Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Memorable character deaths

Illustration for article titled Memorable character deaths
AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

I’d like to hear about a death of a fictional character (any medium) that really got to you. Thanks and regards! —Andrew

Editor’s note: Well, this is going to be the spoiler-iest AVQ&A ever. Character deaths tend to make for key dramatic moments, so be warned, a lot of these answers are going to give away important plot developments in books, films, and TV. For that reason, we’re putting the titles up front and then not bolding the characters’ names, so you can skim without learning too much more than you’d want to about who dies and when in things you haven’t seen or read yet. Approach the comments section with all due caution, though.

Tasha Robinson: Howards End/Charlotte’s Web
If you haven’t read or seen Howards End, I’d suggest skipping the rest of this paragraph, since it cuts right to the climax of the film, when unassuming, desperate Leonard Bast is crushed to death by a bookcase. It’s kind of a bizarre end to a human life, and it sounds a bit laughable out of context, but man, my boyfriend and I were clutching each other in the theater, and we were both crying. I’m pretty sure what got to us was the sheer injustice of it all—the whole point of Howards End seems to be how much damage a well-meaning but misguided human being can unintentionally do to another, and Leonard’s story is just one long, miserablist ride downhill as he suffers one setback after another, then dies ignominiously at the hands of someone who’s entirely misjudged him. I still get similarly weepy at the end of Charlotte’s Web, every single time, when Charlotte goes out weary but accomplished, and singing up until the last second. Bambi’s mom had nothing on her for pathos.


Leonard Pierce: The Wire
It happened not in season four, when my heart hurt as much for a (fictional) foul-mouthed, irredeemable street thug and murderer almost as much as it had for any real people I’ve ever known, but way back in season two: I was driving around with my then-girlfriend, and apropos of nothing but that ugly, crawly feeling you get around the back of your neck when you sense that something horrible is about to happen, I turned to her and said “I’m really worried about Bodie.” That’s how deep the show got under my skin: I spared time out of my real life to worry about the fate of what was then one of its minor characters. But the worry wasn’t justified for two more years, when poor, doomed, vile, noble, faithful Preston Broadus, screaming to no one that he wasn’t afraid, got his head blown out by an anonymous shadowy punk over nothing. It seems impossible today that anyone can question the storytelling greatness of The Wire, but if such a person still exists, all they need to do is see the pitiful, majestic arc of Bodie, in whose life David Simon encapsulated miniatures of all the series’ major themes: the way human potential can be stifled by the vagaries of circumstance, the way institutions use people and then throw them away regardless of their loyalty, the way the brutal economics of the drug trade make life disgustingly cheap. In the beautiful scene just prior to Bodie’s pointless death, when McNulty calls him a soldier, he’s encapsulating all the glory and nobility in that word, as well as all its tragedy and waste. And when McNulty gets the word of Bodie’s demise, his reaction mirrored mine, a combination of sadness and rage. Most astonishingly of all, Simon and his writers managed to make me feel the full emotional weight of the death of a character we had every reason to hate: After all, Bodie was responsible for the murder of Wallace, whose life and death mirrored his own in ways no one could have foreseen. The Wire’s ability to turn Bodie from the perpetrator of the most senseless and sad killing of the series’ first season to the victim of the most senseless and sad killing of the entire show is a testament to why it’s the greatest show in television history.

Jason Heller: Dancer In The Dark
Leave it to Lars von Trier to suck all the fun out of a execution scene. That isn’t to say that the first 130 minutes of his 2000 film Dancer In The Dark is any less depressing than its name implies. But the movie’s final moments are particularly brutal: Selma, a blind, angelic Czech immigrant played by Björk, is strapped to a board and carried to the gallows after being convicted of murder after an utterly accidental death. The way the horrific irony converges at the start of the hanging sequence—during which Selma, unnecessarily hooded, panics and screams “I can’t breathe!” just as the noose is being drawn around her neck—underlines the sheer inhumanity of the whole thing, the way Selma as an individual is crammed into this sausage-grinder of a process. When she finally accepts her death, and, while waiting for the floor to fall out from under her, starts smiling and singing… I get chills just thinking about that severed last note. The first time I saw the film, I bawled like I’d just lost my own mom or something. Good thing I watched it home.


