By Darren Franich
December 27, 2011 at 02:30 PM EST
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Few things are more beautiful in a TV series than the death of a main character. TV shows used to be created out of static component parts, with casts of characters that would only evolve very gradually, if at all. But that’s all changed in the last 10 years, first with the advent of death-happy cable networks — farewell, Big Pussy — and then with the mid-decade rise of serialized dramas that merrily killed off cast members in an effort to perpetually raise the narrative stakes. Nowadays, it’s practically essential for any remotely violent drama to kill off a main character in the season finale. Still, in the crowded TV graveyard of this blood-soaked 2011, 10 deaths stood out. Here are the 10 Best TV Character Deaths of 2011. (Spoilers, natch.)

10. Bill Henrickson, Big Love

HBO’s triple-family drama may have wandered a bit off course in its concluding seasons, but you can’t argue with the season finale, which saw patriarch Bill unexpectedly gunned down by his unhinged neighbor Carl. In theory, the sheer randomness of the act should have been depressing, but the closing minutes of Big Love showed Bill’s wives and loved ones moving on without him — an indelible portrait of grief shading into acceptance. Kind of like Six Feet Under, but without the old-age makeup.

9. Sheriff Graham, Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time‘s seventh episode focused almost entirely on a heretofore sideline character: the Irish-for-some-reason hipster lawman, Sheriff Graham. We learned about Graham’s secret past as the Huntsman; we saw him search for his heart; we saw him kiss Emma. And then he died, an unsuspecting victim of Evil Queen Regina. The episode was written by Once co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who came from Lost — a show that became famous for deploying the Episode That Makes a Character Seem Awesome Right Before We Kill Them death twist. (Intriguingly, ABC’s other new nighttime soap — the all-rich-people-must-burn melodrama Revenge — also killed off a main character in its seventh episode. But we’ll give Graham the edge over Frank the Security Guy, since “having your heart crushed at the precise moment you remember your past life and consummate your romance” is a decidedly nobler death than “bludgeoned to death in a strip-club parking lot by an exotic dancer.”)

8. Otis, The Walking Dead

Our crack team of pop culture obituarists usually only allow genuine main-cast characters on our Top 10 List, which means either credited series regulars or guest stars who’ve logged enough screen time for their death to be meaningful. (Otherwise, this list would probably be renamed The 10 Best Decapitations on Game of Thrones.) But we’re making a minor exception for poor ranch hand Otis for three reasons: 1) Because when Otis expired in the third episode of Walking Dead‘s new season, the show had had such a short run that basically everyone seemed like a main character; 2) because Otis was a leading character in the Walking Dead comic book series, making his death a genuine shock for megafans;  3) because his murder was a shocking, cynical moment in a season that mostly settled in for slow-paced sentimentality. Shane’s decision to sacrifice Otis to a horde of walkers brought a much-needed sense of amorality to Walking Dead‘s universe. In that sense, it prefigured the glorious midseason finale, which saw the Dead gang gun down the adorable zombified husk that used to be Sophia. Which is not on this list, because zombies are not people.

7. The V Death Orgy

ABC’s V reboot was never very good. For the vast majority of its run, it was at its best when it was at its worst — when the nonsensically tangled conspiracy plot, the horrible CGI sets, the awkward teen-romance subplot, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s incredible ability to have sexual chemistry with every single male character would occasionally combine into a brain-shutdown cheesefest. But anyone who stuck with the show could at least thrill to the series finale, which killed off the show’s two lamest characters in such specifically horrifying ways that you had to imagine the writers were working through some emotional issues. Secret-alien Ryan tried to rescue his daughter… and she broke his neck with her lizard tail. Annoying teen Tyler wanted to rescue his alien girlfriend… and wound up losing his virginity to her sister-clone, who then proceeded to chomp out his jugular and bathe in his blood. Throw in the shocker death of original V regular Jane Badler, and you had the biggest body count in any hour of broadcast television this year. Oh and also, the world basically ended. Gratifying ending, shmatifying ending: This is how you end a low-rated TV show!

