(Spoilers ahead for a slew of television shows; proceed with caution!)
A television show represents a fictional world, an escape from the drama that surrounds us in our real lives. Instead of dealing with our relationship problems, we discuss which brother Elena Gilbert should choose on The Vampire Diaries. And instead of reflecting on our own issues, we get lost in Walter White’s downfall or Olivia Pope’s family drama. Typically, these fictional worlds represent a more extreme universe than the one in which we live, and therefore a more exciting one. Most of us don’t have a meth cartel breathing down our necks or a father who runs a secret government spy organization. So every week, we turn on our televisions, and we put aside our boring drama to see what’s going to happen next to our fictional best friends, many of whom we invest real emotion in. And that’s the very reason why killing a main character leaves such an impact on viewers, because in a very real way, we lose a best friend (or at the very least, a piece of eye candy), and we then have to watch as our other friends grieve.
No, it’s not comparable to losing someone in real life, but killing a main character is still the most upsetting, most powerful card a show can play. Character deaths and the impact they leave, if done right, can lead to some of the best moments in television history. And there’s a variety of ways a show can make that mark. It can catch you by surprise and have a schizophrenic patient take the life of a young doctor, like when E.R. lost its beloved Lucy, or it can have a car accident ruin everything, much like Downton Abbey did with Matthew or The O.C. did with Marissa. Or a character can be taken from us by force (see Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding or The Sopranos‘ Adriana). Then you have the longer, more drawn-out goodbyes. The character who gets cancer and says farewell to everyone they love, much like Jen on Dawson’s Creek or Bobby’s hospital goodbye on NYPD Blue after his body rejected a heart transplant.
If none of those work, there’s the character who sacrifices their own life to save the life of another, much like Charlie on Lost or George on Grey’s Anatomy. And don’t forget the deaths that appear as if from nowhere — the bat to the back of the head that killed Southland‘s Nate or the grocery store robbery that took Simon on The West Wing. No matter how a character is killed, the event and its aftermath greatly affect the formula of the show, not to mention the viewers’ emotional state. So what happens when the element of death is eliminated? How is a show affected when it loses the greatest trick up its sleeve?
In today’s world, it feels like every other show has a supernatural element to it. By adding a level of adventure and danger, that element also increases the likelihood of death. If a character is constantly surrounded by vampires and werewolves, they’re more likely to die than if they spend their days hanging out with their human friends at a local bar. That’s just common sense. But in those supernatural worlds, is death all that scary?
Last night, Ravenswood — the Pretty Little Liars spin-off with a supernatural twist — killed off one of its five main teens in the show’s second episode, something that would be unheard of in many other fictional worlds. So why could they kill such an important piece of their storytelling puzzle so soon? Probably because she’s still going to be just as prominent on the show as she was when she was alive — only now, she’s a ghost. Basically, living in a town where ghosts and humans interact has its perks. But with Ravenswood, the entire show revolves around a curse that could kill five teens, so what’s really the worst that could happen? All five teens die? Wouldn’t they then just reappear as ghosts? So as of the second episode, the show has lost the dramatic edge that a character death holds.
And Ravenswood isn’t alone in using death as a temporary device. Currently on The Vampire Diaries, a show that has made very big impacts with a few of its character’s deaths, Bonnie is walking around as a ghost. Sure, her funeral was still heartbreaking, but knowing that she recently brought Jeremy back from the dead makes it hard to believe that she won’t be back soon. And even if she’s not, at least she’s still on the show, even if it is in a ghostly fashion.
In some respects, eliminating the “true death” element of a show is liberating, but it also cuts the stakes in half. It’s something Supernatural fans have become familiar with, thanks to Sam and Dean both dying and coming back to life multiple times. So is killing a character as big of a deal as it once was for these shows? Should it be?
Most of the shows treating death as a non-permanent situation tend to have younger viewers, so perhaps death feels too heavy or too dark for teenage viewers to fully grasp, and therefore it’s lightened by the idea that it doesn’t have to be so final. Or perhaps the fact that the younger generation is full of ‘shippers and tweeters adjusts what a show is willing to do, knowing that the backlash could be so extreme as to hurt viewership. And as understandable as that might be, there’s something to be said for a death done right. Even in a show like Sons of Anarchy, where death comes multiple times each season, there’s still an impact behind every gunshot. And let’s not forget the aftermath: Watching a show rework its chemistry in order to accommodate for a loss makes things interesting. That’s not to say that it always goes well, but that element of genuinely not knowing what could come next is what keeps people of all ages tuning in.
For example, as much as viewers loved Denny from season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, they cringed at the idea of him coming back as a ghost, even if it was used in a creative way, and that’s because death leaves its greatest impact when it’s final, or at least semi-final, as is the case for Alaric on The Vampire Diaries. That doesn’t mean that all deaths work. Whether it’s the actual death itself or how it’s done, there are plenty of cases where fans were angered instead of saddened. However, if television shows give up the element of finality, they push viewers off the edge of their seats and right into a comfortable reclined position. And for a show like Ravenswood, where ghosts and humans interact on a daily basis, they practically put a beer in the of-age viewer’s hand.
Now, some might argue that the supernatural element is enough to give a show an edge, and therefore it can replace the need for permanent death, and they might be right. But whether a character is a cartoon, a human, or a vampire, our attachment is all the same, which makes losing said character the worst thing we could imagine, and also, potentially, one of any given show’s greatest plot devices. At the end of the day, even a fictional world needs to learn to say goodbye.