Todd VanDerWerff: The Great Gatsby
It’s kind of a cliché to say this at this point, but the ending of The Great Gatsby shook me to my core when I was a 17-year-old just venturing out into the wide world of literature. I was enjoying the book, sure, up until everybody decided to take a fateful car ride, but it hadn’t reached out, grabbed hold of my heart, and proceeded to throttle it like the last few passages did. I don’t know that enough is said about just how lean and economical the novel is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald makes the most out of every tiny, poetic phrase to bring about the death of the titular character in as sad and elegaic a way as possible. There have been few moments in my life where I’ve read something and thought, “I want to write something like that” while simultaneously knowing I never could, but the last three chapters of Gatsby did just that. The death of Jay Gatsby strikes a tone that’s simultaneously mournful and wistful, and the whole thing pines for some lost age that can never return, even though Fitzgerald was living right in the midst of said age. I almost look at those last chapters as a kind of dividing line. Before reading them, I was a teenager. After reading them, I was acutely aware of the fact that everything ends, something I’d been trying never to think about. It’s one thing to find the death of a fictional character moving. It’s another to always be looking backward over your shoulder after hearing about it.

David Wolinsky: Six Feet Under
There was no way Six Feet Under would bow out without striking as deeply as possible on its central subject matter: mortality. Death was inescapable in every episode for five seasons, but somehow that uncomfortable subject became almost as commonplace for viewers as it was for the Fisher family of funeral directors. Hell, the series even starts with Nate Fisher reluctantly coming home to Los Angeles after his father dies. In that same episode, Nate learns he has a fatal brain condition. Still, it comes as a total shock when Nate eventually dies from it near the end of the show. It’s heavily foreshadowed in the last season, but as with our own mortality, we choose to believe that the likeable Nate simply won’t die. When he does, all the goings-on in the funeral parlor become absolutely painful to watch. We watched these characters live and grow over half a decade; seeing one of them struck down was flat-out depressing. Of course, that was nothing compared to the series finale, which shows how the rest of the show’s regulars eventually will die as well. If you didn’t cry at the end of either of those episodes, you either have no soul, or you haven’t faced the fact that you too will someday die.


Josh Modell: The Shield
Detective Shane Vendrell is kind of a cracker asshole through the entire seven seasons of The Shield, even killing off one of his own team—the beloved Lem—in season five. But unlike so many seemingly one-dimensional characters, there’s more to Shane. Murdering his friend sends him into a spiral of rage and shame that plays out slowly, like a long, long fuse, through the show’s final episodes. Desperate to keep his family together, the always-confused cop decides to poison his wife and young son before blowing his own brains out in the show’s final episode. Even more brutal, his suicide note, which is read onscreen: “The thing you need to know is that Mara was innocent and Jackson was innocent; they didn’t know what they were drinking and their last moments together were happy ones. They left the way I first found them, perfect and innocent. They were innocent and they are in heaven now and we’ll always be a family. The guilty ones are me and Vic. Vic led, but I kept following. I don’t think one’s worse than the other, but we made each other into something worse than our individual selves.”

Steven Hyden: The Shield/The Sopranos
Can you think of a worse fate than being done in by people who supposedly love you? I know I can’t, which is why the two worst character deaths for me involve good people who made the mistake of surrounding themselves with evil people who ended up swallowing them whole. The first is painfully sweet cop Curtis “Lem” Lemansky from The Shield, whose death—see above—remains one of the most painful (and greatest) moments I’ve ever witnessed on any TV show. But as hard as that was to watch, it’s still easier for me to accept than the murder of Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos. Turned in for talking to the feds by her fiancé Christopher, and gunned down in a lonely forest by her friend Silvio, Adriana died for the sins of the men she regrettably loved and supported for far too long. Sadly, this sort of thing happens in real life all the time; hopefully I’ll only end up visiting this wretched corner of existence via great TV shows.


