TV shows in 2013 brought the demise of many major characters. Still, as the casualties piled up, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans reminds us that the best television deaths of the year also highlighted some of the best moments on the small screen.

Before we start, we should include a spoiler alert to those fans who are still catching up on episodes of "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "Family Guy." You may want to turn down your radio, or maybe hum loudly for the next three minutes.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: For some fans, the murder of Hershel Greene on "The Walking Dead" was like killing off Santa Claus. Greene had a face full of white whiskers and a kindly manner. He was taken hostage, so the show's hero, Rick Grimes, was forced to beg for his life. It was powerful moment, Grimes pleading for compassion in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.


ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Everyone who's alive right now, everyone who's made it this far, we've all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive. But we can still come back. We're not too far gone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Whispering) Liar.

DEGGANS: With one stroke from a sword...


DEGGANS: ...the show's villain killed Hershel Greene, "The Walking Dead's" social conscience. It was a brutal answer to the show's central question: How do you hold onto your humanity in a merciless world? And that's the best thing about a major TV character's death - it jolts the audience with an unpredictability that feels just like real life.

Certainly, "Game of Thrones" viewers reacted that way when the show unleashed its horrifying "Red Wedding" episode. As a wedding banquet ended, a rival king slaughtered nobleman Robb Stark's pregnant wife and his friends. His mother grabbed a knife. She threatened the king's wife, to stop him from killing her son.


MICHELLE FAIRLEY: (As Catelyn Stark) Let him go, or I will cut your wife's throat.

DEGGANS: As his armed men drew closer, the king delivered a chilling conclusion.


DAVID BRADLEY: (As Walder Frey) I'll find another.


DEGGANS: Now, that's a truly merciless world.

TV nerds might say the year's most important onscreen death belonged to Walter White, the teacher-turned-drug lord on AMC's "Breaking Bad." But I was more interested in an earlier killing, the execution of Walter White's brother-in-law, drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader. White's neo-Nazi business partners captured the DEA agent after a shoot out. And as the Nazi leader pointed a gun at his head, the agent told White why he refused to plead for his own life.


DEAN NORRIS: (As Hank Schrader) You want me to beg? You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago. Do what you're going to do.


DEGGANS: Walter White thought he could outwit both his DEA brother-in-law and the neo-Nazis without anyone getting killed. But Hank Schrader's death ended that illusion.

But there's one TV demise that shook the foundations of the industry, redefining one of the most enduring series on television.


SETH MACFARLANE: (As Stewie Griffin) Brian, look out!

DEGGANS: Say goodbye to Brian the dog, on "Family Guy." Brian's death hit hard. Fans signed petitions, critics wrote stories and suddenly, a show that wasn't getting much attention was drowning in it.

For many TV shows, a major death is a reset button. It's a chance to shake up the series with new directions or new characters. It might be a tragedy in real life, but death can sometimes be the best thing that happens to a TV show.


MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic.


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