TV shows kill off key characters in season finales, but to what end?

We’ve reached that time of year where TV shows approach their season finales and begin killing off recurring characters in the hopes of making things more compelling. I’m always left to wonder if that works on anyone; I usually just conclude that the writers must be desperate and out of ideas.

I was once told by a professor that the key to writing good fiction is to simply keep people’s minds inside the world you’ve created. It okay if they start questioning the choices a character is making. But if they start questioning the choices you’re making as an author, while they’re in the middle of reading the story, then you’ve lost them because they’ve stopped thinking of your fictional world as being real.

Although I’m not a fiction writer, I do so much writing of my own that perhaps it does cause me to analyze the writing more closely when I’m consuming fiction than other audiences members might. But I’m nearly always taken out of the narrative when a television show decides to kill off a valuable character.

Sometimes it can’t be helped. The actor has quit or is difficult to work with, and can’t be written out in any believable way other than death. And some genres, from horror to war movies to murder mysteries, wouldn’t be realistic if they didn’t have death around every corner.

But I watch TV shows because I like the long term character development. And even some of the best shows have made notoriously self defeating decisions by killing off characters simply to squeeze one moment of drama out of it. The West Wing killed off Mrs. Landingham at the end of season two, and while it might have been the best use of a character death of all time, it only produced one great episode. After that, one could argue that every subsequent episode that came thereafter was incrementally worse on account of her not being in it. The writer of the show seemed to realize his mistake as well, as he didn’t even bother to insert a new secretary character in her place for a couple seasons. The dynamic he’d spent two years building up had simply gone.

The consequences are less severe in some other media, where you don’t need a given character each week for years to come. But even then, some of the best works of fiction seem to get marred by an author who gets carried away with it. When Sirius Black was killed, it had a profound effect on Harry Potter and the shape of his journey going forward. When Dumbledore died, it seemed inevitable. But when the final book consisted of one character being killed off after another, I spent most of it asking what the author JK Rowling was trying to prove.

I almost didn’t finish reading it (and never did watch the final movie), not because it was sad, but because its was amateurish and asinine, and was completely out of tenor with the first six books, in which an individual death of a character had meant something. Years later she’s begun apologizing for killing off all those characters in book seven, which suggests she’s realized she detracted from her own work by trying too hard to push some agenda which never was explained.

But even if we are to write that off as being a first time author who hadn’t yet figured out that she didn’t need to kill off half her characters in order to keep up the tension, there are other writers who seem to do it just to screw with the audience. Joss Whedon may be one of the most brilliant screenwriters we have, but I always approach his work with caution. Even though he’s shown time and again that he’s a good enough writer to create tension and fear and sorrow and empathy without having to kill anyone off, he often does it anyway, seemingly just to make the audience squirm. They end up cursing him out loud mid-movie by name, and he knows it’s going to happen, which means he wants the audience thinking about him and not his characters. At least he works in science fiction, where such characters can often be brought back to life when the story needs them later.

Of course we now have entire genres of television based on little more than killing people off for shock value. This seemed to have started with 24, which killed off Jack Bauer’s wife at the end of the first season. She was a pointless character and the show was arguably better off without her, but it did put the writers on a path of thinking they needed to top themselves by killing off another major character each season until there was almost no one recognizable left. Some view 24 as one of the great television shows. I view it as one of the great wasted opportunities.

I also blame 24 for the existence of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You couldn’t pay me to watch them, but if other people enjoy watching shows that have no long term character development and are simply about making your heart race so you can curse the show’s writers every few minutes, more power to them. I just wish quality TV shows with quality characters would stop making the mistake of thinking they have to throw in a little bit of that mindless shock value in order to compete.
Watching the series finales of good character-driven TV shows this time of year, in which they start trying to morph into the kill-everyone-shock-everyone motif, feels like listening to a good solid folk album with a death metal solo suddenly tossed in. Thirty seconds of pretending to be something you’re not isn’t going to attract the other kind of audience anyway, and it just cheapens the existing product.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch some more season finales so I can curse at the writers for being desperate and out of ideas and trying to pretend they’re something they’re not.

Will Stabley
Will Stabley is the Founder and Senior Editor of Stabley Times.
Will Stabley