There have a number of controversial character deaths on genre TV recently, but it’s nothing new. Writers have been killing off our beloved characters for decades. Here’s what our esteemed panel has to say about the topic…
(Warning: there will be spoilers. Each response identifies the show being discussed at the top, so if you’re not caught up, move on to the next one.)
Anyone on The Walking Dead can die. (Except, maybe, Rick Grimes, no matter how much I hope and hope for it.) It’s the kind of thing you have to accept with a show like this, and for the most part, I feel like I have. But Denise’s recent death really irked the hell out of me.
There are a number of reasons I hated this. The fact that Denise is, horrifyingly, one of ten lesbian characters who have been killed off in 2016 alone is definitely one of them, although considering the world of the show, I feel like maybe I could have come to accept this individual death…if it hadn’t also seemed so entirely stupid.
But virtually everything about Denise’s death failed for me. Her behavior during the entire episode, leading her out in the open where she was killed, felt incredibly out-of-character. It’s one thing for a character to feel compelled to learn bravery; it is quite something else for her to take insanely stupid risks for absolutely no reason, especially when she’s the community’s only doctor and obviously shouldn’t have been going anywhere. She’s killed in the middle of her triumphant monologue because God forbid The Walking Dead allow a moment of optimism. She’s also killed to serve some idiotically convenient plot developments in the following episodes, so her death isn’t even about her: it’s really about Daryl and his angst, Maggie and her Sudden Pregnancy Sickness, and getting everyone out of Alexandria because our heroes have, inexplicably, all become morons.
Denise quickly became one of my favorite characters on The Walking Dead, despite the fact that she’d hadn’t been on the show very long. She was interesting and funny and had a ton of potential that was abruptly and unnecessarily snuffed out. She was also one of the very, very few women on this show who wasn’t the usual size two, and happily, her atypical weight (for Hollywood, anyway) was never a joke. That meant something to me. That’s something I look for. Losing Denise at all definitely sucked, but losing her the way we did? That was awful.
If you’re going to kill off a great comedic talent like Merritt Wever, my God, actually make it count for something, you know?
Ask any diehard Xena: Warrior Princess fan, also known as a Xenite, what they think of the final episode, even though it’s been almost fifteen years since it aired, and you are still going to get a sigh, a growl, and an earful.
Why are we still pining away for our lost heroine? Why are there still Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, and any number of other online groups demanding Xena’s return? (And no, the upcoming reboot of the series doesn’t count.) We want a redo, a resurrection. After all, the show certainly did it before.
It’s not like the ending was unsatisfying, not from an action standpoint. There’s plenty of that: circus acrobatics, sai and chakram throwing, sword fights, and more arrows shot than even poor Xena could catch.
And from a plot standpoint? Well, as much as it pains me to admit it, her death makes sense. Xena begins the series seeking redemption for the lives she’s taken, the pain she’s caused. She fights her dark side, sometimes failing, but staggers back to her feet for another try at doing good. And her character, portrayed by the irreplaceable Lucy Lawless, agonizes over her inability to balance the scales, not in the eyes of those she helps, not in the eyes of her friends. They would probably say she’s repaid her debt and then some. But in her own eyes, Xena is never forgiven, until she has the opportunity to free so very many trapped souls by sacrificing herself one last time in the final moments of the series. Xena comes full circle, like the chakram she wields. Though no one likes to see their heroes die, it seems like a fitting end. Except for one vital piece the writers seem to have overlooked.
Xena: Warrior Princess wasn’t just a fantasy action series. It was also a romance.
Maybe it wasn’t planned that way. A lot of the behind-the-scenes interviews imply that the subtext relationship between Xena and Gabrielle just happened. The fans liked the chemistry. They read into the interactions, turned the dialogue exchanges into double entendres. The show’s ratings went up. The writers ran with it, playing on those subtle (and often not-so-subtle) stolen moments between action sequences. And suddenly we had not only a female hero–rare enough on its own–but an LGBT female hero–unheard of.
