1[WARNING: This blog entry contains spoilers for shows you really should have already watched by now].

I came across the following article this morning: ‘Walking Dead’ finale: If Daryl dies, we riot.  This, of course, is a reference to television’s most beloved redneck, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who fans fear may well meet his untimely end on this Sunday’s mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.  After all, cable’s hottest show has proven it isn’t afraid to kill off their series regulars.  Remember Sophia?  Dale?  T-Dog?  Lori?  Merle?  Andrea?  Hell, television in general has a rich history of dealing out shocking and unexpected deaths.  From MASH’s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake to, most recently, Brian Griffin on Family Guy, it would seem that  no one is safe. Not even a martini-swilling cartoon dog.

R.I.P. Brian Griffin
R.I.P. Brian Griffin

Or so they would have us believe, but the truth is some are safer than others.  Most notably series leads, regulars under contract, fan and/or writer/producer favorites – their mortality rate tends to be a hell of a lot lower than the going average.  Still, IMPROBABLE doesn’t mean IMPOSSIBLE and, occasionally, even the unlikeliest of characters fall to the grim reaper’s scythe (a.k.a. writer’s laptop).  It all depends on the circumstances.

And what ARE some of these circumstances?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Forget heart disease and car accidents.  Here are the leading causes of death in t.v. characters…



Back in Stargate: SG-1’s seventh season, Executive Producer Robert Cooper wanted to write a script that drove home the constant dangers our characters faced in the course of fulfilling their duties.  It was to be an episode that demonstrated the fickleness of death and paid tribute to the fallen – but, in order to be truly effective, it required a little something more.  It required one of our established characters to die – not while facing down alien hordes or executing some daring op but after being struck by something so seemingly random and inconsequential as an errant staff blast.  And the fact that it turned out to be Janet Fraiser, Stargate’s longtime Chief Medical Officer, dying while saving another life, made it all that more poignant.  Years later another doctor on another Stargate show met a similar fate for much the same reason.  And Carson Beckett’s demise was just as surprising and heartbreaking.



This usually applies to secondary characters and villains.  Sometimes, a character is created with a finite arc in mind and is ushered out when the writer feels their story has been told.  Other times, characters simply overstay their welcome like bad party guests and end up getting deep-sixed long past their natural expiration date.  As much as I loved the villainous goa’uld, I felt they’d fallen into the latter category by the end of SG-1’s eighth season.  Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman falls into the former category of course.  Wait!  What?!  Yes, it’s true.  The original plan was to kill off Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show’s first season, but Aaron Paul so impressed that the character was granted an extended reprieve.  In similar fashion, Stargate: Universe’s Dale Volker also avoided certain death.  On the other hand…

Not so fast.
Not so fast.


On the flip side are those characters for whom great plans are made, great hopes pinned but who, for whatever reason, fail to live up to their potential.  They are introduced, usually with much fanfare, only to exit with barely a whimper.

Sir?  Sir!  Step away from the light!
Sir? Sir! Step away from the light!


It happens.  The decision is made on the part of the actor to leave the show. Amicable creative discussions ensue culminating in a fitting onscreen death.  Dr. Daniel Jackson received a heroic send-off in SG-1’s Meridian, one that never fails to tug at the heart strings on subsequent viewings.  Of course the sadness is mitigated by the knowledge that, like South Park, science fiction always leaves the door open for miraculous resurrections.

Looking forward to a long and happy marriage.
Looking forward to a long and happy marriage.


The worst of all possible circumstances.  If the show continues, production will honor to their late cast member with a respectful send-off and tribute.


Personality conflicts, unprofessional behavior, poor performance, a bad attitude – just some of the things that can book someone a one-way ticket on the character death express.

Everybody dies because - well - everybody dies.
Everybody dies because – well – everybody dies.


Here, the writers are operating under the assumption that the show is ending and so, decide to go out with a bang.  And there’s no bang bigger than a character death. Or two.  Or more.  Hello, Blake’s 7.  The belief that the seventh season would be SG-1’s last made the decision to kill off Janet Fraiser somewhat easier.  If we had known we’d actually be coming back for another season, I’m not so sure things would have played out quite the same way.



Ratings are floundering.  The show’s creative is in a funk.  Quick!  Do something! Historically, television producers have generally responded in one of two ways: a) They add a cute kid to cast, or b) They kill off an established character.  Given the choice, I’d go with the latter.

