Killing main characters in TV shows used to only happen if the actor died in real life, or if they asked for a raise and the negotiations went awry. In the last 20 years and with the age of great TV, all that changed.
Creators wanted to surprise their viewers and create new dramatic avenues for their characters. Many, many, many spoilers follow as we look at the main character deaths in TV shows that fans never saw coming.
Updated on August 8, 2023, by Patricia Scheer-Erb: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
15 Tara Knowles
Sons of Anarchy
In Sons of Anarchy, Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) was the love of Jax Teller’s (Charlie Hunnam) life. So much so, that Jax decided to turn himself in to save her and their kids. Unfortunately, Jax’s mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), had other ideas. Gemma suspected Tara was going to betray the Club and took matters into her own hands.
She killed Tara by stabbing her in the head multiple times with a barbecue fork. The death was violent, gruesome, and disgusting. The saddest part was the scene when Jax found his wife dead on the floor and cradled her dead body. It was as surprising and devastating as Sons of Anarchy, one of the best FX shows ever, would get.
14 Zoe Barnes
House of Cards
The second season of House of Cards started with an impacting surprise, Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) kills Zoey Barnes (Kate Mara) by shoving her in front of a subway train. Zoe knew Underwood had played a part in the death of another congressman.
She wanted answers, which got her killed for her troubles. This was one of Kate Mara’s best performances, and the actress was a good sport, as she did all the interviews for the second season, talking about the character and their plans for the long haul, making her death even more surprising for audiences.
13 Jocelyn Fairchild
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments
Jocelyn Fairchild (Maxim Roy) played an essential role in the Netflix show Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments. While it is her daughter Clary who is at the center of the storyline, Jocelyn was the reason why her family’s entire life was turned upside down. While Clary’s mother, after drinking a potion to fall into a coma and avoid being used by the antagonist, was unresponsive for the bigger part of the show, her return did leave a striking impression.
The relief surrounding her recovery was palpable, but the joy didn’t last all too long. When a rogue demon made its way into the Shadowhunters’ Institute and possessed one of their own, things took a turn for the worse. Unable to control himself, Alec, one of Clary’s friends, found Jocelyn alone in her room and brutally ripped her heart out. A shocking moment, since fans had high expectations for this character.
12 Gary Shepherd
thirtysomething was an eighties show about a group of friends and their lives. During the third season, fans followed Nancy’s (Patricia Wettig) battle with ovarian cancer. In the episode where she discovered she was cancer-free and everyone started celebrating, another tragedy happened.
Their friend Gary (Peter Horton) had been killed in a car accident. It was an unexpected gut punch for the audience, and the creators wanted it that way, to show that life can be totally unexpected and unfair.
11 Sarah Lynn
Like many characters in BoJack Horseman, Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) started as a joke; she was the sexed-up, drug-addict girl who used to be a child actor and became much more. The character became deeper as the seasons went along and she even got sober.
Unfortunately, BoJack (Will Arnett) went on a bender and convinced her to join him. That night she ended up overdosing on drugs and passing away. It was a tragic death, and BoJack could never forgive himself for it.
10 Marissa Cooper
The O.C. was a teenage melodrama that became a hit. It is the story of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, Ryan (Ben McKenzie), going to live with a rich family in Orange County. Watching him fall in love with the rich girl next door, Marisa (Mischa Barton) was too good to pass up. The show made teenagers swoon at the tragic relationship between the two. Barton’s character was always tragic and self-destructing, so when she dies in a car accident caused by her bad boy ex-boyfriend, it was confirmed she was never going to make it.
That scene was memorable and was a before and after for its characters and the show itself. About the death, creator Josh Schwartz told The Daily Beast: “It had as much to do with creatively feeling like this was always in the cards for this character and she was an inherently tragic heroine, and part of the Ryan/Marissa story was him trying to save her from a fate that she couldn’t be rescued from.”
9 Sara Lance
While Sara (Caity Lotz) was presumed dead after she was a passenger on a ship that sank in Arrow, it was later discovered that she survived. Running the streets as the Black Canary, she later became a significant part of Team Arrow. Considering that the news of her first death turned out to be false, fans were shocked to find out that she still couldn’t escape her harsh fate.
Three arrows, of all things, brought upon the end of her life. While the Black Canary’s death was already extremely shocking, considering that she gained the title of fan favorite, is that no other than Oliver’s (Stephen Amell) sister, Thea, was the one who targeted and killed Sara. To the relief of many, Thea was brainwashed, but the deed that happened through her hands continued to haunt the Green Arrow’s sister. Thankfully, Sara Lance was reborn as the White Canary, and she became a leading member of the Legends of Tomorrow.
