SPOILER ALERT! This post includes spoilers from the following series: Castle, Chuck, Damages, Fringe, Ghost Whisperer, How I Met Your Mother, The Secret Circle, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries. If you have yet to see the most recent episodes of any of these series and plan to: steer clear.
I’ve watched enough Chuck episodes to know that whenever Chuck, Sarah, and Casey are thisclose to getting a gun shot at them in close range: it won’t happen. I’ve read enough forum posts to know that The Vampire Diaries showrunners would never in their right mind consider killing off Damon. I’ve witnessed Fringe kill off its leading lady to then promptly change timelines entirely.
And yet, TV shows continue to test my intelligence by not only creating scenarios based on a main character’s supposed impending death but by centering entire episodes around it. Basically: a waste of my — and your — time.
But does death, the lack of characters dying, and resurrection of some characters via ghosts actually ruin TV shows, or at least the seriousness of death itself within that series?
Lack of death: The faux drama situation
The Vampire Diaries‘s second season finale spent an entire hour dragging through a sweaty and fevered Damon, who was rotting away because of a werewolf bite… which normally would have been okay if it weren’t for the following two reasons. (1) It was the final episode, the penultimate episode was exceptionally better and thus the finale seemed anticlimactic; (2) his fever provided delusions and dreams that added absolutely nothing to the episode and as a whole were just distracting. True Blood spent its penultimate episode last season in a bottle situation where Sookie was “trapped” inside with Marnie and everyone was fighting for her survival outside. At one moment, the episode actually thinks you’ll believe Bill and Eric will take their own lives. Okay. Sure.
I spent 50 minutes watching people walk around while ultimately Sookie (and everyone else) was freed because — well, let’s just be honest here: because she won’t ever die. Come on.
Episodes like the aforementioned are what I like to call “faux drama” because we know none of it will ever happen. Countless shows get away with this faux drama by being entertaining in other shapes or forms within that same dramatic element. For example, Chuck’s life in Chuck may be in danger every, single episode but the campiness of that show allows for payoff in a comedic way.
When it comes to dramatic shows like True Blood and like The Vampire Diaries, which many times are only moving forward with only one ultimate consequence — death — it gets almost tiresome to watch the characters you know won’t die continue to be in an almost-death situation. In fact, it’s pointless.
Of course, there’s no way that will ever stop. Shows will continue to put their main characters in these situations without repercussions because it lends to the nature of their series. And, arguably, shows kill off major characters all the time. (UPDATE: Someone mentioned Two and a Half Men in the comments. It’s a show that killed off its main character and is continuing… and quite strong, ratings-wise. So can shows get away with it? Or just that special case?) Then again… do they really?
Killing them off: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Of the already-mentioned series, most have yet to kill off an original cast member. Chuck has never killed off a season regular. Fringe has never killed off an original character, either, beyond their alternate counterparts (and if you count William Bell as an original character). True Blood has never, ever killed off an original series regular (apart from Rene, who was truly the “who” in its first season’s whodunit) except for a possible fatality this past season finale, of course. All of these shows typically introduce new characters that are expendable and waste them off whenever the time is right, keeping the core group intact. Always.
And I don’t blame showrunners for that. Riding the fence between killing off an original character or not can be quite tricky. On one hand you want to prove that your show is dramatic and treats death seriously, that no one is safe, but on the other… well, you’ve got an entire fan base you’re probably alienating. The Secret Circle did this most recently by digging a shallow grave to an original character. Nick wasn’t just hiding along in B plot lines and in the shadows. No, he was a full-fledged character, one everyone was betting would be on the show for a long time to come. Apart from his apparently huge presence in the books from which the show is adapted, he was in every, single promotional media. But was it worth it?
Castle, a show that has a more fragile view of death than those listed here, killed off Capt. Montgomery in its latest season finale. In its second season penultimate episode, The Vampire Diaries killed off two-year series regular Sara Canning, who played Aunt Jenna, after what felt like fifteen minutes of her finding out Mystic Falls’ big secret — that vampires roam about. The former fit into a story in which Montgomery was tangled in a web of deceit while the latter felt, in my opinion, as if the writers didn’t know what to do with Jenna anymore.
So, should shows kill off original characters just because? Damages did it. In its season three premiere — the show flashes forward, it’s the nature of the series — it killed off original character Tom Shayes. And it did so because, as mentioned by the actor, the producers just thought it would be a cool twist. (Perhaps he was just expendable enough.) So, yes, I believe if there’s justification for it, you should off an original character. “Not knowing what else to write for him/her” may seem like an excuse, but at least it is one. Of course, I’d rather hear that any death is imperative in the storytelling of all or one of the other characters but… well, on a show like The Vampire Diaries, which lives off twists and gasps (and also killed off original character Vicki very early on), I’m not exactly expecting that. Though, there are some shows that use death as an actual tool and not just to throw you off your feet.