And right there are the two problems with how the series ended.
First, we didn’t get our HEA, our happily ever after, or even our HFN–happily for now–ending that we’ve come to expect of romances, even when the romance is the subplot. Xena and Gabrielle traveled together, fought side by side, broke apart, found ways to forgive one another, died and returned, and in the end, after all they’d been through, the writers chose to separate them by Xena’s death. Whether Xena’s good-vs.-evil scales demanded she be taken from her lover or not, certainly Gabrielle deserved more. In all honestly, I would rather they had both died than have them torn apart in the way they were. It felt wrong. After all they’d suffered, they deserved that much.
But perhaps even more importantly, Xena’s death took away the one true hero the female LGBT population could really identify with on television at that time. We don’t just need diverse books. Everyone should be able to find their heroes on the big and small screens as well. Watching the only one out there die felt like a door that had finally been cracked open had been slammed shut, locked, and bolted. And at the time, this may not have even occurred to them as something as tragic as it was. After all, the higher-ups wouldn’t let them make the Xena/Gabrielle relationship official, wouldn’t let them actually declare themselves openly to be a couple on the show. Xena was just one more action hero who’d had her run. But to some, she was so very much more.
Because of that, no other television death has affected me so strongly. None has even come close.
I have to go with the death of Noah from The Walking Dead Season 5. When Tyler James Williams first came onto the show, I of course recognized him from Everybody Hates Chris–a hugely popular and hilarious comedy show. It was nice to see Tyler grow as an actor and sink his teeth into this dramatic role (no pun intended). Yet he dies so horribly on that show–and far sooner than I would have expected–that it really disturbed me. Disturbed me in the way that only great horror can.
One of the reasons Noah’s death was so horrific is the way director Jennifer Lynch shot the scene. She has directed several of the series’ best episodes to date, and her episodes always seem to be the scariest and most gut-wrenching. As the daughter of the great David Lynch, she’s got the talent (and the superb weirdness) in her blood. So when Noah gets torn apart and devoured alive by zombies while caught in a revolving door, it was intensely horrifying. I was like: “Nooo! Not Chris! He grows up to be a successful comedian!” But that revolving door death scene was also a great statement on the show’s high mortality rate. It’s like: “Who’s next?” Step right up and get your face eaten off.
Part of me felt like Noah deserved a longer stay, but the other part of me was like: “It’s a HORROR show, man! People HAVE to die!” And that’s the way I feel when anybody dies on the show–it’s inevitable. It’s part of the very dark ride you’re taking when you choose to watch The Walking Dead. However, that still won’t make my heart break any less when Maggie or Glen eventually dies. To me, that couple is the emotional heart of the show, and I hope they make it through the zombie apocalypse alive. But I’m not foolish enough to believe they will live happily ever after.
R.I.P. Noah. Everybody Ate Chris. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
The TV character death that I took the hardest was that of Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — although I technically should refer to it only as Jadzia’s death, since the symbiont Dax survived and returned to the station in the form of Ezri Dax. (And for the record, I enjoyed that character well enough.)
I can’t even say that I thought the death was “unfair” to viewers. There’s not much the show’s writers could do if it was indeed true that Terry Farrell did not want to remain as a regular cast member for the show’s last season. In interviews, Ms. Farrell said she didn’t want Jadzia to die, and would have been happy to remain a recurring guest character on the show. I don’t know; perhaps we were better off with a full-time Ezri Dax as opposed to a once-in-a-while Jadzia Dax.
So why did I take it so hard? It was the way it was handled. Long-standing villain Gul Dukat suddenly acquired Emperor Palpatine-like powers that essentially let him kill Jadzia with his new lightning-bolt hands. Dr. Bashir solemnly reported to everyone that he had saved the symbiont Dax, but could do nothing for Jadzia. Yet she still had time for the sad but calm farewell death scene with her recent husband Worf and her oldest friend Benjamin Sisko.
