Why Character Deaths are Sometimes Key to Good TV

This article contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Lost, as well as Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Season 1 of Heroes. Comments may reveal spoilers for other series. Read at your own discretion.

Tuesday night’s episode of Lost destroyed me. I’m talking heaving sobs, rocking in the fetal position destroyed—and I really shouldn’t be admitting this in a public forum, huh? Oh, well. I know I’m not the only one: countless fellow viewers have confided similar cry fests. We may be grieving fictional characters, but we’re still grieving.

And yet, I really enjoyed the episode. It felt good to let it all out, and to know that Lost still has the power to move me. At the risk of sounding like a sadomasochist, I have to say, I’m a fan of character death. It hurts, sure, but it also resonates more than almost anything else a show’s writers can do. It raises the stakes of the drama, reminding viewers that nothing is permanent and any of their beloved characters might soon bite in. It also gives a taste of the grieving process—it’s rough, but it’s certainly easier to swallow than the real thing. In the same way that we want to see our favorite couple make it work, we want to see our heroes fall. Not because we’re cruel, but because we want to feel.

Lost isn’t the only show to shock us with deaths, though it’s certainly one of the most effective. There’s quality, but there’s also quantity: Tuesday’s episode dispatched four series regulars. (If you count Lapidus. I won’t believe it until I see a body.) To me, the episode felt very Joss Whedon—he also enjoys mingling short, brutal deaths with lingering, emotional goodbyes. On Lost, we barely had time to catch our breath after Sayid and perhaps Lapidus were killed, while we got a drawn-out scene of Sun and Jin deciding to die together. Whedon would be especially fond of the latter, since he also torments fans by bringing people together, only to kill them moments later.

I want to focus on Whedon, because—with all due respect to Lost creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse—he’s still the king of character death. Let’s look at Season 6 of Buffy, specifically the episode “Seeing Red,” which offers many of the show’s darkest moments. The last scene is (no pun intended) a killer: Supervillain Warren shows up with a gun and fires in Buffy’s general direction. She’s hit but survives. It’s innocent bystander Tara, Willow’s girlfriend of two seasons, who takes a bullet and dies. Willow crumples in tears, begging Tara to come back, and the audience sits with dropped jaws and, yes, wet cheeks.

Tara’s death is still at the front of my mind whenever I think about character death—eight years later, it remains one of TV’s most effective and painful fatalities. Here’s why it worked: 1. It was shocking. Tara wasn’t even Warren’s intended target, so Whedon caught us by surprise. 2. It advanced the plot. Tara’s death had severe consequences for all the characters, but especially for Willow. She went from loyal friend to an evil witch bent on destroying the world. 3. It wasn’t undone. For character deaths to carry real weight, we have to believe them. When Warren killed Tara on Buffy, Tara stayed dead. That’s rough, but consider the alternative: Bringing her back, even if only to appease fans, would have majorly diminished the impact of the initial death. Not that the series didn’t sometimes play with resurrections—hello, Buffy died, like, all the time—but the deaths that stay with us are the ones that stick.

Contrast Tara’s death on Buffy to any number of deaths on Heroes, a show infamous for bringing characters back from beyond the veil. The first season was great TV, and built up to a big finish: Finally, Sylar would be vanquished. But apparently a sword through the gut wasn’t sufficient. Sylar returned, and so did a number of characters who should have died but didn’t. These “fake-out deaths” may fit with the show’s comic-book feel—that genre is full of characters who don’t stay dead—but it took a toll on the series. While I’ll admit that I stopped caring about Heroes for a variety of reasons, the are-they-dead-or-aren’t-they thing was a major factor. It was clear that death didn’t mean much, so I began to greet it with a shrug. On a show that’s supposed to be sweeping and epic, that’s a problem.

I’m sure we’ll see more death before Lost’s finale—and not just on Lost. Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Ausiello recently posted a May Sweeps Scorecard with the promise of 18 (!) character deaths. (Be advised—that link also contains spoilers, for Cougar Town, 24, and NCIS: LA.) Here’s hoping the farewells are handled as gracefully as Jin and Sun’s, so that we can grieve, reflect, and move on. When it’s done well, character death hurts, but it hurts so good.

How do you feel about TV character deaths? Which ones have shocked, saddened, or angered you the most?


