Decade in Review: The Most Shocking Character Deaths and Actor Exits of the 2010s

Surprising savvy TV viewers is increasingly more difficult now that there are 500-plus scripted series airing each year — and that's not even taking into account the ways in which social media makes it nearly impossible for a production to preserve a meaningful secret for viewers across time zones.

But somehow, plenty of series throughout the exploding age of Peak TV managed to shock audiences with major cast shake-ups. Whether it was Game of Thrones ruthlessly informing its non book-reader viewers that no one was safe; a major contract dispute ending poorly for an actor; a real-life tragedy; or a popular performer deciding to move on, there were many reasons why shows shook up their core casts by killing off beloved (and occasionally reviled) characters. 

Here are some of the most notable examples of the biggest actor exits and character deaths of the 2010s. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.)

Josh Charles, The Good Wife (2014)

CBS teased that the legal drama's season five sweeps episode as its "most shocking moment ever," and that was no Bachelor-esque empty promise: Charles' attorney Will Gardner was shot and killed in the courtroom by his client. The move came after Charles decided to leave his role as a series regular, prompting creators Robert and Michelle King to kill off the character rather than send him off to a new job or something else less permanent. "These turning points keep the show from slipping into a numbing sameness and keep the characters fresh because you see how they react to a completely new status quo. Will's death in many ways becomes a hub for the whole series, violently spinning everybody in new directions," they wrote in a letter to fans after the episode aired.

Patrick Dempsey, Grey's Anatomy (2015)

Meredith Grey lost her McDreamy when Dempsey's Dr. Derek Shepherd was killed off the long-running medical drama in an 11th-season episode written by creator Shonda Rhimes herself. Although Dempsey had a year left on his reported $400,000 per episode contract at the time of his departure, he remained in business with ABC Studios with his development deal. The blow was especially hard for fans following the departure of Sandra Oh at the end of season 10.

Cory Monteith, Glee (2013)

The Ryan Murphy musical dramedy faced tragedy head-on after its leading man died from a drug overdose during the summer of 2013. In an emotional episode, Glee picked up three weeks following the death of McKinley High's star quarterback Finn Hudson, and, in a classy move by producers — given the beloved actor's offscreen romance with co-star Lea Michele — made no mention of how the character died.

Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead (2018-2020)

Plenty of characters didn't survive AMC's zombie apocalypse as long as Rick Grimes and Michonne managed to last, which is why fans were especially devastated when leading man Lincoln announced his departure from the series. His exit wasn't as permanent as expected, however, as his character was mysteriously airlifted out of danger in a move that will be explained further in a major shift for the franchise: a trilogy of feature films starring Lincoln. Another major blow came when leading lady Danai Gurira confirmed her exit after a handful of season 10 episodes. Her final hour is set to air in 2020.

Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, Hawaii Five-0 (2017)

Stars Kim and Park announced their exits from the series following its seventh season. At the time, a CBS statement thanked the actors for their contribution to the drama. But in a Facebook post, Kim later revealed that the real reason for their departure is because they asked for — and were not granted — salary parity with co-stars Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan. "Though I made myself available to come back, CBS and I weren't able to agree to terms on a new contract, so I made the difficult choice not to continue," Kim wrote, adding, "The path to equality is rarely easy."

Sean Bean and the Night King, Game of Thrones (2011 and 2019)

HBO's sprawling fantasy drama bookended its seasons with shocking character deaths. Its first major moment came in the penultimate episode of season one, when leading man Bean's Ned Stark was beheaded, setting the tone for the rest of the series. There were plenty of surprising turns in the final season, but it was the Night King's death in the Battle of Winterfell — at the hands of young Arya Stark, no less — that was probably the most unexpected, both because of how early in the season it occurred, and because of the person who slayed the supernatural force.

Samira Wiley, Orange Is the New Black (2016)

At the end of the Netflix original's fourth season, the series said goodbye to one of its most popular ensemble stars in a move that would leave an indelible impact on the series. Wiley's Poussey Washington was suffocated by a prison guard, echoing the real-life death of Eric Garner and sparking a riot that would span all of season five and set up the storyline for its final two seasons. "In the beginning I was really surprised and confused, but then in talking with the writers and trying to understand the story they were trying to tell, my feelings quickly changed to being honored," Wiley told THR of the timely story that touched on racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cote de Pablo, NCIS (2013)

The actress announced her intention to exit the procedural following its 11th season, though she promised to make sure the character would get a satisfying sendoff. At the time, CBS brass said they did everything they could to keep the actress on the series but she "decided she didn't want to do the show." She returned for a two-episode arc in 2019.

Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey (2012)

The death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) was already a blow to fans of the British import, but the worst was yet to come when Stevens' character, Matthew Crawley, was killed in a car accident shortly after meeting his newborn son. "We knew quite early that Dan [Stevens] was leaving, but we certainly didn't know how the story would pan out," star Michelle Dockery, who played Matthew's onscreen love, Lady Mary, told THR. But creator Julian Fellowes defended the move, reminding viewers that it was the actor's decision to leave the series. "Fans are people who aren't in the TV business; they didn't understand that Matthew's fate wasn't our choice. It was Dan's choice to go," he told THR.

Brett Dier, Jane the Virgin (2017)

A series based on a telenovela was always going to have major twists, but it still came as a surprise when Dier's Michael, the husband of the titular heroine (Gina Rodriguez), suddenly dropped dead. Thankfully, the aforementioned telenovela conceit made it easier for the character to return for Jane's final season (it turns out he was drugged by a criminal mastermind and given amnesia).

Roseanne Barr, Roseanne (2018)

Following a racist Twitter tirade, ABC axed Barr from her titular series — and ended the show altogether in favor of a Roseane-less spinoff, The Conners. In the new show's premiere, her death was explained as an opioid overdose following knee surgery.

Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (2018)

In 2018, Tambor was fired from his groundbreaking and Emmy-winning Amazon series in the wake of sexual harassment allegations and a subsequent internal investigation. Although the actor responded to the accusations initially by saying he couldn't "see how I can return to Transparent," he never explicitly said he was leaving the series. Transparent returned in 2019 for a "musicale finale" rather than a full fifth and final season — without Tambor, whose character was killed off.

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (2017)

Production on the sixth and final season of Netflix's first-ever scripted series was halted after two episodes following sexual harassment and assault allegations against star Spacey, who was subsequently fired. The Baltimore-based show held production until early 2018 in order to write out Spacey's character and rework the season to revolve around Robin Wright's Claire.

Clayne Crawford, Lethal Weapon (2018)

Odd-couple cop partners Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) and Riggs (Crawford) ended their partnership early when Warner Bros. fired Crawford from the series following multiple incidents involving the actor's poor behavior. The small-screen adaptation of the film series brought in Seann William Scott in a new role to fill his shoes, though the hot mess that was Fox's reboot would only last one more season.

Ruth Wilson, The Affair (2018)

With two episodes remaining in its penultimate season, the Showtime drama said goodbye to star Wilson when her character, Alison, seemingly died by suicide by drowning herself near her home. (It was later revealed that she was murdered by her married boyfriend. "Ruth wanted to leave the show. That was a request, so that was decided basically before we started writing. .. Her whole storyline was shot before we shot anything else," creator Sarah Treem told THR after Wilson's final episode aired. Two weeks later, though, Wilson said she wanted to leave the series but was "not allowed to talk about why." But as THR later revealed, it turns out the actress, restrained by a nondisclosure agreement, had long wanted to leave the show because of ongoing frustrations with the nudity required of her, friction with Treem over the direction of her character, and what she ultimately felt was a 'hostile work environment,' later the subject of a previously unreported 2017 investigation by Showtime parent company CBS.

Alycia Debnam-Carey, The 100 (2016)

The death of Debnam-Carey's Lexa on The CW's postapocalyptic drama caused an uproar among fans that lasted weeks, ultimately leading to an apology from creator Jason Rothenberg for perpetuating television's "bury your gays" trope. Although he defended his decision to kill off the character moments after she had sex with series protagonist Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) as "practical (an actress was leaving the show), creative (it’s a story about reincarnation) and thematic (it’s a show about survival)," he also regretted the manner in which the character departed the series. "Despite my reasons, I still write and produce television for the real world where negative and hurtful tropes exist,” he wrote. “And I am very sorry for not recognizing this as fully as I should have. Knowing everything I know now, Lexa’s death would have played out differently."

