Death is all around us. It’s inevitable, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s devastating and sometimes, despite the pain that it causes on those left behind, it can be beautiful. It makes us think about what we want in life, about the people around us, about what we wish we could’ve said and we could’ve done. So it makes sense that good fiction, which is often based on exploration of humanity, would show us death and how it affects its characters and everyone around them. But have we reached a point where death on television has stopped being gripping and interesting? Where it has become boring instead? I think so.
There are several blog posts written right now about the current death toll on TV. It seems that death is hitting our favorite shows more than ever and it is worth noting that the victims have been, save for a few exceptions, anything but straight, white guys. There are a thousand reasons behind this, but because I want to avoid the “not everything is about race/sexuality/gender” argument, let’s look at it at a different way:
Let’s put sexuality, gender and race aside (you will realize as I give my examples this is rather impossible, given the current panorama on TV, but I will try not to use it as part of the argument). If we take a look at television at the moment, it seems that death has become a very cheap, very repetitive resource to get out of bigger narrative issues that writers do not want to face. When I first created this blog, I wrote about the M.S.F.D. and here is how I described it.
It appeared out of the necessity to keep audiences engaged and thrilled throughout the Christmas hiatus, but the problem is, it has become dangerous. It no longer infects the viewers and leaves them wanting more. Instead, it destroys the subjects and leaves them in a constant state of anger, sadness and impatience.
The thing is, it’s no longer happening during midseason finales anymore: death on TV can come at any moment. Any character could die any episode, and while that should be something that actually makes it interesting and thrilling to watch, what’s happening is that it is exhausting for the viewer, because as much as they want to be entertained, they are also now more critical than they ever were.
Some shows are profiting from this in a big way: The Walking Dead prides itself in its “anyone can die” rule, The 100 took the success of its darkest season yet last year and decided to take the ‘everyone suffers and everyone might die’ route, Game of Thrones‘ most successful and talked-about episode involves a bloodbath. Agents of SHIELD just closed an episode with the prospect of a member of the team dying. Death is the way shows “raise the stakes” these days, but it hides a bigger issue: writers have no idea what else to come up with and occassionally, it’s the easy way out.
Let’s look at Laurel Lance in Arrow just this month. Laurel has always been a difficult character. The fans never really connected with her because they presented her as a woman scorned and the show decided the way to deal with this was to simply sideline her as the lead. Then they failed miserably at giving her compelling storylines, gave Black Canary to someone else before she could ever become the heroine she was in the comics, and when they saw themselves against a wall on how to write the character to fit her into the main storyline, they simply killed her.
Another blog post I wrote last year was about Sleepy Hollow. There I spoke about Katrina, who was a big elephant in the room through all of season two of the show. Let me be clear: I disliked Katrina. That been said, I argued that killing the character would be the easy way out to deal with the problems that she represented. But they did kill her. And it didn’t make Sleepy Hollow any better beyond the first few episodes of season three. In fact, not only the narrative issues with the show were still there, but we had Nicole Beharie leave the show due to discrepancies with the writers and Abbie Mills died a horrible, ridiculous death that was the culmination of a bigger issue: the show’s disregard of Abbie as someone as important as Ichabod and of Nicole as the female lead of the show.
It has also become a cheap resource to catalyze actions from other characters, to explain away actors leaving shows, to simply just get rid of a character they’re no longer interested in writing about (this is how Scott Gimple explained the reason he decided to kill off Beth), or just to give something to the audience to talk about, either from episode to episode or from season to season. It is, in short, dramas’ go-to source for action or conflict.
What makes it the more frustrating is that, other than these deaths, these shows continue to deliver good stories, which is exactly why we as the audience should demand better. Your actor is leaving? Write the character a compelling storyline that culminates on them going away. You’re tired of writing for a character? Come up with new dynamics for them, new characters to interact with that will flesh out new character traits for them. You want a character to go on a genocidal killing spread? Do something other than throwing their girlfriend in the refrigerator. Putting aside that even the best dramas need to let their characters take a break and be happy for about two seconds before throwing them another curve-ball, we need to stop looking at “who is going to die” as the most exciting thing a TV show can offer to us.
No one is saying death should stop happening on TV. No one is saying some characters need a pass while others die, we just want those deaths to make sense within the show and to feel “earned”, and that could mean a lot of things, from being a horrible villain to organically reaching an end point to a story where death is the most reasonable option (see Finn in season 2 of The 100 in contrast to… well, everyone else who has died in season 3 of The 100). Art imitates life and life imitates art: ‘death fatigue’ can kill your audience. I know, it’s funny, in a way.