The Mechanics of Death in Scripted Television! by Joseph Mallozzi
[WARNING: This blog entry contains spoilers for shows you really should have already watched by now].
I came across the following article this morning: ‘Walking Dead’ finale: If Daryl dies, we riot. This, of course, is a reference to television’s most beloved redneck, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who fans fear may well meet his untimely end on this Sunday’s mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. After all, cable’s hottest show has proven it isn’t afraid to kill off their series regulars. Remember Sophia? Dale? T-Dog? Lori? Merle? Andrea? Hell, television in general has a rich history of dealing out shocking and unexpected deaths. From MASH’s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake to, most recently, Brian Griffin on Family Guy, it would seem that no one is safe. Not even a martini-swilling cartoon dog.
Or so they would have us believe, but the truth is some are safer than others. Most notably series leads, regulars under contract, fan and/or writer/producer favorites - their mortality rate tends to be a hell of a lot lower than the going average. Still, IMPROBABLE doesn’t mean IMPOSSIBLE and, occasionally, even the unlikeliest of characters fall to the grim reaper’s scythe (a.k.a. writer’s laptop). It all depends on the circumstances.
And what ARE some of these circumstances? Well, I’m glad you asked. Forget heart disease and car accidents. Here are the leading causes of death in t.v. characters…
THE STORY CALLS FOR IT
Back in Stargate: SG-1’s seventh season, Executive Producer Robert Cooper wanted to write a script that drove home the constant dangers our characters faced in the course of fulfilling their duties. It was to be an episode that demonstrated the fickleness of death and paid tribute to the fallen - but, in order to be truly effective, it required a little something more. It required one of our established characters to die - not while facing down alien hordes or executing some daring op but after being struck by something so seemingly random and inconsequential as an errant staff blast. And the fact that it turned out to be Janet Fraiser, Stargate’s longtime Chief Medical Officer, dying while saving another life, made it all that more poignant. Years later another doctor on another Stargate show met a similar fate for much the same reason. And Carson Beckett’s demise was just as surprising and heartbreaking.
THE CHARACTER’S ARC HAS ENDED
This usually applies to secondary characters and villains. Sometimes, a character is created with a finite arc in mind and is ushered out when the writer feels their story has been told. Other times, characters simply overstay their welcome like bad party guests and end up getting deep-sixed long past their natural expiration date. As much as I loved the villainous goa’uld, I felt they’d fallen into the latter category by the end of SG-1’s eighth season. Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman falls into the former category of course. Wait! What?! Yes, it’s true. The original plan was to kill off Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show’s first season, but Aaron Paul so impressed that the character was granted an extended reprieve. In similar fashion, Stargate: Universe’s Dale Volker also avoided certain death. On the other hand…
IT JUST DOESN’T WORK OUT
On the flip side are those characters for whom great plans are made, great hopes pinned but who, for whatever reason, fail to live up to their potential. They are introduced, usually with much fanfare, only to exit with barely a whimper.
THE ACTOR/ACTRESS HAS DECIDED TO MOVE ON
It happens. The decision is made on the part of the actor to leave the show. Amicable creative discussions ensue culminating in a fitting onscreen death. Dr. Daniel Jackson received a heroic send-off in SG-1’s Meridian, one that never fails to tug at the heart strings on subsequent viewings. Of course the sadness is mitigated by the knowledge that, like South Park, science fiction always leaves the door open for miraculous resurrections.
AN UNEXPECTED PASSING
The worst of all possible circumstances. If the show continues, production will honor to their late cast member with a respectful send-off and tribute.
Personality conflicts, unprofessional behavior, poor performance, a bad attitude - just some of the things that can book someone a one-way ticket on the character death express.
THE END IS NEAR!
Here, the writers are operating under the assumption that the show is ending and so, decide to go out with a bang. And there’s no bang bigger than a character death. Or two. Or more. Hello, Blake’s 7. The belief that the seventh season would be SG-1’s last made the decision to kill off Janet Fraiser somewhat easier. If we had known we’d actually be coming back for another season, I’m not so sure things would have played out quite the same way.
A DESIRE TO SHAKE THINGS UP
Ratings are floundering. The show’s creative is in a funk. Quick! Do something! Historically, television producers have generally responded in one of two ways: a) They add a cute kid to cast, or b) They kill off an established character. Given the choice, I’d go with the latter.
So, with a better understanding of the mechanics of death in scripted television, we can now appreciate the mortality of every t.v. character, from series lead to red-shirted day player.
Could they actually kill off Daryl on tomorrow night’s episode of The Walking Dead?
Not a chance.