Claire Zulkey: Of Mice And Men 
I haven’t read it since 7th or 8th grade, but I remember it vividly: I was on the couch in the family room finishing the book when Lennie’s death just made me start sobbing, I guess because something about the way he was killed reminded me of a dog being put to sleep, so innocent up until the very end. It was unusual, because I’m not a crier, and that was the only time a book had ever had that effect on me. The reason I remember where I was was because my mom was in the same room, reading as well, so I was probably self-conscious about the fact that out of nowhere I started crying. Fortunately, my mom didn’t laugh or ask if I was okay. She’d read the book too, and she knew what was up.

Zack Handlen: Gormenghast
It’s easy to upset me by killing off a film character. The right sound cues and dramatic lighting make me go all soppy, because movies and television hit me in a purely reactionary place, with no intellectual distance to defend myself from the assault. Books work differently, especially as I get older. I find I need to appreciate technique, structure, and the completeness of a novel to get as emotionally invested as I once did, which means that when I do come across a fictional death that gets under my skin, it’s somehow even more painful. Fuchsia Groan’s suicide in Gormenghast, the middle book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, broke me for a while. The novel is set in an ancient, gigantic castle, and tells the story of the Groans, the royal family whose lineage has ruled the castle and the surrounding countryside for generations. The family, and the system they represent, is slowly dying out, and Fuchsia and her brother Titus (the series’ lead) are the last of the line. Fuchsia is difficult, irritable, and childish, but she also has a vitality lacking in most every other character in her world, and her creativity and heartbreaking vulnerability make her easy to love. Which makes it all the more devastating when she falls afoul of Steerpike, a villain with aims on the (largely meaningless) throne. She’s mistrusts him, but is attracted to his wit and vitality, and by the time she realizes the horrors he’s accomplished in her home, she’s lowered her guard enough to feel the full impact of the betrayal. So she throws herself out of her bedroom window. Peake’s writing is so distinctive and unusual that it’s often difficult to relate closely to his characters—they’re fascinating grotesques, like a jumped-up Dickens caricature—but there’s a deep compassion at the heart of his work, and Fuchsia’s death brings it to the surface with a raw, undeniable misery.


Chris Mincher: The Best Of Youth
If you’ve committed yourself to watching a six-hour family saga, you hope, among other things, that you’ll get attached to the characters in it. But I was still unprepared for just how invested I was in the lives of brothers Matteo and Nicola in Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best Of Youth. Originally planning to make my way through the movie in installments over a few days, I ended up neglecting all my plans for the evening and watching it straight through, riveted from start to finish. By far, the film’s most frustratingly tragic character is Matteo (played by the excellent Alessio Boni), whom I found unusually sympathetic in spite of his anger, rebelliousness, and repugnantly short temper. Along with occasional heroic displays of compassion and uncompromising ethics, Matteo has a fundamental inability to connect with people or show affection. I spent much of the movie patiently waiting and hoping for him to meet someone and settle down, to uncomplicate things and live like everyone else. Then, just as it looks like he’s getting a semi-normal life after all, in spite of all of his attempts to fuck it up, he impulsively kills himself in a moment of self-disgust. I did not see this coming at all. I think I gasped audibly at the suicide scene. I remember fumbling for the remote and pausing it, then sitting there stunned, staring at a freeze-frame, just processing. As with most suicides, there was just so little warning. (Not to mention that there was so much movie left that it seemed an improbable plot device.) Many minutes went by before I started the movie back up, but the shock lingered until well after it was over.

