The long-running cartoon sitcom Family Guy gained fans over the years for a number of outrageous, envelope-pushing jokes and moments. But it was not until the show’s 12th season that Family Guy pulled off a truly rare stunner: it killed off a main character.
Deaths of characters we have come to love over the seasons are nothing new. In recent years, many shows have taken the “shocking death” formula to new heights, using it at will to shake things up or infuse some drama in the midst of tired storylines.
But for every poorly executed (excuse the pun) elimination of a main character, there are a few seriously shocking, “I can’t believe they did that” moments that stand out in television history.
These are families and characters we had grown to love over many seasons, who we thought were untouchable. And then the rug was pulled out from under us, leaving us sitting on our couch, mouth open, wondering how we never saw it coming.
10 Brian Griffin: Family Guy
For 12 seasons this animated sitcom entertained audiences with its unique mash-up of crude, adult humor and quick-witted pop culture jokes.
Focusing on a wild family that includes an overweight, unintelligent dad, genius talking baby bent on world domination, and alcoholic, talking dog it became the definition of a show that did not take itself too seriously.
Which made the decision to kill off the family dog, Brian, even more stunning.
Brian had long been the intelligent, often moral, center of the family. He was the straight man to much of the hijinks and as much a part of what made the show work as any other character.
But Family Guy creators felt it was time for him to go, and midway through season 12 they followed through.
Brian was hit by a car and, unlike past episodes where characters overcame cartoonish injuries on a weekly basis, this time he would not get better. The Griffin family shared a tearful goodbye with their dog, and Brian died.
Just one day after the shocking episode aired, fans had already created a petition asking the show to bring him back to life.
9 Matthew Crawley: Downton Abbey
This British show chronicling the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants in the early 1900s had already showed its knack for shocking deaths, and fans thought they were safe after that. One of the main characters, Lady Sybil, had suddenly died just three episodes before the season three finale.
But when Matthew Crawley, arguably the centerpiece of the entire show, met his unexpected end in the final moments of the season, it left fans stunned and furious. Driving home to share the good news of his child’s birth with the family, Matthew was run off the road.
The episode, and season, ended on a shot of him crushed beneath his car, blood pooling around his head.
Making this stunner even worse? It crushed audiences twice. UK fans got hit with the bombshell in 2012, but American viewers had to wait for a year before it aired in the States.
8 Dan Conner: Roseanne
This one was so out of left field many don’t even consider it truly shocking, but more of a “jumped the shark” moment for a long-running, successful sitcom. Whatever your views, there is no denying it was entirely unexpected.
Dan, a central figure and father of the family the show was based around, had suffered a heart attack in the next-to-last season of the series. The final season, which aired in 1997, opened with a healthy Dan back and problem-free.
Things went better than usual for the family during that stretch of episodes, too, as the family won the lottery, welcomed a granddaughter, and were generally quite happy. Then, in the show’s final episode, it is revealed Dan never actually recovered from his heart attack the year before.
He had died. Yes, the entire final season was in fact just a book Roseanne had been writing to cope with Dan’s death, and none of it had actually happened.
Fans were stunned that Dan had died, and the decision to use the “it was all a dream” cliché for an entire season’s worth of events was critically blasted. Still, it was a pretty clever way to go out on a shocking note.
7 Denny: Grey’s Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy has never been a stranger to plot twists, death, and plot twists involving unexpected death.
The show has killed off enough main characters to fill their own show. And for a hospital-based drama designed to tug at the heartstrings, that’s not surprising.
But perhaps no death was more cruel than that of recurring character Denny. He had been through so much, and happier-ever-after was just around the corner after a successful, long-awaited heart transplant.
In the meantime he and fellow main character Izzy had fallen in love and gotten engaged. Just when things were at their best came a giant “gotcha” from the writers.
Izzy arrived in Denny’s hospital room to find her fiancé dead, the result of a blood clot after his surgery. It was an emotional gut punch to fans who had grown to love the arc the two had gone through, and a death that would shape the show’s storylines for many seasons.
6 Ned Stark: Game of Thrones
OK, so this one is only a shocker if you hadn’t read the books first. But that makes up a large amount of people who are watching this HBO show, and if you’re one of them, oh boy. Looking back at it several seasons later this hardly seems like a shocker.