6. Li’l Sebastian, Parks and Recreation

Over the course of three and a half seasons of Parks and Recreation, the sleepy town of Pawnee, Indiana, has become one of the most vividly realized cities on television since The Simpsons‘ Springfield. That became especially clear on the third-season finale, when all of Pawnee grieved for the passing of its beloved mascot and leading citizen: Li’l Sebastian, the miniature horse with a heart as big as a million full-sized horses. The creators of Parks and Rec supposedly considered killing off a human character, but it’s hard to consider how the death of a mere person could possibly have been more meaningful than the passing of Li’l Sebastian, which forced all the main characters to confront their own mortality. In the words of Ron Swanson: “I have cried twice in my life. Once when I was 7 and I was hit by a school bus. And then again when I heard that Li’l Sebastian had passed.”

5. Mags Bennet, Justified

In Justified‘s second season, the show made a decisive move into backwoods-Shakespearean territory, as Raylan became embroiled in a family feud that quickly spiraled into a all-out war between the Crowders and the meth-cooking Bennet clan. The season was dominated by Bennet matriarch Mags, played by Margo Martindale in a showstopping performance that lead to the most deserved Emmy win in years. The closing moments of Justified‘s season finale saw Mags’ family in ruins. She shared some of her homemade moonshine with Raylan… although she made sure to poison her glass. (The moonshine was the Apple Pie variety — appropriate, for such a bleakly all-American American death.)

4. Ned Stark, Game of Thrones

Ned Stark was clearly the hero of Game of Thrones. He was the face on all the advertisements. He was the voice of moral reason. He was played by Sean Bean, a leading member of that particular breed of British actors whose curious mix of patrician pride and brutish resentment make him uncannily perfect for fantasy roles — Odysseus in Troy, Zeus in Percy Jackson, and especially his iconic, catchphrase-launching Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring. But the entire first season of Thrones was all about witnessing the slow breakdown of traditional notions of heroism, a downward spiral that concluded with Ned Stark’s head on the executioner’s block. The death was no surprise to anyone who’s read the books, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss earn credit for beautifully tracking one man’s slow-but-steady downfall. By remaining true to his virtues, Ned Stark damned himself… and maybe everyone he’s ever loved, too.

3. Vivien Harmon, American Horror Story

Season 1 of American Horror Story built up a massive body count — practically every episode featured a death or three, with most of the unfortunate fatalities quickly returning as emotionally traumatized ghosts. The revelation of Violet’s suicide earns points for pure shock value — what other show would kill off a teenager, and then only reveal that she died a couple episodes later? But if you want to look at the death that perfectly encapsulated everything that was good and bat-crap crazy about American Horror Story, look to Vivien Harmon, who died in childbirth in the season’s penultimate episode. From its opening moments, AHS was a story about mothers — we met Vivien when she was recovering from a miscarriage, and watched her pregnancy spiral into absurd realms of psychotic biology (unrelated twins?). Watching her quietly expire — her adulterous husband begged her to stay and her dead teenage daughter beckoned her into the abyss — was a soul-shattering moment.

2. Jimmy Darmody, Boardwalk Empire

Jimmy Darmody never even remotely made sense as a character. A Princeton dropout with Great War PTSD, Darmody spent two seasons of Boardwalk Empire regularly shuttling between a wide variety of personalities, none of them with any clear relation to each other. Sometimes he was a bruised war hero who seemed to want peace; at other times, he was a devious criminal mastermind who wouldn’t think twice about scalping a rival. He was oddly, almost religiously devoted to the mother of his child — a woman who generally despised him — but he was also a grinning adulterer, but then he’d fall in tragic love with a Chicago hooker. The main plotline of Boardwalk‘s second season saw Jimmy declare war on Nucky Thompson for incredibly tangled reasons: He believed it was time for Nucky to step aside for a younger generation, but he was working with old men who used to run Atlantic City; he was angry at Nucky for facilitating his mother’s rape, but his main ally was his father the rapist.

