Warning: This post contains a lot of spoilers, so read at your own risk.
A good backstory can take character development to the next level. It can explain motivations, emotional baggage, and add a depth to the story. A well-told backstory can make you sympathize with a character you previously hated, or make you love your favorites even more. Flashbacks, when done well, can be a great way to show instead of tell, and have become a particularly effective device for television writers to deploy.
However, they can also break your damn heart and send you into an emotional tailspin. If you haven’t ended up in a fetal position, weeping and contemplating calling in sick to work the following day after a particularly heartbreaking reveal, you just might be dead inside. “Hold the door” or a piece of rotten fruit will never be the same thanks to these particularly tragic origins, so let’s count down the most heartbreaking backstories on TV. Let us know which flashbacks made you snot-cry in the comments
10. Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett — Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black has excelled in creating tragic and sympathetic backstories for even the most unlikable inmates, proving that it’s one of the most profoundly human shows currently airing. Still, there is something about Pennsatucky’s past that was a cycle of ignorance, poverty, rape, and violence made one of the most hated characters on the show into one of the most heartbreaking. The commodification of her body in exchange for 6-packs of soda was just one of many examples of the injustices done to women on Orange Is the New Black, shining a light on the dark misogyny that is rampant in today’s society. It’s hard to watch, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
9. Veronica Mars — Veronica Mars
There was an awful lot of tragedy in Neptune, but our snarky heroine bore the brunt of it. Veronica Mars may be a marshmallow, but she was battered before she started solving crimes (and after). Her best friend is murdered, her father loses his job over his convictions, her mother leaves, Veronica is roofied and raped, and she is essentially turned into a social pariah. Her circumstances may have changed her from a shallow socialite into the hardboiled detective we all grew to love, but it’s still an awful lot of pain for one teen to endure.
8. John Locke — Lost
John Locke was a polarizing character on Lost, but no one could deny that he had a pretty painful life pre-island. As a child, he was shuffled around the foster system, where he lost a number of his foster siblings along the way. He was also bullied relentlessly in high school, lied to by his birth mother, conned out of a kidney by his birth father, left by his girlfriend, worked at a dead-end job, and was denied access to an Australian walkabout because he was a paraplegic. AND THEN he crashes on Oceanic Flight 815.
7. Ned — Pushing Daisies
Pushing Daisies may have been cheerful and candy colored (and gone too soon), but ultimately, it was a show about death. Before young Ned harnessed his power to bring dead things back to life, he’s responsible for accidentally killing his best friend/lifelong crush Chuck’s father and his own mother. Following that, his father abandons him at boarding school to start a new family. Honestly, it’s a miracle that Ned became a do-gooder and pie maker instead of a supervillain with that kind of backstory.
6. Michonne — The Walking Dead
No one’s having a great time during the zombie apocalypse on The Walking Dead, but Michonne entered the scene with her fair share of emotional and actual baggage. Michonne arrived at the end of season two with two “tamed” zombies in tow, walkers who turn out to be her undead boyfriend and his best friend. A lot of her past emotional pain is only alluded to in the show, but one of the series’ rare flashbacks reveal she also lost a child in the zombie apocalypse. Understandably, this leads to some mental instability and scars that no amount of walker killing can heal.
5. River Tam — Firefly
Joss Whedon has built a career crafting timeless characters and breaking fans’ hearts, and those two things pretty much always went hand in hand. The atrocities committed against River Tam are some of the most devastating. Pre-Firefly, the brilliant River was experimented on and tortured by The Academy, exploiting her power and destroying her amygdala. River may have survived, but they robbed her of her humanity and ultimately turn her into a weapon. There’s a lot of sad stuff on the brief show (“I am a leaf on the wind”), but River’s history still stings.
4. The Ice King — Adventure Time
Who knew that a Cartoon Network show be such a heartbreaker? Wearing his ice crown is what drives The Ice King mad, but it also is the only thing that diverts a world-ending meteor from smashing into Earth. Consequently, he loses his fiancée and Marceline, leading to his princess obsession and his penguin companions. Adventure Time may be a kids show, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from sadness.
3. Fred — Angel
There are good points on both sides of the “Angel v Buffy: Which is the better show?” debate, but few can argue that there is a more tragic character than Fred. Winifred Burkle is just your average, extra-smart girl from Texas when she’s sent to another dimension by a jealous professor. While imprisoned in Pyleah, she is imprisoned and forced to be a “cow,” a human slave subjugated to demon overlords. Before she was rescued by Angel, she had nearly lost her mind and was never quite the same. And, because it is a Whedon show, the tragedy doesn’t stop there.
2. Hodor — Game of Thrones
I can’t even talk about this one yet.
1. The Doctor — Doctor Who
When you live for centuries, you’re bound to accumulate more than your fair share of pain. (Also, for pendants, we’re going NuWho here.) Still, the Doctor has had to deal with more heartache than most. On top of the genocide of his own race and many others, he is also forced to wander the universe alone. Sure, he has companions, but they never last long. We love you, Doctor Who, but why must you hurt us so?