To paraphrase an old writers’ adage, “Give ’em what they need, not what they want.” It’s the writers’ version of “Eat your vegetables,” except the results should be far more delicious than nutritious. I was reminded of this multiple times this week, which saw the deaths of four major TV characters, with varying results. In all but one instance, these characters were either women and/or from a minority that often has trouble getting authentic representation on television. And, frankly, it has to stop.
***The following post contains MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS for the most recent episodes of The Good Wife, Teen Wolf, Hannibal, Scandal, Person of Interest. Seriously, if you haven’t seen those shows and want to, DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS. ***
Until last night, this post was going to bemoan the constant and incessant killing of female characters in shows populated mostly by men. And we’ll definitely get to that! But then The Good Wife aired one of the most audacious episodes of television in my long history of viewing, one which completely exploded its narrative and leaves us with a show where three of the four major leads are women. So, it can be done, and done well. But let’s go back to the writers who get it so wrong.
I’m not someone who thinks character deaths should never happen, but I also don’t think they need to happen. Action and supernatural shows will obviously have a higher body count than workplace dramas. The Sopranos will always put down more characters than Mad Men. Shows like Game of Thrones and 24 have made cottage industries out of the question, “Who will die?” But none of these shows have treated death like a game. Each and every character lost had resonance, both to viewers and within the narrative. It was, quite simply, the story that needed to be told.
When Person of Interest killed the only black female character on its whitewash of a show, was that a story that needed to be told? When Scandal – a show, it should be said, redolent with women and people of color – killed its one openly gay character, was that a story that needed to be told? How about Hannibal, on which the brilliant Asian female doctor makes a typical ‘dumb girl in a horror movie’ decision and ends up (possible) cannibal fodder, whereas her two white male lab tech colleagues are allowed to be brilliant without being stupid. They really couldn’t have gotten rid of that guy who isn’t Scott Thompson? (I would never be so gross as to suggest they off a former Kid in the Hall.) Oh, and let’s not forget that Lawrence Fishburne is likely a goner by season’s end.
But these decisions, the writers of these shows argue, aren’t arbitrary. You can’t kill characters the audience doesn’t care about. Right. Because the audience doesn’t care about the white male characters on these shows at all. And these white male characters that no one in the audience cares about aren’t being kept on the show for reasons like, oh, the primarily female audience is more interested in having them around to stoke their fantasies and ship their romantic entanglements. If even one white male character is killed, they might actually lose viewers. It might re-write the very nature of the show. Or, you know, they might have to write storylines in which these women and minority characters are independent from their male counterparts, have agency, and drive the action. Now that really would be a scandal.
Exhibit A (and isn’t it always): Teen Wolf. This was Allison’s final season, though you would have never known it, since she was made completely redundant after years of waffling between Buffy-manqué and back-burner love interest. Her final episode was the most ham-fisted, last-minute fix-up I’ve ever seen, giving her the lamest post-coital banter in the history of television and a heart-to-heart with her dad that so obviously telegraphed her death, the special effects team might as well have painted a bull’s-eye on her forehead in post. I felt exactly zero ounces of sadness at her death because I had guessed at the beginning of the season that it was going to be her. From a writing standpoint, the choice makes sense: she was a cypher on the show where she was the female lead. They brought in a character so glaringly positioned to replace her that they actually had them team up in the episode prior to her death. But this was a failure in the writers’ room.
It’s not like Allison never had potential. She has a family with a long and twisted history. Her mother died during her formative teenage years. Her boyfriend was a goddamned werewolf, for Pete’s sake! But in the end, like in every episode of the show, she lived and died for Scott. God forbid she become a better hunter, tracker, fighter than the male lead. That she become better at deciphering some of the mythological lore than Stiles. That she genuinely oppose the supernatural beings on the show and maintain that stance, even while loving them as her friends, causing a downward spiral that permanently affects the character. They flirted with these ideas, but television is always about bringing your plot and your characters back to the status quo, and so Allison, at the moment of her death, even though in recent months she’s had stronger relationships with both her father and Isaac, declares her love for Scott. Kind of fitting, really, since no matter what she did, it always brought her back to him.
