Monday, April 27, 2015

To Be or Not To Be

That is the question that can put a writer in the hot seat. A choice to kill - or not kill - a character can prompt a backlash that can affect the future of a series, show or writer's career.

The other day, a friend asked me if I ever got really upset about character deaths on shows. The reason for the question?

(This is where I'll warn you that there are going to be spoilers for many shows, most of which are not currently airing, but shows referenced include Grey's Anatomy, The Wire, Orphan Black, Justified, Lost, Breaking Bad, Water Rats... so be warned before reading on)

Grey's Anatomy. I don't watch the show, but I've heard via radio and my husband that they killed McDreamy. While I'm not even exactly sure who that is, it sounds like a lot of people are upset about it, and that prompted the question from my friend.

Do I ever get upset about a character death?

Yes. If a character is well drawn, compelling, and their death is done right, there will definitely be an impact on loyal readers or viewers. I think many people who read this blog would think of many of the same character deaths that have gotten people talking.

Wallace from The Wire.

Omar Again, from The Wire.



What do I think is the best death on TV ever? All of the above would be on my short list, but there are always a few other deaths that come to mind. Rachel, from Water Rat is one that stays with me.

Jin and Sun from Lost.

More recently, the Walking Dead death of Tyreese, which was a beautiful death. I'm not sure if you can appreciate it even from this longer clip, but the whole episode was gutting and exceptional.

And Mr. Eko from Lost. That whole episode is brilliant, and devastating.

There are also the deaths that have offended fans. Remember the death of Stringer Bell, and the posted hopes that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest?

As David Simon said, it wasn't that kind of show.

There are other kinds of deaths too. The deaths that made us cheer. Remember why we love Slim Charles? The death of Cheese. And most fans of Lost rejoiced at the deaths of Nikki and Paulo, made extra sweet by the fact that they were buried when they weren't even dead - just paralyzed temporarily - and that means they watched themselves be buried alive.

For super-hated characters like Nikki and Paulo, that was an extremely fitting death.

Great writers know when, and how, to take out a character. As seen in the death of Hank, the death of a character should impact other characters, and it should be fitting for the tone of the show, and advancing the plot. When those things work together, the death of a loved character can be crucial.

In contrast to most stories, Orphan Black begins with a death. It's risky, because it's hard to care about the loss of a character when you don't even know them, and they haven't said a single word, but given the context, the death of Beth definitely gets your attention and sets in motion a chain of events that give meaning to Beth's death.

And then, there are the lives of characters that offend us.

In the wake of the end of Justified there are definitely those who felt the show missed the mark by letting pretty much everyone live, including villain Boyd Crowder.

One of the main complaints I've seen is that Ava Crowder lived. People seemed to love her or loathe her, but rarely were they indifferent to her.

Personally speaking, I think I'm one of millions that felt ripped off by the fact that Father Gabriel from The Walking Dead is still drawing breath. They might have pulled that off as acceptable in the season finale this year, but I'm still giving it to them grudgingly.

I think that's the hallmark of a really great character. The point is that people feel strongly about them, whether good or bad. If you've been able to prompt an emotional response from viewers or readers, then you've created a character that people connect to or respond to, and that's never a bad thing.

As you consider whether to take a knife to one of your creations - or the termination of a character you love - consider whether the death is true to the consequences of the characters' actions, fits the tone of the work, and advances the development of other characters and the plot. If the death checks all those boxes, then it could be one of the most significant defining moments of the story. A character can live on through the impact of their death, and although we may miss them, a story may be richer for their loss.

Isn't that what's making us all curious about season 2 of Bloodline? I know the loss of the character will be felt... and I can't wait to see how.

I've touched on many deaths that I think people will agree were compelling, and memorable, and amongst either the most significant or controversial on TV.  What's my #1 pick?

Well, the runner up spot centers on a death that was expected. It was a guest character who appeared in only six episodes, and you don't even see the death itself, yet the death of Kerwin from Rectify is one that stays with both Brian and I, and for a guest role for only six episodes of a show, that says a lot.

My top pick isn't really surprising. And is wasn't that I was necessarily sad about the death of the character. Lizzie had long been on the crazy train, and her murder of sweet Mika made her execution essential. The reason the death is so compelling, and so exceptional, is that the writers took pains to make her death have so much significance. Without the death of Lizzie could Tyreese have forgiven Carol? We will never know, but what we are given in the death of Lizzie is was a stroke of brilliance, because the death of one child has such a significant impact on the people who were left behind.

From that death, forgiveness.

There are undoubtedly many other worthy deaths I haven't mentioned. For you, who were you sad to see go? Or perhaps more appropriately, who were you mad to see live?


Dana King said...

David Simon said, when asked why Stringer Bell had to die, "The story demanded it, and the story always comes first." (or words to that effect. This led me to coin the phrase, 'Stringer Bell Disease," for characters I knew would be popular, maybe even useful later in the story, but who had to go. (Fans of THE SHIELD will appreciate its sister concern, Lemanski Syndrome.) No matter how character-driven we try to be, the story must control such matters, just as complicating events hapen in life.

As for JUSTIFIED, I'm not one of those you mention. Graham Yost et al nailed that ending.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I personally think both the story and character demanded Stringer's death. He crossed too many lines, went too far. Dead or in jail. It had to be, sooner or later. Avon went to jail, Stringer dead.

I accept the Justified ending. I think I could see other options and possibilities but I'm not as bothered as some.

And Lem is another great example.

John McFetridge said...

I guess from Walking Dead I'd have to say all of humanity being killed off is a big one ;).

The first character death that got me wasn't a character, it was the actor Jack Soo during the run of Barney Miller. One week he was on the show and the next they were doing a tribute to him.

Sort of like Tony's mother on The Sopranos. The show changed a little after that, it clearly wasn't planned to lose that character. I never liked her and I missed her.

As for character deaths one that really got me was Lane Pryce on Mad Men. Very touching, even a little humour as the car he was going to use for his suicide wouldn't start. Well, you know, Jaguars...