Follow TV.com writer Louis Peitzman on Twitter: @LouisAtTVDotCom

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I was so incredibly sad when Tara died. I loved Tara and she was so fantastic with Willow. But, you're right, the death was handled VERY well. I was even more distraught over Anya's death in the series finale - I loved Anya so much and then she was just quickly killed and about thirty seconds of airtime was committed to mourning her death.
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Totallly agree with tibby13 about Freddy on Skins. That was a total shock.
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Tara's death was awesome because I hated that character. I was more effected by the death of Buffy's mom. Whedon has had some good deaths with Buffy (and a few characters in Angel) but I think LOST has surpassed them. While we can name only a few great deaths with Joss' show, we can name TONS of great deaths of main characters on LOST
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no spoilers, but the second to last ep in Sarah Connor Chronicles... *that* was out of the blue, totally punched me in the gut. And did anyone else end up sobbing at the death of the lone gunmen in x-files?
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Tara's death was a classic. Cuddles to Joss Whedon. Now don't even start talking about Heroes.. that thing stopped been good a long time ago..
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i agree, tara's death was huge but a death that still haunts me is freddy on skins. god i did not see that coming! and the way he died... so brutal!
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TV is and was a central part of my youth and life. Watching the news of Henry Blake's death on MASH was a shock that I still think about to this day. TV characters can be thought of as family. We are asked to invest our time and emotions into these shows and the fictional lives they create. I hope that shows continue to touch others with well drawn characters that we want to welcome into our families.
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you said the deaths that stay with us are the ones that stick. i disagree with you Louis when you started to talk about Buffy i thought you are going to talk about season 5 finale when Buffy died i didn't even remember Tara’s death and i am a huge fan of Buffy i watched the series more than 3 times but i consider Buffy death in season 5 one of the most epic death in the history of a series
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I have to agree with the commenter(s) below that no character death shocked me or moved me so much as Rita's death in Dexter. In retrospect, it was inevitable, but at the time....whoa! But you could also mention Kutner's suicide on House. The fact that it was completely out of left field and that there was no rhyme or reason to it actually made the moment more "real" than the deaths that deliver dramatic impact and tug at the heartstrings.
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Nate from Six Feet Under ... killing off the main character in the second to last episode of the series and the final 10 minutes of the series finale as they fast forward through all the characters' deaths ... best final moment they could possibly have done.
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Whedon does in indeed do death like nobody else. Tara for sure but also Joyce and Wash. All different and all piercing and full of impact. His deaths are not just one episode shockers with no consequences . They truly resonate in all aspects of the shows.
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Both Marian and Robin on BBC's Robin Hood, I hated that they died but I loved their death.
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How about Ryan Chappelle on 24? Of course, that was more a big moment for Jack. I didn't really like Chappelle all that much, but it was significant to see that Jack couldn't magically solve every problem in the nick of time.

The one that really left me heartbroken was Charlie on Lost. Charlie was my favorite character by far, and I admittedly cried myself to sleep that night.
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the most shocking one was ritas death in dexter one of the best episodes ever
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Oh and Dana from 24 (HOW COULD YOU JACK?!)
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Dom in NCIS: LA (bawled like a baby), Jenny in NCIS (actually, happy about that one), Bryce in Chuck (bawled again), Amber in House (oh my god greatest character death ever).
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Charlie in Lost; Lem in The Shield; Rita in Dexter
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Best death on TV is Lt Col Henry Blake. The look of Hawkeye, Trapper and the rest was very real because the writers and the producers wrote it the last minute.
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I have to definitely agree wholeheartedly with Joss Whedon being the king of character deaths. Tara's death was big, as was the series finale with a couple other characters (Anya was the big one), and the death of Fred in Angel as well was even more bitter in my mind, despite the fact that she remained around in a fashion. And let's not forget the big character deaths in Serenity. Whedon has no problem killing your favorite character, and makes the show the richer for it. As a side note, the death in this finale of Dexter was another big shocker, and very well done. My brother and I stood slack jawed when we watched it, and I still find it gutwrenching when I rewatch the show.
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The death of the newest member of NCIS:LA, Rita on Dexter, Tara on Buffy,... I could list more.
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The ones that have meant the most to me: Doyle's and Fred's on Angel; Joyce's and Tara's on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; Rita's on Dexter; Walsh's on Firefly; Amber's on House; and Charlie's on Lost.
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Joss will never trumph the deaths in the finale of Angel, Wesley's in particular. Every time I get to that scene, I cry, you really feel that everything is coming to an end, and that's such a strong emotion. The deaths on the last Lost just had me laughing, which I know wasn't the response I should have gotten, but I only care for some of the characters there. Tara's death was great too, never really cared for Wash's death, because I saw it coming thanks to having seen every Joss show 10-20 times.
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what about PRISON BREAK ... Michael's death was the biggest in the tv history
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Weadon's brutal murder of Wash still haunts me. There was a character we loved and in the blink of an eye he was gone.

