As nerds, we connect to fictional personalities in a way “normal” people often look at as oddly serious, if not downright creepy. I’m not saying we don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality – I’m merely pointing out that many of us are creative, sensitive people. Well-crafted imaginary characters often resonate deeply with us, and their losses can be quite harrowing. While I’m sure there are a few folks out there who’d love to re-enact key scenes from Misery with, let’s say, Joss Whedon (I’m half convinced he’s only bringing back Agent Coulson for S.H.I.E.L.D so he can slaughter him in an even more traumatizing manner), most of us stick to bitching and moaning on the Internet, threatening to boycott the shows in question, and then coming back for more next week.
But however much outrage and despair they may inspire, character deaths are often some of the most memorable moments on television – and feature some of the best writing and performances as well. Sure, there’s no shortage of poorly thought out, bullshit deaths, but they’re for another list. Get out your hankies, my nerdy brethren and sistren, and prepare to have your hearts kicked in the balls all over again with The Top 10 Saddest, Most Gut Wrenching Deaths in Nerdy Television.
NOTE: As most of you will have assumed simply from the nature of this list, it features spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen one of the shows featured, and wish to feel the full emotional impact of seeing one of its characters snuff it, I advise you to skip the entry in question. Enjoy!
Honorable Mention: The 10th Doctor – Doctor Who
He didn’t really die, but David Tennant’s Doctor, the tenth Doctor, broke our hearts when he departed due to both his exit and what ultimately wound up being the end of an era. See, we weren’t just saying goodbye to David Tennant and the 10th Doctor, we said goodbye to his world. No Martha Jones, no Mickey, or Captain Jack, at least not yet. Certainly no Sarah Jane or Rose Tyler.
I’m sure Donna is out there somewhere, but we won’t likely see her pop up on Steven Moffat’s show either. These were (with the exception of Sarah Jane) the Davies’ creations, and in the time of Moffat, they have also become a memory, a memory that has been buried by his creations. I suppose that’s fine, I suppose that’s the way things work, but in hindsight, when I watch “The End of Time”, I know to mourn the entire loss. And when I hear David Tennant say “I don’t want to go” with tears welling up in his eyes as the TARDIS breaks apart around him, I can’t help but feel a punch to the gut because I know, now more than ever, that the regenerated Time Lord and the regenerated series that follow still don’t feel like the same character or the same show.
10. Rita Bennett – Dexter
Through Rita and her family, Dexter Morgan became more human. He learned to feel because of her and in the end, when his separate lives came crashing together in a literal tub of blood, it sent both Dexter the character and Dexter the show onto a new course.
9. Charlie Pace – Lost
It was inevitable. Really. Desmond kept seeing it, and kept denying it, but every time he tried to intervene with fate, the poor, put-upon Scotsman would just get another vision of a future, grisly death for Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan). So when the time came, we were mentally prepared as an audience, but the emotional impact of Charlie’s predestined expiration was no less devastating. In order for his fellow castaways to send out a signal to a nearby ship, they need to shut down a jamming device in The Looking Glass, one of several Dharma stations they had discovered since arriving on the mysterious island. The problem was that The Looking Glass was underwater, and several hundred yards off shore, and one person would have to swim down to the station and deactivate the signal knowing that they’d never be able to swim back to the surface before drowning.
But The Looking Glass wasn’t as drowned as it seemed and Charlie was able to deactivate the jammer and make contact with the outside world, more specifically Desmond’s long lost love Penny, who they believed had sent the nearby rescue ship. But in a final twist, Penny tells Charlie that it is not her boat, and just as that sinks in, one of the Others sets off a grenade, which floods the radio room in The Looking Glass. With only seconds to spare, Charlie shuts the bulkhead, saves Desmond, and as the room floods, he writes one last message on his hand: “Not Penny’s Boat.” Charlie’s sacrifice is at once tragic and heroic, he doesn’t save the castaways, but he gives them advanced warning. It was both the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning, and one washed-up, coked-up rock star showed them the way.
