We’ve reached the end of another TV season, and one with a particularly high casualty count. This got me thinking about the growing trend of television shows killing off regular characters on a more frequent basis. It used to be considered brave for a show to kill off one of its main characters to change the dynamics forever. Now, like everything else, it’s been done so much that it no longer has its effectiveness and I want to examine why. Spoilers for every show where characters have died follow. Particularly [The Walking Dead](series:201193), [Game of Thrones](movie:817617), 24, [The Good Wife](series:200801), Person of Interest, [Dexter](series:200541), House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Heroes, and [How I Met Your Mother](series:200728), but also movies like The Avengers and [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973).
The Myth of Stakes
The conventional wisdom is that character deaths establish stakes for the show. I would like to illustrate to you how that is a narrative trick. After one character dies, the other characters are pretty much safe. They’re not going to do it again, for a while at least. If they do it repeatedly, then it’s an even weaker stunt, which we’ll address later. Unless it’s an anthology series, they can’t burn through the entire cast or they won’t have a show left. It’s usually a supporting character, which means the stars of the show are still safe. Julianna Margulies is still going to be The Good Wife, and Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson will still be fine on Person of Interest. At least, if there's a contract dispute, we'll hear about it ahead of time. Now, I hear from Good Wife fans that their twist was effective, so in that case bravo. There’s still no risk to the Good Wife herself.
It really began to proliferate in the days of Lost and Heroes, when storytellers got addicted to the stunt of “This week, someone will dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” Lost was a show where it made sense that not every character was going to make it off the island. It got a bit diluted though when, after Boone died, season two pretty much exclusively killed off characters who were having contract disputes. By the time it came back to organic storytelling, it became a bad influence on other series. And Heroes just could never make up its mind so most of those characters came back, anyway.
If you are enjoying the recent mode of storytelling where casts get whittled down, God bless you. I’m glad you’re happy. I just feel like I’ve taken a red pill where I see exactly what game the shows are playing and I can’t go back to living in the Matrix.
On a sheer practical level, if I like the cast of a show, you’re simply removing reasons for me to watch. We take the power back when we stop believing in fake deaths and demand our creators find reasons to let the characters live.
Let’s Get Aristotelian Up In Here
Every artist wants to do drama. I get the appeal. Aristotle was not wrong about tragedy, but Aristotle’s rules were tragedy had to invoke pity and fear. I don’t much pity a character whom the storytellers couldn’t be bothered to tell more stories about, or fear for a character who’s being used to establish “stakes” for other characters. If a character dies, whether by murder, by accident, or a long-term disease, it’s still not a real death. It’s a creative decision storytellers made to have them die. That gives the death different rules than natural real life death. We’re suspending our disbelief, but we’re still trusting storytellers not to take advantage of us.
The stakes are when the paradigm of the story shift, or characters faces a turning point that would change everything moving forward. I’m asking storytellers to create stakes where we pity and/or fear for the very story and characters to whom we’ve become accustomed. If a character dies the the show continues without them. One less character to write for. If a real paradigm shift happens, then all the characters are affected. Oh God, I just had a vision where storytellers would permanently injure characters instead of killing them, so they’d have to spend the rest of the show in a wheelchair or something. That’s not what I’m asking for. I’m talking emotional stakes, narrative stakes, not more gimmicks. In Dexter, Deb finding out Dexter is a murderer are some real stakes.
Deaths can create paradigm shifts, but you have a pretty high bar to live up to, like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Tara’s death was a shock because it was a gun death in a world where we took it for granted that all the danger was magical. Buffy’s mom was a poignant death because we all face losing our parents. These deaths ultimately became life moments for fictional characters so they elevated the loss of the characters.
Joss Whedon is not bulletproof though. I’ll get to The Avengers below, but he killed some characters on Angel just because. Doyle wasn’t working out and I can’t really say he was a beloved character halfway into season one, all respect to the late actor. By season four, Cordelia wasn’t working out either. I think the last episode where she returned proved there was still palpable chemistry between Cordelia and Angel that should have been preserved, but they weren’t going to keep Charisma Carpenter on the show, so she succumbed to her demon coma. Fred’s death was tragic, and Amy Acker remained on the show in a different capacity, but by then post-mortem transformations were de rigueur.
Going Out In A Blaze of Glory
The simple point I am making is that if a character dies on a show, I am not in suspense for any other characters. I think it was a stunt and I feel the same amount of suspense I felt before that moment. It’s gotten to the point where if every character can die at any time, then it means nothing.
(movie:39266) may have killed Jack’s wife at the end of season one, but Jack has been around for nine seasons now. That’s fine, because I’m not watching 24 to see how Jack finally dies. I keep watching to see how he’ll keep saving the day. If they had had Jack die shockingly in season two, and that early would have been the only time it would have had any impact, it might have fueled a second season but then would we have gotten attached to any other main character? Probably not, and the third season would have been the last. So Teri Bauer showed that Jack can’t always save everyone, but that doesn’t mean anyone can die. Jack’s still safe. Chloe, too.
When 24 has killed off supporting characters, the deaths were sudden shocks and well-kept secrets, but after the shock, what was the value to the storytelling? So David Palmer is gone. Nice one, I didn’t expect that. But an hour later it’s still the same 24. There was nothing about the story that David Palmer could have impacted had he lived to be involved with it. Characters like Bill Buchanan and George Mason went out like badasses sacrificing themselves, so that’s a little better than a stunt killing. At least it defines their character.
