How to Properly Kill a TV Character

TV and film have lost a sense of how to kill properly in 2018 and it has as much to do with viewers as it does with franchises.

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Nov 7 2018, 6:15pm

The Walking Dead's Glenn Rhee and Ed Stark from Game of Thrones. Images via YouTube

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

I still remember how I felt when Wallace died. My boy had so much promise, despite being on his Baltimore corner boy shit. He was intelligent, but naive; the perfect casualty for the machinations of Stringer Bell, who was fearful of the boy’s capacity to incriminate the criminal. As I watched him standing there, blindsided in an abandoned residence, facing two best friends with a gun to his chest—I felt duped. He cried and begged for mercy before urinating on himself, and then I felt hurt. Good folks were supposed to beget good things right? But this was HBO’s The Wire—fairytale expectations be damned. It wouldn’t be the last time either. I felt the same way when Ned Stark and half of his damn bloodline was killed in Game of Thrones, and they were never forgotten.

If you’ve been following television or movie storylines in 2018, you’d know that we aren't feeling the same emotional response to death. Just last week, Rick Grimes—the constant and spiritual leader of AMC’s The Walking Dead—was said to be killed, or so we were warned. Before the moment in question, press releases babied us with cautions, reasonings, and celebrity justifications before the big kill. When showrunner Angela Kang did the deed, what we got instead was a Rick Grimes being thrown off of a horse, impaled by a rebar, and cornered by zombies, only to have the audacity to escape like a bearded DiCaprio trope. Sure, he wasn’t coming back, but he was still alive and kickin'—the door was open.

Over the past year, I’ve watched “death” as applied to main characters become a ubiquitous tool for a certain type of cop-out—it’s no longer compelling with long-form storytelling. Death on a massive scale, like in the case of Infinity War, will come with a caveat: We know people will die, and we know it can be undone. With TV-spots like Roseanne and House of Cards (Frank Underwood), death becomes a means to address a scandaled end; real-life fuckups bringing on fake-life problems. And the examples between the cheap and rating-ploying kill continue to be plenty because stories no longer form in a vacuum. They’re being designed for us and driven by us—the ratings grab—resulting in the debasement the “deaths” we once valued and appreciated.

Let’s just think back to a decade ago, when death felt different in context: It was the golden age of TV (early 2000s), when success had little to do with the pursuits of viral pop offs. In truth, the slow burns of The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, and The Shield, were impactful in death because the setups were deeply honest. Arcs were team driven, narratives were steady, and personalities were afforded equal servings of attention. You had to consider what this did to the idea of character agency and multiple perspectives that could be survived when bad things happened to a single protagonist. That sense of position wouldn’t move from Ned Stark to Arya Stark for example. The event of a main death—while sad—would incite narrative motivations that drove characters that were already established independently. You had reason to continue watching.

Compare that to the long-form stories of today, many of which are constructed as star-driven. The Walking Dead is weaker without Rick Grimes. Stranger Things is duller without Eleven. And the MCU isn’t shit without Captain America or Iron Man. When your mains are the presentation, promotion, and now suddenly the deceased, you’ve got studios once banking on their presence faced with considerably less bank. Every act and arc becomes facilitated around a main posse, and the decisions to cop-out becomes the easiest damn option. An audience has nothing left to care about at the of execution, so why risk the death of the beloved when you can lay it at the ends of a side-beloved in the most cheap and silly way.

In the final moments of season 4, episode 18 of Gotham “That’s Entertainment,” Jerome Valeska—stand in for the Joker—is shot by young detective Jim Gordon, letting him slip off of a rooftop to his death. Much of the series before this is spent wondering if this compelling version of the Joker (Cameron Monaghan) makes a lick of sense before Batman enters the picture. But to remedy this clusterfuck, audiences are given an irregular death to make way for the maniacal twin brother that would take his place... also named the Joker. In the season finale of Scandal, longtime Attorney General David Rosen is killed meaninglessly for shock value, having always been a passable sacrifice in the Scandal universe. And Carl, son of Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead—while appreciated, not beloved—is ended from a zombie bite in the most random moment of circumstances.

It turns out, it’s hard as hell to kill a character in 2018. In 2013, after "The Red Wedding" in Game of Thrones made an entrance, it took a stab at the usual norms of singular deaths, opting for a chaotic mowdown that reintroduced the brutal realities of “fuck your feelings” death to a Twitter generation. In a single scene, three main characters were killed savagely without warning, and Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook went berserk, elevating the series to Super Bowl-numbered heights. In the years leading up to now, networks have been attempting to reproduce that phenomenon ever since, with a frequency and laziness devoid of all meaning.

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So much of a show’s lasting survival now—unless backed by network’s valuing quality overall—is directly tied to the viral. We’re experiencing a power shift, where story canon is reactive to the needs of the entitled (us). The Walking Dead would never have considered killing another Glenn in 2018 without proper warning—it’s arguable that their ratings suffered because of it as well. Modern Family took that cue, when its creator warned fans of a ‘significant death’ in season ten. Game of Thrones received immediate backlash when it hinted at the death of the scowling dreamboat, Jon Snow in 2015, and since then, we’ve seen various favorites, including Snow himself, escape near-death leading into 2019.

Death is a destination that we can depend on, and it’s the commonplace that we overlook. If TV and movies as artforms want to continue imitating life, death will always be a topic that needs to be addressed. This takes a boldness, and willingness to favor quality over the voices of the reactionary. But my man George R.R. Martin said it best in an interview with writer, Joy Ward, “a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die.”

I can only hope that 2019 starts killing right again.

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