Game of Thrones has become a master class in killing off anyone and everyone that you thought might be important. However, at the time, the death of good guy Ned Stark was a jaw dropper. For the entire first season Ned had been one of the few good people in a series filled with evil characters.
Not only that, but Sean Bean, who played Ned, is a major actor. HBO had filled promotional items for the series with his name and face. Those unfamiliar with the story would easily be tricked into thinking he’d be the main character for many, many seasons.
So imagine the shock of just about everyone when season one ended with Ned Stark gruesomely beheaded by one of his main enemies as a crowd, and his daughters, looked on. It was a major moment in the series’ story, and one that signaled to all that no character would be safe.
5 Omar Little: The Wire
HBO scores a double-whammy on this list thanks to the totally unexpected, arguably most significant death of this entire fantastic series. For five seasons Omar had ruled the streets of Baltimore as a shotgun toting, “Farmer in the Dell” whistling, robber of drug dealers.
If the characters he robbed and attacked were scary, Omar was scarier. And fans ate it up.
He repeatedly escaped the most ruthless people the show could throw at him, all while maintaining his own code of the street and never becoming a total monster. So it wasn’t just his death that had fans floored, but the way it happened.
In a completely mundane scene, Omar is buying cigarettes when someone off-camera suddenly shoots him in the head. There is no buildup and no warning.
Later it is revealed the shooter is a small kid who has shown up from time to time in the series, not even one of the drug lords Omar had tangled with so many times before.
In the show’s true fashion, it is a murder that is sudden and completely unceremonious. For fans, it is the stunning moment that a character thought untouchable was taken down.
4 Joyce Summers: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Fans of the classic comedy-drama series probably realized something was up when this particular episode began without the trademark background music.
Buffy creators wasted no time delivering the shock and setting the stage for the rest of the season, as the eponymous character Buffy enters her home to find her mother, Joyce, dead on the couch of a brain aneurysm.
She had been recovering from a tumor and fans thought everything was going to be OK. In two minutes, the show managed to undo all of that, and create a very real, very emotional moment that was both shocking and rare in a series filled with comedic moments and the supernatural.
3 Teri Bauer: 24
Poor Jack Bauer. He spent the entire first season (which was really just a single day) of this action-packed series literally racing against the clock to save just about everyone at some point, including his family.
Cut to: the final episode, in the final moments, where our hero can finally embrace his now-safe wife and relax as the audience lets their guard down and prepares for the happy ending and the last credits of the season.
Only there was one final, heartbreaking twist that no one saw coming. Bauer does reach his wife ready for the big rescue, only to realize he’s moments too late. She had been shot and killed, and the first season ended on a shot of Jack holding his wife’s dead body and weeping.
Viewers had no reason to see it coming, and it was the moment that made everyone realize this show would not be messing around.
2 Rita Morgan: Dexter
The fourth season finale of this Showtime drama took a page out of the 24 playbook in its final moments. The main character, Dexter, had finally killed his nemesis, the Trinity Killer.
Ready to return to his now-safe wife and child, Dexter doesn’t realize that Trinity had left one more victim.
Dexter enters the bathroom and discovers, at the same time as viewers are realizing it, his wife’s dead body in a tub full of blood, their child sitting in a pool of it and crying.
It was a twist no one expected, closely guarded beforehand by the show’s crew. Many claim the series went downhill after this shocking episode, but few can argue that it was one of the big stunners in the show’s entire run.
1 Col. Henry Blake: M*A*S*H
More than 30 years later, it is still the original “are you kidding me” moment in TV character deaths.
One of the most-watched TV series’ ever, M*A*S*H was, despite its Korean War setting, a sitcom first and foremost. And Colonel Henry Blake was one of its biggest characters and fan favorites.
So when actor McClean Stevenson decided to leave the show after season three, it seemed fitting to send his Col. Blake out honorably.
The entire season three finale revolved around characters wishing Blake well as he prepared to head home from the war for good, having been honorably discharged. Only in the final moments of the episode, after Col. Blake boarded a helicopter and headed home, did the show’s creators hit millions with a bombshell.
As several main characters work inside an Army hospital, another comes in an delivers one of the series’ most famous lines: “Lieutenant Colonel… Henry Blake’s plane… was shot down… over the Sea of Japan. It spun in … there were no survivors.”
Cue millions of gasps, and hundreds of angry letters written by fans to the show’s creators. This episode broke the mold for shocking deaths of main characters, and today is considered one of the most surprising TV moments ever.