Michael Pitt’s Method affectations didn’t help to understand Jimmy: His de facto response to everyone was cold indifference mixed with seething resentment, which was fun without being particularly insightful. Maybe Jimmy was a purposefully confusing character. Certainly, the late-season episode that flashed back to his Princeton days left the vivid impression of a man whose whole life is a hellish Greek tragedy, rife with incest and patricide and accidental pregnancies. But Jimmy was beginning to feel a little bit like the Marissa Cooper of Boardwalk Empire: The character who motivates the entire plot purely by virtue of making stupid decisions, and whose central importance to the narrative directly contradicts their status as one of the least interesting characters on the cast.

So it was especially gratifying that the makers of Boardwalk Empire took a page straight out of The O.C.‘s playbook — probably accidentally — and ended their season with the cold-hearted killing of Jimmy Darmody. Like Marissa — who died immediately after her high school graduation, on her way to spend time with her father in some tropical locale — Jimmy died at what seemed like a moment of triumph. We thought he was meeting Nucky to take vengeance on the man who murdered his wife. Instead, the rain-soaked meeting was Nucky’s opportunity for vengeance. Jimmy stood tall, telling his old mentor that they’d all be judged in the end. Nucky shot him once, told him he didn’t care about forgiveness, and then shot him again.

1. The Breaking Bad Murder-Suicide Death Orgy of Vengeance

Was there a more talked-about single shot on television this year than the vision of Gus Fring — the apparently invincible, almost godlike drug king of Albuquerque (and, yeesh, maybe the entire contiguous American continent) — emerging from an exploded hospital room, straightening his tie, and then collapsing over dead, with half his face burnt away? Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan recently told EW that that image had lived in his mind for months beforehand, and with hindsight, it became clear that the entire fourth season of Breaking Bad was a slow, steady buildup to that sequence.

What made Gus’ death so brilliant was that it was simultaneously inevitable and shocking. Inevitable, because someone had to die in the showdown between Walter and Gus, and it’s hard to imagine that even a show as brilliantly twisted as Breaking Bad would kill off its main character with a whole season left to go. Unexpected, because the exact method of Gus’ death was so shocking. All season, we’d seen Gus visiting Héctor Salamanca at the old folks’ home, awaiting his simple vengeance — he wanted Héctor to look him in the eye. Héctor used to be a drug enforcer, but over the course of Breaking Bad we’ve seen him lose everything: his family, his friends in the cartel.

In the end, Héctor finally gave Gus what he wanted. He looked in his eyes — and hell followed with him. He rang his iconic bell, but no sound came out — the chair had been rigged with explosives. So Héctor died in a moment of triumph. Gus died knowing that his vengeance would never be complete — and, perhaps, knowing that Walter White had gotten the better of him. And as for Gus’ enforcer, Tyrus? We’re guessing he’s currently splayed all around the inside of Héctor‘s hospital room. A good old-fashioned death orgy: The perfect end to a perfect season of television.

Honorable Mention for Best Funeral: Charlie Harper, Two and a Half Men

The season premiere of Two and a Half Men is perhaps the single angriest episode of any CBS sitcom ever, beginning with an extended funeral for Charlie Harper that quickly becomes a barely-disguised laceration of former Men star and 2011 breakout Martian rock star Charlie Sheen. The women in Charlie’s life brag about the STDs he gave them. A man demands $38,000 for the money Charlie owed him for “some, let’s say, pharmaceuticals.” Charlie’s stalker gives a tear-filled speech where she basically admits to pushing him into the path of a train. “His body just exploded. Like a balloon full of meat.” Later, Charlie’s brother tries to pour his ashes onto the beach… and winds up throwing the urn, spreading the remnants of Charlie Harper throughout the house forevermore. The freaking ancient Romans had more sentimental funerals.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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