How do we react when a beloved TV character is killed off … aka why Matthew Weiner, why?

“I FELT a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
It’s the classic quote from Obi-wan Kenobi as the destruction of Alderaan ripples through the Force in Star Wars.
And yet, is not a similar disturbance on the interwebs felt with the sudden death and downfall of every great TV character?
Certainly the Twittersphere is up in arms over the fate of a certain character in last night’s Mad Men.
Which raises the question: what do we do when someone whose adventures we have followed for years – devoting precious hours and binge-marathons to – is suddenly killed off?
It’s not like any modern viewer is going to weep any tears for the fate of Old Yella or Lassie. Those old shows were too sentimental and cornball for modern tastes to take seriously. They’re almost laughable, really, an excursion in kitsch.
Yet there is a certain amount of trauma involved when heroes and heroines we’ve invited into our living rooms – and spent many a rainy day or long afternoon getting to know – disappear from our modern screens.
These characters become more than mere pixels on the screen: they become real in a way. At least, the emotions they evoke are real. And we, in turn, become invested in their fates.
We know from long experience not to get too close to any character from Game Of Thrones. Go to one Red or Purple Wedding and you know someone is going to cop a crossbow bolt/knife to the throat/poisoned chalice. Sometimes it’s King Joffrey (yay!). And other times it’s Robb and Catelyn Stark (why, George RR, why?).
But the Mad Men one hits you right where it hurts because it’s so unexpected.
Yet perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. When a major character dies, it just goes to show the stakes involved … that this is serious, people. As serious as real life. To believe that fictional characters never die is perhaps to believe in the prolonging of adolescence: to put off the grim realities of adulthood, to believe that Lassie or Skippy or Flipper or the Lone Ranger always arrive in the nick of time to save the day.
Yet if our appetite for the grittier series and boxsets has proved anything, it is that we as an audience are ready and hungry for more adult drama.
If there is one objection I have to the excellent Avengers movies, it is this: you just know none of the major characters will ever be killed. In a way, that actually lowers the stakes, despite the Avengers fighting to save the world from angry Gods or even angrier robots.
Yes, there is something reassuring in knowing the outcome beforehand, flipping the Doors’ lyrics of “no one here gets out alive” to “everyone here gets out alive for the sequel and their own stand-alone movies”. But as we all know, that’s not how real life works.
In contrast, all of the top tier HBO shows – The Sopranos, Game Of Thrones, True Blood – feature major character deaths.
And the writers usually do their best to soften the emotional blow. After all, they’re emotionally invested in the characters, too. As a fellow writer, I understand how writers can become attached to their creations. In a way, their lives become our lives. We imagine what they say and do, their words and actions coming to us at all hours of the day. They become our friends and confidantes. Fictional characters can sometimes occupy as much headspace as a treasured friend.
And no one wants to kill a treasured friend.
Speaking of insensitivity, one can’t go past the callousness of the 1986 film, Transformers: The Movie. Toymaker Hasbro was keen to finish off the old line of Transformer toys and usher in a new line, so the movie was used to introduce a new collection of Transformers – as well as violently kill off a whole bunch of established characters/toys, including Optimus Prime. Naturally, the tots and young adults who had invested so much time and emotion in Optimus Prime and co were horrified.
It was the toyetic equivalent of the Red Wedding.
Personally I think the best way to end a TV show that potentially features the death of major characters is to be ambiguous. For example, I love the much-derided ending of The Sopranos. Now I can go back and watch the whole series again, believing that Tony lives at the end.
I even like to kid myself when it comes to classic movie endings. For example, I like to think Thelma and Louise survived at the end when they drove into the Grand Canyon. You don’t see the crash: maybe they landed on a ledge or something? Maybe?
Same thing with Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Perhaps Paul Newman and Robert Redford aren’t killed by the Mexican army? Maybe they just get winged. After all, you don’t actually see them get shot – there’s that little wiggle room in the imagination for other outcomes.
But back to last night’s shocker.
Perhaps George R.R. Martin was right when he wrote “valar morghulis”.
All men must die.
And occasionally major characters must die, too.
And perhaps that’s how it should be in the world of adult drama.

My military ebook thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

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