Sometimes relationships don’t go the way we want. Sometimes love hurts. And even though most entertainment is an escape from everyday life, sometimes entertainment reflects the difficulties of real life. Whereas couples breaking up only to get back together is a mainstay of movie romances, that doesn’t always happen in TV. Characters might go through multiple relationships over the course of a series.
So, in honor of Valentine’s Day and shared heartbreak we’ve felt for TV couples, here are the Most Memorable TV Breakups, as chosen by the staff of The Pop Break.
Ross & Rachel (Friends)
“We were on a break!!!!!”
Need I say more?
Ross and Rachel, Rachel and Ross – those two had such a difficult time getting their acts together. Even though after 10 years they finally realized they couldn’t live without each other, they had quite a troubled past.
Although I don’t condone Ross sleeping with someone hours after he thought he and Rachel were broken up – “well, you had a hell of a time at the wake” – Rachel did technically say she wanted to break up for awhile. Ross is right – they were on a break. Eigtheen pages – front and back – couldn’t excuse Rachel for her semantics. I still tear up when Rachel tells Ross everything has changed “forever.”
That being said, I’m glad “Dr. and Mrs. Gellar” finally realized their love for each other – despite Ross’ behavior, despite the Emily fiasco, despite a mistaken drunken wedding in Vegas, despite the annulment controversy, despite a post-baby kiss between Rachel and Gavin and despite Rachel’s job offer in Paris.
And for the record – though Chandler may be my favorite personality on the show, I wish Monica and Richard never broke up.
Tammy & Birdperson (Rick and Morty)
Whether it’s an entire planet of anthropomorphic Amish cats who practice an annual Purge, or an entire planet on a cob, Rick and Morty is anything but short on absurd, fleshed-out alien worlds and species in its background. While most episodes have B-stories, the series never shies away from turning seemingly inconsequential side characters into major plot devices. From Revolvio Clockberg Jr. to Abradolf Lincler, none better captured our hearts and minds than Birdperson.
Loyal friend. Former lead singer. Half bird. Half person. Birdperson first came into our lives in the episode “Ricksy Business.” But he was more than just a parody of DC’s Hawkman; he spanned seasons guiding Morty to do the right thing. He revealed that Rick’s go-to catchphrase “Wubba lubba dub dub” means “I am in great pain, please help me.” He not only saved Morty and offered refuge for his family as worm farmers, but convinced him to go back to save his world in “Get Schwifty.” He is undoubtedly a good person. A good Birdperson.
As if it were not heartbreaking enough when Tammy revealed she was a Federation agent and her marriage to Birdperson was a sham, she gunned him down, imprisoned his friends, and resurrected him as the abomination Phoenixperson. Rick lost his best friend, and we are all in great pain for it and need help.
Kevin Arnold & Winnie Cooper (The Wonder Years)
As a kid growing up watching The Wonder Years, I was always certain of one thing. I hated Winnie Cooper. Of course, Winnie was the on-again, off-again first love of Kevin Arnold throughout the years. Before I even knew what love was, I knew that Winnie was bad news. After so many adorable moments including a first kiss and an “I love you” whispered from Kevin outside Winnie’s window, the girl would constantly break Kevin’s heart.
One standout breakup was when the couple’s respective schools had both gone on class trips to the museum. After being excited to see his girlfriend for the day, the trip ends with Winnie telling our main character, “Kevin, I’ve met someone.” Kevin is left standing outside the bus speechless, as Winnie walks back onto her school’s bus with an unknown male character in a varsity jacket putting his hand on her back. Kevin goes back to the bus to find the ring that he gave Winnie on the seat waiting for him.
As the (wonder) years went on, Kevin and Winnie do find their way back to one another, only to face more obstacles. One moment I will never forget is the first part of the series finale when Kevin (who is around college age now) drives up to surprise Winnie at her summer job. At the end of the episode, Kevin sees Winnie kissing another guy by a lakeside fire while “When a Man Loves a Woman” plays. This was the song that played in the pilot episode when Winnie and Kevin first kissed. I’ll never forget the look on Kevin’s face as his heart is seemingly ripped from his chest.
