Killing Characters


(Editor’s note: The following editorial contains major SPOILERS for a host of shows, including Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, and Family Guy, in addition to a number of shows that have now finished their runs. Tread lightly.)

I don’t know if you’ve been watching television lately, but if you have, you might’ve noticed there have been a lot of shows killing major characters. Of course, if you’ve been watching television in the past ten years or so, you might recognize that this trend has been going on a lot longer than just the last few weeks. However, the process of killing off a major character has come under a microscope recently, as several shows have executed beloved members of their ensembles.

Like I said, killing characters isn’t new. It’s done for all sorts of reasons, and in all sorts of ways. More often than not, a character is killed not because it suits the story, but because of things going on behind the scenes. Perhaps the first and most notable instance of this is when M*A*S*H killed off Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) at the end of season three. McLean had apparently clashed with Alan Alda over screen time, and was happy to leave the show when the time came (something he later regretted). But perhaps what’s most notable about his death is the fact that it was not only a shock to the viewers, but to the cast, who (with the exception of Alda) didn’t learn that Blake was not only leaving, but in fact being killed, until they filmed the scene in which his death is announced to the camp. The genuine reactions from the cast and unexpected nature of McLean’s departure created a compelling, polarizing moment of television. Many fans wrote letters expressing their distaste. Nevertheless, the show’s popularity remained, M*A*S*H went down in history as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and the tradition of killing off popular television characters was born.

However, the modern renaissance of killing characters was ushered in not by comedies, but by the dark cable dramas that define what some have called the “third golden age of television.” During the heyday of The Sopranos and The Wire, killing characters became not only a staple, but an expectation. This tradition continues today; Breaking Bad did away with a string of cast members before ending the series with the death of its lead character (something which, in retrospect, seems like an inevitability). And Mad Men has made a tradition of killing off one character each season(although perhaps the most notable demise of this last season was a spiritual death, rather than a physical one).

Then in 2011, Game of Thrones premiered. It was a great show almost instantly, and it followed in the footsteps of other great shows when several supporting characters perished throughout the course of the first season. But Game of Thrones didn’t truly leave its mark until the second to last episode of season one, where they killed off their leading man, a twist that was perhaps less surprising to those who read the books. After that, all bets were off.

I love Game of Thrones. And I love The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica and Lost and all the other shows that have come out over the last ten-plus years and left a trail of bodies in their wake. But I don’t love killing characters just for the sake of doing it.

We seem to have reached a moment where characters are being killed “just to shake things up.” Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this on principle, but I do think that if you’re going to shake things up, you better make sure you’re shaking them for a good reason. In an attempt to inject some new life into the show, Dexter killed off its hero’s wife, Rita (Julie Benz), at the end of season four. Despite many of the fans’ distaste for Rita (a character’s popularity is also frequently taken into consideration when it comes time to kill someone off), and the fact that the episode was both completely shocking and undisputedly excellent, Dexter floundered in the second half of the its run. Season four was the undisputed highpoint, and the show never recovered from Rita’s death. While the desire may have been to shake things up, the mess ultimately proved too much to clean up. One has to wonder if this is why there was a change in showrunners after the fourth season ended.   

Then there are shows that kill so many characters that it feels like they’ve been given a quota to fill. Over the course of its run, Boardwalk Empire has murdered major players including Eddie Kessler, the Commodore, Angela Darmody, Owen Slater, Mr. Purnsley, Gyp Rosetti, Richard Harrow, and most notably, Jimmy Darmody. And that’s not even including the bit characters. Creator Terence Winter came up on The Sopranos, a show that constantly killed characters, but never did so just for shock value. I like Boardwalk Empire a lot, but despite its impressive pedigree and flawless aesthetic, I tend to think it’s basically a sensory experience. And without some of the larger, philosophical implications of its peers, the show’s frequent uses of sex and violence generally feel more like instant gratification than anything else.

The death of Jimmy (Michael Pitt) was particularly notable, since he was not only a beloved character, but also the second male lead on the show next to Nucky (Steve Buscemi), for whom he was often a foil. The decision to take Jimmy out was certainly interesting, and I can’t say it didn’t shake things up. But I have to wonder in retrospect if Jimmy’s death happened more out of impulse rather than an actual desire to move the story forward. When Boardwalk killed Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) at the end of season three, it felt unavoidable; he was the season’s villain, and once his purpose had been served, it seemed impossible to do anything with him but kill him off. When Jimmy was killed off, the emphasis was supposedly on showing how irreversibly corrupted Nucky’s soul had become. Yet despite Steve Buscemi’s great performance, Nucky hasn’t really changed much over the course of four seasons.

