It’s probably all Joss Whedon’s fault. Sure, it might’ve technically started in 1975 with M.A.S.H., and is most associated with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead these days, but the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer showrunner popularized the modern pop-culture fascination with killing our TV darlings. Through much of the preceding few decades of television (particularly genre television), character death was primarily used as a way of dealing with an actor deciding to leave a show (RIP, Tasha Yar). But with Buffy, Whedon embraced it as an intentional plot device. From the loss of Tara to Joyce Summers' shocking death, Whedon showed no fear when it came to killing a seemingly central character, and it's a mindset that has now been embraced by some of the most successful shows on the air.
Heartbreak. Anger. Tears. Boycotts. Rants. Fans react a lot of different ways when a TV show kills off a fan-favorite character, and it sometimes takes months or even years to figure out whether it was even the right move from a narrative perspective. It’s saved some shows, and it’s killed others. The storytelling tool might be more popular than ever these days — and one of the most powerful when executed well — but that doesn’t mean it’s always being used properly.
In some instances, like most of the examples from Whedon’s extensive catalog, it really worked to push the story in a new and exciting direction. Just look at Buffy: Joyce’s death pushed Buffy to finally face reality and start acting like an adult; Tara’s death unlocked the darkness inside of Willow and sent her off the deep end and eventually let her overcome those flaws; Doyle’s death in Angel passed his visions on to Cordelia and made her grow up and take on a real role in the battle between good and evil. Even Anya’s quick, controversial death in the Buffy series finale served as a stark reminder that war has very real consequences.
The CW’s long-running Supernatural has recently benefited from a risky move of killing off the Winchesters’ surrogate patriarch (and fan-favorite character) Bobby Singer, which turned out to be a breath of fresh air for the demon-hunting tale. It forced the series into a new direction, removed the brothers’ safety net and helped breed some new and exciting stories in the aftermath. Not bad for a show that’s about to reach the decade mark.
Some other attempts in recent years? Not so much. CBS’s breakout hit Under the Dome took out some characters during its first season, but those casualties felt more like wheel-spinning that narrative growth. If the story keeps going in the same direction without feeling like anything has significantly changed, then the writers failed in making it count. The USA network’s long-running Dead Zone series also took out a fan-favorite character late in its run to try and spice things up, with disastrous results for the show’s plotting.
The same could be said for some of Lost’s deaths later in its run, where it felt like the writers were trying to one-part pay off character arcs and two-parts thin the herd. While defending Charlie’s (Dominic Monaghan) death, which was arguably one of the best-written and heartbreaking ends on the show, in The New York Times, former Lost producer Carlton Cuse said: “These moments are really good for television, because as a storyteller you want to attack and break up those conventions the audience has in their minds.” Even for Cuse, it proved a mixed bag.
The biggest thing to remember about a legitimate character death is the most obvious point: There’s no going back (unless you’re Seth MacFarlane and the Family Guy animated series, which briefly dipped into the death well this season in an effort to skewer the trope). Character deaths can range from shock value to critical plot lines, but the key is making it count. If the death doesn’t change the status quo in a new, exciting way, then it’s probably unnecessary. Shows like Game of Thrones have made the character death into an art form, as each decapitation and stabbing leads to new alliances and twists. The writers have committed to the rabbit hole, and the show has only gotten better for it. With each death, new characters and dynamics shift into the spotlight, which keeps the concept fresh.
I mean, you didn't really think we'd kill off Brian, did you? Jesus, we'd have to be f--king high.— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) December 16, 2013
For the best modern-day example of character deaths done right, look no further than AMC’s ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead. The series is only in its fourth year, but a season-one cast photo is basically a who’s who of eventual walker bait. It’s hard to find any show that has killed off so many cast members so quickly, and it's the only series ever to keep breaking viewership records while simultaneously writing off fan favorites by the truckload. So, why does it work? Because each death has a profound effect on the group dynamic and almost always pushes the action in new directions.
Ousted showrunner Glen Mazzara, who axed his fair share of characters during his tenure, actually wrote an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter trying to explain TV deaths. Mazzara noted that the Walking Dead writers’ room often spent months debating potential character deaths. There, every decision came down to whether the death would “generate story” by “open[ing] up more possibilities ... that don't currently exist.” As the revolving cast has journeyed from Hershel’s farm to the prison and beyond, it seems Mazzara’s rule of thumb remains true even without him at the helm.
Aside from the death of the criminally underutilized T-Dog, virtually every Walking Dead death served a purpose and helped push the story forward. Andrea’s death was intimately connected to the escalation of the Governor’s storyline, while Lori’s death pushed Rick to the brink of insanity and led him to relinquish his leadership role. It was only in death that Merle found his chance at redemption, which finally allowed Daryl to grow into the leader he was destined to become. Fans might not always like the losses, or how they drive the story, but it’s hard to argue that each one didn’t have a profound impact.
Because of that, like it or not, the success of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones basically means that character deaths aren’t going anywhere. Television studios are nothing if not bandwagon jumpers, and as long as Dead and Thrones keep creating buzz with shocking deaths and new characters, other shows will keep emulating them, most likely with wildly mixed results. If they can manage to recapture those types of stakes, though, then it could mean we’re in for a true renaissance of exciting storytelling, as more shows could be willing to break the mold and take a risk. Or it could just mean we’re in for a lot more cheap deaths.
Turning back to Whedon, he’s admittedly come a long way since the days when he left fans to rant in chat rooms and to one another about killing Jenny Calendar. But the the guy does know his way around a good death scene. Heck, he stunt-cast Eric Balfour as Xander’s pal Jesse in the Buffy pilot just so he could make us like him, then kill him. That’s cold.
Whedon may be a little busy cranking out blockbusters like The Avengers and helping shepherd the next phase of Marvel’s slate these days, but he’s still being asked about his penchant for killing his favorite characters. Admittedly, he hasn’t had a chance to knock off any big-screen heroes yet (and the one big death from Avengers has since been undone), but Whedon promises he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on anyone from Iron Man to Thor if it will serve the story. He’s noted that part of the reason he likes to kill characters is to create “some real danger,” though he prefaces that any death has to “build the story organically.”
If only more writers would follow that simple advice, then death might actually be able to retain at least some of its significance. So love your favorite characters while you’ve got ‘em, and just hope that if they do get the ax, their eventual demise will at least serve a purpose. R.I.P.