The body count in primetime is rising. Key characters in high-profile dramas are dropping like flies as producers seek the ratings bump and social-media buzz that an unexpected death (or resurrection) brings. True shockers, such as the demise of Josh Charles’ Will Gardner on “The Good Wife,” pay dividends that extend long past a single episode, since they often allow writers to radically alter storylines — and provide actors with killer clips for their Emmy reels. Here are some of the biggest casualties.
Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) “House of Cards” (Netflix)
What happened: The ambitious cub reporter got the ultimate F.U. when former lover/top source Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) got sick of her pesky questions and sent her flying in front of a Metro train in the season-two opener.
The aftermath: The decision to kill Zoe early in the season was strategic. “House of Cards” is known for a binge-watching viewership, and the gambit ensured that audiences — even those who’d followed the original British version — would immediately want to stream the next episode to see how others on Frank’s trail would fare.
James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) “Scandal” (ABC)
What happened: The death of James, shot as part of a cover-up, was shocking not only because he was a fan favorite, but because Bucatinsky won an Emmy last year for the role.
The aftermath: “Scandal” prides itself on dramatic twists, and the character’s departure was viewed as a bold choice. Bucatinsky has already signed on to the NBC pilot “Marry Me,” and will likely score another Emmy nom for his heartbreaking final episode.
Will Gardner (Josh Charles) “The Good Wife” (CBS)
What happened: Charles’ desire to move on after four seasons as the star-crossed love interest to Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick gave writers an opening to take the narrative in a new direction. The “Good Wife” team savvily decided to have Will meet his end — shot by a deranged client — with seven episodes to go, drawing viewer interest to the final installments.
The aftermath: Online fans are mourning Will’s and Alicia’s lost chance to find happiness, and Charles is all but assured an Emmy nom for his swan song.
Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) “Homeland” (Showtime)
What happened: By season three, the need to keep Lewis’ Nicholas Brody on the run was taking a toll on plot plausibility. Although the sizzle between Brody and Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison was undeniable, writers took the brave step of sending him to the gallows in the finale.
The aftermath: “Homeland” will head in an entirely new, Carrie-focused direction for season four, with lensing moving from North Carolina to South Africa.
Steve/Jimmy (Justin Chatwin) “Shameless” (Showtime)
What happened: “Shameless” put its own twist on the dying trend by bringing back Chatwin’s character (known by multiple names), a former boyfriend of Emmy Rossum’s Fiona Gallagher, in the closing seconds (post-credits) of its season-four finale. Viewers thought he had met his end at the hands of a drug lord at the close of season three.
The aftermath: Auds will need to watch season five to find out the full story.
Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
What happened: Viewers were shocked when the season-one main character was beheaded. But they should have seen it coming: Stark dies in George R.R. Martin’s book series — and he was played by Sean Bean, who fails to survive “The Lord of the Rings” opener, among many other such ill-fated roles.
The aftermath: Viewers suddenly realized all bets were off on a show willing to ice its leading man. Bean moved on to “Missing” — and his string of onscreen deaths inspired an online video.