It's been a big week for surprising deaths on television: last Thursday, Scandal killed off a significant recurring character and on Sunday, The Good Wife offed one of its most prominent cast members. The former elicited some disappointment, but fans took it in stride; the latter wasn't quite as well received.
Whatever your opinion, television shows have been killing off significant characters in sudden and violent ways for years, and the practice is only becoming more commonplace. Once upon a time, characters would only die in season finales, once their plot lines had dried up. These days, it's open season on all but the most essential characters. (And not even those are always safe.)
Perhaps the tide turned when Game of Thrones killed off its main character (or at least the character that all promotional materials would have you believe was the main one), Ned Stark, before the first season had even ended. Up to that point, Thrones had been popular, but that shocking killing helped turn it into a phenomenon. Of course, that's an easier coup to pull off when a show has a wealth of source material and an enormous cast of compelling characters. But it established the idea that, by and large, audiences like the fact that characters could die at any moment.
None have managed to quite reach Game of Thrones-level shockery (the Red Wedding indicates that will continue to be the case), but plenty of shows have opted to go ahead and kill prominent characters if the plot required it. Consider the fate of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) on Boardwalk Empire: though Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson was certainly the show's headlining character, Jimmy had been built up as the savvy protagonist who would one day succeed and exceed his mentor — the character that viewers would rally behind. Turns out, it wasn't meant to be. Jimmy's betrayal of Nucky led him down an inexorable path to his demise at the end of the show's second season.
At the time, many questioned the wisdom of killing off the character with whom audiences most readily identified. But in spite of those reservations, the series has flourished in its subsequent seasons — with both the show's characters and its fans relishing a Jimmy-free Boardwalk.
It's a phenomenon not unique to Boardwalk: once a character is gone, he's forgotten and the show goes on without him, as often as not for the better. The handwringing over The Good Wife's big death may make total sense right now, but if The Wire could survive without Omar and Stringer Bell, or Breaking Bad without Gus Fring and Hank Schrader, it's a good bet that things will turn out just fine for fans. And if not, it's a suitable price to pay for the sensation viewers crave the most: genuine surprise.