When Death is Part of the Plan

There was a time when character death on an ensemble television series meant one of two things: either the actor had run out his or her contract, or was getting pink-slipped for all to see. Think of Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the show's seven-year run, no other major character was killed, even as redshirts kicked the bucket left and right. This used to be the norm. But as ensemble television matures, character death has become more normal -- and even desirable.

Lori Grimes' recent death on The Walking Dead has nothing to do with actress Sarah Wayne Callies, and that makes a lot of sense. From Amy's sudden death in Season 1, The Walking Dead made it crystal clear the "dead" part isn’t metaphorical. This show, like its comic-book source material, is about loss, and that means that survivors will regularly kick the bucket in horrible and unexpected ways.

The Walking Dead is a rule-breaker in that sense. The New York Times explored character death in a recent article, and The Walking Dead came up as an exception to the commonly held notion that fans will go into a frenzy when their favorite character dies. (Consider the backlash triggered when HBO’s Game of Thrones beheaded Sean Bean’s poor Ned Stark, just as George R.R. Martin had written in the novel.) Heroes "killed" and revived so many characters that it was impossible to remember who was still alive and kicking. Oddly enough, Sarah Wayne Callies' character on Prison Break was bumped off following a contract dispute, and later revived in part due to fan pressure.

The only series that comes close to The Walking Dead's fascination with death is Battlestar Galactica. Like The Walking Dead, BSG characters are all survivors of a catastrophe; the head count of survivors even shows up at the beginning of every episode. Like the "walkers," BSG’s Cylons look human, and could be hiding nearby at any moment (or even lurking within you, if you are a sleeper). Both shows deal with the line between life and death. For Cylons, death means getting downloaded into a new body. On The Walking Dead, death means rising as a monster, unless someone intercedes with a bullet, arrow or knife to the head.

The principal human characters are drawn together by their desire to stay human, and to preserve the last shreds of humanity that they have. Losing those characters one by one (Elosha, Billy, Ellen, Cally, Dee), and memorializing them on the Galactica, gave meaning to the quest for survival. Even Kara Thrace's death, though temporary and incredibly confusing, made survival seem more important to major characters who had almost given up the fight.

There has been a lot of senseless killing in America in the past decade, even more in the past year. As a culture, we need to talk about the many ways to cope with sudden loss. Storytelling is one way to do that. Watching characters on television experience death, even violent, senseless death, can open up a conversation among fans. I disagree with The New York Times' assertion that fans tend to react antagonistically to characters' deaths. While I know that I have reacted poorly in the past, I look back on those moments and think about how my friends and I were able to go through the catharsis of loss with characters on TV. As the repercussions of Lori Grimes' death play out over the next season of The Walking Dead, fans will, if nothing else, have something to talk about.

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