We’ve talked about the evolution of watching and reacting to TV show finales, but what about when a major character meets his or her end? In today’s content culture, we spend a lot of time processing death—of our favorite (or least favorite) TV characters. And process we do. We take our content seriously: we meditate; we grieve; we ask why; we think of what might have been; and we wonder if ultimately there is a greater meaning or purpose. The demise of a really great TV character is, at once, both an intimate experience and one that is shared on global scale thanks to social media.
This week marked the latest major character death—the universally reviled King Joffrey on Game of Thrones. Not long before him, Will Gardner was shockingly shot and killed in the courtroom on The Good Wife and the highly anticipated titular Mother of How I Met Your Mother was revealed to be deceased. These stunning character deaths are from the past month alone and join a quickly growing list of high-profile character kill-offs.
More and more, an expertly timed character death is seen as a given on a TV show, but it wasn’t always that way. It was M*A*S*H that gave the American public its first taste of a major character’s tragic death in 1975 with the shocking news that Henry Blake’s helicopter had been shot down in the Sea of Japan. In those long-ago days before Twitter, the producers received more than 1,000 letters ranging from sorrow to complaint. Today, an untimely and tragic death now seems like a staple in the content landscape. The pressure to deliver surprises and impactful emotional moments often means that someone bites the dust.
This trend begs the question: Is death a part of life for content now? Is death needed every once in a while to shake up the storylines and keep viewers tuned in? Do all serious-contender shows have to have that ‘very special episode’ where a character dies? Or has it become a standard ploy to manipulate our emotions? Is it the ‘easy’ default solution to jump-start the writing process? And is the social media outcry all part of the ‘fun’ of content consumption?
Check out a brief collection of coverage from some high-profile TV deaths below and then weigh in on our quick poll!
When a show follows previously written work. If a show is based on an already written work that includes a character’s demise, it is still a creative decision for the showrunners as to when, how, or even IF they follow the source material.
- Game of Thrones – R.I.P. Lots of people, most recently King Joffrey
“And that’s something we admire from the books. George doesn’t give you want you want right off the bat…At the same time, a deeper side of you wouldn’t really want that because it’s too easy and wouldn’t seem remotely real. There’s something wonderful about reading the book, the way Joffrey dies, because it’s completely unexpected. No hero came back to vanquish the evil king.” Read the full analysis
- The Walking Dead – R.I.P. Lots of people, most recent major character Hershel Greene
“It was something that I sensed before the conversations took place — like in episode 403, with the speech he has about the risk of being alive in that postapocalyptic world. In episode 405, when he had so much to do, I knew it wasn’t a good sign for him.” Read the full analysis.
When an actor wants to leave the show. This can really throw a wrench into a showrunner’s plans, as the creative team is faced with a challenge how of to remove a character while maintaining the integrity of the story and characters. The character doesn’t HAVE to die, but more and more this seems to be the popular way to be written off in recent years.
- The Good Wife – R.I.P. Will Gardner
“Also there are major story hubs you’re always looking for in building a season: points in the narrative where it changes every character’s trajectory. It keeps the show from feeling stale.” Read the full analysis.
- Downton Abbey – R.I.P. Matthew Crawley
“The makers of Downton Abbey have moved to console devastated viewers about the ‘untimely and tragic death’ of character Matthew Crawley, after an outpouring of furious complaints about the Christmas special.” Read the full analysis.
When a show is free to kill. Sometimes the showrunners come to their own creative decision that a death is needed to tell the story they intended to tell.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer – R.I.P. Joyce Summers (Buffy’s mom)
“Written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, ‘The Body’ was a soul-shaking portrait of death and grief, with Buffy having to face the unexpected passing of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). On another series, the death of Buffy’s mom might have been an excuse to pull out all the Very Special Episode bells and whistles. But Buffy is the ultimate anti-VSE show.” Read the full analysis.
- Homeland – R.I.P. Sgt. Nicholas Brody
The Daily Beast
“His shelf life had expired. It was time. We spent a lot of hours in the story room figuring out what we could do with his character, and a lot of the emotional landscape had been crossed. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves.” Read the full analysis.