(Spoilers ahead for a slew of television shows; proceed with caution!)
A television show represents a fictional world, an escape from the drama that surrounds us in our real lives. Instead of dealing with our relationship problems, we discuss which brother Elena Gilbert should choose on The Vampire Diaries. And instead of reflecting on our own issues, we get lost in Walter White’s downfall or Olivia Pope’s family drama. Typically, these fictional worlds represent a more extreme universe than the one in which we live, and therefore a more exciting one. Most of us don’t have a meth cartel breathing down our necks or a father who runs a secret government spy organization. So every week, we turn on our televisions, and we put aside our boring drama to see what’s going to happen next to our fictional best friends, many of whom we invest real emotion in. And that’s the very reason why killing a main character leaves such an impact on viewers, because in a very real way, we lose a best friend (or at the very least, a piece of eye candy), and we then have to watch as our other friends grieve.
No, it’s not comparable to losing someone in real life, but killing a main character is still the most upsetting, most powerful card a show can play. Character deaths and the impact they leave, if done right, can lead to some of the best moments in television history. And there’s a variety of ways a show can make that mark. It can catch you by surprise and have a schizophrenic patient take the life of a young doctor, like when E.R. lost its beloved Lucy, or it can have a car accident ruin everything, much like Downton Abbey did with Matthew or The O.C. did with Marissa. Or a character can be taken from us by force (see Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding or The Sopranos‘ Adriana). Then you have the longer, more drawn-out goodbyes. The character who gets cancer and says farewell to everyone they love, much like Jen on Dawson’s Creek or Bobby’s hospital goodbye on NYPD Blue after his body rejected a heart transplant.
If none of those work, there’s the character who sacrifices their own life to save the life of another, much like Charlie on Lost or George on Grey’s Anatomy. And don’t forget the deaths that appear as if from nowhere — the bat to the back of the head that killed Southland‘s Nate or the grocery store robbery that took Simon on The West Wing. No matter how a character is killed, the event and its aftermath greatly affect the formula of the show, not to mention the viewers’ emotional state. So what happens when the element of death is eliminated? How is a show affected when it loses the greatest trick up its sleeve?
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