TV has long relied on a shocking death now and then to shake up fans. One of the earliest examples was when Henry Blake of M*A*S*H seemingly had a good send-off only to have it revealed his plane had crashed in the ocean. It’s continued today as more than one show loves to play with fans’ expectations by killing characters off quite often. Sometimes they can be heartbreaking, other times just a fast turn but they always leave fans asking why. In some cases, it’s obvious such as when an actor has to leave without warning. Sometimes, the shock isn’t that great. For example, while TV viewers of Game of Thrones were taken aback at some of the deaths, those who read the books that the show was based on knew they were coming. Likewise, The Walking Dead comic readers expect some of the show’s deaths. Yet some deaths can really take you by surprise and make you wonder why they happened.
In a few cases, the deaths have unique stories. The reason for the departure isn’t as obvious as it seems, not an easy case of an actor leaving. There’s also how the death was planned out as some departures were set up much further back than most fans thought and the producers sneaky in how they covered them up. There are the reactions of both the actors and the showrunners that can differ from what fans thought. And there are turns involving the after effects of the death and how they shift a show. There have been a lot of such cases but here are a few that stand out from the pack. Here are 15 major TV deaths that have surprising backstories and you may look at the events in a new light knowing the truth behind them.
Quite obviously, SPOILER ALERT for every one of these shows.
15 Arrow Death Created A Hit Spin-off
While it had been good in the first year, the second season of Arrow was when the show took off. It used the DC mythos well, especially when hero Oliver Queen finds himself aided by a mysterious woman called the Canary. She turns out to be Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), Oliver’s ex-girlfriend who he believed long dead. Lotz impressed everyone with her action, how she filled the outfit and especially when it turned out she was bisexual. Her humor and sass made her a winner for fans and she seemed primed for more action in the third season. Instead, the premiere had Sara be shot with an arrow and take a fall off a building, dying instantly. The mystery of her death would hang for a while before it turned out to be a brainwashed Thea Queen.
The backlash was much greater than the producers had anticipated. They thought it served the story as Sara’s death would press his sister Laurel (Katie Cassidy) to train herself and eventually become a new Black Canary. Yet fans loved Lotz a lot more in the role and the anger over her callous death remained. Thus, the producers decided to not only bring her back but build a show around her and other characters. They had her resurrected via a magical pit although still shaken. This led to Sara becoming the central character of the spin-off Legends of Tomorrow and eventually the team leader. So by making an unpopular move, the Arrow writers helped set up an even better showcase for Sara.
14 House’s “Shocking” Death Was Actually Obvious
Fox’s House focused on Hugh Laurie as an arrogant but brilliant doctor using his ace skills to solve seemingly impossible medical cases. The show was clever bouncing things around, including when House takes on a new group of intern doctors. Among them was Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn), a bright and eager man orphaned as a youth. Penn used his usual humor for the role, his character always bright and cheerful and eager to please, putting up with needling from House on being so perky. Without any warning, after a season and a half, Kutner was found dead in his own home when his friends come to check on him. At first, House is convinced he was murdered but it soon becomes clear that Kutner killed himself.
The obvious reason for the exit was that Kal Penn got a job working at the White House and had to leave. The producers thought that just having him leave for another hospital wasn’t gripping enough and talked with Penn in setting up the arc. It was shown how Kutner was more tense and distracted than usual in episodes and how his overeager nature was hurting him. They were inspired by real stories of how doctors commit suicide as they can’t cope with the pressure of having to be right so often. As for the lack of a note, the truth is most suicides don’t leave a note. They wanted to showcase how signs to such an event aren’t obvious and yet there when you look back. It was a gripping moment as House, who prides himself on having all the answers, couldn’t figure out how this happened and made Penn’s exit a daring one.
13 Dexter Killed Off Beloved Character For Finale Filler
From its start, Dexter enthralled fans with its dark humor and gripping storylines. Michael C. Hall played the title character, a serial killer who only hunts other killers. He was acclaimed for making both roles work, including his relationship with Rita (Julie Benz), a struggling single mom. They were eventually married as Dexter continued his work. This included the acclaimed fifth season as Dexter and Trinity (John Lithgow) play a deadly game before Dexter kills his foe. But returning home, Dexter finds that Trinity left a gruesome present: Rita lying dead in a tub of blood.