Seeing It Coming
I have to mention Game of Thrones because it is the most popular of the character-killing shows. Because I don’t actually follow Game of Thrones, you can call me a heretic. However, since it is based on a series of books, I have to imagine that by reading them and watching them, you would have to catch on by book or season four. They killed Ned Stark. By the time they do the Red Wedding, it shouldn’t be a surprise again. That’s just what they do. You should be surprised the weeks a major character doesn’t die, at this point. I still think Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke are safe, but I haven’t read ahead so you can tell me if I’m wrong.
The show with which I have completely lost patience is [The Walking Dead](series:201193). Death of main characters has become so common that by the time “The Grove” happened I didn’t even care how taboo it was. Yet Andrew Lincoln is still safe! Yes, the zombie apocalypse is a dangerous world in which anyone could die. The fun of it is to see how our heroes survive, not to see them succumb. And the show has other problems, such as the frequent turnaround of showrunners has made all the characters inconsistent, so it hardly matters whether they live or die. That is all the more reason why it would have strengthened the show to make the characters worth seeing survive. If they’re all zombie fodder (except for Lincoln), then they’re all equally uninteresting.
House killed a few supporting characters for various reasons. Kal Penn was leaving the industry for a bit, but I didn’t care that much because I didn’t think that character should have become a regular in the first place. The character I loved, Amber, played by Anne Dudek, was not promoted to regular and was ultimately killed to create a rift between House and Wilson. Amber may have been a beloved supporting character, but it was still a stunt. Also, they had no more room for her. They kept her on as long as possible after specifically not including her in the central team.
Comic Books And The Resurrection Conundrum
I think we see death as a stunt even more in the comic book world: The Death of Superman, Captain America, etc. It’s what storytellers do when they can’t think of any more stories to tell. Of course, they always come back because why wouldn’t they? They’re superheroes. Whatever kills them is as arbitrary as whatever brings them back (I mean, Doomsday? Suddenly there's something that IS strong enough to kill Superman?). There’s no narrative value to living in a world where Superman has been dead for decades and they stop publishing comic books. Tell better stories and you won’t need the stunt. I know it’s hard to keep coming up with stories for decades, but you can do it. I believe in you.
Comic book deaths, and this applies to comic book movies too, have distracted fans from the proper issue. Fans and critics may complain that the deaths are meaningless when they can be brought back to life, a la the superhero world of Heroes or [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.](series:722469). You shouldn’t be asking for deaths to remain permanent. You should ask storytellers to tell better stories with living characters. If you’re written into a corner where you think the only way out is a character death, work harder to evoke pity and fear. If you do, I bet you solve the narrative dilemma more creatively than just killing them off.
Let’s ignore that Agent Coulson got his own show eventually and look at the value of his death in the Avengers movie on face value. Did Coulson’s death establish stakes for the other superheroes? No. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow and the Hulk were not going to die in part one of the franchise. Nor should they. We came to see them. Nor did Coulson’s death unite them as a team. Were the Avengers really going to let aliens destroy New York? No, they would have fought the aliens anyway. Coulson was just the most important character they could do without. I also don’t buy that Coulson was some beloved character. If he was, I didn’t get that memo. He was just the funny guy who was also in Iron Man and Thor.
Even if Nick Fury had really been killed in [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973), I still wouldn’t feel those were stakes. He was just the next least important character they could do away with. Maybe Maria Hill, but now that Fury has assembled the Avengers, they can use him as fodder for “stakes.” Captain America and Black Widow are still safe. As they should be; I don’t want the story where Captain America can die in battle. That does not fit Aristotle's rules of tragedy for me.
I am against character deaths in stories where I’m rooting for the characters to live, but the crazy thing is I actually love stories about death and dying. When the focus is on grief and coping, I’m all for telling stories about death. I can’t wait to see The Fault In Our Stars, I loved My Sister’s Keeper, I even liked Love Happens where Aaron Eckhart played a grief counselor! I think it’s healthy to explore grief and mortality in fiction. Perhaps that’s why I take it so personally when I see it played as a stunt.
The difference is in a grief story, grief IS the drama, not stakes. So The Big C was always going to be about dealing with mortality, and movies like Rabbit Hole were always going to be about grief. Also, they don’t play the death as a surprise shocker. It’s what the story is about from the beginning. It’s an honest form of storytelling.
If character deaths are so great, let’s talk about [How I Met Your Mother](series:200728). No one seemed to like the decision to poignantly kill the mother at the end of the episode. Is it because it was a finale? In the last episode you want happily ever after? Well, shows from Buffy to M.A.S.H. have killed characters in the series finales, too. Dallas realized it was a mistake to kill Bobby Ewing so they had him wake up next season in the shower. As far as I’m concerned, we can bring every character back in the shower next season if it means an end to this tired narrative device.
If you disagree with me, then don’t worry. Shows are going to keep killing characters so this Freditorial won’t affect the status quo. Maybe spending 15 years analyzing stories has made it impossible for me to be moved by fictional death, because I see the mechanics of the storytelling at work. If I have made you think though, then maybe it’s time we demand more of our storytellers. Don’t make us tune in to see who’s going to die. Make us tune in to watch your characters live.