8. Seymour (Fry’s Dog) – Futurama
Number 8 on our list is a unique entry: For one thing, it’s the only one from an animated series, but more importantly, it’s the only one that doesn’t refer to a character that fans came to know and love over numerous episodes or even seasons. Seymour’s introduction and death both occured over the thirty-something minute span of a single episode of Futurama, but just MENTION that episode to any fan of the series, and see if they don’t break down and bawl like an infant.
Here’s the skinny: Fry discovers his fossilized dog, Seymour, from the 20th century. Professor Farnsworth believes he can clone Seymour from the remains, and Fry can have his beloved pet back, alive and well. However, before beginning the process, it’s discovered that Seymour lived for several years after Fry was frozen. Fry reasons that Seymour probably found a nice family, and lived happily without him for quite some time. He decides not to clone Seymour, and let him rest in peace. Now, a normal show would leave it there – but Futurama writers are evil, evil people. Our emotions are assaulted by a montage of Seymour waiting loyally outside Panucci’s Pizza for his missing master, gradually growing old and weak as seasons change and years pass, but never leaving his post….eventually, he lies down for his final rest, still waiting for Fry.
If you’ve ever had a pet, this scene will utterly WRECK you, be warned.
(NOTE: There was so much fan outcry over Seymour’s death that it was partially retconned in the Futurama movie Bender’s Big Score: We learn that one version of Fry had come back to the year 2000, and was living above Panucci’s the entire time. Thus, Seymour didn’t die alone. But that still doesn’t totally negate the crushing blow of the original episode)
7. Joyce Summers – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Throughout Buffy Summers’ tenure in Sunnydale, she fought the forces of darkness, saving the world countless times from whatever doom the Hellmouth spat forth. She died yet managed to come back to life and banish The Master; she faced “that awkward moment when your boyfriend turns evil” by sending that bastard straight to Hell; she even converted her high school graduating class into an army in order to prevent a very ugly Ascension situation. It seems like Buffy and her Scooby Gang can take on the whole underworld. So when the words, “Mom? Mom? Mommy?” come out of the Slayer’s mouth in the episode “I Was Made to Love You,” it is a gut-punch.
Just think about the set-up for “The Body,” for a moment: Buffy is on a swing set with April, a robot who is slowly shutting down and is afraid of dying. As Buffy comforts April and promises her that she won’t leave, Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) dies alone in her living room. The reality of the events leading up to discovering Joyce’s body is harrowing. Suddenly, the “One Girl in All the World” is just a girl, and this terrible thing that has happened to her mother is beyond her control. In the face of a sudden, natural death, Buffy and her friends are unable to cope, and Anya, heartbreakingly, can’t understand the reason behind mortality. The death of Joyce Summers reminds us – and the Scoobies – that human life is fragile and fleeting, even in a world of supernatural threats and Slayers.
6. Lt. Anastasia Dualla – Battlestar Galactica
On a show about how much misery you can pile on one person’s head before they break, Lieutenant Anastasia Dualla – better known as “Dee” (Kandyse McClure), had a particularly bad run: Her first boyfriend was murdered in a hostage crisis while trying to save her life – AFTER he proposed and she turned him down. Later, Lee Adama marries Dee…primarily, it would seem, to get back at Starbuck – the woman he actually loves – after she marries another guy. Then Earth turns out to be a useless nuclear wasteland, which wrecked everybody’s shit (even the Cylons), but after the initial shock Dualla appeared to be taking it in stride: She was rekindling her relationship with her cheating, manipulative asshat of an estranged husband, and right after a charmingly romantic date we watch Dee happily getting ready for bed. She hums to herself contentedly, grinning ear to ear – and pulls out her sidearm and blows her fucking brains out. Her words to Gaeta are eerily ominous in context: “I just want to hold on to this feeling for as long as I can”.
