‘We’ve made a terrible mistake’: Seven TV deaths that still impact viewers

Some occurred decades ago, while others just happened this year, but all of them were questioned. Years later, some screenwriters and producers have expressed their regrets

Brian Cox
Brian Cox, in the third season of 'Succession.'David M. Russell (HBO)
Eva Güimil

Sixteen years after the finale of The O.C., which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, its producers have concluded that killing off the main character Marissa Cooper, played by Mischa Barton, was a mistake. They just acknowledged as much in a lengthy oral history of the show published in Vanity Fair.

Let’s recap. The O.C. was a teen drama set in affluent Orange County. As The Guardian put it, the show was a cross between Karate Kid and Beverly Hills, 90210. It aired during the first decade of the new millennium. At its core was Marissa Cooper, whose main journey in life was falling in love with Ryan, a rebel of humble origins who appeared in the neighborhood to blow up the dynamics of a group of Californian preppies. The show’s brilliance was blinding but ephemeral and Barton was the most recognizable face.

When the program was about to end its third season, the producers began to feel Fox executives breathing down their necks. Ratings were dropping and, worse, the show was no longer relevant. The network asked for “promotable” storylines and Marissa’s death was the first plot twist on the table. According to the feedback the producers had received from online forums, Mischa’s extreme thinness and Marissa’s insufferable character bothered them. Without considering that the character was who they had written for her, they decided that killing her off was the solution. The grief following her death would be the jolt of energy that allowed them to create new plots. “This comments so much upon the paucity of our imaginations, but we didn’t know where to go with the story. The Marissa-Ryan relationship was so integral to the show, and we felt like we had gone through so many different permutations of it that we didn’t know what the next step of it was. So we thought at the very least, forcing Ryan to deal with the grief that would happen from that, we could understand how we could turn that into another season,” screenwriter John Stephens told Vanity Fair.

Mischa Barton
Mischa Barton.Vera Anderson (WireImage)

Ultimately, Marissa died after an accident from which she was rescued in extremis but unsuccessfully by her beloved Ryan. The night the episode aired, Tumblr, the preferred social media of the time, was on fire. “What have we done? We’ve made a terrible mistake,” the producers said to themselves at the time, realizing for the first time that those who had opined about Marissa earlier were an unrepresentative minority. Marissa was the star of the show, and they had just fulminated against her. But without her, The O.C. buckled and didn’t make it past the fourth season. Barton’s film career, which never took off in Hollywood, suffered a similar setback.

Marissa’s unfortunate departure from The O.C. is just one example from a long list of TV deaths that left viewers perplexed by the absurdity, suddenness, cruelty or needlessness of a character’s plight. Below, we review seven of the most memorable examples.

Brian Cox
Brian Cox.Borja B. Hojas (WireImage)

Logan Roy in Succession

Cause of death: Heart attack while traveling by plane.

Why did he leave the show? The title itself explains it, and as Cox himself acknowledged: “It’s about succession. You need a corpse.” The Roy patriarch had to disappear for that succession to take place and to explore the relationship between his descendants once he no longer cast his powerful shadow on them. Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, knew what would happen in the first season and began to lay the groundwork for it in the third. To prevent anyone from leaking it, they even hid the plot from the cast and referred to it in code. In fact, Bryan Cox returned to the set from time to time so that no one could guess that he was no longer on the show.

How did fans take it? Despite the health problems foreshadowing Logan Roy’s death, the writers caught Succession fans off guard by having his demise occur in the third episode, when plots are usually opened, not closed. Moreover, the episode title, “Connor’s Wedding,” did not portend that we would see more than just another tense reunion of the wealthy backbiting family that night. It was quite surprising. And the fact that they chose to record the scene without cuts and gave the actors freedom enhanced their performances. That night social media filled with messages demanding an Emmy for all the cast members. “Really not into hyperbole, but tonight’s Succession was maybe one of the best episodes of television… ever?” critic Angelique Jackson wrote.

Sean Bean.
Sean Bean.VALERY HACHE (AFP via Getty Images)

Ned Stark in Game of Thrones

Cause of death: Beheaded by an executioner in front of the horrified gaze of his daughters.

Why did he leave the show? It was inevitable. The death was written in George R. R. Martin’s first volume A Song of Fire and Ice, the (still unfinished) book series on which the show is based. The death of the patriarch of the Stark northerners was not the first act of brutal violence in Game of Thrones, but it did serve to show that no one was safe. Neither being a moral role model nor a renowned actor could prevent Ned Stark’s head from crowning a pike.

How did the fans take it? Those who had not read the books were caught completely off guard. The fact that actor Sean Bean was the cast’s most recognizable face seemed to be enough to keep him safe, although it hadn’t protected Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring. Fans of the novel had to restrain themselves from shouting to the rest of the compassionate viewers that the worst, the Red Wedding, in which most of the Stark family died, would come a couple of seasons later and would be much more difficult to get over.

Susan Sullivan
Susan Sullivan.CBS Photo Archive (CBS via Getty Images)

Maggie Gioberti in Falcon Crest

Cause of death: Drowned in a pool.

Why did she leave the show? By Falcon Crest’s ninth season, everything had already been done, and the show needed a jolt. Dallas had Pamela’s dream (after which it was revealed that a whole season had just been a dream). Dynasty had the Moldavian wedding during which half the cast was in mortal danger, and The Colbys had a UFO. Falcon Crest needed its own unforgettable moment, and writers gave it to the angelic Maggie, dull Chase’s widow and evil Richard Channing’s redeemer. After experiencing a brain tumor, alcoholism and amnesia, only death remained for the character played by Susan Sullivan, and it happened in a big way. Just after recognizing that she had never been happier, she dove into the pool to pick up a toy that some kids had dropped, and the engagement ring that Richard had given her got caught in the drain. Her limp body floating at the bottom of the pool caught the show’s viewers off guard.