So, with a better understanding of the mechanics of death in scripted television, we can now appreciate the mortality of every t.v. character, from series lead to red-shirted day player.

Could they actually kill off Daryl on tomorrow night’s episode of The Walking Dead?


Will they?

Not a chance.

Further reading:

29 Most Shocking TV Deaths – Entertainment Weekly

Most Devastating Character Deaths In TV History | Complex

The Most Shocking Deaths In Modern Television Drama History

22 thoughts on “November 30, 2013: The Mechanics of Death in Scripted Television!

  1. Okay, besides Stargate, the TV death I most remember was Agent Todd in Season 2 of NCIS. As for the Walking Dead, but I don’t have the Zombie Gene, so I haven’t really kept up.

    Is that last picture a Ben Browder on-screen death? I don’t seem to remember that one.

    And we have Snow (on the tablet screen)! I thought at first I had spilled something on the tablet… 😉

  2. Interesting analysis of the deaths of characters. But, why would they kill off a cartoon dog? Maybe it’s drinking was setting a bad example for other dogs? I was trying to think of someone who got killed, that shocked me to death, over all the years I have been watching TV, but I couldn’t think of anyone. I know there have been plenty. hmmmm…

    @ JeffW – That last picture looks like the doctor on Lost. I need to get out my DVD collection of that series and actually watch every episode. Come to think of it, I never picked up the final season. That must be where everyone gets killed.

  3. Killing off Brian was ridiculous – heartbreaking but for no good reason.
    I hate when shows kill off characters just for the dramatic impact, I understand the other reasons but if the writers are good enough they could certainly do something seriously impactful to that character without writing them out of the show. I mainly watch shows for the characters I like, not necessarily for the plot so when a favorite character gets killed off I usually stop watching. I was majorly pissed when Carson bit it, but kept watching because of Sheppard and Mckay. I was very, very happy when you brought him back.

  4. PS – You know what’s worse? Have a beloved character just kind of disappear and never let us know what happened to the. Jonas Q anyone? I really started to love that guy after getting over the shock of Daniel being gone and then poof! He’s gone! I did drift away from SG1 when I realized he wasn’t coming back and only watched sporadically, I was so mad at you folks!!

  5. @ Das – Glad your husband’s car accident wasn’t any worse than it was. Construction zones are so dangerous. You can’t go anywhere here in town without running into a major highway contruction area.

  6. Oh, and one more “by-the-way” comment. (Take notes Joe.) You kill off a dog in anything, TV series or movie, and you kill me off as a fan or viewer. Anyone who kills a dog for the sake of the story is a heartless b@$!*+d as far as I’m concerned. That’s where I tune out.

  7. I’m glad that EW article acknowledges some of the more poignant deaths for me – and non-Emmy winning series. Ianto in Torchwood, Kate on NCIS (the last time I was actually *shocked* by a death), Dee on BSG and Diana on V…and Mrs Landingham on The West Wing. I still cry every time I watch Two Cathedrals. I also still get choked up every time I watch the episode where Mulder is declared dead, even though I know he comes back to the show (Krycek’s death was pretty shocking, too, if not deserved).

    Sometimes, I honestly think the writers (or network deciders, whomever), do it just to mess with us – as you say, “to shake things up” aka get ratings. UGH. There have been many TV deaths that had no purpose or at the very least were written so horribly as to be only a motivator for someone’s angst (usually the white male lead). Thinking about this actually brings up the drama going on in Marvel right now over Scarlet Witch – not to mention the usual problematic writing where women die to motivate the male characters that’s prominent in both major comics brands, but particularly DC.

    Look, nothing annoys me more than shows where no one dies because its usually unrealistic (given I’m watching cop/genre shows), but when a character dies only to cause another character’s pain or is completely pointless, it really bothers me. (Or when shows consistently kill everyone but the white male leads. Supernatural is a big one for that. Though, admittedly, the male leads die all the time, but they come back every time, too, unlike most others.)

  8. While occasionally killing off a major character seems “right”… all too often it feels like cheap shock value, lazy writing, desperation or contract/money issues. The death at the end of Medium.. stupid, especially since based on REAL person who still alive. Forever Knight writers spent the last season killing off nearly everyone– wasn’t dramatic or good writing imnsho… just cheap shockers. Ditto on Highlander’s killing off of Richie. Meh.

