Kiefer Sutherland
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Image Credit: Michael Courtney/FoxOn TV, death is a good thing. Death shakes up the status quo. Death eliminates annoying characters, and it sends off beloved characters with an emotionally-explosive bang. The threat of main-character death has hovered over some of the greatest TV shows of the last ten years. Some shows, like 24, practically made a game out of their gleeful employment of the Death Twist, an out-of-nowhere elimination of an apparently central character. (Be honest: you had a couple bets going on who would die in the Lost finale, right?) Killing off a main character can be just a cheap gimmick, but when it’s done well, it can be incredibly moving. It can even revitalize a show. (See: Grey’s Anatomy, post-bloodbath.)

For our round-up of the best character expirations on TV this year, we focused exclusively on characters that were, if not series regulars, at least important parts of an ensemble — our (perhaps arbitrary) cut-off was that the character must have appeared on at least four episodes before expiring. By nature, this list skews towards drama, but it’s not all dour. On TV at least, death can be pretty funny. As you might expect, this post is SPOILER ALERT central, so if you’re worried, just click down to the comments right now and tell us your favorite deaths from 2010. Otherwise, check out the list after the jump…

10. Dana Walsh, 24

You could argue that Katee Sackhoff’s much-despised Dana never really had a chance. The umpteenth variation on the old “CTU Agent/Terrorist Mole!” character, Dana’s subplot may as well have been written via Mad Libs. But all the audience frustration proved to be the perfect set-up for a brilliant death scene. A vengeful Jack corners Dana. She begs for her life … and a stone-faced Jack shoots her right in the heart. Then he stands over her body, and shoots her again. It’s arguably the worst thing Jack Bauer ever did (she was surrendering!) and it’s the last truly great moment in one of the most brutal series to ever air on network television.

9. Fat Tony, The Simpsons

There are many reasons to complain about the last couple hundred episodes of The Simpsons. But the most depressing thing about the show is that, with extremely rare exceptions, there haven’t been any great new additions to the sprawling supporting cast in almost ten years. (Seriously, they haven’t even come up with someone more interesting than the Yes Guy.) Instead, we’ve seen ever-more-broad storylines focusing on the show’s peripheral characters: an endless array of Milhouse episodes, and Moe episodes, and Sideshow Bob episodes, etc, etc. So give the writers some credit for doing something different: In the middle of an otherwise straightforward mob-themed episode, they actually went ahead and killed off Fat Tony — a character who was first introduced almost twenty years ago. Admittedly, the writers replaced him by the end of the episode with his soundalike/lookalike cousin, Fit Tony. And Fit Tony quickly became fat. So actually, maybe don’t give the writers any credit after all.

8. Amy, The Walking Dead

It’s impossible to imagine just how many zombies have been killed onscreen since Night of the Living Dead established the genre in 1968. So one of the real pleasures of the first season of The Walking Dead was how the show consistently managed to make slaying the undead feel new again. The high-water mark came in episode 5, with Andrea cradling the dead (but soon-to-be-risen) body of her sister, Amy. Besides playing out with unbearable tension — just shoot the darn thing, already! – the scene proved that Dead was offering its own unique take on the Zombie genre: humane, painful, and emotional. And also twisted — it was Amy’s birthday, after all.

7. Dr. Cat Black, Childrens Hospital

When the Meredith Grey-esque protagonist of Hospital gets impregnated by a six-year-old boy with advanced aging disease, hilarious (and incredibly NSFW) hijinks ensue. Suffice it to say that this was definitely the second-craziest death on a hospital show this year. As for the craziest…

6. The Grey’s Anatomy Death Orgy

Sometimes, new characters just don’t click. Maybe the actor is miscast. Maybe the character doesn’t gel with the rest of the ensemble. Or maybe said ensemble has just gotten too darn big. Such was the case with Grey’s Anatomy, which had an overstuffed cast list after season 6’s Mercy West merger. The solution: Mass murder! In an emotionally wrenching season finale, a vengeful shooter took the lives of Mercy Westers Reed and Percy, and indirectly claimed the life of Meredith’s unborn child when the stress caused her to miscarry. It was a bold narrative choice for the show, and it initiated Grey’s Anatomy‘s creative rebirth.

5. The Lost Death Orgy

Lost never skimped on the fatalities: Cast members probably suffered panic attacks whenever they got a new script, wondering if this would be their final hour. We can all have a good long argument about which death was the saddest, the most shocking, or even funniest. (I go with Eko, Ana Lucia, and Nikki/Paolo, respectively.) But if we’re playing a pure numbers game, nothing compares to the ol’ bomb in the submarine, which singlehandedly claimed the lives of three of the show’s hallmark characters. Besides leaving us with a momentously chilling line — “There is no Sayid!” — the sequence featured one of Lost‘s most indelible images: Jin and Sun’s hands, letting each other go one last time.

4. Agent Sebso, Boardwalk Empire

For most of Boardwalk Empire‘s first season, Agent Sebso was just Nelson Van Alden’s trusted partner. Then, twist! He was actually gangster Nucky Thompson’s man inside the anti-Prohibition force. Sebso offed a witness, and it looked like he’d get away with it. But Van Alden was suspicious. On a normal TV show, that suspicion would’ve probably led to an interrogation. But this is Boardwalk Empire, so instead, Van Alden took Sebso to a Christian service, insisted that he step into a river to be baptized … and then drowned him. Dark, twisted, funny, totally insane, and one of the most out-of-nowhere death scenes in recent memory. Good job, HBO!

3. Gale, Breaking Bad

In the twisted moral calculus of Breaking Bad, Gale was an innocent man. Sure, he cooked meth, but unlike Walt or Jesse, he wasn’t just in it for the money. Proudly libertarian and deeply philosophical, Gale believed that what he was doing was right, not just profitable. And especially compared to Jesse, Gale was the portrait of intellectual pleasantry – the kind of guy who sings along to Italian opera while he cooks vegetarian dinners. But Gale’s dedication to the job made him a liability for Walt, and in the soul-searing final moments of the season, Jesse had to point a gun at this more-or-less good man and pull the trigger. (Aside: I realize that there is some ambiguity around Gale’s death, so if it turns out he’s alive, I will eat Werner Herzog’s shoe.)

Honorable Mention That Would Be #3 If You Consider It A Legitimate “Death” Scene: The Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who

David Tennant’s swan song as the Doctor was incredibly moving, right down to his desperate last lines: “I don’t want to go!” Still, it’s hard to rationalize putting this on a “Death” list when the Doctor was immediately resurrected.

2. Miss Blankenship, Mad Men

In the words of Bert Cooper: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” RIP, Miss Blankenship: the one secretary Don didn’t snog this season.

1. Jack, Lost

Lost had one of the biggest body counts in TV history. (Heck, if you think about it, the entire cast died.) But no death cut to the bone more than the last one. Having rescued the Island/the world from the machinations of the Man in Black, Jack wakes up in a stream. Beaten, bloodied, dying, he stumbles through the forest, and finally collapses … back in the same bamboo grove where he first awoke on the Island. The plane carrying his friends to safety ascends into the sky. And then, the kitchen-sink moment: Vincent the Fricking Dog runs out and lays down next to Jack. Because nobody should ever have to die alone.

PopWatchers, what were your top death scenes of 2010? Any characters you’re hoping will get killed off in 2011?

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Kiefer Sutherland
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