Character death was so commonplace on BSG the Grim Reaper should have gotten a Producer’s credit: Billy, Kat, Crashdown, Callie, Gaeta, Tom Zarek, the entire Quorum of Twelve (minus Lee), countless unnamed Viper and Raptor pilots, the first three Commanders of the Pegasus (before Lee took over and blew her up over New Caprica. Goddammit Lee….) Starbuck died and came back as “Starbuck The White” or something. But no other death had the same feeling of utter hopelessness as Dee’s suicide. It totally blindsides the viewer, and it left the crew as heartsick and despairing as it did the fans. Even Admiral Adama could offer no words of wisdom or comfort. Instead he got piss drunk and tried to goad Tigh into shooting him dead. Seeing Galactica‘s unflappable Commander – father figure to many on board – utterly miserable and defeated like that was almost as traumatic as the suicide itself.
5. Lori Grimes – The Walking Dead
When The Walking Dead killed Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) they took an already exceedingly emotional scene and brought the level of angst up to eleven. Watching Lori in labor, in need of a c-section or her baby will die, bravely telling her son he’ll be fine, he’ll survive this world, as she faces her impending death with such clarity and composure; you immediately forget the characters’ faults. You don’t care Carl would never listen, or stay in the damn house. You don’t care Lori played Rick and Shane off one another until one of them died. None of it matters when you’re watching a mother sacrifice herself for her child, while at the same time doing her best to comfort her son through the toughest moment in his life.
Having suffered through missteps in plot and characterization before, Lori’s death was a triumph for The Walking Dead. It even managed to shock fans of the comics, those expecting Lori’s death from day one, with its frankness. And the thing is, it doesn’t end there. Stopping Lori from turning, putting a bullet in her head to keep her from becoming a zombie is left to Carl! Followed up by Rick’s reaction when only Maggie, Carl, and the new baby emerge from the prison, repeating, “No, no, no, no,” as he completely fuckin’ loses it. Ow! My heart can’t handle the angst, the trauma, the feels….
4. Bobby Singer – Supernatural
Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) spent five seasons of Supernatural as Q to the Winchester Brothers’ James Bond (or Bosley to their Angels, if you prefer), and throughout the series, was shit upon by the writers on uncounted occasions: He became a Hunter after being forced to kill his demon-possessed wife (whom he’d be forced to kill again when she returned as a zombie). Later, Bobby himself would become possessed, and then paralyzed after stabbing himself with a magic demon-killing dagger. Frustrated with his perceived uselessness, he bets, and loses, 25 years of his life in a wager with a poker-playing witch in an attempt to recover his mobility (though Sam and Dean get his years back for him). He gets to walk again after selling his soul to Crowley in an attempt to stave off the Apocalypse, which ultimately fails, leading to Bobby dying at the hands of Lucifer, only to be ressurected by Castiel after the Apocalyse was over…..Everybody getting this so far?
Anyhoo, after surviving what was supposed to be the End Of Days, Bobby gets shot by Dick Roman, leader of the Leviathans (God’s rough draft in sentient being creation), spends one episode in a coma, and then flatlines and agrees to stick around as a ghost. He eventually makes his presence known to the Winchesters, and goes back to helping them out before turning into an uncontrollable spirit of vengeance. He begs the boys to destroy his flask: His “tether” to the physical plane, and goes off into the Great Unknown……And the Afterlife better be waterskiing on oceans of single-malt scotch while being pulled by a speedboat full of Playboy Playmates after everything that poor bastard had to endure!