I loathe the bloodless death scene, which we see far too often in movies and television shows. Think of the First Lady in Independence Day, who is brave and calm and sweet while dying of internal injuries while doctors just shake their heads. In real life, they’d have been moving heaven and earth to save the First Lady! Think Padmé Amidala in that last prequel Star Wars movie that I can’t even remember the title of — bloodless death by childbirth and heartbreak. Please! Death is just not that easy. And while I don’t mind when writers spare us some of the grisly details, I do mind when they pretend those details just don’t exist.
But the real reason I resent Jadzia’s death? Her last words, when she says to Worf, “Our baby would have been so beautiful.” The strongest, most interesting, most glorious female character I’d ever seen in a Star Trek show, and in the end it all came down to wanting a baby. To be fair, this might not have gotten to me so much if not for the fact that the Star Trek tie-in fiction line also went a little crazy on the baby train. Picard and Crusher get married, and since his brother and nephew died in a fire, he suddenly must have a baby to carry on the family line. Troi and Riker get married, and they’re suddenly in despair because they can’t immediately have a baby due to Troi’s previous alien impregnation. It’s not that I think these characters shouldn’t have babies. It’s that I think their having a baby shouldn’t suddenly become the most important thing in the universe to them, or to the viewers.
People complained bitterly about Tasha Yar’s meaningless death, to the point where it was “fixed” in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” But for me, Jadzia Dax’s death was far more meaningless than Tasha’s. And considering her adopted Klingon “heritage,” I would have thought Jadzia would have been more interested in finding a “good day to die” on her own terms.
The character death that I took the hardest was one that never happened.
I watched Firefly years after everyone else and although I had successfully avoided spoilers on the internet, my friends seemed to have this constant urge to warn me that I might encounter one, highlighting the conversations that I must avoid taking part in, seemingly unaware that this guaranteed that I would start to understand what the mystery was that they were hiding from me.
Also, I had seen Dr Horrible, so I knew that Whedon would not shirk from taking my favourite character away from me.
So by the time I watched the series, I was aware that someone died and that it was awful and painful and unexpected. What I didn’t know was who or when.
This meant that my experience of the series was fraught with worry. Any time one of the main crew was in danger, I held my breath, wondering: Will it be now?
The came to a head in the episode War Stories. Wash has a jealous fit and takes Zoe’s place with Mal, where they promptly get kidnapped. The torture scenes were over-the-top and ended up distancing me, maybe because I spent most of them looking away. But then there was poor Kaylee, trying to guard the ship on her own, creeping forward towards the bad guys, shaking so badly, she’s about to drop her weapon.
And I knew, I just knew that she was going to step forward and misfire and probably shoot the ceiling. And then they were going to kill her and walk right over her still-warm body into her ship and take it. I couldn’t breathe, I could barely watch.
I knew in an instant that I would never watch another episode, that I couldn’t bear to watch Firefly without Kaylee. She was the heart of the ship and the heart of the show and if she was gone then the ‘verse was dead to me.
Then River jumped in and saved the day! I sat there with my jaw hanging open. She was AMAZING! That scene also made me love River more than anything else in the storyline, before or after. My heart broke for her when I saw Kaylee’s face, the fear with which she interacted with her.
And so simply because I watched the whole thing knowing someone was going to die, the series and specifically that episode were imbued with a tension well beyond what was written into the storyline. I’ve never really gotten over Kaylee’s death, even though it never happened.
As a postscript: Yes, I was seriously confused after the last episode and believed I must have misunderstood. Which of course meant that I had my feet knocked out from under me when I watched Serenity.
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author currently living in the US. Bogi writes, edits and reviews speculative fiction and poetry. You can find eir work in venues like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Glittership and more. You can also visit eir website or follow em on Twitter, where e posts story and poem recommendations on a regular basis.