Veronica Mars‘s first season, and a chunk of the rest of the series, propelled from the death of Lily Kane. Albeit, Lily was not alive when the series started, but she sure was an original character and she had a scene in almost every episode that first season. Her death ousted Veronica and pigeonholed her as the outcast. How I Met Your Mother killed off Marshall’s father, revealed in a gut wrenching scene, that ultimately ignited Barney to find out the truth about his father. Heck, even The Secret Circle‘s early coffin for Nick paved the tone of that show.
The comeback twist: Ghosts
All that said, it’s obvious that killing off original characters comes with a price either way, whether they do or they don’t. But perhaps the worst is when death means absolutely nothing anymore.
It happened this summer on True Blood and it’s currently happening on this season’s The Vampire Diaries — the reason for this post entirely. Both shows have recently constructed arcs where ghosts are now part of their supernatural element. On True Blood, ghosts can actually possess people; on The Vampire Diaries, ghosts just recently were given the gift of… basically being alive, they can feel and be felt and seen. So what’s the point in death if you can be a ghost?
There isn’t one.
Death on shows like these isn’t just death, it’s finality. And once death becomes a nonissue then it remains that way, especially when the show thrives on death. In every episode of either True Blood or The Vampire Diaries, everyone is scared that they’re about to die all of the time. Why should they be scared anymore if they can just pop back up as a ghost and affect the physical world? Where is the gravitas in that? No where to be found.
The Vampire Diaries already had magic rings anyone could be wearing, but now do they really expect me to get invested when someone dies? Kevin Alejandro’s Jesús on True Blood said, verbatim, in the season finale: “Dude, I’m a ghost and you’re a medium; we’ll see each other again.” So why should I care that he died? In Ghost Whisperer, yes a show that was all about ghosts, Melinda’s husband Jim dies and then possesses someone else’s body… and he just stays in that body for the rest of the series. Not only did it invalidate his death but it ultimate changed every fabric of the show’s mythology (yes, the show had mythology). No ghost had possessed a vessel for that long before, so what was stopping any ghost from doing it again? What was the point of killing him off at all? (Then again, that was the highest rated season…)
Chuck has never had ghosts (that would be ridiculously out of place), but it has resurrected a couple of characters we thought were dead. Bryce, Chuck’s longtime friend turned enemy, was supposed to have died but came back contained in some oxygen tube; then, Chuck’s mentor turned enemy, was shot several times but returned thanks to organ regeneration — and that was a death many thought would stick. So many resurrections, so to speak, have made fans question any supposed impactful death. To this day, some fans believe Stephen Bartowski is still alive.
I understand that killing off characters provides drama one way or the other and that the lack of death on TV shows lends to pointless storyline at some point, but when ghosts come in to the equation that’s absolutely no dramatic element. That’s just for shock value when they return. And that’s fine, because I cheered for Anna and Vicki during the finale of Vampire Diaries and I was happy when Anna could “touch” Jeremy (because I love Anna, but that’s a personal issue). But at some point, it won’t be. And that point comes whenever the next big death arrives.
Death can either enhance storyline or be an excuse to rid a character, the lack of death can make for pointless drama that goes nowhere, and resurrection via ghosts removes the seriousness of any character’s expiration. So, why do TV shows do it?
I can’t honestly answer that question.
I know that in its final season, Chuck will put its characters in countless deathly situations where they’ll somehow, inexplicably survive thanks to some such coincidence. I know that Elena on The Vampire Diaries will somehow always be caught between a deadly creature and someone who wants to save her, winning out every time. But regardless, I don’t think that “ruins” the entire show, per sé. As mentioned, Chuck pays off in other forms and The Vampire Diaries does tend to kill off guest characters as much as it can. And that said, killing off characters isn’t want makes both, or all, shows enjoyable in the least.
For some shows, like Chuck, what makes it enjoyable is its chemistry and its ability to blend genres so uniquely it’s endlessly gratifying. For others, like The Vampire Diaries, it’s the twists and the gasps and the fast-paced storytelling. And many might agree that there’s also no point in getting heavily invested in characters just to see them die. After all, doesn’t verisimilitude dictate that the reason we’re watching this particular story (whatever story it is) is because these are the characters that could survive it all?
But even then, situations where we know characters aren’t going to die is moot both dramatically and with respect to my time as a viewer. And when shows decide to erase the integrity of death with resurrections just for the sake of thrills, well…
That’s a true detriment.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, if I didn’t mention a TV series: most likely, I haven’t watched that show, at least not enough episodes to warrant talking about it. For example, I’ve read about Supernatural‘s resurrection tendency (as I wrote below) but there’s absolutely no way I can base an opinion on secondhand information. That would be ignorant of me.