3. Hoban “Wash” Washburne – Firefly
Let’s face it: The only thing keeping Wash (Alan Tudyk) out of the #1 spot is the minor technicality that his death took place in a movie, not on the actual tv series. Serenity’s affable, talented pilot had the misfortune of being probably the Firefly cast’s most disposable member. Think about it: You obviously can’t kill Mal, even Whedon isn’t evil enough to kill Kaylee, killing Inara would destroy the last shred of Mal’s soul, killing Simon would ruin River AND Kaylee, they already wasted Shepherd Book, they needed Jayne for comic relief and general ass-kickery….can’t kill River – she’s half the plot. That just leaves the Washburnes, and of the two of them, Zoe had the best chance of surviving the loss of a spouse relatively sane. Being good-hearted and upbeat was Wash’s whole thing: If he lost his wife, he’d be a miserable shell of a man, and we all know it. Losing Wash just made Zoe – well, “Zoe-er”.
Anyway, Wash’s death, whatever fans may say, was handled quite well: The scope of the final battle with the Reavers required a sacrifice in order to have the proper impact, and the sudden shift from relieved triumph to a swift nut-shot of tragedy delivered that impact as only Joss Whedon could have. Browncoats will continue to grieve the loss of Wash, even if Serenity never sails across the big or small screen again.
2. Winifred “Fred” Burkle/Wesley Wyndham-Price - Angel
Our penultimate entry is a “one-two” punch of televised misery, once again delivered by Nerd God of Death: Joss Whedon. Fred (Amy Acker) and Wesley (Alexis Denisof) do not share an entry merely because they were both cast members of Angel, but because their deaths are so interwoven: First Fred contracts a mysterious infection that turns out to be an incredibly ancient force of evil called Illyria, who ruled the world in the time before humanity (imagine what Cthulhu’s girlfriend might be like). This was all planned by lovesick uber-dweeb Knox, who believed Fred was a suitable host for the Old One. Wesley had only just admitted his unrequited love for Fred no more than an episode earlier, now he had to sit and watch her die as the Elder Demon Bitch-Queen of Primordial Earth slowly assimilated her physical form….It’s the kind of moment Whedon, bastard that he is, does so very well: You don’t know which of them to feel sorrier for.
Once Illyria is irretrievably ensconced in Fred’s body, Wesley is left a bitter, alcoholic excuse for a human being. Out of misery and loneliness, he decides to help Illyria adapt to the modern world. Imagine watching your girlfriend die, and then having to watch a fucking Elder God use her body as a damn hand puppet instead of just burying her and mercifully receiving closure. Over time, Illyria reveals that she can take on the form and personality of Fred (even to the point of fooling Fred’s parents), and even offers to take on this form for Wesley, so as to understand human romance and sexuality. Being still relatively moral and sane, Wesley categorically refuses – that is, until the final battle with The Circle of the Black Thorn where Wesley is mortally wounded by Cyrus Vail. As he lay dying, he relents and allows Illyria to mimic Fred – allowing him to die in the arms of the woman he loved….
Fuck you, Joss Whedon – and fuck all this dust and chopped onions…..(sobs like little girl)
(PS: Had there been a Season Six, the writers intended to separate Illyria and Fred, effectively bringing her back to life and creating a love triangle with Wesley, who would not have been killed off had another Season been planned)
1. Ned Stark – Game of Thrones
Ned Stark was the moral center of the first season of Game of Thrones, and in many ways it had to be that way for the show to start strong. The casting of Sean Bean gave the character an instant sense of gravitas, and the first time we see him – in a scene where he executes a deserter on behalf of the king – lent an immediate authority. We instantly and wholly rooted for him. The show needed that. By taking Ned’s head off, Game of Thrones told us that this was a world where honor didn’t make much sense. It was an honest, pure statement to make, and by making it in such a shocking way the show was sure to get our attention.
In many ways the whole of season one was a set-up for Ned’s death. As viewers soon found out, the show was just getting started with its betrayals and underhanded palace intrigue. But most importantly, Ned’s death taught us that in the world of Game of Thrones, nothing is certain. The heroes can die, the bad guys can win, and this will never be your grandpa’s fantasy story.
*Special thanks to special contributor Kristen Romanelli and NB staffers Sarah Moran, Matthew Jackson, Jason Tabrys, Adam Donaldson and James Daniels for contributing to this list.