Ultimately, we learn at the end of the two-part finale (from Daniel Stern’s narration) that Kevin had kept in touch with Winnie over the years, but the two did not end up together. “Winnie left the next summer to study art history in Paris. Still we never forgot our promise. We wrote to each other once a week for the next eight years. I was there to meet her when she came home, with my wife and my first son. Eight months old.”
–Rob Crowther IV
Tyrion Lannister & Shae (Game of Thrones)
There are breakups, and then there are BREAKUPS. The end of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Shae’s (Sibel Kekilli) relationship falls firmly in the later category. The season four finale of Game of Thrones, “The Children,” may be best known for Tyrion’s fateful encounter with his…occupied father, but Tyrion’s final time with Shae is one of the hardest scenes to watch in the entire series.
Tyrion and Shae were never going to have a happy ending. As smart as Tyrion is, falling in love with a sex worker he had to keep secret from his family and all of King’s Landing was bound to blow up in his face at some point. Part of Tyrion seemed to always know that things would fall apart, but Shae’s loyalty appeared to convince him that the biggest threats to their relationship were always external. For Shae to totally betray him, then, came as the most shocking and painful way for her to break up with him. Many television romances have ended because of an affair. But how many have ended after someone (1) falsely testified against their significant other in a murder trial, (2) slept with their significant other’s father, and (3) tried to stab their significant other? I’ll give you a second to research that….
Such betrayal is certainly one way to indicate you should be changing your relationship status from “it’s complicated” to “single.” But maybe they could work things out? Nope. Instead Tyrion changed Shae’s existential status from “living” to “even the Lord of Light won’t be bringing her back from the dead.” What makes this one of the most tragic deaths in the show’s history, though, is not the loss of Shae but its impact on Tyrion. There is something horrifyingly personal about death by strangulation, and the show makes it clear that this act and its circumstances will haunt Tyrion for the rest of his life. So, regardless of your relationship status this Valentine’s Day, remember: at least you’re not poor Tyrion.
Buffy & Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
From January to May 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans suffered the breakup of our heroine and her first love, Angel. This was no ordinary breakup, as it involved sex, a curse, murder and magic.
In season two, Buffy and Angel finally take the next step in their relationship, with Buffy losing her virginity to a vampire with a soul. What we had been unaware of from the beginning was that Angel only had a soul because of a curse placed upon him by a gypsy after he killed their princess.
Now, having felt a moment of true happiness, Angel’s soul is taken away and he goes on a rampage, determined to end the world and torture Buffy, the person who made him feel. He teams up with villains Spike and Drusilla, whom Angel sired and drove insane a hundred years before, to bring upon the apocalypse by awakening the demon Acathla. In his wake are the dead bodies of slayer Kendra and teacher Ms. Calendar, and Buffy’s best friends, Willow, Xander and Giles, are all left with serious injuries.
As Buffy heads to kill Angel and save the world, Willow performs a spell to give Angel back his soul, but she is too late, as Angel has already awakened the demon and set in motion the end of the world. Unfortunately, Angel does get his soul back right before Buffy plunges a sword through his heart and, ultimately, the hearts of all of the fans.
Sam & Diane (Cheers)
Shelley Long’s career change to develop her movie career was the catalyst for Sam and Diane to part ways in Cheers, but it was exactly what the show needed after five seasons. Not only does it serve as a good benchmark for the Diane and Rebecca years of the show, but it truly brought the show full circle.
Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) had broken up before, but it was their second goodbye that packed the greatest punch. For five years, audiences were hooked on Danson and Long’s immaculate chemistry as contentious lovers. They were the epitome of opposites attract. If Diane could tame Boston’s Don Juan and he could ease the prude academic, there was hope for everyone.
So it was when Sam told Diane during the middle of their wedding ceremony that she has to leave him to have the career she wanted, that relationship was its most meaningful. Sam was the quintessential (yet lovable) narcissist when he met Diane. Letting her go proved he was that better man he said she would find after her fiancé broke up with her in the series pilot. It was a water cooler moment for the ages (imagine the Twitter outrage there’d be today) that reluctantly marked the end of the era for many viewers, but in retrospect, it’s one of the boldest and most substantial breakups in TV history.