It was shocking to fans as Rita had been a great source of light in an otherwise dark show. Not helping was how creator Clyde Phillips admitted they’d basically killed her off because they needed something for the finale. They had painted themselves into a corner and needed to spark it up and felt killing Rita was just the thing. Phillips admitted Benz didn’t take it very well but went through with it although she admitted she nearly had a breakdown losing a part she loved. The show lasted a few more seasons but most fans admit that Rita’s death was a serious turning point in its quality, leading to a much-loathed finale. So in creating some filler for their finale, the show’s writers helped set up its demise.
12 The Shield Made Fans Think Murder Victim Was Key Cast Member
Few shows have changed television like The Shield has. This FX drama showed that broadcast cable could provide the same cutting-edge drama as HBO and paved the way for Mad Men, Breaking Bad and so many other acclaimed series. The promos showcased Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey, leader of an elite police unit in Los Angeles. It promised an edgy drama of Vic bending rules but still great on the job. The pilot had Reed Diamond as Terry Crowley, a cop assigned to Vic’s Strike Team to look into possible stealing from drug busts. The episode showed them bantering, each testing the other and fans expected the show to have a cat and mouse game between the duo. This was why jaws dropped when the final scene had Vic taking advantage of a drug bust to shoot Terry in the face.
It was an epic moment that would show that Vic wasn’t the cliché rule-bending cop but outright corrupt and willing to kill to cover his tracks. Creator Shawn Ryan wanted to sucker fans into thinking the show was going one way, and then pull the rug out from under them with Terry’s death. He cast Diamond, well known for his work on the show Homicide and had him listed third in the opening credits. Diamond played along, talking in interviews about the show and what he would do and promising his character would play a major part in things. He was right on that as the pilot made the show a must-see and won Chiklis an Emmy, setting up how The Shield would turn cop shows on their ear.
11 Downton Abbey Was Put In A Bind
Here’s proof the British can run into as much difficulty with stars and storylines as U.S. programs. Downton Abbey had been a success in England but turned into a phenomenon in the U.S. Viewers just loved this take on an upscale British estate seen through the eyes of both the rich family and their servants. The show had been built around young Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) as he inherits a title and soon rising as future lord of the manor. He and Lady Mary (Michele Dockery) were clearly into each other but neither willing to go through with it due to society rules. Eventually, love won out and their wedding episode was a huge ratings hit. The show seemed ready to build more as a Christmas special had Mary giving birth to their child. But on his way back from the hospital, Matthew was in an accident and the season ended with the camera focusing on his dead body.
This was the sad but brutal truth that the producers were in a bind. Despite how he had been made an international star by the show, Stevens suddenly decided to leave the show and explore movie options. Given how huge Matthew was to the mythos and how he’d just become a father, having him written off heading to America or such, wouldn’t play with fans. Creator Julian Fellowes made it clear he was just as upset as fans as the writers had planned plenty of stories about Matthew and Mary raising a family. However, killing the character off was the only option with Stevens gone. Abbey would survive a few more years yet this shows how a show built on British charm hit an ugly speedbump.
10 The Wire Had To Kill A Character To Send The Right Message
HBO’s gripping drama The Wire has been hailed as one of the best TV shows ever. Examining Baltimore through several police investigations, the series showcases how society has failed with schools, media, politics and more. Throughout the series, a major character was Stringer Bell, a charismatic drug lord played by Idris Elba. For the first three seasons, Bell was shown ruthlessly growing his brand, taking on rivals, clashing with politicians and more while remaining an educated and intelligent man. Thanks to Elba’s wonderful performance, the character grew in popularity to the point where some fans were openly rooting for him. Thus, it was stunning when the penultimate episode of the third season had Bell ambushed by Omar Little and shot dead. Fans were outraged as they felt his story had a lot more to tell.
