Those reading the title for this CarterMatt Extended article will probably catch the veiled reference almost right away to “Game of Thrones,” though for the sake of this piece, the phrase has to be augmented slightly. The subject is death, what it means to a show, and why for much of the past year in particular, it has seemingly meant nothing. It is something instead to be toyed with, to dangle over viewers in a cruel and an “I’m smarter than you” manner.
The central conceit
It would be idiotic to not acknowledge that the history of this goes back to the beginnings of film, let alone television. Nobody wants to see the hero die; however, at the same time you want an element of danger. You want to believe that the hero can die. The difference lies in putting a character in a near-death situation and actually convincing your audience that the character is gone. The former is great, but the latter is bad news and can feel like you’re being deceived.
No example of such TV-manipulation will ever top “Dallas” and the “who shot J.R.?” mystery that plagued the show for so many years. You would think following that particular backlash that networks would have forever gotten the hint; instead, it was akin to a temporary warning tattoo that has faded away over time. The tricks and fake-deaths have spiraled, and through the calendar year they’ve become an epidemic so severe, it is easy to forget about some of the trivial ones in the past.
A small sampling of recent characters’ sudden immortality
Oliver Queen, “Arrow” – Knocked off the side of mountain. Survived somehow using some sort of penicillin tea. Never really explained.
Felicity Smoak, “Arrow” – Shot up on Wednesday night’s midseason finale. Probably okay.
Agent Gibbs, “NCIS” – Shot in the season 12 finale. Saved miraculously by Dr. Taft in the season 13 premiere.
Jon Snow, “Game of Thrones” – Seemingly stabbed repeatedly by the Night’s Watch at the end of season 5. No clear fate yet, but all signs point to a revival of some sort.
Glenn, “The Walking Dead” – Falls into heap of walkers. Camera angles make it appear as though body is being ripped apart. Somehow survives by sliding under dumpster and hiding.
Grant Ward, “Agents of SHIELD” – Killed by Phil Coulson. Revived by nasty Beast thing, who now controls his body as vessel.
Mona, “Pretty Little Liars” – Seemingly murdered. Just kidding.
Alison DiLaurentis, “Pretty Little Liars” – See above.
Kevin Garvey, “The Leftovers” – Left to die by Virgil. Revived by pretending to be international assassin and throwing a kid into a well. (This seriously happened, and it was incredible to watch.)
Herrmann, “Chicago Fire” – Stabbed. Fate unclear, but will likely survive.
Annalise Keating, “How to Get Away with Murder” – Shot. Actually shoots herself, and won’t be going anywhere. ABC wants more Emmys.
What all of these shows have in common is not that they put a character in a near-death situation. Instead, they used suspicion about a character’s fate as a narrative device in order to leave people on edge … even though most of it was useless. Sometimes it was infuriating, since with “The Walking Dead” you were left without answers for weeks, and with “Arrow” you waited consistently for an answer that never came.
Why don’t these deaths stick?
There was a time particularly in the last several years where shows were unafraid to kill off leads. Just take a look at “Lost” and their consistent bloodlettings, “Breaking Bad” removing Gus Fring from the equation, “Sons of Anarchy” losing Opie, even the Red Wedding on “Game of Thrones” seasons ago. Why change?
Trying to label why major characters are seemingly not being killed so much, and instead being used more as magic tricks, is not as easy a question to answer. There are several components that go into it; some commercial, and some emotional.
Social media – Nobody likes to be told that they suck and should go die in a fire somewhere. That’s what happens to a TV writer on social media if they remove a beloved character. Even if it an unconscious thought, it could still be something that crosses the mind.
Contracts – Let’s say you have a famous actor under contract for six seasons. Why would you want to remove him or her from the equation after just three? Pretending to kill someone off can galvanize a fan base and get people talking, and it could energize a performer who has started to grow restless in their run.
Fear – What is the ratings go down after a death? Then a network criticizes those who made the creative decision. Judging by all the remakes and revivals in the pipeline, it’s fair to say that major networks are now playing conservative. Killing a Grant Ward or an Annalise Keating is not a conservative move. Why run the risk of alienating fans and executives?
Popularity – Sometimes, you don’t want to see someone go. People bond while working on a TV set. You get to know their family, their friends, and you don’t want that to end. You know that if the character is killed off, you could lose that bond to go along with it. Sure, most showrunners don’t spend too much time on set, but they still have meetings and various gigs over time where they can get to know the people they are writing for. Sometimes you like someone so much you don’t want to lose them, and that’s why people who stick around for several seasons are less likely to die than recurring characters.
What can be done
From the viewer side, almost nothing other than vocalizing displeasure whenever a show is taking advantage of your loyalty an intelligence. This has to be a trend that showrunners figure out for themselves, and commercially impact will show the error of their ways. Glenn may have been the tipping point; before this, a death was to be taken seriously, even if a few were not; now, every such moment is met with cynicism. It has to get to a point where a major show has to make that move, however how hard it may be, to show that they are not afraid to do what needs to be for the sake of the show.
Will there be opportunities to change this no-major-character-killing mantra moving forward? Certainly. “The Walking Dead” has Negan arriving, and with him almost certainly comes trouble. Meanwhile, “Arrow” is promising to kill off an important character later this season, and basically any Shonda Rhimes show may be willing to eliminate someone from the equation (provided that it is not Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington, or the aforementioned Davis).
The simple request that can be made now to content creators is this: Stop trying to make us as viewers think that you are actually going to kill off a major character. You’re not. If you actually planned on doing it, it’d take place at a time that was not in the last minute or two of an episode or a finale. Cliffhangers are rarely conducive to a departure; they’re more of a tease. Come up with new, more realistic ways to establish tension and conflict rather than playing with your fans’ vulnerability and deep attachment that they have to your work.
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