    But even though I personally pretend Janet didn’t die.. I have to admit that it was a powerful episode, gut wrenching not SHOCK, and well done. I didn’t feel that way about Becker, sorry. It was okay, but simply not the same impact. Not saying it fit the cheap shocker mode, but just not the same.

    I love walking dead… but come on.. you can pretty much guarantee so far if you are Black, you are probably gone. I agree, they probably won’t kill Daryl. Well at least THIS season. 🙂

    And some deaths, like on Sons of Anarchy and Perlman’s character– man you knew he was going to have to die, he needed to die, but they gave him a good run of some redemption and honor before he went.

  9. You mentioned Blake’s 7! love you! I love that show and the end of season 1 was brilliant… not really a character but the whole ship blows up and closing credits… and of course the ending of the show which was brilliantly done 😀

  10. Mostly I’m sick of death in my shows. Granted, I like murder mysteries, but those usually start out with the death of someone you haven’t had a chance to get to know. I don’t mind that (especially if the person who dies is an unlikeable sort anyway). Since I’m a visual person it’s actually easier for me to handle a character death in a book (well…except for a certain pallid emperor of a dead kingdom and a dying world) than on the screen. I’m too deeply affected by loss and when I can see it – and see the grief – I just can’t deal with it. Reality sucks, and tv that imitates reality to boost ratings or because a character’s arc has ended just loses me. I don’t need it. In fact, it needs ME. And I’m not going to watch anything that guarantees ‘shocking’ deaths. I guess that’s pretty much why I’ll watch old episodes of Columbo over and over instead of risking my emotions on a new show.

    Like I’ve said, reality sucks, and tv sucks even more when they think imitating the real world is ‘entertainment’. No. Entertainment is the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie when everyone left the theater happy, and the opposite of entertainment is all the Pirate movies that followed afterwards, when everyone left the movie grumbling, ‘WTF! They just killed everyone off!’

    Okay. Maybe that’s just my opinion, but yesterday’s horrific death of Paul Walker (Fast & Furious), and the joking about it on another forum has left me wondering just how desensitized and heartless we’ve become as a society when someone dies in real life. (BTW – I didn’t even know the actor before his death, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling for his family and friends.)

    I truly blame deaths in movies and television for desensitizing us to real life death – in fact, people will be MORE upset over a character death than the death of a real person. Screwed up world, and I’m hating it more and more. I am so ready for a truly feel-good tv show it’s not even funny.


  11. In the case of Brian, I think it was simply a ploy to try to bring a show which has faded quite a bit from the popular consciousness some publicity. (Not that I ever really watched it much, anyway.) It’s similar to The Simpsons, another show which I used to LOVE, but now can take or leave. I mean, it’s still funny, but not brilliant like it used to be.

    I did find the loss of Janet (and Carson) quite heartbreaking and missed their characters (well, Beckett’s for a while) a lot. As a viewer it’s disappointing, but it did give the shows a shot of reality. Sadly, people we like DO die. All too often.

    @Ponytail: I don’t necessarily object to the dog (or whatever animal) dying, as long as it’s integral to the story – some good examples are “Old Yeller” and “Marley and Me”. Both are heart wrenching, in a way that is only more poignant if you’ve ever lost any animal that was dear to your own heart. What I do find troubling is if animals are treated (or appear to be) inhumanely. There’s still far too much acceptance in our culture to treat animals as property to do with or dispose of as we please. I even have issues with how our food animals are treated, and try as best I can to buy responsibly, which is hard given the opaqueness of our food supply system.

    Wait, how did I get off on that rant? Oh well.

    As far as Daryl goes, I actually wouldn’t be that upset if he got killed off, although I’d miss his character. I see only Rick as indispensable, as the central idea of the whole show seems to be his journey through this experience.

    @Das: Sorry to hear about your hubby’s experience, but glad that everyone’s okay. Spending $100 on bird food is not an unusual experience for me – Heck, I just own a lovebird and a budgie, and yet when I do get them food (granted, it’s specially formulated organic fortified pellets) it does add up. Of course, there’s the toys and other supplies, too! 🙂 I was thinking of putting a feeder up outside this Winter, but well, it’s snowing out right now already so it’s probably not going to happen. The number of cats on the loose around here concerns me too.