Some of the fictional television deaths that struck me as the most aggravating were those of Talia Winters and Jason Ironheart in Babylon 5, in the same plotline. The characters were both Psi Corps telepaths who acquired a large amount of telepathic and telekinetic power due to alien intervention. They also belonged to minorities – Talia Winters was a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship (with Commander Susan Ivanova, the station’s second-in-command), and Jason Ironheart was Black with possibly some implied Native ancestry. The two characters had also been previously romantically involved with each other. Talia Winters was a member of the recurring cast, whereas Jason Ironheart was introduced as a bit character to support her plotline.
One of the especially aggravating details was that Talia Winters’ death was ultimately not confirmed onscreen: Psi Cop Alfred Bester said that she had had a “debriefing and dissect – that is, examination,” but at that point Bester was also very clearly toying with the emotions of his listeners, and might not have been telling the truth. I kept on wondering throughout the show if Talia Winters would somehow return, possibly in the last season which had many Psi Corps-related themes, but it never came to pass.
Jason Ironheart’s death was similarly unclear: he did not die per se, he became “pure energy” and left the physical plane. The end result was still the same from a viewer standpoint: he did not end up affecting further events in the show. Likewise, I kept on waiting for his return.
In Talia Winters’ case, her actress Andrea Thompson wanted to leave the show, so her role was rewritten, and most of the later events that were supposed to happen to her instead happened to Lyta Alexander (played by Patricia Tallman).
Probably my biggest issue with these events was that in the same plotline, we saw two minority people acquire large amounts of power, and then rapidly leave the show. The replacement for Talia, Lyta, was a white woman, who was straight as far as it was possible to tell – she had an on-screen relationship with a man. Jason Ironheart was only introduced to be killed off. While Babylon 5 had an important Black character, station doctor Stephen Franklin (played by Richard Biggs), this was still not an excuse for Ironheart’s treatment.
The very upsetting “minorities and especially Black people should know their place and not be uppity” message might not have been intended by the creators, but this storyline played into all the present-day tropes connected to it. At one point, Jason Ironheart outright stated, “This is a power that we were never meant to have.” If you are a powerful minority person and stand up for yourself, you not only get mistreated by the organization that was supposed to protect you (the Psi Corps), but ultimately, the entire universe has no place for you.
One could say “but Jason Ironheart, a Black man, became a quasi-deity!” Yes, but this was only done in order to get rid of him. In my first language, Hungarian, this is called felfelé buktatás: someone inconvenient is removed from a (usually political) position and gets a higher position, with more prestige but less influence. It is similar to the American concept of being “kicked upstairs,” but used much more frequently. It was something that occurred to me right away – and now that I am looking it up, I can see that it was intentional. Lead writer J. Michael Straczynski wrote about this episode, “I don’t like beings with that much power running around the plotline…” I can understand this from a writing standpoint (though I personally have a very different approach), but when combined with diverse casting, it can lead to very unfortunate implications.
Diverse casting is great – but if the creators are not aware of their pre-existent biases, it’s not going to help. I for one still remember these scenes even though I watched Babylon 5 on a Hungarian TV channel back in my teens. “Keep your head down, shut up and hope we won’t kill you” was very much not a message I needed to have in my television – I had it from the rest of the world anyway. This was not a message anyone needed to have, and to me it felt very much like a betrayal, the more so considering that I enjoyed the show and followed it with great attention.
See, I have this theory about character deaths.
If you want to write a powerful character death, what you do is sit down, list the characters who are at risk, and roll some dice.
Because otherwise what you do, as a writer, is start sorting out which characters are disposable and which aren’t. Okay, maybe you can leave the main character off the list. And maybe the fan favorite, the character that you know is going to get the show canceled if they get cut.
If you kill either of those two characters, someone’s coming back from the dead.* Wah wah waaaaaaaah. Cheese city.
From that point, the calculation goes like this: Which character is the most disposable, yet whose death will still have emotional impact?
The Red Shirts of Star Trek: you couldn’t really feel bad for them when something bad happened to them. The writers never really gave us a chance to get to know them—and humanity, as a species, is really bad about caring what happens to people we don’t know.
