With the Walking Dead’s ninth season debuting recently, promising “Rick Grimes’ final episodes,” ABC’s The Conners returning without Roseanne Barr, and House of Cards’ final season debuting without series lead Kevin Spacey, we got to thinking in the IGN offices about a few other times that TV shows lost a main character. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen. And usually, when they go, they go via the morgue.
So we put together a few of the more notable instances of main characters being killed off on TV shows. But before we start, a few notes. First, it has to be a lead cast member who bites it. For some ensemble casts, this can come down to a judgment call, so we welcome debate in the comments. And secondly, it has to be characters who were killed mid-series or that were surprise deaths, rather than series finale deaths (which happen more frequently).
With that said, let’s get to it! Here are some prime examples of TV shows that killed off a main character…
House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)
House of Cards helped put Netflix on the map in terms of being a go-to source for original series with its tale of the lying, maneuvering, murdering politician Frank Underwood and his journey to the Oval Office — and beyond. But after five seasons, series star Kevin Spacey was hit with sexual misconduct allegations, and shortly thereafter Netflix announced that House of Cards would end with its sixth season and that Spacey had been fired. Robin Wright, who plays Frank’s wife Claire, takes over as lead in the final year, with a teaser trailer revealing that Frank apparently died between seasons.
Vikings’ Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel)
Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary Viking king, explorer, and father to many sons, was a vital part of History’s epic historical drama for four and a half seasons. Charismatically portrayed by Australian-born actor Travis Fimmel, Ragnar was a larger than life character, featuring a great sense of humor, courage on the battlefield, and a dedication to his family that made him an endearing hero. After the shocking events at the end of Season 4 which resulted in his death, many wondered how the series would survive without such a dynamic lead. Thankfully, series creator Michael Hirst has filled Ragnar’s very large shoes by focusing on the exploits of his sons, like Bjorn, Ivar, and Ubbe. Together, the sons of Ragnar keep their father’s memory alive and well.
Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher (Peter Krause)
This HBO series could’ve had its whole cast on this list if we didn’t have our “no last episodes” rule (yep, they killed everyone — rather beautifully — in the final ep). But in either case, Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher died prior to that finale, albeit only four episodes before. The character’s death was a shock, coming as it did immediately after he recovered from a coma, and after he coldly told his wife he wanted a divorce. Krause would continue to figure in the final episodes of the show, but only as an aspect of Nate appearing to his family members.
The Wire’s Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba)
The Wire is considered by many to be one of the greatest television shows ever made. Created by former newspaper writer David Simon, the series spans fives seasons, covering various aspects of criminal life throughout the Baltimore, Maryland area. For British-born actor Idris Elba, this was a seminal role, portraying the highly intelligent gangster Russell “Stringer” Bell. Bell was unlike any of his counterparts in the criminal underworld because he wanted his empire to be run like a legitimate business. To better understand how to accomplish this, Bell began taking classes at a local community college. At times, Bell appeared to be too smart for anyone to get the better of him… until Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) finally killed Bell in Season 3. While the series would go on for another two seasons, Bell’s absence was keenly felt.
ER’s Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards)
Dr. Mark Greene made it through eight seasons of ER, which you have to remember was the TV show back in those curious days known as the 1990s (and early 2000s) when streaming was but a flight of fancy, and digital download nothing but dream. Stricken by brain cancer, he would later die, and man was it sad. And then there was the funeral! Ugh. Greene’s legacy would continue to figure in the show for years after Edwards’ departure, and the actor eventually appeared in a flashback episode in the final season.
M*A*S*H’s Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson)
Man. After three seasons, Henry Blake — the boss, of sorts, of the beloved Mobile Army Surgical Hospital — was getting to go home. He was discharged and returning to the States. They even had a party for him! And then… the final scene of the episode hit, where the rest of the M*A*S*H gang hear that Henry’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. “There were no survivors.” A nation of TV-goers wept at that moment, and little did they know that M*A*S*H was just getting started with the gut-punches.
Angel’s Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter)
Cordelia underwent quite an evolution from her start on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a bratty know-nothing supporting player to psychic monster hunter and second lead on Angel. Unfortunately, by the fourth season of Angel the character took an odd, villainous turn (turns out she was possessed), and actress Charisma Carpenter was eventually written out of the show when Cordelia fell into a coma. She returned for one final, and quite memorable, episode in the show’s last season where she did, in fact, die, but only after imparting a final gift to Angel.
All in the Family’s Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton)
After nine seasons, the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family morphed into something new entirely, called Archie Bunker’s Place and set more in Archie’s bar of the title rather than the Queens home that All in the Family was centered around. As a result, Archie’s wife Edith became a peripheral character, until she was killed off between the first and second seasons. The special one-hour episode of Season 2 depicted an in-denial Archie unable to come to grips with his wife’s death… until he finds her slipper under their bed and the grief washes over him. Crushing.
