A famous author (whose name I can’t remember, darn it, but it may have been Larry McMurtry) once said that it’s easy to make readers cry. You write about a beautiful child and give it a beautiful dog, and then you kill the dog. Instant tears. But he went on to point out that, in this instance, the author hadn’t really earned those tears. She’d just used a kneejerk response rather than really moving her readers.
I thought of that point while I was watching the fall premiere of Bones, a show I used to like a lot. If you haven’t seen the show yet, I’ll make this a SPOILER ALERT. A very popular character dies quite unexpectedly and the cast is, of course, devastated.
I wasn’t devastated—I was pissed.
Let me be very plain here: I’m thoroughly sick of TV shows killing off characters just to rouse or upset the audience. If characters die because of a necessity of the plot, that’s one thing (and I’d argue that a lot of the deaths in Game of Thrones probably fall into this category, as well as the death of Will Gardner on The Good Wife). But to kill off a popular character because it’s the end or beginning of the season and you need something to get people talking is both lousy storytelling and cheap exploitation. Of course we’ll cry when a character we like dies. But the creators of the show haven’t earned those tears—they’re using us.
I stopped watching Torchwood a couple of years ago for just that reason, although I’m a huge John Barrowman fan. The director/creator of the show had started killing off cast members for no particular reason other than that he could. He claimed that the deaths all had dramatic merit, but the only reasoning I could see was that the constant deaths seemed to underline the fairly bleak point of view of the series. After the first few deaths, I got tired of it and stopped watching.
But now the whole “kill-a-character-for-the-season-climax” thing seems to have become a rule. And so often, the result is just cheap thrills. Just a way to get viewers to have a reaction without actually earning that reaction through careful story-telling. Now it’s almost more unusual to have a story end without killing somebody off. And right now the level of carnage on television series frequently seems to be a result of laziness. You can almost hear the writers saying, “Aw hell, let’s just kill somebody. That’ll wrap things up.”
So how do you earn those feelings instead of getting them by exploitation? The old fashioned way: plot, character, the slow development of a relationship between audience and story. And it’s possible to do this without killing off someone just because it’s easy. Consider True Detective, for example. Now I’m fairly sure most people have already heard about the ending of the show, but in case you haven’t: SPOILER ALERT. Neither of the heroes dies. They easily could have—both were badly injured in the final battle, one of them critically. But not only do they live, the writers gave Matthew McConaughey’s character a terrific, life-affirming closing speech. Would the ending of True Detective have been more devastating if the writer and director had chosen to kill off one of the leads? That possibility hangs over the entire series, but the choice to let both men live in the end didn’t result in a “feel good” conclusion. Instead, it left me feeling both wrung out and satisfied. Rust’s final monologue was far more moving—and yes, devastating—than his death would have been.
True Detective earned the audience’s respect, and they did it without resorting to character murder. I’d like to think that was an example others will follow, but I’m not exactly optimistic. Unfortunately.