    Speaking of snow, here’s my backyard this morning!

    Speaking of birds, here’s this little monster (she’s actually wonderful):

  12. Walking Dead is beginning to really annoy me. All those people dying of the flu and nobody closes their cell door? If I lived in the zombie apocalypse, people had the flu and were dying and coming back as zombies, I”d dang well close the door. At least tie it shut. Zombies don’t seem to be great thinkers and aren’t good with knots. Their fingers fall off.

    And now the Gov is back. If he had sent his people there they probably would have been welcomed in, minus the Gov, but since he’s ipso facto crazy nutso, he has to go to war with some of the few people left alive in that state.
    With a tank. I wonder if they have ordinance for the canon on the tank.

    I hope the Gov gets his other eye poked out.

  13. @Bailey

    Brians death in Family Guy did absolutely nothing for the ratings either, usually if you kill someone off you expect a lot of talk about it and perhaps a spike in the ratings, but so far the show got nothing. It was probably the most pointless character death in a cartoon to date.

    Anyway people don’t have to worry about Daryl this season in TWD. Though I like the choice of actor that plays Abraham in the second part of Season 4.

  14. Oh and while we’re on the death subject, Ronans death was incredibly pointless in the finale. The fact he was revived moments later further amplifies that. Personally I would of preferred to of seen a cool fight scene between him and the head wraith, name escapes me. Have him half dead after the fight even and much slower. Maybe have him meet up with the rest of the group even.

  15. I always get upset when a main character dies. Real life has plenty of losses. I suppose I want to have some control over fiction and to preempt death or something.

    I love all the actors that have played in the new Dr. Who but I still miss Christopher Eccleston’s version. C. E. may have moved on but at least Dr Who keeps on ticking.

    Somehow it seems easier for me to accept the characters death if the actor makes the choice to leave. I’m not sure why but maybe, I rest easier knowing the actor isn’t begging for work or in the unemployment line.

    JeffW: Your Thanksgiving feast looked fantastic!

    All the links yesterday were interesting. Some more disturbing that others (Radiation & Nuclear Launch Codes especially-YIKES!).

    Hope everyone out there is napping, eating fabulous foods and having a great weekend!

  16. @ Mike from Canada – 😆 😆

    @ gforce – That’s your backyard?? Very pretty Grizzly Adams. And your bird is beautiful!

  17. how much a character death bothers me is tied into how long i “knew” her/him. when yar was bumped-off during the first season of star trek: TNG, i was pretty annoyed. when jadzia dax got it in the sixth season of star trek: DS9 i was a bit more pissed off. in both cases the actress wanted out to do other thing & also in both cases, their death served to show how powerful another character was or had become.
    like others have said when a character is offed just for ratings (complete with commercials that trumpet the “shocking event” as in; “you won’t believe who doesn’t make it!” or “the last 4 minuets will shock you!” ) it really bugs me, but i guess that’s how the game is played sometimes.

  18. The Following on Fox is not shy of killing people off including major characters. Of course, they can’t kill off Kevin Bacon or James Purefoy because there would not be a show without them. But I feel like everyone else has a target on their backs.

    Game of Thrones: I expect everyone to die. LOL.

    I can’t watch the episode with Janet on Stargate dying without crying. To be completely honest, anytime anyone dies on TV I cry. Including animals. Speaking of Paul Walker, I can’t watch the movie Eight Below without sobbing. I sob when the little boy in Air Bud is yelling at Buddy to leave because he is trying to save him from his bad owner getting to him. So I do a lot of crying while I’m watching TV and movies.

    @Das I’m so happy your husband is okay. And thank you so much about the book “Why I Jump” As I shared, Jeff has already downloaded this to our IPad via the Kindle app, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

  19. I’m done with Downton at this point, I’m tired of them sitting around waiting for the dowager to say somethin’ sassy, and all the backstage drama has killed the magic of the show.

    Misfits is big on killing off cast members but the writing is so good I’ve kept watching.

    I’m doing my best to get back to work post-Thanksgiving; I’m still having flashbacks to the best Dutch apple pie I’ve ever had, but now it’s back to veggies, fruits and yogurt.

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