Maggie Siff, Sons of Anarchy (2013)

Kurt Sutter, creator of the FX biker drama, told THR that he knew early on that he'd kill off Tara (Siff) in the series' sixth-season finale. But he didn't tell the actor until a read-through at the beginning of the season, setting the stage for her departure."The knowledge that it was going to happen — it felt unreal, and then surreal. And then as we got to the day, and the episode, it got more and more challenging. And then shooting it was really hard," she told THR of the episode, which saw her character murdered by her own mother-in-law.

Damian Lewis, Homeland (2013)

Although ostensibly about Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul's (Mandy Patinkin) CIA efforts to prevent stateside terrorism, the Showtime drama was initially built around Nicholas Brody (Lewis). The traitorous Marine met a brutal end in season three, when he was hanged in a public square in Teheran. "When I accepted the job, it was intimated to me very strongly by Alex [Gansa] and Howard [Gordon, co-creators] that, as far as they knew, this guy was kind of a two-season role. That's what they had story for mapped out in their mind. They weren't really sure how it would go after that. Then we became this big hit, and I think there was pressure on them not to kill Brody because he was so central to the show, and the Brody and Carrie relationship was popular with people. So I got a third season," Lewis told THR.

Patrick J. Adams and Meghan Markle, Suits (2018)

Markle's departure was all but foretold when she began dating Prince Harry, but after the now-Duchess made it official, her onscreen love made his exit official, too. Adams left the series after more than 100 episodes and an onscreen wedding between their characters that aired shortly before Markle's real-life nuptials. "We just enjoyed the hell out of the last few episodes that we got to shoot," he told THR. "We both knew that we wouldn’t be coming back. It made every one of our scenes that much more special. We had a great time. We could laugh through it. Even the things that might have frustrated us about the show, they became things that we could have a good laugh about and compare notes on just how crazy this thing had become."

Nina Dobrev, The Vampire Diaries (2015)

The CW leading lady threw a wrench into the vampire drama's central love triangle when she announced her departure from the series (though she would later return for the series finale). "The fairy tale has to end, and the next chapter has to begin," she told THR. "I knew this was my time, and I'm excited for the next step."

Luke Perry, Riverdale (2019)

Although production was suspended on the Archie Comics drama following the actor's death after a stroke in March 2019, the series didn't address the departure of his character, Fred Andrews, until its fourth-season premiere that fall. Perry's Beverly Hills, 90210 co-star Shannen Doherty guest-starred in the special episode, which saw the character struck and killed by a car after stopping to help a fellow motorist on the side of the road. "It did suggest a path for Archie, which is about growing up a little more quickly than he would have and and giving senior year this almost melancholy feel," said creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa of the character's onscreen death.

Erinn Hayes, Kevin Can Wait (2017)

Two days after the news that Kevin James' King of Queens co-star Leah Remini would join his newest sitcom full-time, CBS execs revealed that Hayes, who played his onscreen wife, was departing. CBS brass told reporters that the character would be killed off in the season two premiere, though it wasn't originally the plan when Remini guested at the end of season one. "Erinn is a terrific actress; she did a great job. When everybody collectively saw how Leah and Kevin were together in those last couple episodes, there was an undeniable spark there. Kevin, the studios and the network all got together and wanted to keep that magic and chemistry going forward," CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told reporters.

Sophia Bush, Chicago P.D. (2017)

The actor's character, Detective Erin Lindsay, departed the series when she was offered an undercover FBI position in New York City. The circumstances surrounding her exit weren't immediately clear, though she later confirmed she "wanted to exit" and further elaborated on her decision on Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast: it was "a consistent onslaught barrage of abusive behavior,” she said. "When someone assaults you in a roomful of people, and every one literally looks away...and you’re the one woman in the room, and every man who’s twice your size doesn’t do something, you go, ‘Oh, that wasn’t worth defending? I’m not worth defending?'"

Stana Katic, Castle (2016)

The decision to write female lead Katic out of ABC's detective dramedy after its eighth season was financially motivated as the network attempted to cut costs ahead of a possible ninth-season renewal. Sources told THR that ABC considered writing out Katic's Kate Beckett at the end of season seven but balked when the network faced backlash after Patrick Dempsey's Derek Shepherd was shockingly killed off and written out of Grey's Anatomy with a year remaining on his contract. Sources also told THR that Katic had been unhappy for some time and there were repeated clashes between the actress and star Nathan Fillion. The series never made it to a ninth season.