When Margo Martindale won the Emmy for best supporting actress in a drama for her riveting turn as Justified’s villainous country pot dealer Mags Bennett, you could hear a din of whispers. “But wait, she died in the series finale!” (By drinking poisoned moonshine, natch.) Dying in a prestige drama offers an actor just the kind of buzzy Emmy “moment” voters love — like those of the five performers featured here — especially if the demise is a violent shocker. Otherwise, what’s the point?
American Horror Story (FX)
There’s little about American Horror that made sense, so it’s only fitting that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk would kill nearly the entire cast during the 12-episode run (thereby making the freshman series an “anthology” and eligible for the miniseries/movies category in which it’s competing). McDermott’s hapless cheating husband Ben Harmon was hardly endearing, but his attempts at redemption as the season wrapped offered the TV veteran a juicy bite of material before he was offed via hanging-by-chandelier. McDermott also has an edge — 12 hours of edge, in fact — over other mini/movies contenders like Clive Owen, who appeared in traditional one-off HBO movies.
Mad Men (AMC)
The shocking suicide of Harris’ depressed finance chief Lane Pryce on the June 3 episode of Mad Men sent shivers down viewers’ spines as show creator Matthew Weiner proved again the power of his super-secretive plot lines. Harris’ affable character had been mostly incidental until this fifth season, during which his struggle to feel relevant among giant ad-men egos and secretive book-cooking mounted to a tragic end. Some said the soapy twist felt gratuitous; I thought it was the perfect penultimate-episode shocker for one of the few characters on Mad Men with a true conscience.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Megafans of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels long knew it was coming, but that didn’t make the shotgun murder of Bernthal’s Shane at the hand of his best friend Rick any less of a zeitgeist moment. The tension between the buddies had been mounting since the first season of Dead, when we discovered Shane had been sleeping with Rick’s wife at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. Showrunner Glen Mazzara has said the killing of Jeff DeMunn’s character in episode 11 was actually “more shocking” as the action vastly diverted from Kirkman’s plot lines. But seeing Shane post-zombie attack, floundering on the ground as his friend struggles to pull the trigger, is an image I won’t soon forget. Lucky for Bernthal, he’s still close with original Dead showrunner Frank Darabont, who cast the actor in his new series L.A. Noir. Perhaps a resurrection is in his future?
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
You know you might be in trouble when your showrunner is a veteran of the whack-happy Sopranos team — in this case Terence Winter — who has killed the likes of Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi (among many others) during
that series’ run. But those characters weren’t leads; how could Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody — Boardwalk’s naive gangster and war hero — possibly perish, just as his character was climbing toward the murky heights of antiheroism? Winter says there was “no way around” Jimmy’s fate, and Pitt — in all his moody method-acting glory — embraced his demise (by handgun) with delicious maturity.
As a versatile character actor, McDonough has slowly embraced his dark side (remember him as Bree’s nefarious lover on Desperate Housewives?). And in season three of Justified, the eerily blond actor took a page from Martindale’s playbook to create another glorious villain over 12 episodes in his Detroit gangster Robert Quarles . ( Justified creator Graham Yost, McDonough’s friend and showrunner from NBC’s shortlived Boomtown, handpicked him for the role.) McDonough says the creepy part “was one of the best” of his career. So why shouldn’t his death be too? In the season finale, Quarles has his arm severed by a meat cleaver-wielding Mykelti “Bubba Gump” Williamson. McDonough too has been cast in Darabont’s L.A. Noir, showing that there is life after a bloody wonderful TV death.