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Murderous Intent: Go Ahead, Kill That High-Profile TV Character

THEY KILLED BRIAN THE DOG! Oh, wait. Nevermind.
THEY KILLED BRIAN THE DOG! Oh, wait. Nevermind.

(Ed Note:This post contains spoilers that reveal the plot of several shows, so stop here if you are months and months and months and months behind on your TV watching).

This time of year has become a sort of wonderful purgatory for TV critics.

That's because there has been so much good television on broadcast, cable and online, that our year-end tradition of choosing Top 10 lists has been a deliciously maddening experience (I actually had to flip a coin to choose between three shows at the end of one "best of" list this year; a friend who also columnizes on the subject just extended his list past 20 names)

But rather than subject NPR listeners to a discourse on the 30 coolest shows of 2013, I've tried a different tack; looking at some of the most interesting TV trends of 2013.

And, for me, there was no more compelling trend this year than the dramatic, high-profile death.

Of course, AMC's Breaking Bad capped the best ending of the best show on TV with the best death — handing Bryan Cranston's Walter White his demise after he finally atoned for all the carnage involved in building his multi-million dollar meth empire. That his death came while protecting surrogate son Jessie Pinkman from machine gun fire was another delicious irony in a bravura finale filled with them.

But no one expected Walter White to get out of his self-made hell alive. What shocked us more this year were all the deaths we couldn't see coming: Hank Schrader, Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law on Breaking Bad; kindhearted PTSD sufferer Terry Bellefleur on True Blood; Dexter Morgan's sister Deb on Showtime's Dexter; Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey; and the conscience of AMC's The Walking Dead, gentle veterinarian and father figure Herschel Greene.

The bloodbath which saw Robb Stark, his mother and entire entourage killed in Game of Thrones' "Red Wedding" episode removed the show's closest thing to a hero and left some fans who hadn't read the Thrones books wondering who to root for next.

Speaking of wondering what's next, Homeland fans are scratching their heads after watching the show's co-lead, Damian Lewis' conflicted marine-turned-terrorist-turned CIA asset Nicholas Brody, get hanged by Iranian authorities at the end of the show's third season this year.

Can a series which always toggled between Brody's frantic lies and his bond with Claire Danes' bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison really survive without him? Can we even believe he's really dead?

FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy offered up two amazing deaths this year; the demise of Ron Perlman's stepdaddy from hell, Clay Morrow — which came two seasons too late, if you ask me — and the murder of Tara Knowles by the mother of Knowles' husband, Katey Sagal's Gemma Teller Morrow. Just when you think showrunner Kurt Sutter can't raise the stakes any higher, he has Gemma stick a fork in the skull of the woman she's hated for quite a while.

We learned a few rules about TV deaths. When a marginal character starts getting more screen time, look out. Producers may be setting you up to like the character, just so it hurts a bit more when they get whacked.

And death can sometimes just be a head fake to get attention. What else should fans think when Fox'sFamily Guy kills off beloved character Brian the Dog, only to bring him back again a few weeks later with an explanation involving time travel?

But mostly, the death of a major character is a way to reset the table for a series in the modern era of quality television, opening up new storylines or new characters.

What better way to tell your audience you mean business than to kill off a character they love?

During this week, I'll be exploring lots more interesting TV trends from 2013, including: why British crime dramas made the best binge viewing; how Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany became the most overlooked actress of the year; how a fake twerking video provided the best media criticism of the year and why a certain CBS sitcom remains the coolest old school comedy on television.

But no trend interests me more than the high profile character death.

It might be a tragedy in real life. But death is often the best thing that can happen to a long-running TV show.

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Corrected: December 21, 2013 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misidentified the weapon used to kill the character Tara Knowles on FX's Sons of Anarchy.