Another "death" which isn't technically a death was the finale of Doctor Who season 2. Rose is torn away from the Doctor. I stopped watching the show for two months because i was furious with the writers. I don't think i will ever truly forgive them.
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The death in Dexter's season 4 finale by far. It carried a lot of weight and was very moving. Amazing.
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Love death episodes! Buffy's mom's death is still one of the most painful yet enjoyable episodes of ANYTHING, for me. The same goes for (Winifred) Fred, on Angel, as well as Wesley, Cordy, and even Darla. You're right, Louis: Whedon does know how to do death. But there are other good ones. ;-)
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lem in shield
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24 has the best character deaths.

The intensity is insane, fearing which character may die in any given episode.

The only sure thing we know is Jack Bauer won't die. But THAT'S IT!
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Marcus on Babylon 5 is still "the death" a friend of mine and I talk about as the iconic TV death of our teens. Really, the scene where Ivanova is talking to the doctor and crying? I was sobbing at least twice as hard as the stupid, stupid woman. Talk about selfless unrequited love!
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Character death episodes are often the most remembered episodes. Killing Delores Landingham on The West Wing in the midst of the MS disclosures at the end of the second season brought more emotion in the characters, espeically Bartlet, than when Bartlet, himself, got shot. When Buffy killed Angel after he'd been reensouled at the end of season two was so gutwrenching (pun not intended) that I still get choked up when I watch reruns. When Virginia Hey left Farscape her death scene was so carefully played out that it didn't feel like an impact so much as a fitting end to a beloved character. Wash and Book died in the Firefly movie, the former harsh and unexpected, the latter more drawn out but no less painful. Mark Greene's death on ER was beautiful and painful, and led to waves being sent through all the other characters. When Daniel died on Stargate SG-1 he came back, but when it first happened it didn't seem like he would. The most painful for me, though, was when Leo McGarry died on the West Wing, though that was probably more because I knew it wasn't just the character but the man, himself, who had died.
More+
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I can't believe that there is no mention of the "death" of Data in Star Trek: Nemesis. Next to Wash's death in the movie "Serenity", seeing the original Data die had that same bitter taste as does the lost of youthful innocence.
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For me the most shocking character death was Dee's suicide in Battlestar Galactica. Really didn't see that coming and yet it made sense. 'Sometimes A Great Notion' is the most depressing piece of television I have ever seen. And of course Roslin's death in the series finale, a heartbreaking but beautiful scene. This is the only time I have cried watching anything.
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spoilers for well many shows:

charlies death in lost

teri bauer in 24

rita in dexter

amber in house
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Personal "oh noooo"'s - Wash on Firefly, Aeryn Sun on Farscape, Aaron Hotchner's wife on Criminal Minds, Sam on Supernatural (when he was stabbed in the back), both Fred and Wesley on Angel - and the list goes on.
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Tara's death was pretty damn gut wrenching but Joyce's death was carried throughout an entire episode and it was heart breaking and if you have lost a parent that episode will tear your heart out
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brad's death in prison break s4
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The death in Dexter's latest episode was also very shocking and traumatizing
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what about denny dying on grey's anatomy?? defintely the best of grey's! George death was also great! amazing season finales!
and william walker's death on brothers and sisters while kitty was blowing her birthday candles? Great! great! great!
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six feet under......my moving moments
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No Doubt that Whedon is the king of the emotional death. Season 2: Angel, Season 5: Joyce, Buffy, Season 6: Tara, Season 7: Spike. All of these scenes were very emotional and even though Angel, Buffy, and Spike would all return, I still cry when I watch their death scenes.

Then on Angel the death of Fred was probably the most aganizing death to any fan. Because for Fred it wasn't just her dying, her actual soul was being destroyed, there was no heaven or hell in store for Fred, just oblivion. That was so painful to endure as a fan. Cordelia's death was also handled very well.