Shawn & Juliet (Psych)
It was the first moment they met, in the second episode of Psych, where she accidentally stole his seat, that I knew Shawn and Juliet were going to be together (sorry, Abigail). What I didn’t know is that I would have to wait…for 5 SEASONS. And not even in the beginning of season 5, oh no, it wasn’t until the 11th episode that they were officially dating. I waited, we all waited, so very long for it to finally happen. All the close-but-not-quite moments, and it finally happened. Needless to say, the breakup just 2 seasons later was utterly earth-shattering for me.
“But we waited so long,” “but they love each other,” “but he had such a good reason,” I remember distinctly all of these thoughts running through my mind. Psych has always been one of my favorite shows. I invested so many hours into watching this roller coaster of a relationship only for the smooth sailing ship to actually be a train wreck in disguise. This is the only time a show made me feel genuine sadness (I’m not easy to make tear up).
The entire scene of Juliet finding the ticket and confronting Shawn just when everything seemed so perfect was so heartbreaking. And this show isn’t a sad show. That’s probably what made it stand out so much for me. This isn’t a show that ends unhappy. Up to this point, the show may get serious, but things always ended OK at the end. But not this time. In fact, it took 3 more episodes for them to get back together! Even though it’s not even in my top favorite episodes, I can still recall this episode so clearly because of this breakup.
J.D. & Elliot (Scrubs)
When it comes to breakups from the TV series I’ve watched over the years, the first one to pop in my head is J.D. and Elliot’s breakup in Scrubs. Just like most TV sitcoms, it has the same old same routine of the main character falling in love with another main character, and the series focuses on how they get the nerve to finally start dating. Unfortunately, that romance seems to last a couple episodes, and then they break up. So why does J.D. & Elliot’s breakup stick out to me than other TV breakups?
Season three, episodes twenty through twenty-two, Elliot and Sean were getting ready to move in together until J.D. told Elliot how much he loved her. She then decided to break up with Sean and be together with J.D., and as everything seemed to be good, J.D. realized he didn’t love her. Once he confessed to Elliot that he didn’t love her, she pushed him across a dinner table, at Turk and Carla’s wedding rehearsal dinner. If Elliot didn’t break up with Sean, who knows how that relationship would have been….
–Josh B. Taylor
Jack & Ikra, (Samurai Jack)
2017 saw a final wrap on Genndy Tartakovsky’s classic series. Whether you loved or hated the last season, one thing’s for sure: Jack’s heart can’t catch a break. Even when he finally gets to the past to defeat the evil that is Aku and marry Aku’s daughter Ashi, she dissipates into nothing because Jack altered the timeline. But this isn’t the first time the wandering samurai from the past has felt love and loss.
In “Jack and the Warrior Woman,” Jack falls for a green and black shapeshifting assassin woman named Ikra. Sounds a little suspicious, right? The foolish samurai is enamored by her supposed sob story, and together they traverse a desert in search of a time travelling gem.
These episodes normally end with a freeze frame right before Jack is about to take a swipe at Aku. However, when Ikra smashes the only means for Jack to return home, revealing she is really Aku and flies away, Jack plunges his sword into the ground and falls to his knees.
Clark & Lana (Smallville)
This hit WB-CW show about Superman’s growth into adulthood ran for ten seasons. During that run, many friendships and relationships came and went. The longest lasting “on-again, off-again” relationship in Smallville was definitely between Clark Kent and his high school sweetheart “girl next door,” Lana Lang. Clark and Lana’s relationship ended in the most Romeo & Juliet kind of way without them actually dying.
Technically, Clark and Lana (nicknamed “Clana” by fans) have broken up many times over the course of the show (the show did have a tendency to drag things out too long). I will only be mentioning the final two times they went their separate ways, since they inevitably tie-in together and feel like two different halves of a breakup.
The first of which occurs in the season finale of season 7, titled “Arctic.” Although the season itself has been regarded as the weakest during the show’s tenure, one of the final scenes of the season delivers one of the best and emotional scenes in the series. Clark visits a hospital (Lana was mentally held captive by the season’s villain, Brainiac, and was being monitored there) only to discover that she “miraculously recovered” and left behind a DVD for Clark. He returns home to watch the video, finding that it contains footage of Lana in front of a camera telling Clark that he is meant for bigger and better things and that they were foolish for thinking they could stay together.
