shaped up to be a pretty lethal year for television characters, with shows as
varied as The Walking Dead, Arrow, Empire, Vikings, The 100, Orphan Black and Sleepy
Hollow all killing off major characters. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) this
has led to something of a backlash by the viewing public on social media and
the internet as fans have begun openly voicing discontent with the
trend of lethality they have been seeing on the screen, especially given that a
disproportionate number of the deaths have been women or identifiable minorities
of some kind or other.
Is this outrage justified?
Now, to begin, there is absolutely nothing wrong with major characters dying. A major reason for the success of Game of Thrones, which likely can be credited or blamed with starting this trend, was its willingness to axe (quite literally in some cases) starring members of the cast. This “anyone can die” atmosphere brought genuine tension and drama to the series as viewers knew no one was ever completely safe. Not so shockingly, other shows began following suite, as the basic rule of imitation being the highest form of flattery held true; when a trope or cliché or characteristic is shown to draw in viewers then it’s only naturally that it will be widely adopted.
And this is
where the problem likely begins. Game of
Thrones’ approach worked so well because the show is narratively a
masterpiece. Absolutely, anyone can and often did die in the world of Westeros,
but when they did it was always for reasons that furthered the plot or
reinforced some major message. Sadly, many other show-writers of less talent
than George RR Martin missed this key point and instead began using death in
and of itself to blatantly pump up ratings. Ironically, the
character death that is widely seen as being the straw which broke the camel’s
back and sparked viewer backlash, Lexa’s on The
100, probably wasn’t an actual example of this; her exit likely had far
more to do with the fact that the actress who portrayed the character decided that she preferred to have a starring role on a spin-off
of The Walking Dead, the only show to
possibly rival Game of Thrones in
popularity and pop cultural status, over a recurring one on a show of far most
Arrow and Orphan Black can be seen as being far guiltier of this. In the case of the former, the show’s decision to kill off long-time character Laurel Lance clearly was motivated by the fact the writers had no clue what exactly to do with the character after her comic book cannon relationship with the main star fell flat with viewers in the first season, making her an acceptable sacrifice to generate a few headlines in the run-up to the finale. With the latter, the death (maybe) of Delphine in Orphan Black has yet reveal any actual bearing on the show’s story other than to cause on-screen angst to her love interest, Cosima, who incidentally has been kept in a state of mortal peril via a potentially incurable genetic illness for almost the entirety of the show. Death as a literary device can work extremely well when it is written well, but used clumsily as a cheap emotional manipulator is simply an insult to viewers, especially when it is delivered by shows whose main lure to their fans is that they offer good quality drama.
Is there a disproportionate targeting of female and minority characters though? Here is where it gets very tricky. By the numbers it’s hard to argue otherwise. In each of the shows listed at the start of this piece, the main character to die was female, and in few cases either a lesbian or visible minority. Partially, this is understandable. Like it or not, a woman in danger does provoke a much more visceral emotional response than that of man, and a death is seen as more tragic. The masculine, self-sacrificing hero is a trope that goes back to the days we were cavemen drawing on walls with charcoal sticks, whereas “women and children first” is a basic rule of Darwinian rule of survival that has been drummed into pretty much every single one of us from birth. Televisions entire business model is to entertain us, which does mean that so long as audiences find something shocking and riveting they are going to produce it.
On the question of LGBTQ and minority characters though it does get grayer. Again, to be fair to The 100 , this does not seem to be a legitimate criticism. Yes, Lexa and Clarke (the show’s main female character) were in a relationship, but let’s go through a list of the show’s straight relationships for a moment. Clarke’s first boyfriend Wells died in the first couple of episodes and her second one, Finn, was offed in season two (by Clarke’s own hand to save him from death by torture). Jasper’s relationship with Maya ends with her death in the capture of Mount Weather. Bellamy’s season three girlfriend, Gina, get her throat slit in the destruction of the same underground complex. His sister Octavia witnessed the execution of her boyfriend Lincoln only a few episodes after Lexa’s aforementioned tragic death. I suppose Clarke’s mother, Abby, and Marcus Kain are still alive and seem happy together, but please note their relationship has probably had a combined ten minutes of screen time over the entire course of the show and is about as interesting to watch as a man eating a ham sandwich. That last part is the key. Happy and healthy relationships just aren’t that interesting to watch in contrast to ones that are tragic or challenging in some sense.
Yet we can actually see a problem in this very same example, with numerous straight pairings and only one gay one…that ended in death. For all that tragedy and trauma drive ratings, it is no challenge to find examples of straight couples that did get there happy ending at the end of the show’s run. Going through recent television history can be a huge challenge when looking for similar examples from the LGBTQ community. Lost Girl is one example that comes to mind, but it pretty much stands alone. Again, this is understandable upon reflection. Gays and lesbians make up a very tiny percentage of the population, so the market demand for characters from that community is quite small and television is a business at the end of the day. It also doesn’t help that gay characters and storyline often tend to get introduced when shows want to make headlines or be edgy in some way. Gotham probably can be credited with the most blatant example of this in recent television history, with its season one storyline featuring Barbara Kean and Detective Renee Montoya. The love-triangle between them and Barbara’s fiancée, main character Jim Gordon, added nothing of any real relevance to the show or the plot and very clearly was inserted just to try and score a few points in the young male category with the promise of two attractive women making out on screen. Add all this together and the frustration voiced by the gay community is actually justified. When you almost never seen role models you identify with appearing in pop culture, and those that do are almost always portrayed in a context that is not particularly flattering, it is bound to get grating after a while.
On the question of minorities in general things are a bit less grey. Yes, everyone knows the cliché from the 90s that the black guy in the horror film is always among the first to die, but when you look at more recent television the argument that minorities die in disproportionate numbers is pretty shaky. Sure, T-Dog got bitten on The Walking Dead but Michone is one of the show’s central characters and is still alive as of the time of this writing. As varied a list of shows as Supergirl to Jessica Jones to Wynonna Earp (the latter being admittedly rather crappy television) have all featured minority main characters that are all alive and kicking.
So in answer to the question posed at the start…it’s complicated. There are some legitimate complaints over both the overuse and nature of character deaths in television recently, both on the grounds of style and social justice. Perhaps the most important thing to remember though is that this is just television. These are fictional worlds with pretend characters that are primarily there to entertain us. Yes, it blows when a character you are invested in or identify with dies, especially when the death itself is unsatisfying. It’s also true that the death of that particular character also had nothing to do with you or any group you might feel a part of, and everything to do with budgets and casting schedules and late night writing sessions where the show runners desperately are trying to think up what the heck they should do in the next episode to keep you and other viewers entertained and engaged. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a television show is just a television show.