Killing off a major character is great way to up the stakes, create suspense, and show that this story isn't going where you expect. Sometimes, a movie or TV show will go further and cast a famous name or create marketing that implies that a character will be around for a while, only for them to die almost immediately. Here are ten of the most shocking uses. Spoilers.
And no, Obi-Wan isn't on this list. But it was an awesome death, wasn't it? Again, as this is a list about characters dying, spoilers ahead.
Sometimes shows and movies get a great actor to play a character, announce the actor as playing a major role — even issuing press releases that make that character out to be one of the main protagonists. Or an important recurring character. But it's all a lie — that person's destined to die in first act. This is used to establish a world where anyone can die. In Lost, for example, Jack Shepard was originally slated for this kind of role, with Javier Grillo-Marxuach recently explaining:
As has been reported elsewhere, one of the out-of-the-box ideas featured in both the greenlit outline and the first draft of the pilot was that Jack Shephard — the main character of the series that ultimately aired — was to be killed at the end of the first act by the mysterious smoke monster. At the time, the scuttlebutt around the office was that JJ had reached out to Michael Keaton, who had — at least in principle — agreed to appear in the pilot and even do press pretending that he was going to be a series regular, only to be killed fifteen minutes in.
That never ended up on screen, but here are ten of the most shocking uses of this kind of trope, ranked roughly from ones that did the job of creating a world of uncertainty well to ones that left us with questions.
1. Julian, Children of Men
Julianne Moore's Children of Men character had all the hallmarks of a main character. The story happens because of her. She's the one who starts the quest to get Kee — an immigrant and the first person to get pregnant after 18 years of human infertility — to safety. She's the true believer, not Theo. So when she's shot in head near the beginning of the film, it's a shock and brutal reminder that no one is going to be safe. And with her dead, having told Kee to only trust Theo, his journey really begins.
Pretty much every single cast member of Alien had more movie experience and notoriety than Sigourney Weaver when the film came out in 1979. John Hurt was the most established and he dies first. In a more traditional story, the Captain of the Nostromo, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) would be the obvious protagonist and choice as the survivor. He dies third. Alien killed off major characters left and right, in a way that was so well done that by the time a new generation saw the film for the first time, the "twist" was a defining characteristic of the movie.
3. Suzie Costello, Torchwood
In Torchwood, Suzie was introduced as the second-in-command of the team. She was present in the early promotional material for the show, in group shots and getting her own solo photos. And she died in the pilot. She had been killing people as part of her research into a glove that brought people back to life, obsessed with the work. And when she was found out, she killed herself rather than lose the work. Dying the way she did was not just the typical "no one is safe" idea, but also a warning to the new girl, Gwen, about the addictive and dangerous nature of Torchwood's work. No one just gets to retire from Torchwood.
4. Marshall Sumner, Stargate Atlantis
By casting Robert Patrick, a face well-known to genre fans and who was only a few years out from being a regular on The X-Files, Stargate Atlantis gave every indication that he was going to play a major role. The pilot set up a lot of tension between Sumner, the military commander of the expedition, and John Sheppard, a last second addition to the team. Sumner didn't like Shepard's style or history, and the two of them having to work together could have been a major plot point of the series. And, for fans of Stargate SG-1 who were used to the protagonist being a team leader and having to report to a commanding officer, this made sense. Until Sumner was captured, tortured, and mercy killed by Shepard in the pilot.
5. Mitchell Hoban, Outcasts
Put this one on the list with Sumner and Suzie as a character presented to everyone as a regular character. Set in the year 2060, Outcasts deals with the settlers of Carpathia, who are fleeing nuclear destruction on Earth. Among the colonists are the Expeditionaries, who are tasked with exploring the new planet. In the first episode, we meet the leader of the Expeditionaries, who has returned home. And he's played by Lee Adama himself, Jamie Bamber. We even goy a promo on his character from the BBC before the show aired. Sounds like a slam-dunk main character, right? Nope — he has a breakdown, kills his wife, and ends up killed himself. All in the pilot.
6. Russell Franklin, Deep Blue Sea
Who kills Samuel L. Jackson? From dinosaurs to Hydra, Jackson's characters have survived. He literally dies after giving a rousing speech about how they're going to make it. Like the fucking shark heard him, and it was pissed. This scene needs no context to be awesome.
7. Jesse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Jesse was introduced in the pilot as a friend of Xander and Willow's, only to become a vampire, used as bait against Buffy, and then staked by his friend. All in the pliot. In the DVD commentary, Joss Whedon says he wanted to put Jesse in the title sequence to make the audience think he was a regular before he killed him. But it was too expensive. Maybe if it had been done, it would have slated Whedon's bloodlust for killing off main characters. Probably not.
8. Doyle, Angel
Moving from Buffy to Angel, Doyle appeared in nine episodes before being killed off. His prophetic visions made him an important part in the early days of Angel Investigations. But once the writers couldn't make the character work to their satisfaction, they resorted to the plan of killing him. Explained Whedon:
That was always a plan, and clearly that character didn't mesh. He was a very popular character, but the mesh was very difficult in ways that made it hard to write. Glenn had a kind of intensity that was kind of like David [Boreanaz's], and David already has that. It could have gone a different way, but that was the plan we had and we decided to execute it. Glenn Quinn knew that it was an issue and he learned pretty early on. I said this is what we're going to do...' and I promised him a hero's exit.
9. Sheriff Graham, Once Upon a Time
Hey, remember a time when Emma, the main character of Once Upon a Time, wasn't the sheriff? And, instead, it was the Huntsman, a fairly important character in fairy tales? And he was both sympathetic to Emma and a lover/subordinate to Regina? And was played by Jamie Dornan? Yeah, he died in season 2, and no one really talks about it much anymore. Despite the fact that Regina crushed his heart and he literally died in Emma's arms. At this point, given just how many characters Once has, he's actually pretty lucky.
10. Isabel Hartley, Agents of SHIELD
It's possible that this one, being the most recent example on the list, bugs so much because it's freshest. Or because when you cast Lucy Lawless as a badass SHIELD agent and then tease it forever before the season premiere, viewers are going to want more than a taste of her. But no, Hartley died in the first episode she appeared in. And it was always the plan, which meant that Hartley's comic history was never actually explored. Now, given Agents of SHIELD's universe and the fact that the show is still on, we could always be wrong about her death being permanent. That would be nice.
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