But once you’ve established that you can’t cut the main character or the fan favorite and that you need to make more of an impact than tossing yet another Red Shirt down the maw of Voldemort’s hidden Rancor, who do you kill?
I call this calculation The Dobby Effect.
First: identify all characters who regularly fail to further the plot.
Second: find the character closest to the main character whose main purpose is to show how noble, tolerant, mature, open-minded, spiritual, or generous the main character is.
Third: kill them.
Doing so achieves two purposes:
- It shows that the bad guys aren’t just kind of bad. They’re so bad that they’ll kill the one character who proves how noble the good guy is.
- It means that you don’t have to deal with that character in the rest of the series. Because usually that character brings up some uncomfortable truths; for example, that wizards support slavery.
This trope has several names: Black Dude Dies First, Bury Your Gays, Vasquez Always Dies…but I always associate it with Dobby.
But let’s move on to the character I want to talk about.
It’s a Joss Whedon character. A lovable female character who dies senselessly, needlessly, tragically—at a critical moment in the plot where another character has to be pushed a little in order to do the horrible things that must be done.
Which one, you ask?
The one I most identify with—I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
I’m still not over Wash.
But at least that one was fair.
*I just heard that Disney may have decided that Boba Fett has, canonically, survived the Sarlacc by putting up a trailer of a game (Battlefront) of him appearing in the timeline after RotJ.
For a while when I was growing up, the first episode of any show I watched had someone die in it. It didn’t matter if it was soap opera, serious drama, or Star Trek: The Next Generation.
My introduction to ST:TNG was the episode “Skin of Evil.” It’s a classic damsel in distress story, with the ship’s counsellor Deanna Troi taken hostage by an alien called Armus that spends most of the episode as a kind of sentient oil slick. Over the course of the episode Armus tortures Commander William Riker a little bit, and kills Lieutenant Tasha Yar just because it can.
Even without any knowledge of the show, this struck me as unfair. Armus kills her with a psychic blast simply for getting too close to the shuttle where Troi waits to be rescued, literally a princess in a tower. It made no sense to me, and it only makes sense now because I know the actress, Denise Crosby, wanted out of her contract because she felt the role didn’t give her enough to do.
Because this was my gateway episode, I’d never known an Enterprise with a female security chief. Seasons later I didn’t remember it had ever been anyone but Worf. I grew up with a ST:TNG where the only major female characters were in stereotypical caring roles–empath Troi as counsellor and love interest to Riker, and Beverley Crusher, doctor and mother. Since I had no interest in romance or children I found them incredibly dull. Surely there was more for girls to do in space? Apparently not since both Troi and alternate-universe-Yar end up with children.
Luckily for me the show also had Data, an android struggling to understand human emotions and behaviour. I’d recently started reading Asimov and was obsessed with all things robot, android, or cyborg, so Data was enough to keep me hooked. Without him I might well have decided science fiction was boring and missed out on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon Five, and Stargate: Universe. And that would have been a real shame.
The death of Lori Grimes is when I gave up on The Walking Dead. Not because I think the show is technically bad, but rather the emotional component disappeared for me. Lori’s character was the last of what was good for humanity, a feminine and strong woman. Compounding this issue, the tension between Lori and Rick was the only believable romantic element in the series thus far. Now we have Rick and Michonne, two dominant alphas (rarely works in real life), which feels forced and corny. Lori was a perfect foil to Rick’s alpha masculinity. And it wasn’t so much how Lori died (admittedly brutal), but what she left behind.
We were left with Judith Grimes, a pointless character. With Judith, it appears as if the cast is playing a game of hot potato wrapped in a couple blankets. No one really wants to hold her. Sure, she pops up here and there like the uninvited kid knocking on the door at the keg party, but no one’s paying attention.
With Lori gone (and the fantastic triangle between Lori, Rick, and Shane), the realistic and charged intimate components of the show vanished, turning it into just another long zombie slog.