Quoth the raven: "Bring some tissues."
Credit: BBC America
S9 E10

A group of ravens is called a “conspiracy” for a reason: They’re always stirring up trouble. They knock on poets’ doors late at night and make them think about death. I spent a year in Alaska, the state that gave its name to the starship where we first met one of Clara’s echoes, and the Native story I heard the most was the one in which Raven steals the sun. I think the Doctor knows the feeling.

We all knew this was coming, but I don’t know if that makes it any easier: Clara Oswald is dead. I’m not up on the exact science of death by shade raven, but I feel pretty confident in saying that she’s met her end, making her the first companion of the modern Doctor Who era to (permanently) die onscreen. All that’s left now is to figure out how we all feel about it. Let’s run through the plot “quick as you like,” as Oswin would say, and get to the fallout.

It starts with a tattoo that isn’t a tattoo. Rigsy, our friend from “Flatline,” wakes up with a number counting down on the back of his neck and no memory of the last 24 hours. He calls the Doctor and Clara, as you do in this sort of emergency, and they piece together what happened: Rigsy wound up in a hidden street, a pocket of alien life on earth where refugees from across the galaxy are offered safe haven. The street is governed by strict rules set in place by none other than Ashildr, now known as Mayor Me, who’s been here since the Doctor lost track of her in the 1800s.

She’s forgotten her name again, but she hasn’t forgotten the Doctor — or the promise that she made to care for the ones he leaves behind. Maisie Williams’ performance here splits the difference between the Ashildr of Viking times and the Me we last met; she cares, but as an action rather than a feeling, and she has no trouble making the tough calls. When an older gentleman with a number on his neck pleads mercy (He only stole the medicine because his wife needed it!), the Mayor stands firm, and a raven made of smoke chases him down the street, flies into his chest, and kills him.

The number on Rigsy’s neck marks him for the same fate. It’s a chronolock binding him to the raven, which will take his life when the minutes tick down to zero: punishment for a crime that no one can prove he committed. Rigsy was found standing over the body of a beloved member of the community named Anna, a Janus whose two faces allowed her to see into the past and the future. Someone has to pay, and Rigsy is a convenient scapegoat; if he’s the killer, people on the street don’t have to suspect each other. The Mayor agrees to release him if they can prove his innocence, but turning the tide of public opinion in Rigsy’s favor won’t be easy.

Clara has an idea to buy them some time. Before the man died for stealing medicine, his wife offered to take the chronolock in his place; death can’t be cheated, but it can be passed on as long as both parties are willing. But the Doctor made the Mayor guarantee Clara’s safety, and the Mayor’s protection is “absolute” — which should mean that Clara can’t be killed. If she takes the chronolock from Rigsy, they’ll both be safe. He’s hesitant, but she’s sure of her logic; trapping people at their own game is “Doctor 101.” Anyway, Rigsy has a baby now. Does he want his daughter growing up without a father just because he wouldn’t take a risk? Rigsy agrees, and Clara takes his burden.

Maybe, just maybe, Rigsy and Clara should have agreed on the idea of switching the chronolock but held off on actually doing it until the literal last minute. There’s more going on here than a case of convenient scapegoating — this is intentional scapegoating, meant to draw in the Doctor. Anna’s daughter confirms it; as a female Janus, she shares her mother’s psychic powers, a fact that she’s kept hidden by masquerading as a boy. She can tell that the Mayor’s plan involves the Doctor, but because his past and future are so hard to separate, she’s not sure what that plan is.

The one piece of good news in all of this: Anna is alive. The Mayor claimed that Anna’s body was being kept in a stasis pod until it could be sent home for burial, but the Janus burn their dead. She’s actually being kept there as bait for the Doctor. When he finds a keyhole inside the pod’s control panel, the Doctor knows that it’s a trap — the Mayor wants him to use his TARDIS key to open it — but a daughter needs her mother, so he does it anyway. Anna is freed as a teleport band closes around the Doctor’s arm.

NEXT: Does it need saying?

