piloting his plane. He likes to “buzz” people; that is flying low, just over the top of them. In doing so, he accidentally bifurcates poor Hungry Joe who is standing on the dock. Joe’s toro falls off into the water while his feet are still standing, in front of a nonplussed Yossarian, Doc Daneeka and others on the beach. McWatt, apparently overcome with grief and guilt, intentionally crashes his plane. This scene is treated with much more gravity in Joseph Heller’s novel, but the film just doesn’t get it right. For one, Hungry Joe has a much larger role in the book and it is actually Kid Sampson who dies here. Then again, in the book, Hungry Joe still dies, just from suffocation. By a cat.
12 Vinnie Jones as Bullet Tooth Tony in Snatch
In a cast full of memorable characters, Vinnie Jones’ “Bullet Tooth Tony” is arguably the most outstanding. The former hard-nosed footballer brings an air of rough street smarts and masculine swagger to his gun-for-hire character. Enlisted by Cousin Avi (ably played by Dennis Farina) to track down the stolen diamond that is at the heart of the Guy Ritchie film, Tony bullies, quips, and kills his way along the trail of the diamond. When they finally track down and corner the men who have the diamond, Sol and Vincent, they are informed that the dog has eaten the diamond. Avi instructs Tony to cut open the dog and retrieve it. Tony, reluctantly, is about to do so, when Sol and Vincent flinch and admit that they have the diamond, only for the dog to actually eat it and run off. In the commotion Avi fires his gun at the dog wildly and runs off... only to realize he has shot Tony. Avi then gives up and returns to America, thus ending he and Tony’s storyline. Just like that.
11 Jon-Michael Ecker as ‘El Lion’ in Narcos
‘El Lion’ is both a hugely significant character and a bit of a player simultaneously. For the majority of the series, he is not in Colombia, therefore being away from the action. He is in Miami, organizing the Medellin Cartel’s stateside operations. As such, he is crucial to the plot as he is the most important figure in opening up the U.S. market to Pablo Escobar’s cocaine and facilitating the Colombian drug lord's massive wealth. In the second season, ‘El Lion’ switches allegiances to the Cali Cartel, one of many crushing blows to Escobar and his business. After he helps Cali establish themselves in Miami, they kill him. He is strangled with what looks like piano wire and is never mentioned again. His death seemed pointless to the story, but let’s remember that Narcos is based on true events. And drug dealing is a murderous business. Often unnecessarily so.
10 Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer in Burn After Reading
Brad Pitt is an A-list actor, so you expect any role he has in a film to be a major one. Add to that that he figures prominently in the trailer for Burn After Reading, and you could reasonably assume that his character would be of major consequence to the film. And he is, for the first half. Dimwitted Chad Feldheimer is important because his actions serve as a catalyst for the film’s plot. He brings the assumed-to-be important disc of classified information to the Russian embassy. Then, scrounging for more information in the Cox home, he accidentally surprises Harry (George Clooney), who reflexively shoots him in the head. And that’s it. Harry becomes nervous and frazzled, but nothing more. Nobody really cares. It seems his character outlived his usefulness and the Coen brothers decided to get rid of him in a characteristically weird way.
9 Steven Quezada as Steven Gomez in Breaking Bad
Steven Gomez’s death is a of a type we will see later in this list: a death overshadowed by a bigger death at around the same time. Gomez ably aides fellow DEA Agent Hank Schrader in his attempts to track down the notorious ‘Heisenberg’; who Schrader would later discover to be his brother-in-law, Walter White. As the AMC series’ final season draws to a close, the DEA agents get closer and closer to the truth. In what many believe to be Breaking Bad’s best episode, “Ozymandias”, Schrader and Gomez enter into a firefight with a white supremacist gang with which Walter White had been working. Gomez is killed in the shoot-out. But his death is completely overshadowed by Hank’s more emotional and grave murder a few minutes later, leaving most viewers completely forgetting about poor Steven Gomez.
8 Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon
We saw before how a movie being adapted from a book can affect how some of the characters are treated and minimize their impact. Well, you can’t blame Miles Archer’s unceremonious death on the screenplay writer/director John Huston; Archer gets an equally shabby treatment in Dashiell Hammett's novel. The Maltese Falcon begins with the classic femme fatale “Ruth Adderly” (a pseudonym) entering the offices of private investigators Sam Spade and Miles Archer. The two partners are presumably good friends, or at the very least, good co-workers. But Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) sheds no tears upon hearing Archer has been murdered the next day. Even Archer’s widow, Ida, seems to contort her husband’s death into some sort of vanity, baselessly accusing Spade of murdering him in an attempt to have her. Beyond this, Archer is barely mentioned. Archer’s death is crucial as it sets in motion the plot of the film, but by the end of it, we barely remember his death at all.
7 Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Bellatrix Lestrange is a major villain in the Harry Potter franchise, essentially just one rung below Voldemort on the ladder of baddies. Responsible for the murder of beloved characters such as Sirius Black and Dobby, and played in the films by the mesmerizing Helena Bonham Carter, Bellatrix is very memorable. Her death, however? Less so. Bellatrix makes it to the last book/movie and eventually falls at the final Battle of Hogwarts. But because Voldemort is still a clear and present danger and the fact that Bellatrix is killed by little old Molly Weasley, her death barely even registers. We leave the theatres or close the book thinking about the final confrontation with Voldemort, but hardly anybody remembers Bellatrix’s end. And again, you can’t really blame this on the movie; J.K. Rowling treated her death much the same. I guess that’s a natural pitfall of being merely second-most evil.