What makes this particular breakup scene so memorable is that despite the fact they are not physically in each other’s presence, the emotions they conjure up feel so real and are acted out really well by Tom Welling and Kristin Kreuk. To add a cherry on top, Lois is in the background and sees Clark tearing up. He turns around, sees her there, and tries not to cry or show his sorrow, but despite their usual sarcasm and occasional bitterness towards each other, she embraces him and they hug it out. It is quite a touching moment that subtly foreshadows their future together.
The second half of Clark and Lana’s breakup takes place the following season during Lana’s final return to the series in the 14th episode, titled “Requiem.” This episode really tugs on the heartstrings. When Lana left Clark at the end of the season before, she went under-the-radar and had stolen/gained control over Lex Luthor’s Kryptonian skin/suit that would allow her to have all of the abilities Clark has, but without the weakness of Kryptonite. In fact, the skin/suit absorbs Kryptonite (the purpose of Luthor creating it in the first place).
Luthor uses this against them in the episode just when it appeared that, after more than 7 seasons worth of debating whether or not Clark and Lana could be compatible together, they had to make a choice of either diffusing a large Kryptonite bomb or allow innocent people to die in order for them to remain together. Knowing the moral heart they both have (moreso Clark), Lana chooses to absorb the Kryptonite from the bomb in order to save the innocent people in the crossfire. Afterwards, she tells Clark in person that she can’t handle the pain of not being able to be near him without making him sick from the absorbed Kryptonite. Just watching the struggle of them both trying to come to terms with their predicament is haunting, particularly Clark.
Both of these people love each other so much – especially Clark since Lana has been the love of his life since childhood – and are trying really hard to think of a solution, but know deep down they won’t be able to cure it or be near each other again. Clark struggles to get close enough to Lana in order to kiss her one last time and their passion reverberates. We, the viewer, can see the Kryptonite affecting him more and more with each kiss and passing second he is near her, but they continue to kiss until he falls to the ground. While sobbing, she says one final goodbye, tells him that she will always love him, and then walks away one last time with an air-woosh sound effect (for the lack of a better term) added in for more effect.
With both breakups (or halves of a breakup), Clark and Lana displayed a realism of their finality not only as a couple, but also as friends since they would likely never see each other again. Clark had finally revealed his secret to her (his abilities), but not even that could save their tragic relationship from ending. They might not have died, such as Romeo and Juliet in the Shakespeare story, but there is no doubt a part of them died on the inside after saying goodbye for the last time.
SpongeBob & Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob & Patrick (SpongeBob SquarePants)
These aren’t your typical breakups. These are both platonic relationships from a children’s cartoon. Believe it or not, I had a hard time deciding what to pick. There have been many relationship highs and lows on the show, particularly with best friends SpongeBob and Patrick. However, I was able to decide on two episodes.
In “Welcome to the Chum Bucket,” an overconfident Mr. Krabs loses SpongeBob’s contract in a bet to Plankton. SpongeBob returns to the Krusty Krab at the end of the episode, but in the meantime he struggles to adjust to working at Plankton’s restaurant. Anyone who’s watched this episode knows the highlight is the duet between SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs. It’s heartfelt, catchy, and hilarious, all at the same time. I’m sure many other fans know the lyrics by heart like I do.
As far as continuity (which SpongeBob has very little) is concerned, “Naughty Nautical Neighbors” is one of earliest breakups on the show. Squidward tricks SpongeBob and Patrick into a falling out, but also inadvertently makes both of them want to be Squidward’s best friend. This forces Squidward to undo the damage he’s done. This episode includes comedic moments such as SpongeBob serenading Squidward and Squidward finding Patrick inside his bathtub.
Nate & Brenda (Six Feet Under)
There were no functional couples on Six Feet Under. That was part of what made the show beautiful: it understood that very few, if any, relationships are perfect, and that there can still be genuine love felt between two people who have an imperfect bond. And there wasn’t a couple more volatile on that series than Nate and Brenda. Before meeting, they had issues that needed to be resolved; he was a hedonistic man-child, she was a psychological experiment for her cruel parents and had a borderline incestuous relationship with her brother.