The big bait-and-switch of the season, of course, was the writers’ flirtation with killing Stiles. I agree with the general consensus that killing Stiles would spell the end of the show; he’s one of those characters, like Sawyer on Lost and Eric on True Blood and Roger Sterling on Mad Men, that you just can’t kill without totally losing your audience. Interesting how those invaluable characters are almost always male characters. On Teen Wolf, killing Stiles would be catastrophic, mostly because of the actor’s popularity and talent, and the fact that he’s the one character on the show written with any consistency. But what if, say, they killed Scott. Could the show go on without its titular teen wolf? Survey says… yes. Right? Because there are a host of male characters waiting to take his place. The show could become about Stiles, or Derek, or Isaac (with a lot of adjustments), or the Twins. Hell, even Papa Argent and Sheriff Stilinski. No one would need to be brought in to replace Scott. But the show is so low on female characters that they did have to replace Allison. We’ll see if Kira gets anything to do next season, her first non-kitsune season, other than be Scott’s girlfriend.
So why can’t more shows take risks like that? Why can’t more shows give us what’s good for us, narratively, rather than what we want? Why can’t shows rely on expertly written and beloved female characters to carry a show’s drama, saying something about modern women that has little to do with the men in their lives?
This is where I was going to leave you (ish), but then The Good Wife killed Will Gardner.
Who was an amazing character, having an exceptional season. It was the gut punch to end all gut-punches, and this morning, everyone is moaning and wailing about never watching the show again, as usual. I may be in the minority, but I *want* to watch dramas that shock me to the core. That challenge me, that rivet me, that make me so insane that I stay up way too late trying to come to terms with what just happened, and the next day still feel a little fuzzy and shaken. Episodes that make me put sun tan lotion on my toothbrush and almost feed my dog a can of tomato paste (true story) because I’m still sunk in. Episodes like “The Body” on Buffy, “Home” on The X-Files, “The Red Wedding” on Game of Thrones, and “Commissions and Fees” on Mad Men, to name just a few (I would add last year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special, but not even I think we should have had to deal with that crap at Christmas. Mary is better off, though!). I want to be gut-punched. I want to bleed. I also want the writers to earn it. Here, they definitely did.
The most vocal and insistent protest in the aftermath of Will’s death is that the show has jumped the shark because there will be no HEA for Will and Alicia. Never mind that Alicia had her chance for that HEA and chose to start her own firm, launching a Molotov cocktail into Will’s heart, at the beginning of this season. Never mind that they have been bitter, volatile rivals for the better part of the last 10 episodes. Never mind that the entire premise of the show is Alicia’s struggle to define and discover herself beyond the crushing legacy of her husband’s betrayal. The only way that was going to be possible, apparently, was if she found happily ever after with Will and fell back into another white picket fence scenario – or maybe here it would have been dual managing partnerships at their very own firm.
Newsflash: Alicia exists beyond her relationship with Will. Or with Peter. Or with Cary. Or with anyone, really. The central question for the character and of the entire show was asked of Alicia by another high-powered female character last week: “What do you want?” Who does Alicia want to be? How will she become that person? How does she deal with the obstacles put in her way – the assumptions about her character, the restrictions on her based on those assumptions? That is what has kept me enthralled with The Good Wife all these years, and the thought of her and Diane and Kalinda carrying the show through the rest of the season and beyond thrills me to the core. Finally, a team of writers willing to see beyond the shipping and the traditional ‘will they, won’t they’ romance storyline. Finally, a show willing to sacrifice a male lead to see what the strong, complex, vital female characters will do in the future.
Goodbye, Will Gardner. I loved you. So did Alicia. But she’s so much more interesting now that you’re gone.
Television would be so much more interesting, and diverse, and rich, and messy, and complicated, and must-see, if more writers were willing to feed us our vegetables and kill our darlings.