Monday, May 23, 2016

When It's Time To Pull The Plug

Every time you turn around lately, someone's dying.

I'm not just talking about the immense toll 2016 has taken on amazing artists. I'm talking about the ongoing series of character deaths on TV shows during May sweeps.  (Possible spoilers if you haven't caught up on Bates Motel, Grimm, Orphan Black, The 100, Hap & Leonard, Quantico, The Walking Dead, Blindspot or Game of Thrones.)

I have to admit I was shocked by the death of Norma on Bates Motel. Yes, yes, of course one day her precious, disturbed son Norman would fake his mom's suicide and continue living with her mummified corpse if the TV show followed the movie; however, the TV show did put an original spin and subtly lay the foundation for Norman's most personal killing to date.

And gluing her eyelids open after he dug up her body? Creepy.

What was even worse was that Norma had recently been so happy, and Norman had been on the verge of getting real help. Just like a great noir show to show you the sun and a rainbow and then send in a tornado to tear it all apart.

Some stories swing for the fences. Orphan Black isn't even at the season's end and they've already burned it all to the ground.

Now, I'll admit that I'm not too happy about some of the losses that have been racked up this sweeps season. Pike wasn't unexpected in The 100 but he was a great character they could have done more with. And uncertainty lingers around Indra's fate.

Now, as The 100's finale reminds us, death is not the end for so many TV shows. The return of Lexa gave her a more fitting send-off than the one that had fans up in arms weeks ago. It was a nice touch in an otherwise grim season ending that has projected the end of the human race within the next six months or so.

And we all know that Jon Snow returned from beyond. Even if you don't watch Game of Thrones you've heard the news. It's inescapable.

As a writer I do appreciate stories that swing for the fences.

As a writer I also struggle with the question of killing off a character. It can be so hard to let go of someone you've developed for so long and spent so much time with. Executive producer Josh Safran said of the death of Simon in Quantico's finale:

It felt like a very organic thing, even though it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even up to an hour before publishing the script, I was like, “Oh f—, are we really going to do this?” The writers had to sit me down and go like, “Yes, this is the right thing to do.” I personally tried as much as I could to get other people in that car and it just didn’t work. Every cast member cycled through that driver’s seat. 

When you really assess the character arc and the demands of the story and how the pieces fit together you can determine whether a character still has more life in them, or whether their death will serve as a catalyst for growth, change or motivation in those that remain. A death should always have value; it should never be cheap or gratuitous or done just to shock the viewer; it should always serve the story.

I just killed a character in a project I'm working on. It started with a plan to kill one character and as things evolved the victim did change. I was glad, because the original victim was likeable and a pleasure to write. For once, it worked out that I could kill a bit of an ass and have it fit the purposes of the story. One less victim for me to feel bad about.

Still, character losses take their toll. Many of our shows have wrapped up for the season, but now I must watch a sick Cosima without hope for a cure as the season finale of Orphan Black inches closer and closer and hope another significant loss isn't in store for that show.

But as much as the losses are hard to take, I do give a thumbs up to the shows that played it straight with us. No need to talk about the outrage over The Walking Dead's pulled punch. Yes, it could have been the show's Red Wedding. Instead it's become the symbol of fan outrage that the showrunner, creator and writers have had to try to defend, which just goes to show how important a character death can be, and how handling it can make or break how it's received by the audience.

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