Some unknown party wants the Doctor, and Mayor has agreed to hand him over in exchange for continued peace on the street. Rigsy and Anna were just pawns. The Mayor is ready to remove Rigsy’s chronolock, but she can’t do the same for Clara — taking the chronolock changed the terms of the Mayor’s deal with the raven, cutting out the Mayor entirely. Is Clara about to die for a deal that she didn’t make? Is she about to die because you can’t negotiate with ravens — because, in a less literal sense, death is indiscriminate and unfair? It looks like it. And it feels…unfair.

Sure, the writing was on the wall; after two seasons of worrying, on the Doctor’s part, that Clara was becoming him, here she is undone by it. The rule follower tried to outsmart the rules and lost. Clara has been enjoying her recklessness too much all season, and in some corner of her mind, she knew when she made the deal with Rigsy that she was taking a huge risk. Death can be passed on, but it can’t be cheated — but since she lost Danny, Clara hasn’t worried about her own life as much. “Maybe this is what I wanted,” she tells the Doctor. “Maybe this is why I kept running.” But there’s still something hollow in it; Rigsy wasn’t even in real danger.

The tragedy feels more poetic on the Doctor’s end: He’s undone by saving Ashildr in the first place, which he did because he projected Clara onto her. When it becomes apparent that their minutes together are numbered, the Doctor lashes out, yelling that if the Mayor doesn’t fix this, he’ll “rain hell” on her. It’s all very Time Lord Victorious (“The Doctor is no longer here. You are stuck with me, and I will end you and everything you love”), and Clara won’t stand for it. She knows that his big revenge scheme could never withstand a crying child, anyway. “If this is the last I ever see of you,” she says, “please, not like this.” I am already that crying child.

None of the modern era’s companions have had as much time to say goodbye as Clara now has, and she makes the most of it. She tells Rigsy not to waste even a minute of guilt on her before turning her attention to the Doctor. “I’m not asking you for a promise,” Clara says. “I’m giving you an order. You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge. I will die and no one else here or anywhere will suffer.” Peter Capaldi breaks some hearts: “What about me?”

Maybe when the Doctor worried about Clara becoming him, what actually scared him was that her life would become like his: the kind of life that necessitates learning how to say goodbye. Clara actually pulls a “Does it need saying?” on the Doctor, stopping him with a hug when he starts into a speech. Whatever it is that he’s about to say, she already knows it, and they’ve “had enough bad timing.” He at least wants to be there when the raven comes (Peter Capaldi breaks all hearts: “Stay with me”), but she needs to do this on her own. After a kiss on the hand and one last hand on the cheek for good measure, Clara steps into the street. The Doctor (obviously) ignores her order to stay put, watching from the doorway as his companion faces the raven. The bird flies into Clara, who screams out its black smoke and falls to the cobblestone.

There’s nothing left in the Doctor to fight being teleported, but before the Mayor sends him away, he does issue a warning: “I’ll do my best, but I strongly advise you to keep out of my way. You’ll find that it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.” And just like that, he’s gone — though not in the same way as Clara Oswald. She took an empty death and made it mean something, which is a fitting analogy for her entire stay in the TARDIS. As the Impossible Girl, Clara was more of an enigma than a person, but in Capaldi’s time, Jenna Coleman managed to make Clara feel as essential to the show as the Doctor was to Clara. The next few weeks are going to be lonely.

Background radiation:

  • At least we’ve got some tour de force Capaldi performances to look forward to.
  • Rigsy’s TARDIS art is a nice touch.
  • “You don’t be a warrior. Promise me. Be a Doctor.”
  • “What’s the point of being a Doctor if I can’t cure you?”
  • Why does the Mayor need the Doctor’s confession dial?
  • I do appreciate the street’s “Diagon Alley” vibe.
  • “Sometimes Jane Austen and I prank each other. Oh, she is the worst. I love her. Take that how you like.” I take back everything; the greatest injustice in Clara’s story is that we never got to see her kiss Jane Austen.
  • “Okay, Local Knowledge, you’re coming with us. Bring the new human. No, don’t bring the new human; I’ll just get distracted.”
  • “Clara, go back to the TARDIS. Pick up all my most annoying stuff.”
  • “Can I not be the good cop?” “Doctor, we’ve discussed this. Your face.”

Episode Recaps

Doctor Who
  • TV Show
  • 12
  • BBC America
  • HBO Max
stream service