I was recently searching for “Poker Face,” the new hit mystery series on Peacock, when I came across “Poker Face,” a 2022 psychological thriller starring Russell Crowe. The film was a total flop for several reasons. One of the worst offenses was the totally unnecessary death of a staff member, brutally impaled by an electric gate after already cooperating with intruders.
Of course, it’s common storytelling practice to kill extras or supporting characters while giving protagonists impenetrable plot armor. However, some on-screen deaths really stick with you. Whether it’s wholly unfair, overly brutal or drawn out, or just plain pointless to the plot, the deaths in this list have left audiences reeling.
Warning: There are serious spoilers ahead! We recommend skipping over what you haven’t seen so you can check them out on popular streaming services later.
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988)
In “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” humans and cartoons, or “toons,” coexist in an alternate version of Los Angeles. The story follows private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) as he investigates the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), owner of Acme Corporation and Toontown, the area of the city where toons live.
Toons are generally invulnerable due to not being subject to the laws of the physical world. They can die and return to life, do impossible feats with their bodies, and don’t age. In the film, the most terrifying weapon that can be used against a toon is “the dip.” A mix of turpentine, acetone, and benzene, the dip is a strong paint thinner capable of posing an existential threat to toons.
The sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) sacrifices a completely innocent cartoon shoe to demonstrate just how scary the dip is. The shoe, clearly sentient, is slowly lowered into the dip while it screams and pleads for its life with its eyes. As a result, its pair is forever orphaned.
This scene was traumatic for children who will keep that poor shoe forever in their memories. You can watch “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” with a Disney Plus subscription.
‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)
The Coen brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski” is the story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), an aging hippie slacker. The Dude is pulled into a plot when he is mistaken for Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a millionaire with the same name. He’s given ransom money by his millionaire double to free Lebowski’s kidnapped trophy wife. However, the plan goes wrong when Walter (John Goodman), The Dude’s hot-headed, gun-toting bowling buddy, plots to keep the money for himself.
The most tragic character in the film is Donny (Steve Buscemi), the ignored and put-down third member of The Dude and Walter’s bowling group. Unlike his friends, Donny is a nice and normal guy who just really likes bowling. The film’s final scene is a fight in the bowling alley parking lot with The Dude and Walter facing off against the antagonistic group of blackmailers. Donny dies from a heart attack during the scuffle, but by the time his friends notice, it’s too late to save him.
While Donny’s death leads to a reconciliation between The Dude and Walter at the end of the film, it was still pointless. The death demonstrates that Walter and The Dude have opposing but equally vacuous worldviews. They’re so consumed by their own vision of the American Dream and their place in it that they forget basic human decency and cause a meaningless death.
There are too many layers in “The Big Lebowski” to peel back here, so check it out by renting it on AMC on Demand.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001)
One of the worst types of unnecessary on-screen deaths is when a minor character gets killed just to show how wicked the bad guy is, as happened in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
After hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) inherits a ring containing a dark power, he sets out on a journey to keep it out of evil hands. Already being pursued by “ringwraiths,” undead soldiers bent on seizing the ring, Frodo seeks refuge in a bumbling regional town called Bree. He’s greeted by a friendly but cautious gatekeeper (Martyn Sanderson).
As Frodo sits awake, hidden in the town’s inn, the mounted ringwraiths force their way into the town in search of him. As they burst through the gate, the old gatekeeper behind the door is crushed by the gate’s weight and trampled by nine horses. This is a significant departure from Harry Goatleaf, the named gatekeeper in the novel, who was in league with the ringwraiths. We may never know why they chose to kill off this character in the film version, but we’ll never forget that horrible crunching sound effect.
You can stream the movie on Netflix and Max.
‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5 (2015)
Ser Barristan Selmy
Although you could say that the entire final season of “Game of Thrones” was the unnecessary death of a TV show, we still can’t get over the death of Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) in season 5. In the fictional land of Westeros, competing factions vie for the Iron Throne. A legendary fighter and swordsman, Ser Barristan is a commander in the royal guard of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Upon his son Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson) succession to the throne, Selmy is sent into retirement against his will. He leaves the continent of Westeros to serve the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke).
Across the sea in Maureen, Daenerys is struggling against barbaric local traditions. Her closing of the city’s fighting pits has sparked a rebellion by a local group called Sons of the Harpy. In episode 4 of season 5, an attack by the Sons of the Harpy kills Ser Barristan.
Ser Barristan’s death is a departure from the book character, who lived to campaign against the later disappearance of Daenerys and eventually rules Maureen in her stead after she leaves to invade Westeros. We'll never know why the showrunners allowed the world’s most legendary fighter to be taken down by a street gang.
You can watch all eight seasons on Max.
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 (2017)
In season 1 of “Stranger Things,” Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) spends the whole season tortured over the unnatural disappearance of her son. So audiences were thrilled to see her character looking much happier and healthier in season 2. Joyce’s renewed vibrance was largely due to her new boyfriend, Bob Newby. Bob is a little geeky, smart with technology, nice to Joyce’s kids, and a generally good guy. He’s portrayed by Sean Astin, the beloved face of Samwise Gamgee and a favorite among fantasy and sci-fi audiences.
Fans were pretty disappointed when his character was unceremoniously eaten alive by otherworldly monsters called demidogs at the end of the season. He died saving the main characters from a deadly outbreak of monsters and was instrumental in solving the season’s main mystery. But, while Joyce and the other characters were shocked and sad, it wasn’t enough to cushion the blow for audiences. It’s theorized that the screenwriters wanted him out of the way so Joyce could hook up with the better-looking police chief. Bob was a great guy, and we didn’t like to see Sean Astin’s character done dirty.
It’s worth sticking it out through the “Stranger Things” rocky season 2 to make it to its fabulous season 3. Catch all four seasons of the hit sci-fi mystery on Netflix.
‘South Park’ (1997 - Present)
A brilliant use of unnecessary death is the character Kenny (voiced by Matt Stone and Eric Stough) in “South Park.” Throughout the show’s 26 seasons, Kenny has been killed dozens of times, including being shot, crushed, electrified, and dismembered. However, Kenny’s always back in the next episode, completely fine and usually receiving no mention of his death from the other characters.
The show’s creators use this motif to play with audiences' expectations, like when they seemingly killed off Kenny permanently from muscular dystrophy in season 5. However, in season 6, there’s Kenny again. This shows that not all unnecessary death is the result of poor writing, but it can actually be a clever comedic and plot device.
Catch the long-running animated satire “South Park” on Max.