Joss Whedon’s new series Dollhouse debuts tonight. How long till one of the characters is killed in some heartbreaking and horrifying way? Only time can tell. In the meantime, let’s reflect on some of Joss’s previous victims… namely, the sixteen which most affected the plots of their respective series. When you have a list like this that’s narrowed down to the top sixteen, you know you’re dealing with a serious offender. Many, MANY characters have died in Joss’s works, but it would be impossible to name them all. Obviously, spoilers abound in this article, so if you’re not up to date on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly & Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or Astonishing X-Men, you might want to avert your eyes.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
1. Buffy Summers (“Prophecy Girl” and “The Gift”)
It’s not often that the main character of a show is killed off — let alone the title character, let alone TWICE. But that’s exactly how both Season 1 and Season 5 end, with Buffy sacrificing herself to save the world. The difference is that she’s brought back to life within a few minutes in “Prophecy Girl,” while viewers had to spend the summer between seasons 5 and 6 wondering how on earth UPN was going to pull off the show with Buffy dead. But even knowing her death was unlikely to be permanent didn’t make watching it happen any less emotional an ordeal.
2. Jenny Calendar (“Passion”)
When Angel loses his soul and becomes Angelus, it is unclear at first how evil he really is. Sure, he’s callous toward Buffy after their consummation, but until he breaks Jenny Calendar’s neck he hasn’t done anything truly horrific. Possibly even worse than the murder itself, however, is his cruel joke on Giles thereafter. Come to think of it, his careful planning and his uncanny ability to find the most excruciating way to torment his “audience” is reminiscent of Joss himself.
3. Angel (“Becoming Part 2”)
As Angelus, Angel had opened a portal to a hell dimension (how many of those are there, anyway?) and only his death would close it. The fact that Buffy would have to kill him to save the world, then, is awful enough. But to make matters worse, Willow’s spell to restore Angel’s soul works just in time, yet not — too late to prevent the portal from being opened, yet in time to get back his puppy-dog eyes as Buffy rams a sword through him and shoves him into hell. Ouch.
4. Joyce Summers (“I Was Made To Love You”)
As one of the few non-supernatural deaths during the show’s run, Joyce’s is particularly shocking and disturbing. Her tumor had been removed earlier in the season and everything seems to be looking up — never a good sign in the Jossverse. The realism with which her death is treated in the following episode, “The Body,” is almost unheard of in fiction, which makes it ache all the more.
5. Tara Maclay (“Seeing Red”)
Like Joyce, Tara is killed not by magic or demons, but something more familiar: an angry kid with a gun, a stray shot not even meant for her. As a “natural” death, it is irreversible, even by Willow. More than any other death in the show’s history, Tara’s directly affects major actions that follow; i.e. Evil!Willow and her killing spree of pain. It’s also one of the few times a character dies and doesn’t return in any form (a deliberate choice made by Amber Benson to preserve the integrity of the character she portrayed so lovingly).
6. Anya (“Chosen”)
As a regular character for four seasons, Anya had become a fan favorite and one of the most vital members of the Scooby Gang. So it’s a shock when, instead of the usual drawn-out death in her lover’s arms, she’s sliced in half so quick you could easily miss it. Though it seems unfair for her to go out this way, it fits perfectly with the tone of the episode. No one is safe, and with thousands of casualties in one battle, there’s no time for glamorous deaths.
7. Spike (“Chosen”)
OK, so maybe Spike gets a glamorous death. As the self-appointed “champion,” he uses the amulet given to Angel by Lilah Morgan (crossover alert!) to cleanse the Hellmouth of its evil. Unfortunately for him, this involves him burning up from the inside out and exploding in a brilliant ray of effulgence (that’s right, effulgence). Fortunately for his fans, he would return on the final season of Angel just a few months later.
8. Doyle (“Hero”)
The first casualty of Angel’s spinoff series, Doyle was a lovable character from the start and it was a shock to see him go so soon, especially as Cordelia finally seems to be noticing his affection for her. Reportedly, he was written off due to Glenn Quinn’s real life drug problems and, sadly, Glenn himself died of an overdose in 2002.