As it turns out, the fact the character was getting so popular was the reason for his death. Creator David Simon had become concerned about how fans were openly rooting for a murderous drug lord as the “hero” of the show. He was joined by Elba himself as the actor had taken the role assuming Bell would have to die. Indeed, it’s rumored the writers did want to do more but Elba put his foot down, saying that Stringer had to die to show that the life of a drug lord wasn’t glamorous but meant for a bad end. It was much the same reason Omar himself was killed in a shootout in the final season; Simon wanted to show that the life of a criminal wasn’t a noble one but a harsh life that meant a harsh end. It was brutal but fitting for the dark drama.
9 24 Wasn’t Going To Kill Teri
From the beginning, 24 was hailed as must-watch TV. Taking the daring idea of a “real-time” TV series told over 24 episodes, the show was soon known for its daring action, gripping drama and Kiefer Sutherland’s tough performance as Jack Bauer. Through the season, he tries to stop an assassination attempt while also saving his family, including wife Teri (Leslie Hope). The season finale produced one final shocking twist as Jack discovers his ex-lover Nina is actually a mole for the bad guys who kidnaps Teri. Viewers expected that Jack would have a race against time but finally manage to rescue his wife. Instead, while Nina is captured, Jack discovers Teri is already dead and the season ends with him crying over her body.
Originally, however, this wasn’t the plan. Indeed, the season DVD (one of the first TV shows to really use the DVD format) showed the alternate ending where Jack rescues Teri and they leave with daughter Kim. But during post-production, the show-runners just felt there had to be one final turn, that having Jack win was too cliché. Thus, they felt having Jack beat Nina but lose Teri was the perfect tragic touch to it all. It ended up working as viewers were rocked but critics loved the move and it added more to the season. It also ended up being a driving force for Jack in the following years and capped off the first year of one of TV’s best dramas in a fantastic way.
8 POI “Leaked” The Wrong Character’s Death
Starting off as just a crime procedural, Person of Interest morphed into a gripping sci-fi tale. The show focused on a millionaire and a black ops soldier who use a special “Machine” that predicts crimes before they happen. The first season was dominated by main character Reese pursued by detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) but they soon became allies. Henson was great with her sass and attitude as Carter takes on HR, a powerful group of corrupt cops. It built to a major storyline in the third season as Carter and Reese end up taking HR down. Carter leaves the police station with a smile talking to Reese only to have one last HR agent open fire with Carter dying in Reese’s arms.
What made the move so shocking was that images had been leaked online of Carter’s partner, Fusco, being the one lying bloody in the streets with Reese, thus indicating he was going to die. It turned out the producers had shot that alternate scene then “leaked” the pictures just to sucker fans into expecting Carter to live. It was a sneaky move but it worked with the show exploring the aftereffects of her death. Henson herself doesn’t mind as it freed her up to become Cookie on Empire. It just shows how the POI producers could be just as sneaky tricking the fans as in their storylines.
7 Actress Had To Leave NCIS To Avoid A Breakdown
While it started off with a clunky title, NCIS soon managed to establish itself as a hit for CBS. Helping push procedural dramas, viewers soon grew to love the cast with Mark Harmon in the lead solving military crimes. Sasha Alexander was introduced in the pilot as Kate Todd, a Secret Service agent who joins the team and handled it well. From action scenes to bantering with Michael Weatherly and even a few hot outfits now and then, Alexander was terrific. That’s why fans were so jarred when the final scene of the second season had the team tracking a deadly terrorist, and Kate getting shot in the chest. She winces as she talks of how happy she is to be wearing a Kevlar vest... and then a bullet rips right into her forehead.
The showrunners worked fast to have the story put out with Alexander stating it was her choice to leave. The actress had underestimated the grind of a weekly TV series, particularly one using a lot of stunt work. She was feeling massively burned out, suffering exhaustion and worried it could get even worse. Thus, Alexander went to the producers and said she wanted to go out in a big way to ensure they couldn’t get her back later. Alexander did hang around for the third season premiere to have a ghostly Kate bid goodbye to the team before going. The show would continue to run into the most-watched series on TV and after a few years off, Alexander returned in the much lighter cable hit Rizzoli & Isles. It worked okay for both as far better to lose the character than the actress.
