In the first five minutes of The Leftovers, Justin Theroux’s character jogs along the road when he spots a dog in the middle of the street and stops running to kneel down and pet the friendly pup. Aw, we say, what a sweet moment. Then, within seconds, boom: Someone shoots the dog dead. Thanks, HBO.
TV shows love killing dogs: There’s that Leftovers dog-murder that turns into a dog mass murder at the pilot’s end, there’s Frank Underwood strangling a hurt dog to its death in the House of Cards pilot, there’s Family Guy‘s Brian. To showrunners, dogs are just objects that prove a point about a character or a situation. To dog-lovers, these deaths are enough to start a full-fledged sobfest.
Sure, human deaths on TV are tough. I won’t deny that I cried for, oh, several minutes too many following Nate’s funeral on Six Feet Under or that I ran out of tissues when Grey’s Anatomy lost George. But dog deaths are a different animal. Dogs are so innocent! They have no control over what happens to them! How can you not burst into tears when one meets its end on TV?
After recently losing a family dog, I became just a tad more sensitive regarding dog deaths than usual. So when, not long after finding out the news, I watched my first ever episode of Peep Show and it turned out to focus on one of the main characters accidentally running over a love interest’s dog, I was horrified. Then, a week later, when I watched the second episode of Game of Thrones that ended with Ned Stark killing a direwolf offscreen as we heard the animal’s last squeals, I was horrified. Soon after, The Leftovers premiered with its casual dog murder, and, again, I was aghast (and also considered giving up on TV forever).
Most of the time, dog deaths make sense in the context of the show: As a comedy, Peep Show gravitates toward the ridiculous, and what’s more ridiculous than watching a character nibble on a dead dog’s leg in an attempt to convince its owner that it’s just some barbecue? In House of Cards, Underwood strangles an injured dog right before our eyes to show us (effectively) what kind of person he is. Meredith and Derek standing over Doc, their shared dog, before he gets put to sleep symbolizes the couple’s dying relationship. I can appreciate (and in Peep Show’s case, hesitantly giggle at) the points these shows are making. I just would rather see them made in different, less depressing ways.
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon commented on how audiences reacted to that dog scene in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year. “The double standards are laughable,” he said, “People had no problem seeing on House of Cards some of the ways people behaved emotionally or physically violent to one another. But we killed a dog in the first 30 seconds and people freaked out.” He has a point — it is laughable how we are so often fine with, and in some cases are able to rejoice over (King Joffrey, anyone?) human deaths on TV. It’s weird. And then the minute a dog is sacrificed, we’re all crybabies.
Dogs are easy to feel sad over though, because most of us have never been wronged by one. They wag their tails and play fetch and act happy to see us after long days. They unconditionally love us, which makes it easy for us to unconditionally love them. And then Damon Lindelof and Shonda Rhimes and Willimon have to go and kill them. So showrunners? Find new ways to expose a character’s morals or mirror a failing relationship that don’t involve dead canines. The dogs of the small screen (and overemotional viewers) will thank you.