The 25 Saddest TV Character Deaths of This Century (2023)

Dwelling on death isn’t exactly healthy if you think about it the wrong way — except TV deaths, which leave special, agonizing scars. Losing a TV character you’ve spent years with hits hard, and can often change the course of the series moving forward. Someone like prickly “Succession” patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) was integral not only to the narrative, but to how each and every other character relates to one another and to their core attributes and aspirations. “Succession” is simply not the same show without him.

To process (or calcify) our feelings, IndieWire’s TV team collected the 25 biggest TV deaths of the 21st century — deaths that were not only shocking and hurtful, but pivotal to the shows that delivered them. Eligible characters had to suffer a permanent death (also known as the Michael Cordero Clause), die within the series and not before it (the Boo from “Fleabag” Clause), and come as a surprise (not taunt audiences with years of tortuous buildup — the Jack Pearson Clause).

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So let’s pour one out for those heartbreaking, harrowing, and mercifully fictional departed by revisiting their memories. This post is full ofspoilers(including above), so read with caution if these major shows are “on your list.”

1. “24”

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Would “24” have been elevated to the annals of TV history without that final awful moment of Jack cradling the body of his dead wife Teri, after a very long “day” spent trying to save her? Perhaps, but the show’s ballsy choice to end in explicit tragedy rather than triumph spoke to the very immediate post-9/11 environment — and also set up Jack Bauer for so many seasons of crazy to come.

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2. “Battlestar Galactica”

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“Battlestar Galactica” featured no shortage of shocking deaths over the course of its four seasons, but the unexpected suicide of Dualla at Season 4’s midway point was a major blow, cementing the show’s descent into a nihilistic depression that made the last several episodes extremely heavy viewing.

More importantly, the death of Dualla during its initial airing led to arguably the most tragic/hilarious/painfully sad cut-to-commercial of all time, as the ad immediately following her suicide proved to be… badly timed, on both an audio and visual level. Fortunately, YouTube remembers:

3. “Succession”

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Never trust an HBO wedding. “Succession” said goodbye to patriarch and media titan Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in the third episode of the final season of the hit drama, in an instant classic episode of the drama that gave every character in the sprawling ensemble a chance to shine. From the kids’ respective shock and breakdown on the doomed Connor Wedding Boat to the team in the air attempting to revive an unconscious Logan (David Rasche one-liners for the win), it was a shining example of the kind of artistic genius that can happen when every single person both in front of and behind the camera brings their A-game. The episode will undoubtedly shape the final season as we hurl toward the finale of one of the all-time great television dramas.

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4. “Boardwalk Empire”

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Although Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) didn’t gouge out his eyes, his wretched life and death were as Oedipal as they come. The former protege of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) had been locked in a power struggle with his father in spirit if not by blood for control of the Atlantic City booze trade during Prohibition. But after losing the love of his life, drunkenly sleeping with his own mother (such Greek tragedy!), and botching an assassination attempt on Nucky, the bloody writing was on the wall. Jimmy died from two bullets to the brain, courtesy of Nucky himself. Killing off the second-most important character on the show by the end of Season 2 was a bold and unexpected move, and cemented Nucky’s true potential as a gangster and the series’ ability to shift its dynamics at the height of its popularity.

5. “BoJack Horseman”

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The crown jewel in Netflix’s animation stable (sorry) has never shied away from the darker side of life, much less a life lived in Hollywoo. After establishing that it is a show that takes an honest look at mental illness and addiction and the general feeling of loneliness, the end of Season 3 brought one story of a child actress to a dark and unexpected close. Credit Kristen Schaal with tracking the progression of Sarah Lynn from adorable TV moppet to someone the industry failed and left behind. Her death wasn’t simply a ploy for pathos in an emotional minefield of a series. It was the show’s very real way of acknowledging the brutal steamroller of fame.

6. “Breaking Bad”

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“Breaking Bad” was always defined by the danger that lurks around every corner. Even beloved characters could disappear in the blink of an eye, not to mention villains like The Cousins. Against all this, it was inevitable that the Walt/Gus showdown of Season 4 would end in only one winner. When an intricately laid wheelchair plot finally took down the chicken entrepreneur, it was the perfect example of the show’s bittersweet notions of victory. The best part is that for those three or four steps of Gus emerging from the nursing home room unscathed, there was the tiny thought that he might be able to survive even a bomb blast.

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7. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

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The least-supernatural death of “Buffy” will always be its most memorable and heartbreaking, as creator Joss Whedon devoted an entire episode to the passing of Buffy’s mom Joyce (Kristin Sutherland). Season 5’s “The Body” featured some incredible acting work on the part of its ensemble (Emma Caulfield’s monologue about fruit punch will haunt us forever) and in years past has gotten a fraction of the attention it deserves for how it took on the truth of what happens immediately after a loved one passes away. In the days before “Game of Thrones,” when genre-focused shows were struggling for mainstream acceptance, “The Body” shouted for real acknowledgment beyond the basic.

8. “Barry”

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There is alot of death in “Barry,” a lot of it perpetrated by Barry himself (Bill Hader) — but arguably nothing with as high emotional stakes and dire consequences as the murder of Janice (Paula Newsome) in the Season 1 finale. Part of the skittish hook of “Barry” is how it compels the viewer to root for its antihero as well as the forces seeking to track him down and service justice. Janice is undeniably sharp and good at her job — too good, even — the kind of character who you not only want to see win but expect to because she knows exactly what she’s doing. Her unlikely romance with Gene (Henry Winkler) is genuinely amusing and winsome, made convincing by two actors giving it their all (a Cousineau technique if we ever saw one).

Season 1, Episode 8 “Know Your Truth” presents a reality that feels instantly too good to be true; in which Barry is now dating Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and they’re taking quaint couples trips with Gene and Janice, the stains of death and violence firmly in the rearview — or so it seems. A gaffe from Gene leads to Janice realizing that Barry is the killer she spent months pursuing, and as things escalate, as they often do on “Barry.” Janice’s death destroys Gene, and creates chaos for Barry, right through the Season 3 finale and entering Season 4. It wouldn’t be out of line to call this show “Janice” (as Gene probably would).

9. “Dexter”

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“Dexter” was never an easy show to watch, but the sympathetic serial killer series got exponentially harder to take as the seasons went on. A breaking point for many fans came when Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) innocent wife, Rita (Julie Benz) — who remained ignorant of her husband’s hidden hobby until the bitter end — was killed by Arthur Miller (John Lithgow), the Trinity Killer. Lithgow’s performance won him an Emmy, and Season 4 is arguably the last great season of “Dexter.” Rita deserved such quality, and her death was anything but cheap. (Miller wanted to show Dexter that his way of life would never last, especially with loved ones in harm’s way.) But what made Rita’s demise even more painful was that Dexter had already caught and killed Miller before he found his wife’s body in a blood-red bathtub. It had seemed like he’d won, making his ultimate loss — and ours — all the more heartbreaking.

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