9. Darla (“Lullaby”)
Considered a villain for most of her run on Buffy and Angel, Darla miraculously becomes pregnant with Angel’s son — a human — after their romp in Season 2’s “Reprise.” With the mortal baby’s soul inside her, she develops a sense of morality she hasn’t felt in centuries. As a result, she selflessly stakes herself to save her baby’s life.
10. Cordelia Chase (“You’re Welcome”)
After having spent half of Season 4 possessed by an evil goddess and the other half (plus half of Season 5) in a coma, it seemed Cordelia would never get the closure she deserved. Thankfully, the episode “You’re Welcome” gives her that closure, as she seems to recover from her coma, back to her old self. But at the end of the episode, it’s revealed that she returned only in spirit form, just long enough to tell Angel goodbye and share with him one last vision before she dies. All along, she knows this, yet keeps it to herself; the irony born from Angel’s ignorance is what makes her death so bittersweet.
11. Winifred “Fred” Burkle (“A Hole In The World”)
Just two episodes after Cordelia’s death, the show lost its other female lead, at least strictly speaking. After being infected with the essence of Illyria, an “Old One,” Fred’s life slowly fades away. In a turn of events which is both relieving and distressing, the demon who has invaded her continues to possess her body. Thus, the character is not completely gone, and Illyria has the ability to impersonate Fred, but Fred herself is truly dead.
12. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (“Not Fade Away”)
After Fred’s death, tortured-soul Wesley becomes even more broken than usual. Having his memories of all that Connor drama returned doesn’t help matters, either. During the final fight of the series, Wesley is killed in a sorceror’s battle with Cyvus Vail — though from a knife stab to the abdomen, not magic. Illyria enters to see him mortally wounded, and asks if wants her to lie to him — to be Fred. He agrees, and dies in Fred’s arms as she did in his.
13. Shepherd Book
With nine cast regulars on the series Firefly, it was only a matter of time before one of them bit the dust. But, as it was so short-lived, Joss had no time to flex his murdering muscles. So when the show’s sequel movie came along, he had to make up for lost time by killing two of the nine. Shepherd Book, who appears in the film more as a supporting character than as part of the main cast, dies at the hands of the movie’s villain, The Operative. Rather unceremoniously, Mal and the gang are forced to use his body, along with those of his fallen neighbors, to desecrate Serenity in order to disguise her from the Reavers.
14. Hoban “Wash” Washburne
After Book, it seems unlikely that another member of the crew would be killed within the same movie. We’re caught off guard when Wash, declaring himself “A leaf on the wind,” is skewered by a Reaver ship’s harpoon, dying instantly. Naturally, this comes shortly after a conversation between Zoe and Wash about starting a family as soon as this crisis ends.
15. Kitty Pryde (Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1)
Though Joss’s stint writing Astonishing X-Men was relatively brief, he ended it in his signature style: by killing his favorite character. In the final issue of his four-part arc, a giant bullet is fired at Earth by an alien race. In order to prevent the bullet from destroying the planet, Kitty Pryde (incidentally, one of Joss’s inspirations for Buffy) uses her power to phase the bullet through the Earth. Unfortunately, she is unable to stop the bullet from continuing its trajectory through space, so she is doomed to ride it indefinitely. Presumably, she will at some point be too exhausted to continue phasing it through objects in its path, and it will crash into something. Since she is not actually seen dying, it’s likely she will return to the Marvel universe eventually (it is a comic book, after all!).
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
An experiment in web media, Dr. Horrible quickly became a cult phenomenon. Told in three acts, it is a musical about a wannabe supervillain driven by his love for Penny, a sweet, benevolent girl who is, unfortunately, more enamored by his nemesis, Captain Hammer. The first two acts are dark yet playful, as Dr. Horrible at first seems to not be very good at being evil. But in the third act, when he tries to kill Captain Hammer, a tragic series of events ensues which culminates in the inadvertent death of Penny. Some argue that her death is necessary for Dr. Horrible to truly begin his journey into villainy, while others are exasperated that Joss seems to have gotten fixated on his characteristic killing-off-the-love-interest device. Perhaps it’s both.