Two and a Half Men’s Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen)
Here’s another one that happened offscreen and between seasons, but it’s a bit more tricky. After star Charlie Sheen had a very public falling out with the producers of Two and a Half Men, he was fired from the show and the character was written out (he was said to have been hit by a train and died). But his ghost made a return the following season, only now Charlie Harper was played by Kathy Bates and, so he said, stuck in hell inside a woman’s body. But a few seasons later, in the series finale, Harper’s death was retconned to have not have happened at all… and then he was killed anyway by a falling piano in the final moments of the show. So we broke our own rule on this one. Or did we?
Charmed’s Prue Halliwell (Shannen Doherty)
The witch sisters of Charmed started off as Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs… before Rose McGowan replaced Doherty as a long-lost half-sister in Season 4. Who knows what really happened to cause Doherty to leave the show — rumors of tension on the set abounded. But we know what happened to her character Prue, at least: In the Season 3 cliffhanger, she was attacked by a demon named Shax. Yep, Shax. And at the start of Season 4, Prue was revealed to have died.
Homeland’s Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis)
Homeland became an instant hit for Showtime largely thanks to the compelling dynamic between CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and the potentially-traitorous rescued prisoner of war Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). The first season worked so strongly because of the big question of whether or not Brody had been turned by his time with al-Quaeda, and the reveal of his true allegiance at the season’s end was a great kick-off into Season 2. But ultimately Homeland was Carrie’s story, not Carrie and Brody’s story, and by his third season on the show the character had seriously started to overstay his welcome. His death, though tragic, allowed Homeland to reinvent itself and continue moving Carrie’s story forward.
The O.C.’s Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton)
Oh, Marissa Cooper. There has been plenty of speculation over the years to what caused The OC to kill off its leading lady, but the ultimate answer has proven to be that it just needed a boost in the ratings. Her untimely, tragic demise certainly got people talking — The OC, which tended to speed through as many storylines in one season as other shows churn through over the course of their entire runs, needed to top itself for plot twists. Was killing Marissa, thus never allowing her and Ryan to end up together, the right call? The OC only lasted one more season, and while some do argue it was an uptick in quality to the pop culture sensation after its quality flagged in Seasons 2 and 3, it never was the same after losing Marissa Cooper.
Game of Thrones’s Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean)
Ned’s demise might not have been a shocker for fans of George R. R. Martin’s books, but for oblivious first-timers, this massive Season 1 twist established Game of Thrones as a show where truly no one was safe. After decades of narratives where the idealistic hero is saved from certain death in the nick of time, Ned’s death stands as a powerful subversion of fantasy tropes (and pop culture rules in general). Lest we forget, this was the guy on all the posters back in Season 1, making his early exit from the game even more compelling – and paving the way for the first season’s many supporting characters to get their time in the spotlight, helping the show evolve into a true ensemble.
Grey’s Anatomy’s Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey)
By the time Patrick Dempsey decided he wanted to discharge himself from Seattle Grace in 2015, he’d stuck with the show for 11 seasons – longer than most shows even stay on the air – and Grey’s Anatomy had already weathered the high-profile exits of stars including Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, Isaiah Washington, and T.R. Knight. But saying goodbye to “McDreamy” was undoubtedly the end of an era, considering that the will they/won’t they relationship between Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd was the driving force of the series since the pilot. Both the show and Meredith somehow survived the loss (it’s currently airing Season 15), but if we never hear “Chasing Cars” again, it’ll be too soon.
Ally McBeal’s Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows)
Ally McBeal was always a deeply surreal show that was obsessed with its main character’s love life, but much like Mer and Der on Grey’s Anatomy, the show couldn’t resist returning to the starcrossed dynamic of its titular heroine and her first love, Billy Thomas, whenever it had the opportunity. Billy was Ally’s law school sweetheart who ended up married to one of their other classmates (but who clearly always carried a torch for our neurotic protagonist) and we always got the sense that Ally and Billy were endgame… at least until Season 3, when Billy seemed to have a midlife crisis, bleached his hair blond and became a womanizer – a complete character 180 that we later learned was due to a brain tumor which shockingly killed him in court out of nowhere. After his untimely death, the show attempted to recapture the magic of Ally and Billy’s sexual tension with boyfriends like Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Bon Jovi, but by then, we’d lost that lovin’ feelin’.
The Good Wife’s Will Gardner (Josh Charles)
The Good Wife seemed to take a page out of Ally McBeal’s playbook in the dynamic between Will and Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick – they were former law school friends who always carried a torch for each other, but could never quite get the timing right, even after they started working together. Despite a steamy affair (made riskier since Will was still Alicia’s boss at the time) and obvious soulmate status, the two were robbed of their ultimate happy ending after Will was shot in the courtroom by a troubled client in Season 5 – leaving Alicia (and viewers) haunted by what might’ve been for the rest of the show’s run.