There’s nothing quite like the death of an important character on television. It can feel as devastating and catastrophic as losing a loved one in real life (I’m still mourning the death of Hopper on Stranger Things, which actually turned out to be fake). A death can change the course of an entire series for ever.
The most recent loss is of Logan Roy, the draconian boss of Succession‘s Waystar Royco who had no problem with telling his own children to “f*** off” every five minutes. His death will change the course of the fourth and final season of the show irrevocably and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
But his is far from the first death to change the future of a TV show. Sometimes a main character death can redefine a series, giving it new life and opening up new storylines. Others suffer from the loss and never recover, destined to forever languish in the shadow of their former glory days.
Here are the most shocking deaths in TV history and how they impacted the rest of the series.
Logan Roy — Succession
Cause of death: TBC, possible heart attack.
Shock factor: We knew it was coming at one point or another — Logan (Brian Cox) nearly carked it in the very first episode of season one — but Succession still managed to make the death of the Roy family “beast” into a staggering TV event. That it happened in episode three of the last ever series rather than the finale (a la Breaking Bad or The Sopranos) was a bold move by creator Jesse Armstrong, but one that has given the series a new sense of urgency as it reaches its crescendo. He might be gone, but his legacy will loom large over his children, who are bound to see his death as a business opportunity. 9/10.
Show survival rate: Not great. Succession is coming to an end for good after season four, though the remaining episodes have promise even without Logan. He is not, after all, the so-called “main character” of the piece and there are far more entertaining and interesting (read: awful) members of the Roy family to fill the last seven episodes. He will be missed, but likely not for long.
Gus Fring — Breaking Bad
Cause of death: Pipe bomb explosion.
Shock factor: By the season finale of season four of Breaking Bad, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) was the show’s bad guy and there was only one way Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) were going to escape the clutches of his drug operation. To get rid of the chicken shop drug baron once and for all, Walt worked with Gus’s nemesis Hector (Mark Margolis) to fix a pipe bomb to his wheelchair, which he would detonate by ringing his bell when Gus next visited his care home. What was more shocking was the gruesome image of Gus emerging from the wreckage with half his face blown off before keeling over and succumbing to his injuries. 7/10.
Show survival rate: Breaking Bad went on for just one more season, though its end had little to do with Gus’s death. In fact, it paved the way for Walter to become the biggest drug dealer on the block and giving the DEA evidence to track him down.
Ned Stark — Game of Thrones
Cause of death: Beheading.
Shock factor: For those who had read George R R Martin’s first A Song of Ice and Fire before watching Game of Thrones, the murder of Eddard Stark wasn’t a shock at all. For the rest of us, it was a brutal slaughter of a well-liked character and an eye-opening glimpse into just how murderous this show was going to be (the infamous Red Wedding would come two seasons later). But perhaps we should have noticed the writing was on the wall from before the show even began — Ned was played by Sean Bean, after all, an actor who dies in almost every series and film he’s cast in. 5/10.
Show survival rate: Ned was killed on Joffrey’s orders at the end of season one. Not only did the drama carry on for another seven seasons (some better than others), it went on to become one of the most watched and celebrated TV shows in history. Sorry Ned.
Derek Shepherd — Grey’s Anatomy
Cause of death: Car crash.
Shock factor: Derek Shepherd AKA McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) was one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s biggest characters and served as an on-off love interest for — and then husband to — main character Dr Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) since the very first episode. Surely they wouldn’t kill off such a huge part of the show 11 seasons in? How wrong we were. After helping the victims of a car crash out of the wreckage, Derek was himself hit by a truck and pronounced brain dead on arrival at hospital. Tragically, he was the only brain surgeon who would have been able to save himself. Looking back, his death was signposted clearly: Dempsey had already revealed he was leaving the show and it was the first episode written by Shonda Rhimes since the season eight finale, a sure indication that something big was about to happen. 7/10.
Show survival rate: Eight years on and Grey’s Anatomy is still airing, though it’s never been the same since Derek died — Dempsey’s exit seemed to open the floodgates for other actors to say their goodbyes to Grey’s. Even Pompeo is leaving the cast after the current 19th series and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t last for much longer. If anyone is still watching, however, there’s definitely going to be a season 20.
Matthew “Dot” Cottan — Line of Duty
Cause of death: Gunshot.
Shock factor: Dot (Craig Parkinson) was revealed to be part of Line of Duty‘s OCG led by the mysterious “H” in series three, though few of us could have predicted he’d end up on a cold slab by the end. After being broken out of custody in the AC-12 building, he was pursued by Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) who shot the driver of his getaway car. Emerging from the car wreckage, Dot noticed his co-conspirator was about to shoot Kate and jumped in front of the bullet before she was killed. It was certainly an unexpected death, but it would have been more shocking had Kate been on the receiving end of the gunfire. 7/10.
Show survival rate: Dot’s death bed declaration revealing details of other police officers involved in the OCG was crucial to future series of Line of Duty, so it turns out his death was absolutely necessary. And while series six fell off at the end, the show certainly didn’t suffer from the loss of Dot.
Marissa Cooper — The OC
Cause of death: Car crash.
Shock factor: The image of Ryan (Ben McKenzie) carrying the body of his on-off girlfriend Marissa (Mischa Barton) from a burning car crash to the soundtrack of Imogen Heap’s cover of “Hallelujah” has never left me despite it first airing in 2006. The pair had graduated earlier on in the episode, only for them to be run off the road by Marissa’s ex-boyfriend Kevin Volchok (Cam Gigandet). The OC had never killed off one of its main characters before, so the death of Marissa was a huge shock and incredibly sad. A whole generation of TV lovers is still not over it. 10/10.