How did the fans take it? In the world of television, where every show that premieres seems to cause an unprecedented earthquake, the fact that Maggie Gioberti’s farewell still appears on lists of unforgettable TV deaths forty years later reflects the impact it had.

Patrick Dempsey
Patrick Dempsey.Frank Ockenfels (Disney General Entertainment Con)

Derek Shepherd in Grey's Anatomy

Cause of death: Traffic accident after saving a family who had been in a car accident.

Why did he leave the show? After twenty seasons we know two things: the set of Grey’s Anatomy is not the best place to keep secrets and its creator Shonda Rhimes does not hesitate to kill off her characters. The bad relationship between Dempsey — People magazine’s 2023 sexiest man alive — and Ellen Pompeo, who plays the titular Meredith Grey, was an open secret. But Dempsey’s problems weren’t limited to his relationship with his co-star; they affected everyone. “He was terrorizing the set. Some cast members had all kinds of post-traumatic stress disorder after working with him,” executive producer James D. Parriott recalled in the book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy. Rhimes was gracious enough to write her lead character’s farewell episode, which she titled How to Save a Life, the show’s unofficial anthem. It was a heroic ending in which McDreamy passed away after saving an injured family, and the episode made it clear that even a dying man could diagnose himself better than anyone else.

How did the fans take it? The millions of fans of Meredith and Shepherd’s relationship didn’t care about the tensions on the set: they just wanted to see the two characters together and happy. After the episode aired, they started a Change.org petition for the character to be resurrected and social media filled with simple but effective messages like “We hate you, Shonda.” But the show’s most unpredictable moment did not catch viewers completely off guard. Despite security measures (it was filmed in another location with actors who only found out which show they were working on at the last moment), a logistical error caused some Entertainment Weekly subscribers to receive an issue in which Shepherd’s death was featured on the cover.

Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams.Jim Spellman (WireImage)

Omar Little in The Wire

Cause of death: Shot by a child while buying cigarettes.

Why did he leave the show? In The Wire’s Baltimore, fate is mapped out almost before birth regardless of how charismatic you are (let’s not forget how short the career of the dashing Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba, was). The fate of Barack Obama’s favorite character — and the favorite of almost every other viewer of David Simon’s show — was no exception. Omar was violent but moral, intelligent yet brutal and, most surprisingly, openly gay. He was tender and solicitous with his boyfriends but a ruthless killer who could establish his own law amid the reign of Baltimore’s organized gangs. One would have thought that his death would have matched his legendary status, and yet it was trivial. One of the kids who aspired to be like Omar shot him in the head while he was buying a pack of cigarettes.

How did the fans take it? Without the immediacy of social media, web forums and especially blogs were the sounding boards for fans who had believed that their hero, so fond of mythology, was immortal. When Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar, died in 2021, the shock and series of eulogistic obituaries that followed attested to the character’s lasting impact: Omar was as well written as he was genuinely portrayed.

Dan Stevens
Dan Stevens.Dave M. Benett (Getty Images)

Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey

Cause of death: He was in a car accident on his way to meet his newborn son on Christmas morning, because writers can always be a little crueler.

Why did he leave the show? The actor playing him, Dan Stevens, left for one of the most common reasons: he got calls from Hollywood and wanted to make it on the big screen. Show creator Julian Fellowes asked the actor to return in a later episode so that he could write a more pleasant farewell to the character, but Stevens had already decided to go to the United States. At first it seemed like a smart move: he played the Beast alongside Emma Watson in the live-action adaptation of the Disney classic. But Stevens ended up starring in inconsequential shows and disappeared from the spotlight. Had he known what was in store for him, he might have reconsidered his abrupt departure from England’s favorite mansion.

How did fans take it? Some of the comments after Crawley’s death included “I swear the Crawleys are the Kennedys of Yorkshire.” “You watch shows like Downton Abbey to make yourself feel better.” “Merry Christmas, children! Everyone you love will die.” Millions of the show’s fans — who were still sensitive after the angelic Lady Sybil had passed away after giving birth — could not believe her brother-in-law’s tragic fate. Fellowes ended up regretting his decision. “Some people were very upset, and I’ve had to apologize a lot over the years.”

Drea de Matteo.
Drea de Matteo.Cewzan Grayson - PA Images (PA Images via Getty Images)

Adriana La Cerva in The Sopranos

Cause of death: Murdered in the woods after it was discovered that she was an FBI informant.

Why did she leave the show? She was killed to advance Tony Soprano’s narrative arc. The fact that he ordered the murder of one of the show’s most beloved characters added yet another layer of slimy evil to the character played by James Gandolfini. Terence Winter wrote a scene with dreamlike overtones in which we always think there is a chance that Adriana will escape her fate at the last moment. In a series that never shied away from showing violence, Adriana’s death was the only one that occurred offscreen. Years later, Winter confessed that many fans of the show still ask him why he decided to do that, and his answer is simple: “I realized that I was really the one who didn’t want to see what was happening.”

How did the fans take it? They weren’t surprised. As soon as Adriana started cooperating with the FBI, viewers realized that she had signed her own death warrant. The only question was the degree of sadism with which she would be killed. The series delivered.

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