6 Shonda Rhimes Doesn’t Get The Big Deal Of Killing McDreamy
It’s not like Grey’s Anatomy hasn’t been daring enough to kill off characters before. But this was something else entirely. In the 21st episode of the eleventh season, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) gets hit by a car while helping an accident victim. Fans expected drama of course with him being tended to but a sense of foreboding came as it became clear the arrogant surgeon on hand had no idea how to properly tend to Derek. Yet when it was announced he was brain dead, fans just gaped, more so as wife Meredith signs the papers to shut off his life support. The outrage was huge as Derek had been a key to the show with his relationship with Meredith the backbone of the hit drama and to have him killed off like this was jarring. It was a shock to Dempsey too as he had just signed a new contract and couldn’t believe creator Shonda Rhimes had bumped him off like this.
A huge backlash began with many viewers declaring that as far as they were concerned, the show was over without Derek. This seemed to come as a total surprise to Rhimes herself. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Rhimes said she was astounded at the reaction and even the line on how Derek had been Meredith’s “soulmate.” Rhimes stated she had a far harder time when Sandra Oh left the show, honestly thinking it couldn’t go on without Christine as “she was Meredith’s soulmate.” As it happens, Grey’s has managed to not only survive but grow in ratings since McDreamy’s passing yet it intrigues how Rhimes couldn’t grasp what fuss killing a major character would create.
5 Jane The Virgin Planned Michael's Death From Day One
While it had some wild comedic elements, the CW’s Jane the Virgin was also meant to model telenovelas in wild twists. The title character (Gina Rodriguez) is accidentally artificially inseminated and finds herself having to choose between long-time policeman boyfriend Michael (Brett Dier) and the father of her baby. Fans also chose sides as to which guy was better with Jane bouncing between both but finally marrying Michael in the second season finale. But, in a typical wild twist for the show, Michael was shot by a drug dealer on his way to the honeymoon suite. The third season had him doing a slow recovery but still helping Jane raise their child. However, with no warning, the tenth episode of the season had Michael collapsing from the aftereffects of the shooting and dying. Before fans could even react, the show jumped three years into the future with Jane attending a wedding.
While fans were angered and wondering if this was a firing, it turned out that Michael’s death had been planned since the start of the show. Indeed, in his first appearance, the show’s narrator noted how “Michael would love Jane until his dying breath,” a deliberate hint the writers knew fans would miss. Showrunner Jennie Urman stated they put the line in “just to make sure we’d go through with it.” They’d even considered killing him off earlier but decided it was better to wait until after the wedding, tease fans with his recovery and then show Jane trying to handle life without him. While fans are upset, the fact is that killing Michael had been the plan all along and how well the writers had things set up.
4 The Actress Forced Nashville To Make A Tragic Exit
One of the newer entries on this list and a shocking one although it shouldn’t have been. Nashville started off in 2012 as one of the best new shows on ABC, focusing on the battle between country music superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton) and rising rival Juliette Barnes (Hayden Pannettiere). The show had a good start but many fans noted it got a bit too much in terms of soap opera antics with too many characters coming and going. Late in its fourth season, the show got a new creative staff who promised a “back to basics” approach. It was canceled by ABC but revived for a new season by CMT. Britton had hinted she wouldn’t be around for all of it but most thought they would write her off with Rayna going on tour as she had plots like dealing with a stalker and issues with her daughter.
As it happened, Britton wanted the exit to be a lot more permanent. As she told the showrunners, she loved the series but just felt after four years there wasn’t anything more she could do with Rayna. She worked with the writers on ideas but they all realized there was no logical way to have Rayna just leave her family like that. Thus, a seemingly run of the mill car accident turned into a dark twist as a seemingly okay Rayna turned out to succumb to internal injuries. It’s a major turn for the series with the fans in shock at losing the central character and interested in how things would go on. The fact was that it was Britton who forced Nashville to take on the tragedy of a country song.