Show survival rate: It’s no secret that The OC struggled to survive after Mischa Barton said farewell and Marissa’s romance with Ryan no longer anchored the show. It only lasted for one more season and it was later revealed that Marissa’s death was Barton’s idea — she claims to have been bullied by some men on set and wasn’t comfortable with the lack of protection she was receiving as her fame level grew. Sounds like Marissa’s death was for the best.
Cassie Stuart — Unforgotten
Cause of death: Car crash.
Shock factor: No-one knew Nicola Walker was going to leave the ITV1 police drama she had led alongside Sanjeev Bhaskar since 2015, so her character’s death was a huge shock. She was hit by a car (seemingly a popular way to go in the world of TV) at the end of series four, and the final episode kept us on tenterhooks as to whether she was going to wake up in hospital or not. She didn’t and the ensuing scenes of grief from Sunny (Bhaskar) were heartbreaking. Unforgotten is one of those cop shows that could have run forever with the same format. To kill off Cassie was brave and unexpected, and a sign that the show isn’t ready to fade into obscurity. 8/10.
Show survival rate: It’s still early days, but the first series post-Walker has just come to an end and it looks like Unforgotten will be able to continue without Cassie. Her replacement, Sinéad Keenan as DCI Jessica James, is more than capable of picking up the mantle a sixth series has already been given the green light.
Mark Greene — ER
Cause of death: Brain tumour.
Shock factor: Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) had been the heart and moral core of NBC’s medical drama ER for eight years before he died – the only member of the original cast to die during the course of the series. His death in “On the Beach” wasn’t particularly shocking, but it was devastating. Mark had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in the previous seventh season, so his deterioration was dragged out for months before he finally said goodbye while on holiday in Hawaii with his teenage daughter Rachel (Hallee Hirsh). 3/10.
Show survival rate: Without Mark, ER needed a new central character to hold the ensemble together – that was John Carter (Noah Wyle) for a few years, until he left, when Abby Lockhart and Luka Kovac became the focus points. Mark Greene’s death was the end of an era, but the series kept reinventing and ran for seven more seasons. Ratings started to decline around season 11 and the show came to an end in 2009 with a 15th series. To demonstrate just how important Mark was to ER, he came back to the show via flashback scenes.
Nicholas Brody — Homeland
Cause of death: Hanging.
Shock factor: I’m surely not alone in thinking that Homeland would never actually kill off Brody (Damian Lewis), even when he was being kept captive in a drug house and injecting heroin. But when he was given up by the CIA in a deal with “The Magician”, Iranian intelligence officer Javadi, Brody was declared an enemy of the state and hung in a public square while Carrie (Claire Danes) watched on. It wasn’t the circumstances of Brody’s death that shook the Homeland audience, more that the writers had the gall to kill him off at all — until then, the entire premise of the show had hinged on whether the former soldier was a terrorist or not. 7/10.
Show survival rate: Without Brody, Homeland became aimless and ratings began to steadily decline until the eighth and final season in 2020. The broader scope of subsequent series and a great performance from Danes simply wasn’t enough to keep it as relevant and exciting as it once was.
Poussey Washington — Orange Is the New Black
Cause of death: Suffocated.
Shock factor: Poussey (Samira Wiley) was far and away my favourite OITNB inmate and her death was not only unexpected, but utterly heartbreaking. During a protest against guard Piscatella’s treatment of the prisoners, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) became upset and Poussey tried to comfort her. Piscatella (Brad William Henke) ordered another guard to take Suzanne to the psychiatric cells and in the struggle Poussey was put on the ground and kneeled on. Not only was Poussey’s death shocking in the context of the show, it was also a direct reference to the murder of Eric Garner in 2014 — both Poussey and Garner said “I can’t breathe” as they were killed by officers of the law. 10/10.
Show survival rate: Orange Is the New Black carried on for another three seasons after Poussey’s death and used her story as a springboard to explore themes of institutional racism and the power dynamics between the guards and prisoners. While season five was a little confused, the final two series of OITNB were fantastic television.
Matthew Crawley — Downton Abbey
Cause of death: Car crash.
Shock factor: If we’re talking about unexpected deaths, the demise of Matthew (Dan Stevens) is certainly up there. Having successfully survived the Great War and recently become a father with his wife Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), he had lots to look forward to. But on the way to Downton to tell his family about the birth of his son, he swerved off the road to avoid a truck, rolling his car and dying instantly. To add insult to injury, the episode was a Christmas special, usually reserved for jolly singsongs around a warming fire, not a tragic premature demise. 8/10.
Show survival rate: Downton continued for another three series and despite a falling number of viewers, held on to its core fanbase. It became an international hit, particularly loved in America, and has had two film adaptations (though reviews of the movies have been less favourable than for the series…).
John Shelby — Peaky Blinders
Cause of death: Gunshot.
Shock factor: Things were going so well for John (Joe Cole) in the fourth series of Peaky Blinders — he’d settled down with his wife Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) with their children in a gorgeous country estate. But then he received the Black Hand from the Italian Changretta mob family, and we knew his days were numbered. After he missed a phone call from his brother Tommy (Cillian Murphy) warning him to flee, the Changrettas ambushed his house, shooting him dead and injuring his cousin Michael (Finn Cole). John was the life and soul of the Shelbys, bringing a much needed sense of mischief to Steven Knight’s gangster drama. We might have been warned he was in trouble, but that doesn’t make his death any less sad. 7/10.
Show survival rate: As much as I hate to say it, Peaky Blinders carried on fine without John. Sorry.