In certain dramas, life and death can oft be treated with a general carelessness. One character may be killed off for flimsy reasons or another may be brought back from the afterlife. In either case, their death (and life) are being cheapened. It takes away the impact of the moment and ruins the suspension of disbelief moving forward.
When I use the term, “heartless death,” there are at least three scenarios I’m referring to. There might be more, but these
An actor might clash with another actor, a writer, or a producer. As a result, that first actor’s character is written off the show (and most likely killed off). That character’s death may be announced in passing or happen in a quick, unemotional way. This is an outgrowth of awful writing and/or pettiness.
The first scenario was the case with Valerie Harper, the star of Valerie’s Family. She wanted more money and as a result, the titular character was killed offscreen. The show became The Hogan Family, and it sucked so bad imo, that I refused to watch any of those reruns.
I believe this scenario also played out in the Charmed series, as Alyssa Milano (“Phoebe Hallowell”) and Shannen Doherty (“Prudence Hallowell”) were rumored to clash behind the scenes. Regardless of what most think about Doherty and the fact that the series was starting to lag in its third season, the fact remains that the show really went downhill after Prue was killed off. And the way the character was killed was brief and cold. It occurred at the end of the third season and there was no time for much emotional impact.
After Shonda Rhimes appeared on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore late in 2015, many guessed who she was talking about when she answered a controversial question. Wilmore asked Rhimes if she had killed off a character because she didn’t like the answer, to which she responded, “Yes.” Since we can’t be sure which actor/character that was, it would be hard to gage which death was heartless, but I really hated the deaths of a few of her characters, including: “George O’Malley,” “Mark ‘McSteamy’ Sloan,” “Lexie ‘Little’ Grey,” (all from Grey’s Anatomy), and “Pete Wilder” from Private Practice.
Somebody’s child or a beloved character is killed off just to try and create drama.
Depending on how it’s done, this could be a heartless death. I personally hate child deaths, even in fiction, but when that happens in fiction, it must be done well. It’s rare for a child’s death written with any type of heart outside of medical dramas; those programs succeed in this area since they have so many life and death situations already. They’re really effective at getting viewers to care about strangers who will only be there for a short time, anyway.
One of the best examples of this storyline outside of pure medical dramas is found in on Soap Opera named General Hospital. In a 1994 storyline that is still occasionally referenced, two characters who were married at the time — “Bobbie Spencer” and “Tony Jones” — lost their daughter, BJ, in a school bus accident. It was heartbreaking, but one development was that the little girl’s heart went to her cousin, Maxie Jones. The program was better written overall when that happened
A rarely used character is killed off because “someone needs to die.” This is made worse if said character is not even so much as given a funeral.
I have seen this quite a few times, even in some comedies. I would say Muriel from Family Guy kind of fits here. Mort and his son have always received more attention. Mort’s death in particular would have a greater impact, not that I’m wishing for that. Just sayin’.
I hate this kind of death because it is pointless. There is no real reason to kill an underutilized character. Deaths should involve day players, villains (once they have been milked for all they’re worth), and those who are well-developed. In each of those cases, the death needs to propel the story forward, be shocking, and evoke some emotion in the viewer. Otherwise, you have a situation where one character will not be properly mourned. As a result, viewers will be slightly peeved or not care.
Back from the Dead
How many times has the follow happened?
Oh my God! Rafael died while saving those children from a drowning school bus! He will be missed. Cue the violins, the flashback montage, and a big memorial blowout. His loved ones think about him every day, and they might even see his ghost from time to time…
Five to ten years later, Rafael somehow reappears. He’s alive! And he was being cared for in a cabin by a recluse who found him washed up by the banks of the river. She loves him and doesn’t want to let him go. Bonus points if Billy loves her, too, and is suffering from amnesia…
“Vladimr, your days as a corrupt oil magnate are over! You have terrorized this small town with your kidnapping, philandering, water contamination, blackmail, and subprime loans! This ends now! With this bullet, I will end your life!” And with that shot, Vladimir falls off the top of a tall building to his supposed death — or is left behind near a bomb that is about to go off.
Some years later, the town’s inhabitants face a “new” threat, but this mysterious (or invisible!) person’s M.O. is very similar. The town is getting ready for a large civic function for charity, but it has one big mysterious benefactor. Near the end of festivities, the benefactor emerges from the curtains..
Oh shit, it’s Vladimir! How did he survive that fall? We saw his body! He was identified in the morgue!
It turns out Vlad’s twin brother or his body double took the fall/was used as a replacement to fool everyone.
Yeah, while I do like to see a favorite character — or a child — return and be spared from a premature demise, I don’t want death to be cheapened in the process. If the actor wants a break, the writers should find a creative way to make that departure open-ended. Don’t kill off a character only to bring them back.
A special mention goes to General Hospital, which recently pulled a reversal on the child death front. I have heard that the child in question, Jake, is called “Creepy Jake” in fan circles because of his peculiar behavior as of late. Now, while I wouldn’t want to say that such a young character should have stayed dead, if Jake was brought back only to by some type of psychopath…
It should go without saying that I especially hate when villains are given this treatment back-from-the-grave. If the villain is so important yet the actor wants a break, the writers also need to find a way to temporarily sideline the character. No one should be able to cheat death, least of all a villain.
In general, I hate to see the deaths of good characters, but I can accept it under a few criteria:
- The character had great development overall.
- The character is properly mourned.
- The death moves the story along in a natural way and promotes great storytelling consequences.
- Death is given finality for the most part.
All the above scenarios violate more than one of these principles simultaneously. In particular, the back-from-the-dead stories are overdone. It’s not great storytelling and it shows by viewer reactions.
Another kind of “death” is the abrupt end of a storyline. I will discuss that and more in the next post in this series.