6 Tara Fitzgerald as Selyse Baratheon in Game of Thrones
Queen Selyse Baratheon appears in the third, fourth and fifth seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones. She is the wife of Stannis Baratheon and a very devout follower of R’hllor, Lord of Light. First, let us remember that this is Game of Thrones, the show with perhaps the highest body count in television history. So it is understandable that, like several of the characters on this list, Seleyse’s death is overshadowed by another death. In this case, her daughter. Convinced by Melisandre to sacrifice their own daughter, Shireen, to R’hllor (the Lord of Light), Stannis and Selyse reluctantly decide it is best. Selyse, however, regrets her decision as she hears her daughter’s screams, but it is too late. Overcome with grief, she hangs herself. We might remember the scene of Shireen’s death, but Selyse’s is comparatively forgettable. And many of us would rather just forget the whole thing.
5 Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
It is difficult to think back nearly forty years, before seven of the currently released eight Star Wars movies were made. Movie goers in 1977 would have only seen Episode IV: A New Hope and would have come away remembering Darth Vader of course, but almost equally so they would remember Grand Moff Tarkin. As the governor of the Death Star, Tarkin was presented as at least an equal to Darth Vader within the Galactic Empire’s hierarchy. Tarkin and Vader would often squabble with each other over the best methods to deal with the Rebel Alliance. Tarkin’s stand-out scene being where he cruelly tricks Princess Leia into revealing the location of the Rebel base, only to then destroy her entire home planet of Alderaan with the Death Star. Many don’t remember his death however, but they do remember Luke destroying the Death Star. Except... they’re one in the same. Tarkin is still on the Death Star when it explodes and he presumably dies with the rest of the anonymous Empire troops. Never to be seen again until some intense use of CGI renders him once again in Rogue One.
4 Michelle Rodriguez as Ana Lucia Cortez in Lost
When discussing characters' lives and deaths on ABC’s Lost, a big caveat is needed. By the end of the show, who really knows what the heck happened. Did a character really die? Was that an alternate timeline? Did they go back in time? Who knows. But early on in the series, death seemed pretty final and deaths were treated with the expected gravity and reverence. Until we got to Ana Lucia. As the leader of the other group of plane crash survivors, the main characters were very suspicious of her. Especially as she shot and killed Shannon, not knowing it was Shannon at the time. Nevertheless, she slowly integrates into the group until she is shockingly murdered in the bunker by Michael, who we would later learn had made a deal with the Others. What makes it even worse for Ana Lucia, though, is that Michael also kills Libby at the same time. Hugo is deeply affected by Libby’s death, but nobody was too attached to Ana Lucia. Between Hugo’s grief for Libby and everybody’s shock at Michael’s actions, we forget about Ana Lucia pretty quick.
3 Chris Conrad as Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
Turning video games into feature-length films is a practice with a spotty track record. That said, the first Mortal Kombat movie was pretty fun. Certainly not a work of art, but it’s an easy watch. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, however, is not. The sequel is awful and one of the many reasons for that is the casting. None of the actors who portrayed Raiden, Sonya Blade, or Johnny Cage in the first film returned. Presumably, the director thought these were too many new actors and somebody had to go. And that somebody was Johnny Cage. In the opening minutes of the sequel, which takes place mere minutes after the first movie ends, Johnny Cage --a major character in the franchise-- is killed by the new villain, Shao Khan. Sonya feels guilty, but mostly his death is just used to write off the character. Lame.
2 Samuel L. Jackson as Ray Arnold in Jurassic Park
It seems as though Sam Jackson has been in almost half of all the movies ever made. And it seems he’s died in about half of those. But in no other film does he play such an important character with such a forgettable death as he does in Jurassic Park. Ray Arnold is intelligent, acerbic and brave. He is the chief engineer of the park and is loyal and principled, in contrast with the computer programmer Dennis Nedry. And like Nedry, Arnold dies, but unlike Nedry’s infamous death in the rain at the hands --err, at the neck frill?-- of a dilophosaurus, we do not see Arnold’s death. Arnold offers to head out into the dinosaur-patrolled park to the maintenance shed to complete the rebooting process. A few scenes later, Dr. Ellie Sattler takes refuge in the shed, only to find Arnold’s severed arm. And that’s the last he’s referenced. Nobody seems to spare a thought for this brave man’s death.
1 Shannon Purser as Barb Holland in Stranger Things
Sometimes the obvious answers are obvious for a reason. And this list simply had to end with poor Barb Holland from Stranger Things. Barb’s death and the massive indifference with which it was met by the rest of the characters on the hit Netflix series grew to be so infamous that it had to become a popular meme online and a running gag in the media. Sure, Nancy Wheeler is concerned about Barb’s whereabouts. But she doesn’t even tell anybody that Barb is missing at first for fear of outing herself for being at Steve’s party. After that, she feels guilty. But she’s far more involved with helping her brother, his friends, and Eleven get Will Byers back. As is the rest of the town. Joyce Byers and Police Chief Jim Hopper even venture into the Upside Down to rescue Will. And they do. And then do they look for Barb? Nope. Everybody just moves on, happy that Will is back. It’s like they didn’t even notice she died.