Even Dr. Horrible which only was a 40 minute web series had me crying when Dr. Horrible's plan causes Penny to die and plumets him into a darker villainhood.

I think the only non Whedon death to get me was Marrisa Cooper on The OC. But they played that whole episode like a goodbye to her, so they gave you a satisfying goodbye.
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Wow, I can't believe how I didn't notice that Lapidus wasn't one of the people who made it out alive last episode until this article mentioned it. But besides that I love Whedon deaths he really is the master of character death on the small screen. Can't believe though that you didn't mention Fred and Doyle from Angel though. Killing one of the main characters in the frist 10 episodes of a series takes guts.
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LOST and only LOST !!
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A lot of people didn't make it out of "Deadwood" but the worst death was the death of the only truly good man in "Deadwood", When Jim Beaver's "Ellsworth" got shot out of the blue, while conversing with his dog was exceptionally sad. Everyone loved Ellsworth at the time and it was so disheartening when he got killed. "Trixie"'s ill conceived but heartfelt attempt at retribution against "George Hearst" played out beautifully. Another more recent sad death was when Sprague Grayden's "Donna" from "Sons of Anarchy" gets shot in the head by "Chibs" simply because she took the wrong car. It is a meaningless death whose reverberations will continue to shake the core of the show. Brilliantly conceived and executed by Kurt Sutter and his crew. Another great one was the suicide of "Anastasia Dualla" on "Battlestar Galactica" after her last night out with her great love "Apollo" on "Battlestar Galactica". The writers take the time to clean her up, get her back with Lee for a beautiful evening, and then "bang". It was so poigniant.
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Whedon is great at character deaths, and i think except for Charlies death on Lost, no other shows managed to really touch me that much with the death of a character. Buffy had 3 awesome deathscenes, where Buffy deathscene at end of season 5 would have been epic, except they tarnished it by resurecting her for 2 more seasons. Taras death was so so sad and really stand as an example of how a shocking death should be handled. However the best was Joyce death, and that whole episode is one of the best in the entire series.
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Even it was not on TV, the most epic death ever was in Star Trek: Generations: Captain James T. Kirk. The living legend, father of thousand children throughout the galaxy, cheater of death and master of melting computers with two single questions. Kirk's death was never "corrected" (apart of Shatners books, but firstly they contradict each other and secondly are non-canon anyway), it was quite unexpected (I hoped for something along Picard would send Kirk into retirement) and it was shocking. Kirk was THE main character on Star Trek.
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For me the death that moved me the most was the second time Buffy died. The scene was so dramatic and I couldn't stop crying. Especially the things that she said to Dawn just before she died. It was a very emotional scene.
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I must say that the 2 episodes that deals with Dr Greens (ER) death, "The Letter" and "On the Beach" is by far (for me anyway) the 2 best episodes ever broadcasted on tv. I cried like a baby when watching them.

Remember this scene? Heartbreaking.....
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wiAjFNnFfw
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I love character deaths too. It's kind of sad I haven't been moved by someone's TV death as with Jin and Sun since Marissa Cooper took her last breathe. Everyone in between was shocking or painful, but it's the characters that you stood by for years who get an emotional, love-filled end scene that take your throat, squeeze it and let you sit in horrification after. Jin and Sun had a powerful, emotional wrecking death, and took me so much more than Sayid and Lapidus, because of the weight of their death. Losing the character itself is only part of a major death on a TV show, it's also the repercussions of their departures. With Marissa, you're left with this feeling Ryan will never find love again and Julie will go into world destructive power struggle. THAT's true character death. Amazing, but also destraught. Personally, I wouldn't mind if those 18 confirmed deaths weren't as heavy as Jin and Sun, otherwise it's going to be a hard couple of weeks.
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I agree Jo n Ellen's death was moving. What about Roslin's death from BSG, It wasn't shocking or anything but it was pretty moving. Keth's death from OTH was a huge point in the show and the aftermath generated great drama.
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Josh Whedon is a genious when it comes to character death

SPOILER

Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't he the one working the episode where Jo and Ellen die in Supernatural? Cause that is the character death(s) that stick with me the most! I won't forget that episode anytime soon. Their death was so incredibly sad, kinda unexpected and AWESOME. Jo was my favorite character, and I was really looking forward to her development later in the series, so her death crushed me, but it was still amazing.. Josh Whedon deserves many, many awards xD
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