But, for all their flaws, series creator Alan Ball knew how to make you care about them, and while fans may be divided on if they should’ve been together or not, it’s hard to deny that both deserved happiness. And their multiple breakups – including the final end to their relationship – were painful.
Their first major breakup found Brenda systematically sabotaging her engagement to Nate by almost habitually cheating on him, first with quick flings, before eventually “stepping up” her antics with more dangerous partners. But all the while, actress Rachel Griffiths captured the pain that Brenda carried with her from a traumatic childhood so well, that we, as viewers, understood her actions, making the eventual breakup all the more devastating. Later, when Nate married a different woman he impregnated during a one-night stand, the strained relationship between the former couple and their stifled sexual tension teased viewers for multiple seasons, providing viewers with a masterful “will they/won’t they” subplot.
But, in the end…spoilers for a 13-year-old series…Nate and Brenda do, of course, marry, only to instantly have second thoughts. After having an affair, and a brush with death, Nate decides to finally, and definitively, end things with Brenda, but before the couple ever really gets to discuss their breakup, Nate dies, leaving Brenda with, in true Six Feet Under fashion, many unanswered questions. Was Nate serious about their breakup? Could they have made it work?
Could the fact that Brenda was pregnant possibly change anything? Neither Brenda, nor viewers, will ever know. But their final breakup, and the definitive end to their relationship, makes an important point: sometimes, the great loves of our lives don’t stay in them forever, but orbit in and out. Only Six Feet Under could capture this less conventional, but no less magical, form of love so perfectly.
Steve Harrington & Nancy Wheeler (Stranger Things)
There are so many great TV breakups that I wanted to touch upon – Jon Snow and Ygritte on Game of Thrones, Don Draper and every woman on Mad Men, Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway on Mad Men, Nucky Thompson and Magaret Schroeder on Boardwalk Empire, Aiden and Carrie on Sex & The City (yes, I’ve seen the entire series), et. al. However, in recent memory there has been no better breakup, more memorable, more game-changing than Steve and Nancy on Stranger Things.-
I know what you’re thinking — it’s a lame pick because it’s so recent, and it’s one of the most mega-popular shows in the world right now.
However, I think this is a fantastic breakup. Unlike the other breakups, I mentioned which either end (eventually) to a terrible death (I watch a lot of death-riddled shows), or a character being written off the show (for non-death reasons). However, the Steve (Joe Keery) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) breakup is perfect.
When we first meet Steve, he was a douche. He was a classic teenage male archetype — popular, horny, and arrogant. However, towards the end of the first season, we saw a side of Steve that was redeemable. He atoned for his sins by cleaning the crude graffiti he and his crew put on the movie marquee, and the ultimately came to Nancy and Jonathan’s rescue against the Demogorgon. When they ended Season One, I was okay with Steve and Nancy being together.
However, in Season Two it’s fairly obviously Nancy and Jonathan are meant to be together. And in all honesty they have great chemistry, so to have them partnered for the second season worked.
Steve and Nancy’s breakup scene was real, and frank. It wasn’t the greatest breakup of all-time, that might go to Don Draper breaking up with Faye Miller by announcing, “Oh hey, I’m engaged to Megan.” (Fun fact – Faye Miller is played by Cara Buono, who plays Nancy’s mom on Stranger Things.) However, what the breakup really did was this…
It made Steve Harrington one of the best characters on television in 2017.
Steve became the reluctant dad/mom/big brother to our band of heroes. His character grew from jerky high school boy, to a fully fleshed out, fully likable character. He was brave, stupid, hilarious, lame, and relatable. His scenes with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) stole the series from the demo-dogs, and Eleven’s not-so great adventure in Chicago. He wasn’t just Nancy’s boyfriend, or scorned ex, he became a brand new character. It allowed for great things to happen in this series.
Listen, sometimes breakups bring out a new side of people, and for Steve Harrington it brought out his awesome side. And we all won because of it.