If a character’s death doesn’t feel all that emotionally resonant, then it has to suit the story. Just killing a character for the sake of killing them isn’t good enough. If they’re going to die, it should at least be in the service of the show. Sons of Anarchy recently made good on this when they axed longtime villain Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) in the November 19 episode “Aon Rud Persanta.” Like Boardwalk’s Gyp Rosetti, except with a storyline that spanned several seasons, there was never a scenario in which Clay made it out alive. Kurt Sutter’s macho take on Hamlet makes it impossible for that character to go in any other way than at the hands of his stepson and the show’s hero, Jax (Charlie Hunnam). In true Sutter fashion, Clay was given a fairly heartfelt sendoff, despite the fact that he was a wife-beating, murderous scumbag. But when it’s all said and done, Clay wasn’t killed off to make the audience think about the nature of death, or even to make us feel anything. His death presents a new series of challenges and problems for Jax. That is to say, it suits the story.

One show that loves to kill characters but has trouble balancing the emotional weight of the act with the practical reasons for doing so is The Walking Dead. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find Dead’s raggedy band of survivors a bit one-dimensional. However, they have laid a few characters to rest in affecting ways. But with such a large ensemble, and so many members of said ensemble given only a paltry amount to do, is it really possible for any of the characters’ deaths to feel like they matter? After the “Too Far Gone,” the December 1midseason finale, I would say yes. Killing Hershel and the Governor (and maybe baby Judith too) was devastating, and it helped to jolt the story forward in an unprecedented way. It’ll be interesting to see if The Walking Dead can keep riding high from here; if they’re wise, they’ll use this emotional low point for the characters to help move the show in a new direction, rather than back into old habits. 

Surprisingly though, despite the passing of so many on some of TV’s most popular dramas, it was a comedy that reinvigorated the conversation about killing characters, and not one as adored or acclaimed as M*A*S*H. In a move that was simply astounding, Family Guy managed to reenter the pop culture zeitgeist on November 24 with the episode “Life of Brian,” in which the show’s loveable family pet and resident pretentious jerk/terrible writer gets hit by a car. Brian is given an uncharacteristically tender goodbye scene, and the episode delicately mourns him…for about five minutes. Then they go and get a new dog, voiced by Tony Sirico, who’s best known for his immortal turn on The Sopranos as Paulie “Walnuts.”

The whole thing made no sense for Family Guy, in terms of both the show’s tone and storytelling style. Not only has Family Guy pretty much tossed any actual humanity it once had out the window in recent years, but it also exists in a world where rules are made to be broken. Consider Stewie’s hacky explanation of why he can’t use time travel to save Brian. Really? All of a sudden he can’t get the necessary materials? He’s a baby who built a time machine; getting the necessary materials should be the least of his difficulties. Or think about the fact that literally just two episodes prior to the one where Brian died, there was a scene where a kid gets inflated like a balloon and popped, and then is fine again a few scenes later. If Family Guy doesn’t offend you on a personal level (and really, most of the time it should), then it should at least offend you on an artistic one. Other animated shows like Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons will bend the rules of reality, but they won’t kill a character in one scene only to bring them back in the next. Because what’s the point of killing a character for real, then?

Speaking of The Simpsons, it’s worth noting that Family Guy beat them to the punch when they ran over Brian. FOX’s original animated juggernaut announced earlier in the year that they would kill off a major character (other than Mrs. Krabappel) during the current season. Then again, since it now seems that Brian’s death wasn’t for real (much to no one’s surprise), it seems The Simpsons will go where Family Guy won’t (or can’t) once more. And we shouldn’t be too surprised about that. Would Seth MacFarlane really do a Family Guy movie without Brian?

But I’ll give Family Guy some credit where credit’s due. They got people talking about the show again, which was surely their goal all along. I loved (and sometimes loved to hate) Brian, and I was sad when he died, so if they were looking to make people sad, they accomplished that too. But since it all appears to be for naught now, I can’t help thinking that the whole thing feels like a desperate, cheap stunt.

We invite our favorite television characters into our homes. They live with us, in a very real sense. Shouldn’t they be treated with dignity when they die? I’m all for killing characters, but if it doesn’t make sense for the story, and if it doesn’t make you feel something, then it just becomes a ritual without meaning. Sometimes killing a character is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it has to be gruesome. The best shows portray death in the same way they portray life: honestly, brutally, and essentially meaningful.