[This story contains major spoilers for a litany of TV series: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Magicians, American Gods, Watchmen, The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange Is the New Black, Veep, Russian Doll, Riverdale, How to Get Away With Murder, Veronica Mars and Pose.]
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
Cersei Lannister came to know those words well, as Lena Headey’s queen of King’s Landing met her bitter end beneath the Red Keep’s rubble — just one episode shy of Game of Thrones‘ series finale. Worst of all for the powerbroker: Her death was one of many in “The Bells,” one of the bloodiest hours of television in 2019, but certainly not unique in its shock-factor qualities.
Indeed, looking around the television landscape, 2019 offered some of the most brutal demises in recent memory — some by tragic necessity, others by creative cruelty. As the year draws to a close, The Hollywood Reporter looks back on the most shocking TV character deaths of 2019, beginning with HBO’s aforementioned swords-and-sorcery drama.
The Night King (Vladimir Furdik), Game of Thrones
In the opening scene of the series, Game of Thrones established the White Walkers as the central threat. Seasons later, the Night King emerged as the face of that enemy, the final foe Jon Snow (Kit Harington) would have to defeat on the greater quest for the Iron Throne. That’s not what happened. Instead, the Night King died at the hands of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), a clever bit of sleight-of-hand, triggering the deaths of all the other White Walkers in the process — all at the midpoint of the final season. The Night King’s death wasn’t just a shocking moment on its own, then. It was seismic within the context of the greater Game of Thrones storytelling structure, a death that remains controversial even in the aftermath of the series finale.
The GoT Final Season Bloodbath (15 castmembers and one CGI dragon)
The Night King stands apart, but he’s not alone. Over the course of the series finale, “The Iron Throne,” Game of Thrones parted ways with only one major character: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), shockingly murdered by her boyfriend (and nephew; it’s complicated) Jon Snow. The relatively bloodless final episode of HBO’s crown jewel stands in stark contrast to the five preceding installments, in which an astonishing amount of heroes and villains were tossed onto the body pile: the Lannister twins Cersei and Jaime (Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the brothers Sandor and Gregor Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), Melisandre (Carice van Houten), Varys (Conleth Hill), Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton), Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser), Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the dragon Rhaegal few. While some players were allowed a happy ending (including all the surviving members of House Stark), the number of main characters killed in the rush to the finish line is staggering, to say the least.
Tara (Alanna Masterson), Enid (Katelyn Nacon), Henry (Matthew Lintz), Siddiq (Avi Nash), The Walking Dead
In her first year as showrunner, Angela Kang adapted one of the single most harrowing moments from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s comic book run to the screen: the heads on spikes that declare the start of war between Alexandria and the Whisperers. Tara, Enid and Henry were the biggest casualties in “The Calm Before,” one of the most intense Walking Dead hours in modern memory — and the lone survivor of the incident, Siddiq, only kept his head for so long, killed off right before the midseason 10 finale. “All of these types of decisions are difficult,” Kang told THR, “but there have to be life-and-death stakes to the show.”
Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), The Magicians
A major deviation from the Lev Grossman novel of the same name, The Magicians‘ fourth season ended with a shocking death: its own series lead. Killed in a sacrifice play enacted in order to protect his friends, Quentin Coldwater dies in the season four finale, but is nonetheless afforded one last chance to observe his loved ones before slipping off into the great unknown. “Quentin came in with a very specific purpose and a very specific set of life goals and challenges, and in a way, I’m not sure what we would have done with the character had he lived,” executive producer John McNamara has said about the twist. “It felt like the major question in his life is, ‘Is my life truly worth living? Was it a good thing that I didn’t succeed in killing myself at 15 or 18?’ He now has that answer: He mattered to these other people, and their lives are never going to be the same for knowing him.”
Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), American Gods
As with The Magicians, here’s another instance where a television adaptation of a popular fantasy novel rustled the feathers of its source material. In its second season, Starz’s take of author Neil Gaiman’s American Gods did away with a major player: Pablo Schreiber’s hard-fighting leprechaun Mad Sweeney. Sweeney dies in Gaiman’s book, sure, but in much subtler fashion — not a hard feat to top, as the character was much more heavily involved in the TV show than he was in the original text. Another reason why Sweeney’s violent death made sense: Schreiber’s new job at the helm of Showtime’s Halo series, based on the beloved video game franchise of the same name.
Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), Watchmen
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic comic book series on which the HBO drama is based opens with a major death: the Comedian, tossed out a window, launching the rest of the action’s events into motion. It’s only fitting that Damon Lindelof’s extension of the source material ends its first episode with a moment that calls the Comedian’s demise to mind, as Don Johnson’s smiling Tulsa sheriff Judd Crawford closes out the hour, hanging from a tree, “Pore Jud Is Daid” from Oklahoma humming along in the background. “This Watchmen had to end with a moment that’s a direct commentary on [the comic],” says Lindelof, “but also in a way that felt like it wouldn’t be befuddling to someone who didn’t know that there was a splotch of blood on the Comedian’s badge.”
Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) and Eleanor Lawrence (Julie Dretzin), The Handmaid’s Tale
In season three of The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss’ June Osborne strikes back, and does so with a vengeance. The former Waterford handmaid becomes a resistance fighter over the course of the Hulu drama’s third year, engineering a mass exodus of children from Gilead, striking right at the heart of the totalitarian nation. June also literally strikes at the heart of Meloni’s Commander Winslow, stabbing the man to death in the season’s jarring antepenultimate installment — just one episode before she solemnly allows Eleanor Lawrence to take her own life, as a means of preserving her plan to free the children of Gilead. As Moss put it to THR: “In a way, she sacrificed everything for those kids, including herself. I honestly don’t know how she comes back from that. How do you come back from that?”
Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Orange Is the New Black
When Orange Is the New Black first introduced Tiffany Doggett, aka “Pennsatucky,” at the start of the Netflix prison dramedy, creator Jenji Kohan would be hard-pressed to find a fan who would be devastated by the demise of Litchfield’s white-trash bully. (“I thought I’d be assassinated for this role. She’s such a horrible person!” Taryn Manning has said of the casting.) But by the seventh and final season, Manning’s reformed inmate had fixed herself on the outside (remember those teeth?) and found peace within. After a lifetime riddled with abandonment, sexual assault and a learning disability, Pennsatucky put herself on the straight and narrow, and was paying it forward by helping other inmates. In the penultimate episode of the series, her overdose on fentanyl was an especially heartbreaking fate given how much the character had turned her life around.
Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Veep
A fitting fate for a president? Only if your name is Selina Meyer. After seven seasons of charting the comical highs and lows of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ journey as veep turned unelected president, the series finale of the award-winning HBO comedy jumped 24 years into the future to her funeral. After revealing that she had won the election — but had sacrificed everything and everyone, including Gary (Tony Hale), in order to sit in the Oval Office — the time-jump placed viewers at the final resting place of the one-term POTUS: a vagina-shaped crypt. In the end — and in a nod to a joke from the pilot — her funeral was one-upped by the news of the death of beloved actor Tom Hanks. The final scene conjures up the image of America’s biggest narcissist letting out a shrill from up above, and the farewell of “exquisite torture” provides one last laugh all around.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), Russian Doll
“Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes.” Not since Groundhog’s Day has the concept of reliving the same day captured the zeitgeist like Natasha Lyonne did with her irreverent Nadia in Netflix’s Amy Poehler-produced Russian Doll. The twisty journey of self-discovery saw Lyonne’s protagonist reliving her 36th birthday on a nightmarish loop after she keeps dying and coming back to life. Whether struck by a cab, flung down a flight of stairs or freezing to death, each demoralizing fate was followed up with the sound of the catchy Harry Nilsson tune and image of Nadia facing herself in the mirror and readying to embark on another fateful 36th birthday. With news of a season two renewal, we can’t wait to see how she continues to pick herself up.
Fred Andrews (Luke Perry), Riverdale
In one of the most heartbreaking stories of the year, beloved actor and Riverdale‘s on- and offscreen father figure Luke Perry suffered a massive stroke in March and died days later at the age of 52. The CW’s Archie Comics-inspired drama was left to figure out how to address Perry’s absence and opted to dedicate its season four premiere to pay tribute to both Perry and his character, Fred Andrews (Archie’s father). Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa fulfilled one of Perry’s wishes for the series and welcomed his longtime friend and former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Shannen Doherty for a rare grounded episode. Producers opted to wait until October’s season four premiere to properly honor one of their own as Perry’s Fred was killed off in an offscreen car crash.
Asher (Matt McGorry), How to Get Away With Murder
The sixth and final season of the Shonda Rhimes-produced drama from showrunner Pete Nowalk took one of its regulars off the board when Matt McGorry’s smack-talking Asher was killed off in the fall finale after being revealed as the mole who narked on Annalise (Viola Davis). While McGorry confirmed Asher’s death, he also noted that his time onscreen isn’t totally over. “You’ll see more of Asher in plenty of flashbacks when we are back from the midseason hiatus,” he wrote as part of a heartfelt reaction post.
Logan (Jason Dohring), Veronica Mars
Hulu’s revival of Kristen Bell’s cult-favorite detective series delivered a gut-twisting blow to its vocal and diehard fanbase when, mere moments after Veronica’s quiet wedding to reformed bad-boy Logan (Jason Dohring), he is killed via car bomb. “The on-again-off-again relationship with Veronica and Logan … can only go so far, and if these two are sort of destined to be together as characters, it wouldn’t really make sense for the show to have it end any other way,” Dohring said. “I think [creator] Rob [Thomas] really saw a chance to bring Veronica back to where she started, in a way, and bring her back to being the underdog, because the audience really responds to her in that way. This does that; it gives her a way to start anew, and obviously in pain, but with a new determination. I think that’s the direction he was looking to go, and I understood that.”
Candy (Angelica Ross), Pose
FX’s awards season player turned its spotlight on violence against transgender women of color in its second season when ballroom spitfire Candy (Angelica Ross) was found dead inside the closet of a seedy Manhattan motel where she felt forced to participate in sex work to make ends meet. The episode, written by co-creator Ryan Murphy and directed by Janet Mock, was designed to hold a mirror up to society. “At its best, Pose is advocacy. I think we’re at a tipping point in our culture — and it’s only getting worse under this current administration — where all you can do is ask people to get angry. What will it take? We know putting it out into the world, [this episode] will be jarring and upsetting to some people and it will launch conversations, but I think necessary conversations,” Murphy said of the gripping hour.
Lesley Goldberg and Jackie Strause contributed to this story.