3 Arrow Only Decided Who Would Die At The Last Minute
You’d think the Arrow writers would have learned from killing Black Canary the first time. The final scene of the fourth season premiere had Oliver standing at a grave in mourning, hinting a major character would die at the hands of villain Damien Darkh. It was kept up with teases as fans were thrown to discover the victim wasn’t the logical suspect of Oliver’s then-girlfriend Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). The key episode came as Darkh decided to “send a message” to former ally Quinten Lance by stabbing his daughter Laurel (Katie Cassidy) with an arrow. She seemed okay but then died at the hospital later on with everyone mourning.
It was a stunning turn with fans outraged as Laurel (a major character since the start of the show) wasn’t killed in a fight or a blaze of glory but murdered to send a message. The anger just threw when the show-runners confessed that they had come up with the grave opening with no idea at the time would be in it. The idea of starting such an epic storyline without a clear idea of how to end it was jarring as it meant any growth for Laurel that season was tossed out just for a cheap stunt. The series seemed to recently resurrect Laurel but it turns out to really be her evil double from another Earth and a new character has taken on the role of Black Canary. But to many fans, this dismissal of a beloved character at the last minute was one of the worst moves Arrow has ever made.
2 Zombies Forced The 100 To Kill Its Most Popular Character
In its second season, The 100 transformed into a critically acclaimed hit drama. Set a century after a nuclear war devastated Earth, youths from a space station are sent to try and rebuild the planet. It turns out there were survivors who organized into various tribes. One was led by Lexa, played by Alycia Debnam-Carey, who instantly won fans over with her tough demeanor and leadership. Even hotter was that Lexa and main heroine Clarke (Eliza Taylor) were soon bantering and even sharing a hot kiss. Circumstances led them to a break-up but the third season promised to push them back together. However, Debnam-Carey was also a cast member of Fear the Walking Dead and in 2015, Dead suddenly decided to push up shooting their new season, meaning Debnam-Carey would be unavailable for at least half of 100’s third season. Knowing keeping her on the sidelines wasn’t good, the producers made a daring decision.
In a powerful episode, Clarke and Lexa finally have the love scene fans had waited for. And almost immediately afterward, Lexa takes a random bullet to the gut meant for Clarke and dies in her arms. The fans were outraged, even issuing death threats on show-runner Jason Rothenberg who defended it that there was just no way to put Lexa aside because of Fear’s schedule. To many, the real issue was how her death had been so sudden and stupid and derided it badly. Thankfully, the season finale had a scene of Clarke in a virtual world where Lexa’s spirit defends her, sharing a final kiss before battling enemies to save Clarke. It was the sacrifice fans had wanted and soothed some of the anger. However, as far as 100 fans are concerned, Fear is massively hated for robbing them of such a beloved character thanks to bad timing.
1 The Good Wife Hid They Were Killing Someone For A Year
CBS’ The Good Wife was well known for some dramatic twists and turns. The fifth season (which most consider the best) had been doing great with the storyline of Alicia (Julianna Margulies) creating her own firm. That made her an enemy of former boss/boyfriend Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and spiced up the series with their fights in the courtroom. Fans expected some drama with the show entering the final episodes of the season. What no one expected was that a shooting would occur at a courthouse with Will caught in the crossfire. Co-workers Diane and Kalinda showed up at the hospital to check on him… only to find Will lying dead on a stretcher. It was completely out of left field and rocked viewers… just like the producers had planned for a year.
In an industry where gossip abounds, it was nothing short of stunning that when Josh Charles told the producers he wanted to leave the show in 2013, no one knew about it. He felt that the character had done enough with a hook-up with Alicia and wanted to explore other roles. Realizing they had something on their hands, the producers and Margulies managed to keep Charles’ exit completely quiet. Charles did interviews making it sound as if he was still on the show long-term, talking finale plans and more, giving no indications he was going. Thus, his death was a true shock to insiders as well as viewers. Charles did return for some dream sequences, including the series finale, and his choice to leave provided Wife with one of its most talked of moments ever.
Sources: TV Tropes, Entertainment Weekly
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