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When your favorite character dies…

Posted on October 30th, 2015
Posted on October 30th, 2015

by Coop Cooper

It’s a powerful phenomenon when a character, whom people spend so much time reading about or watching on TV or in a movie franchise, dies. Fans of the popular series “The Walking Dead” received a stark reminder this past Sunday that no character is safe when one of the ‘untouchable’ characters died a sudden and gruesome death. The internet erupted with curses and exclamations of disbelief. Chris Hardwick, host of the live post-broadcast show, “The Talking Dead” seemed genuinely shocked and nervously excited as he talked to his guests about what had just transpired. It would appear we have entered into an era of entertainment where protagonists can be killed off often and without warning.

This isn’t exactly new but the frequency of it seems to have escalated. In the past, shows would rarely kill off a character – usually during a season finale – to punctuate an emotional turn for the show, to reboot the show completely in the following season or simply to eject a troublesome actor. Children of the 80’s may remember the killing off of Valerie Harper’s character in the show “Valerie” which then became “Valerie’s Family”, then “The Hogans” after Harper sued over the use of her name, then finally “The Hogan Family” before it was cancelled (that’s a lot of rebooting!). In the past, killing off a main character often tolled the death knell of a series, a calculated move that ended up unintentionally alienating the fans. Heck, even Stephen King wrote an entire book about the dangers of killing off a popular character in his novel “Misery”.

People actually mourn fictional characters. It sounds loony, but there is a level of intimacy gained when reading about (or watching) a likable character go through both great joys and extreme hardships. One may mourn even more so when a villain finds their heart and performs one great sacrifice in an attempt to make things right (Darth Vader, anyone?). Does it make a series/franchise/show better? Not always, but if the death is meaningful, it has the most power. Shows like “The Walking Dead” in which survival is the primary objective of the narrative are given more license to kill characters indiscriminately but the law of the ‘meaningful death’ still applies. When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” killed off security chief Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) early in the series, it was due to Crosby’s personal dissatisfaction with the show, but the death seemed abrupt and out-of-place, irritating fans. It would seem that Crosby later regretted her decision, returning in guest spots as writers found ways to temporarily work her back in. Regardless of whether her departure was good for the show in the long run, her death has always been referred to as “meaningless” by her crew mates in the following seasons. Luckily for Crosby, she is still warmly received by fans at conventions.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling frequently expresses regret for being so cruel to her characters. She has talked publicly of her own mourning after killing off Fred Weasley, Sirius Black, Lupin and Tonks, among others. In what seems almost like apology letters, she teases (tortures?) her fans by publicly lamenting what could have happened if she had spared them and killed off others. While this might give her fans mixed feelings, it seems to have re-awakened Rowling’s interest in the “Wizarding World” and she has launched new projects involving the “Harry Potter” franchise as well as hinting at some sort of resurrection of the books.

As for that apparently deceased character in “The Walking Dead”, fans already have doubts as to whether a trick in photography made us believe we saw something happening that was not. Even on “The Talking Dead”, the character was not listed in their usual “In Memoriam” segment, nor did the actor appear on the talk show as-per-usual when one of the characters kicks the bucket. Showrunner Scott Gimple added further fuel to the fire by posting a message indicating that they aren’t quite through with the character… whatever that means. I do know that after this high-profile death scene, some fans have publicly vowed never to watch the show again.

The takeaway here is that sometimes they are gone for good, but sometimes creators just can’t keep a good character down. There is always a dream sequence, long-lost twin or shameless resurrection they can pull off to give that character a second life. All you have to do is look at comic books to realize that neither good guys nor bad guys ever truly stay dead, but a good fan must always have a strong constitution… For instance, when “Captain America: Civil War” comes out next summer, it is rumored that not all of The Avengers will come out unscathed.

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