Scott Gordon: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Bill Murray’s title character in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a typical Wes Anderson protagonist in that everything he has—from his outdated marine-research vessel Belafonte to his festering self-pity—seems to exist in a whimsical, heightened state of privilege. Then Owen Wilson shows up as his supposedly long-forgotten son Ned Plimpton and joins the Belafonte’s crew. Not only does Ned become the only person Zissou opens up to in any meaningful way, he also injects some folksy, masculine decency that rubs off on his shipmates, since he’s a regional-airline pilot from Kentucky and all. It’s as if he has to die to make all that down-to-earth goodness stick, and to shock Zissou out of his decaying fantasy world. I can’t remember if it was the helicopter crash or Ned’s burial at sea that got to me the most when I first saw The Life Aquatic. I’ll put it this way: Plenty of Wes Anderson characters have charmed me, but Ned was the first I immediately missed. “I’ve never seen so many electric jellyfish in all my life!”


Erik Adams: Up
Wall-E was roundly and rightfully praised for its patient storytelling style, but Pixar’s next film, Up, wasn’t afforded such time to get going—elderly Carl and his whimsical balloon-house needed to get into in the sky right quick. In less capable hands, the impetus for that journey—the death of Carl’s wife Ellie—would be a rushed, schmaltzy affair, but Bob Peterson and Pete Docter’s screenplay uses the power of montage for good, highlighting all the right details of Carl and Ellie’s relationship, and endearing her to the audience in a sequence that lasts no longer than the average pop song. In that short time, the film manages to show us the ways these two characters complement each other, from the way Ellie knots Carl’s succession of ties to the way he comforts her after an implied miscarriage. (Is this the heaviest four minutes of an animated family film ever, or what?) The montage-ending image of the solitary husband at his wife’s funeral is absolutely devastating, especially if you happen to be sitting next to your personal Carl or Ellie the first time you see it. Thankfully, the sequence doesn’t dwell on the maudlin—like Up as a whole, it’s a celebration of life and adventure. But that didn’t stop me from openly weeping when I caught an in-flight screening of the film this past November.

Tuyet Nguyen: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
I’ve always liked horror movies. I didn’t have many (okay, any) friends my first year of middle school—my parents had recently split, and I got moved across town—so every weekend, my dad would take me to the video store and let me pick out whatever I wanted. He felt guilty, I think, so no title was off-limits for me. Almost every weekend, I would beeline it to the horror section. And so, at an early age, I was hardening myself to stomach lots of bloodied bodies and gory violence. (These days, incidentally, real violence makes me sick; movie violence still makes me laugh.) But the one thing I could never handle, then or today, is parent-death. In season five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in the episode “The Body,” Buffy’s mom dies in the opening sequence. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard at a TV show. The episode is stark and eerily quiet, beautifully stripped down to the true banality and mechanics of death. It’s heartbreakingly straightforward, while also showing how nonsensical death feels in the immediate aftermath. I love my parents, even through the guilt-trips and drama of their relationship. And watching this episode—every single time—floods me with my absolute worst fear: that someday my parents will die too.


Noel Murray: M*A*S*H
By the time I actually saw the M*A*S*H third-season finale “Abyssinia, Henry” in syndication, I was well aware of the death of Colonel Henry Blake, because I’d seen later seasons of the show after the character was killed, and because the moment where company clerk Radar O’Reilly comes into the OR and delivers the news of Blake’s plane crash had been replayed in multiple retrospectives of TV in general, and M*A*S*H in particular. So I can’t say I was shocked or moved the first time I saw the whole episode. But it does get to me now, largely because of the way the scene is shot, with Gary Burghoff delivering the news haltingly and then the camera panning slowly across the set, getting the reactions of the characters—or, more accurately, the actors, since most of the cast didn’t know in advance what Burghoff was going to say. In the years that followed, M*A*S*H would get increasingly heavy-handed with its emotional moments, but “Abyssinia, Henry” remains raw and real—more like a documentary than a sitcom.

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