In anguished tones, my husband recites the names of all the characters slain in Star Trek: Picard. One after another, killed needlessly and deliberately. Is this laziness or sadism, he wants to know. He blames Game of Thrones.
I am nodding in sympathy, wondering if the potatoes are done. Later, though, his words come back to me. Killing for convenience removes the necessity for creative plotting. It also matches the general increase in volume, speed, violence, and sensationalism.
“Every new character, or every character we don’t see on the series, could get 86’ed before this series is over,” a fan site for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds warned last summer.
It seems Andrew nailed it with Game of Thrones. Not only could those casualties litter a few football fields, but the show dared to behead its beloved and noble hero in season one, episode nine. And then, suggests a Vox critic, “too many shows took the wrong lessons from his death.”
Allowance must be made for our monkey nature. We see, we do. Imitation has a way of seeming both safe and smart. But beyond copying a hit, there are other incentives: killing off characters raises the stakes, ratchets up the excitement, proves you are serious, makes room for new characters, keeps viewers wondering who will die next and who will make it off that particular show’s island. Besides, contracts do not offer long-term security they once did, and actors are fickle, chancing other opportunities that might raise their profile a little higher. When they leave, there may not be time for a thoughtful resolution of their character’s fate.
Killing so often seems the easiest solution. When mice moved into our old house, our no-kill qualms required us to slather the traps (and inadvertently, the floorboards) with peanut butter, check twice daily, and ferry the unwanted refugees to the park. Murder would have been much easier. Farmers poison pests and weeds because old-fashioned prevention techniques are too much bother. Bursting with frustration, I wonder why someone does not simply assassinate Vladimir Putin. So it is easy to imagine the writers’ eyes lighting when someone solves a plot dilemma with a simple, bold “Kill them off.”
Except, we mourn. In its 2019 sweeps—just in the month of May, just on broadcast—TVLine counted thirty-four major characters killed off. There are regular squeals of outrage online (in fact, that is part of the point; killing a character guarantees a burst of social media activity). Fans weep and rail. Screens are the new coliseum.
Those who worry about other nefarious influences ought to be jumping on this one. Lots of people die in comic books, for example, and comic books are now source material for film and tv. Technically, an animated comic book adaptation would requires no deaths, because there is nobody to walk off the set, no human ego to be dazzled by alternate roles. In these movies, lives are taken for impact, not convenience.
Video games, another influence, are predicated upon death. They make us thirst for it. We kill, and we watch death, and soon there is little difference.
Tv and movies have always been riddled with death—war movies, westerns, crime shows. But at least the heroes walked unscathed through the killing fields. Worst case, they were bloodied just enough to be tenderly nursed by whoever adored them. And when a main character did die, the decision was momentous, planned as carefully as a royal wedding.
When McLean Stevenson quit M*A*S*H, for example, beloved Henry Blake, with his fishing cap and goofy sense of humor, could not be allowed to make it home from Korea. “A lot of young men from Bloomington, Illinois, did not get home to Bloomington,” producer Gene Reynolds told the Television Academy Foundation. The writers tiptoed, thinking through every detail. They kept the news from the cast so they would react naturally when Radar read the telegram (I am choking up as I type this) that said Henry Blake’s plane had gone down in the Sea of Japan.
Viewers spun out of control. Phones rang: “You didn’t have to do that!” “Why would you do that?” “Everyone is crying.” “I will never watch this show again!” “That was totally unnecessary!”
On the electrical wires of the human heart hangs a meter of death’s necessity. Certain deaths are fated, some are poetically right. And some should never have happened. Random tragedy is a barely acceptable answer. A conspiracy of tv writers is not.
Now that I think about it, I have no problem with fictional deaths that are random, senseless, and perpetrated only for shock value. A lot of death is random, senseless, and shocking. The problem is how many directors are doing it just because they can. Because, after years of treading carefully on viewers’ emotions, it is now okay, even cool, to trample them. Killing off characters is a new sport, a shallow art form, and a blind imperative. Its frequency resembles my own phobia, the once taboo cinematic vomit. More people now throw up onscreen than anyone ever throws up in real life, simply because there are good tricks to make it happen, and it jolts viewers into fascinated disgust.
Let your characters die, if you must—but at least exercise a little numeric restraint. Infuse a little dignity. Give us time for kaddish. When Sesame Street’s Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, died—a million years ago in 1982—the creators thought of recasting him or letting him “retire.” Instead, they pushed themselves to make a tribute show that taught Big Bird what death was.
We may have forgotten.
A “death should have some sort of weight or meaning to it,” says Emily St. James in the Vox piece. It should send the story in a new direction; it should affect the other characters; it should feel inevitable, at least for the plot if not for that individual. But here is the problem: grief does not make good tv. The way a series keeps going is by hurling obstacles at its characters, forcing them to struggle harder and harder, so miserable that death looks like a mercy.
Our culture assumes that the way to hold our attention is to make someone suffer. The prerequisite for art, we are told, is conflict. Now we are carrying all that conflict to its logical conclusion and killing people off willy-nilly. Where does it end? Will we stop wanting to care about a character because we do not want to grieve their death? Will deaths we only see on screen matter even less? Is the trend reversible?
“In this day and age, you have to do it just for the stakes, to say, ‘We’re playing for keeps,’” Terry Matalas, who is now showrunner for Star Trek: Picard, told Vox a few years ago. The zingy little catchphrase that rationalizes this approach is “Everyone can die.” Except, what all this death makes obvious is that not everyone can. Many main characters are still straight white males, and supporting characters are still the easiest to kill, which means that the corpses littering the studio are usually women (the trope for the brutal death of a female is Women in Refrigerators), people of color, or LGBTQ characters (“Bury your gays”). I check with Andrew, and he nods: “Roe, Shelby, and T’Veen [three of the four characters he mourned on Picard] were all women.”
I suppose we will count it as progress when we kill as many white males? But that may be less palatable, because according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 76 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers are male. A 2022 stat that has decreased by only seven percentage points in the past two decades.
It is always hard to kill someone who reminds you of yourself. Though as it gets easier and easier to kill people off, even that may change.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.