Let our TV characters live!
Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Daredevil, Battlestar Galactica and all of Joss Whedon’s work. What do they have in common? Death, death and more death. Not just the death of minor monsters or henchmen, but of many favoured main characters. Seemingly across the televisual landscape no one is safe. Anyone could die at any moment. The reality of dangerous situations now has realistic and shocking consequences. However if you create a necessity for frequent main character deaths are you also creating problems? Are you robbing your show, your characters and your audience of interesting new story paths?
It’s safe to say this article will include spoilers for a multitude of TV titles. If you’re sensitive, please go away.
Let’s talk about Daredevil. Sensitive people gone away now? Good. Let’s talk about the death of Ben Urich. In the Daredevil comics the reporter-with-a-heart-of-gold shared a unique relationship with Matt Murdock/Daredevil. It was one of mutual respect, trust and concern. Ben was smart enough to work out Matt’s secret identity and Matt trusted him to do the right thing with it. This relationship has yielded decade of intense storylines. In some ways it is hard to see the comics without their relationship. It is nearly on the same level of importance of Matt and Foggy’s friendship. In fact in some ways it is more important when it comes to the crimes of the Hell’s Kitchen and the Daredevil persona.
Obviously the TV series adaptation has no requirement to replicate this portrayal exactly or at all. A TV show version of the character existed. He was interesting. He was sympathetic. He had connections to both the personal and criminal aspects of the show. The decision to cast a person of colour also increased the diversity in the programme. Whatever your opinion on the prominence of deliberate diversity is, (the actor is good, so this probably isn’t an example) a show about the threat of gentrification needs diversity to resonate. To set up the season finale Ben Urich was killed by villain Wilson Fisk. Why? Because the story needed some more tension and emotionality. Or in other words, the writers killed off a character to avoid more work in creating detailed story development.
As I stated previously killing off characters to create tension has a purpose of reflecting a dangerous reality and putting the audience on edge. However by killing off Ben Urich Daredevil lost many story opportunities. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with killing off Ben Urich, but why do it before you have used every good story choice that exists from his presence? Urich’s death made the main characters a bit angrier with the villain, but it ultimately didn’t change their course of action in opposing him. The only character to have any significant personal interactions with Ben Urich was Karen Page. If the purpose the death had is to drive a conflict between Kingpin and Daredevil, it would help if Daredevil’s opinion of the dead man went beyond ‘I like him well enough I guess.’
The diversity that is important to the show’s themes of gentrification is further weakened through the remaining main characters and villains all being white. Earlier in the season the supporting character Ms Cardenas was similarly killed off (also close with Karen Page) robbing the show of diversity for the sake of brief dramatic tension. The show isn’t racist and I doubt its writers are either. However it’s worrying that the characters considered ‘disposable’ this early on weren’t any of the white ones.
What is the reasoning for Urich’s character deaths? Within Daredevil it provided a useful set up for the finale. However Ben Urich was only really connected to Karen Page, he’d only had two scenes with Daredevil. He had no real meaning to the cast beyond Karen. It wasn’t a big set up for Daredevil versus Kingpin; it was just upsetting to the audience. I imagine a last minute writers meeting where one show runner said to another: “Welll…I guess we have to kill someone off?”
I am not saying that killing off characters is a bad thing, nor that my Daredevil example is applicable to every character death, not even all the other poorly executed ones. It can create tension that any character can die. And also reflect the reality of the situations that the characters face. However…
Killing off characters becomes stale. With The Walking Dead it can lead to the audience simply not investing in new recurring characters because their deaths are certain. People root for characters that might achieve their goals, not ones that are certain to fail. As said previously it can rid the plot of characters and ideas that have yet to run their course. Tension for tension’s sake doesn’t have to be established through character deaths. There are other ways to craft compelling stories. Perhaps this is why writers resort to killing? A lack of useful imagination? A cheap trope usage is easier than complexity.
Joss Whedon is infamous in fandom for killing off his main characters. These deaths include Tara, Anya and Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Doyle, Cordelia, Fred and Wesley (Angel) and Wash (Firely/Serenity). However with each of these examples the characters had reached their narrative peaks. The characters had grown, evolved and run their course. Whedon’s skill at utilising main character death is competent to the point that he killed off and resurrected franchise leads Buffy and Angel to drive further plot lines. This is because Joss Whedon has useful imagination. He understands that there is a time and a place to killing off a character and that there are other ways to create drama.
There are other ways to create tension. Have characters undergo things worse than death and not exclusively to your minority and female characters. Have events set your characters on a damaging path where they become the people the audience don’t want them to be.
The Elementary Season 3 finale has Sherlock relapsing. Willow in Buffy becomes a magic addict who turns evil. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica becomes an alcoholic incapable of flying her ship. On Arrow Oliver Queen is forced to kill again after making a vow not to. Raylan Givens of Justified has gangsters murder his archenemy for him. Angel fires his crew and goes on a rampage letting his human enemies be murdered. The Doctor loses his sympathetic streak frequently in Doctor Who. Ross becomes obsessive over Rachel’s co-worker in Friends. Veronica Mars goes after a bad guy she can’t take down by herself. So on and so on.
The point is that there are other options that open up story and character opportunities, often extending the shelf life of characters that have gone stale, as opposed to killing off characters for the sake of shock or needlessly heightening reality. Explore the story, don’t limit it. The occasional shock death is a fine and respectable narrative technique. It used to even be a brave one. These days it can be easily overused and it regularly becomes cheap. Put your characters through hell, without being cruel, and explore the story!