8 Will Gardner
The Good Wife
Will Gardner was the romantic lead interest for Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife from the start. He was the one that hired her at his firm, and they spend a couple of seasons getting closer and closer until they finally became a couple for a while. When Will met his demise after getting shot by a client in a courtroom, it was a shocking death.
It was even more tragic because it was avoidable, and a “bad time, bad place” kind of situation, but he died nonetheless. The actor had decided to leave the show as he wanted to do other projects, and this was the best way to go. Tragic, surprising, sad. His death was felt by Alicia and Diane (Christine Baranski) for the rest of the show, and even its spinoff, The Good Fight.
7 Eddie Munson
The world-famous show Stranger Things is famous for its incredible character development, and, furthermore, captures the viewers’ attention with a profound as well as versatile storyline. While Eleven, Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin are at the heart of the show, other characters, such as the passionate Hellfire Club leader Eddie Munson, rose to the same level of importance in season four.
Wrongfully accused of murder, Eddie and his friends entered the “Upside Down” to hunt Vecna and prevent further killings. Acting as a distraction by jamming on his guitar, he was violently attacked by Demobats and eventually succumbed to his injuries. Eddie, who had stepped into the role of the big brother for his young friends, was able to spend his last moments with Dustin, which added even more weight to the tragedy.
6 George O’Malley
After 18 seasons, many characters have died on Grey’s Anatomy, but when George was killed, audiences felt it because it was sad and surprising. George had been there from the start and was one of Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) best friends, so nobody thought he could be killed.
The character saved a woman from getting hit by a bus and got dragged under it. He was so unrecognizable that no one knew it was him until he made the “007” symbol on Meredith’s hand. The actor had fewer stories during the season and he wanted out of the show. However, this was a surprising way to do it, and one that destroyed every fan’s heart.
5 Lucy Knight
Lucy (Kellie Martin) was a promising young med student in ER who got stabbed by a troubled patient. She wasn’t the only one, as Carter (Noah Wyle) was also stabbed. The whole ER team tried to save them, but she was too far gone. The fact that Lucy knew what was happening to her medically and that she was going to die still hunts some fans’ dreams. Carter made it alive and became a narcotics addict, in part because of the stabbing, in part because of his survivor’s guilt.
About her death, the actress told Entertainment Weekly: “When I found out that’s what they were going to do, I was happy, and honored, yet at the same time a little bit wondering what I had done to deserve such a big demise. I mean, it was pretty brutal. But, I think if you have to leave a show, especially a show like ER, that’s the way to go.”
Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) was just a corner kid in The Wire who wanted to leave the drug life behind. He felt guilty and had nightmares after being part of someone’s death. To change his life, Wallace decided to become a police informant, and that killed him.
In the end, his two best friends were the ones who executed him. This was the first time the series made audiences aware of how tough life in Baltimore could be, as the actions that killed this poor kid would’ve made him a hero in any other TV series.
Money Heist made history with its unexpected and shocking deaths. Even from the very beginning of the show, it becomes clear that this crime drama series is not suitable for the faint-hearted, and is, by no means, a story filled with rainbows and butterflies. What it does offer is the most random group of strangers, who, despite their indifferences, become something like a family. Fights and mockeries aside, when they presume with their insane plan to rob a bank and face the devastating consequences of it, the pain of loss hits each member like a bullet.
One of the most heartbreaking moments was definitely Tokyo’s (Úrsula Corberó) death. Even though she kept going after being injured multiple times, her insane fight for survival came to an end when she saved her colleagues’ lives by blowing herself and her opponents up with grenades. Tokyo’s death was utterly shocking, since she was the narrator of Money Heist, and fans of the show were convinced of her survival.
Since this next death was absolutely shocking and, even beyond that, extremely disturbing, there is no other way but to give Money Heist a second entry. Nairobi’s (Alba Flores) story was particularly heartbreaking. During the heist, she was shot but she miraculously survived the injury. Considering how hopeless her entire situation looked, her unexpected recovery let many fans believe that this lovable character was safe for the rest of the show.
Well, they could not have been fooled more. Nairobi was gruesomely killed by the main antagonist of the show. Execution style. A bullet straight to her forehead marked the end of a beloved crew member and a fan favorite. At least, fans were granted a full circle moment, when Tokyo blew up Nairobi’s murderer, Gandía, along with herself, and, hence, was able to avenge her beloved friend.
1 Eddard Stark
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones had a pretty good first season, but the death of Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean) changed everything. King Joffrey (Jeff Gleason) decided on a whim that Ned should be beheaded, and nobody could make him change his mind. This was the moment the series made clear that honor could not trump power in this world, and that “fair” didn’t exist.
This scene showed audiences that no one was safe. Sean Bean, the most recognizable star in the TV series and the lead character was just gone. It was one of the most heartbreaking deaths on the show, so surprising, and talked about that many people started taking the show seriously from then on.