‘Boardwalk Empire,’ ‘Game of Thrones’ and Other Best TV Deaths of 2011

Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez offer their selections for the most memorable TV character deaths of the year, from Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad to Downton Abbey and Justified. WARNING: Spoilers ahead, if you’re not completely up to date on these shows.

Clockwise from top left: Macall B. Polay / HBO; Prashant Gupta / FX; Gregory Peters / AMC; Nick Briggs / HBO

Looking back, 2011 proved to be a particularly deadly one for television characters, whose bodies were stacking up even before the return of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which rather notoriously raises the body count each season.

From Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones to Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire, TV-show creators this year proved that they were only too willing to kill off beloved characters or shock their respective audiences with deaths involving characters long believed to be “safe,” whether those were little girls, Halloween trick-or-treaters, or heroes.

Safety, it seems, is an outmoded idea. Here are our choices for the most memorable TV demises this year, rounding up an unlucky 13 who left their fictional lives too soon. But beware—if you’re not up to date on the 12 shows discussed below—you’ll want to avoid reading any further, as there are spoilers.

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) on Breaking Bad, episode 413, “Face Off”

Not only was Gus Fring’s death a complete surprise—there was no way viewers were going to believe the cool and collected kingpin would ever be outsmarted—his manner of death was completely shocking. With half his head blown off, Gus got up and took a few steps, adjusted his tie, and finally went down for the count. Simply stunning. We will miss Gus Fring very much.

Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) on Justified, episode 213, “Bloody Harlan”

In its second season, Justified gave us the rough and ruthless Mags Bennett, the head of a crime family based in the Kentucky mountains. Mags proved only too willing to mete out her unique brand of punishment, be it poisoning by apple pie, her homemade moonshine, or a swift hammer to the hand of her own son. (Poor Coover.) But it was in the final showdown with her nemesis, lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), that Mags—shot in the leg by the daughter of a man she killed—proved just how duplicitous and crafty she could be. Taking her own poison as she grabbed Raylan’s hand, Mags put an end to the decades-long feud between the Bennett and the Givens clans, even as she managed to evade justice for her crimes. For Mags, suicide was as much an escape hatch (“put an end to my troubles”) as it was an entry point to the eternal (“get to know the mystery”). In her poetic death and another meaty, memorable performance from Martindale, we say goodbye to one of television’s best-drawn and compelling villains.

Piney (William Lucking) on Sons of Anarchy, episode 408, “Family Recipe”

Oh, Piney. The second that Piney went into hiding in the cabin, we knew the end was coming. Piney was a thorn in Clay’s (Ron Perlman) side. As one of the three cofounders of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, he knew too much about everything that had gone wrong. But when it happened, it was so painful to see. Clay had no mercy. And then when his son, Opie (Ryan Hurst), found him, we wept. Piney was a very good man.

Sophia (Madison Lintz) on The Walking Dead, episode 207, “Pretty Much Dead Already”

Much of the first half of The Walking Dead’s second season focused on the search for missing little girl Sophia, even as the survivors managed to find an oasis on Herschel Greene’s farm that was seemingly untouched by the horror unfolding around them. To their shock, the group learned that Herschel (Scott Wilson) and his family were keeping “walkers” in a barn on the farm, believing them to be sick people. As they debated whether to give up the search for Sophia, it was only in the final minutes of the winter finale that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the others learned the truth about her fate. As Shane (Jon Bernthal) freed the walkers in the barn, a bloodbath enveloped the group as they fired into the throng of staggering zombies, cutting down every woman and man that set foot outside. But it was the sight of poor Sophia, long dead, staggering out of the barn that offered the finale’s true gut-wrenching moment. As she slowly stalked toward her grieving mother, who opened her arms to embrace her daughter, it was Rick who felled the girl with a bullet to the head, shattering the innocence of the group forever. Tragic, heartbreaking, and utterly unforgettable.

Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) on American Horror Story, episode 104, “Halloween Part 1”

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Viewers hardly knew Addy, who was as weird as she was sweet. But somehow when she was run over by a car on Halloween, and her mother Constance (Jessica Lange) tried to drag her body home, it was crushing. Adelaide, who just wanted to be a pretty girl, deserved so much better than life gave her. She was the first sign that the spooky American Horror Story has a heart.

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones, episode 109, “Baelor”

Whether or not you’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the basis for the first season of HBO’s sweeping fantasy drama, the swinging of the sword that lobbed off the head of protagonist Ned Stark was still a punch to the gut. Ned was dragged forth in front of a crowd baying for his blood and forced to declare his “treason” in order to protect his family, as his youngest daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), watched from a distance with horror. Just as it seemed as though Ned would survive this power play, newly crowned boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) decided to mete out his own punishment, ordering his executioner, Ser Ilyn (Wilko Johnson), to sever Ned’s head from his body. Grabbed by a member of the Night’s Watch and shielded from view, what Arya saw, as the sword swung downward, was a flock of birds arcing toward the sky. Ned’s death proved just how deadly the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are and just how willing Martin—and the show’s executive producers, as a result—are to kill off characters believed by the audience to be safe. No one, Ned’s death screams, is safe in such brutal country, not even the putative hero of the show.

Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) on American Horror Story, episode 111, “Birth”

From the second Vivien moved into the Murder House on American Horror Story, she knew something was not right. Was it the mysterious people who came in and out at their own will? The Rubber Man who raped her? The crazy kids who tried to murder her and her daughter, Violet? Vivien wanted to move, but her adulterous and dumb husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott), procrastinated, and even let her give birth to biologically unrelated twins in the Murder House! Of course, that didn’t go well and Vivien joined her daughter, Violet, as a ghost in the house. For Britton’s fans, it was a sad relief. No one wanted Vivien dead per se, but if this means, she (and we!) are free of Ben forever, we say viva! Rest in peace, sweet Vivien.

Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) on Boardwalk Empire, episode 212, “To the Lost”

Boardwalk Empire began its run with injured soldier Jimmy Darmody returning from the trenches of World War I to take a job as an errand boy for his patron, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), though he warned Nucky that eventually he’ll have to choose whether to be a businessman or a mobster, as you can’t be “half a gangster.” In the second season of the HBO drama, Jimmy participated in a conspiracy to overthrow Nucky, but after coming to terms with the murder of his wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), the incestuous relationship he engaged in with his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), and his hand in slaying his father (Dabney Coleman), Jimmy tried to make amends with Nucky. As he got his affairs in order, including making sure that his young son was financially cared for, Jimmy met Nucky at night, unarmed and fully aware that he was going to his death. Jimmy claimed to have never come back from the war, having died in the trenches of France, and Nucky decides to become a gangster in deeds as well as words. It’s Nucky who pulled the trigger, not once but twice, shooting Jimmy in the face in a shocking twist that proves that Boardwalk, like Game of Thrones, is just as willing to kill off its most beloved—and important—characters. Horrific and surprising, Jimmy’s death raises the stakes immeasurably for the show.

Lt. Kenny Shea, a.k.a. “Lou,” (John Scurti) on Rescue Me, episode 709, “Ashes”

Rescue Me ended with the sad passing of “Lou,” who, despite his failing health, died doing what he loved most: fighting fires. Lou’s heroic death—he let his brothers leave a dangerous situation before him—was treated in the series finale with the emotion and humor that was the FX series’s signature touch. Instead of crying, viewers smiled as Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) rode off with the ghost of Lou in his car in the final moment of the series.

Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) on Big Love, episode 510, “Where Men and Mountains Meet”

The final moments of Big Love’s five-season run were full of horror and hope in equal measure. After finally becoming the prophet and bringing the matter of plural marriage before the Utah State Senate, Bill Henrickson was felled by a murderer’s gun, shot three times on Easter Sunday. (How’s that for a metaphor?) Bill’s killer wasn’t a crazed anti-polygamist or a radical fundamentalist—nor even Bill’s insane brother-in-law Albert Grant (Matt Ross)—but rather his unemployed neighbor Carl (Carlos Jacott). The reason behind the killing was as senseless as the act itself (Carl snapped after Bill resodded his lawn without permission, seeing it as an insult to his manhood), but it also brought forth one of the show’s most beautiful moments, as Bill bled out on the street in front of the three homes his family shared. Granting his wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) the priesthood she’s long desired, he asked her for a final blessing. Seeing his loved ones surrounding him and the eternal and celestial kingdom before him, Bill died by restoring the balance and removing the tarnish of patriarchal rule. It’s this act of sacrifice and solidarity that brought together the ever-warring sister-wives, uniting them in bonds of faith and family in a way that they couldn’t when their husband was alive.

Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) on Southland, episode 304, “Code 4”

The death of Los Angeles police officer Nate Moretta on Southland was devastating and completely unexpected. On their way home after a shift, Nate and his partner Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) stopped when a gang member they knew threw a bottle at their squad car. Quickly, the incident escalated and Nate was hit on the head with a metal pipe. The ramifications of the young father and husband’s death had a staggering effect on both the whole third season as well as the character of Hatosy’s Sammy, who decided to put his uniform back on and patrol with the Gang Enforcement Detail while living with Nate’s widow and son. (To make matters worse for Alejandro’s fans, True Blood also killed off his character, witchy nurse Jesus, this summer.)

Kemal Pamuk (Theo James) on Downton Abbey, episode 103, “1.3”

The unexpected death of Kemal Pamuk, the son of the Turkish ambassador, created one of the most shocking (and thoroughly modern) twists within Downton Abbey’s first season, particularly as it occurred within the bed of the unmarried Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who then required the assistance of her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to drag Pamuk’s body across the house back to his own bedchambers. Mary’s secret shame surrounding Pamuk’s death has provided one of Downton’s most intriguing and electric subplots, the fallout from which continues into the second season. Mary’s conniving sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) used the potential scandal that would ensue if anyone outside of the family learned that Mary was a fallen woman to get back at her sister, while the servants downstairs—especially upstart Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who led Pamuk to Mary’s bedroom that night—used the scraps of information they’d gleaned to try to get one over on their employers. As dangerous as dynamite, the scandal of Pamuk’s death by sex has the potential to ruin both Mary and the Crawleys.

Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay) on The Killing, episode 101, “Pilot”

Rosie was the only character on TV this year whose violent death launched a TV series. For 13 weeks, viewers of The Killing were obsessed with who killed her. But, God, there were so many red herrings! By the end of the first season, all we knew is that the police chased all the wrong people and perhaps should have been chasing themselves. It’s so confusing, Rosie. But it’s not your fault.