Kill Your Darlings

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.  

Buffy’s Daughters

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the latest season of Teen Wolf (having sworn never to watch it again after the steaming turd that was Season 3A, but what can I say? The Olympics are giving my DVR an enema, cleaning out all the old shit I haven’t watched), which is going through its very own Dark Willow storyline in the form of trickster!Stiles. That, and the latest cover story in Entertainment Weekly, on the Veronica Mars movie, got me thinking about how many shows owe their existence and a huge debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the blueprint for supernatural and occult-influenced fantasy horror shows. If you’ll indulge me in a little pop culture riffing, I’ll share.

***Please note that the following contains mild spoilers for a host of television series, notably the most recent season of Teen Wolf. If you haven’t seen them and want to, tread carefully.***

While not the first television show to explore things that go bump in the night, Buffy weaves together the strengths of its predecessors without outright copying any of their elements, spinning these disparate strands into a strong, original yarn. Even The X-Files owes more to Kolchak the Night Stalker and the Twilight Zone than Buffy does to… well, to no television show I can think of. Buffy is a unique mix of  action, horror, mythology, pathos, and humor, subverting archetypes and promoting girl power while resonant with emotion. Buffy, the cheerleader-turned-chosen one, is the nominal star, but she’s supported by a true ensemble. Unlike most eponymous characters, she’s not the loss-leader in that she’s just as interesting as everyone else. These qualities, along with the season-long big bad structure and the light flirtation with camp, would go on to be mirrored in every supernatural show that followed.

And some where the only demons are of the metaphoric variety. That EW article reminded me that Veronica Mars was, like Buffy before her, a mean girl forced to go good because she no longer fit in with the Plastics of the world. Like in Buffy, Veronica’s best cases of the week illuminate something about the emotional struggles of one of the characters, most often Veronica herself. But Veronica does Buffy one better in that she is much more capable, competent, and confident in her abilities where solving mysteries is concerned. Her love life is just as much of a train wreck, and the consequences of some of her bad decisions – like the show itself – are a bit more real, if no less visceral. Joss Whedon was an avowed fan of Veronica Mars, which is no surprise, because it’s basically a love letter to him.

It’s one thing, though, to be inspired by Buffy and create a whole new world as a consequence; it’s another to copy the format and approach wholesale, making only superficial changes. Like the gender of the lead character(s). Yes, kids, it’s time to play Buffy But With Boys, AKA Smallville, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf.

I can’t say I was ever an avid watcher of the first two, but I was persuaded (some might say peer-pressured) by my two long-time friends N. and A. to give Teen Wolf a try. Of course, they dangled the promise of slash in front of my nose like the proverbial carrot – how could I be expected to resist? Unfortunately, the slashy couple in question, nicknamed Sterek, wasn’t of particular interest to me, but I found myself entertained by the show all the same. It’s a fascinating case study, since the show gets at least as many things wrong as right in any given episode, but is still fun and watchable.

If anything, the writers might want to learn a few more things from Buffy, such as writing genuinely strong female characters with agency. They also have this frustrating tendency to manipulate their characters to fit the plots they have outlined, as opposed to letting the plots be inspired by their character’s inner struggles and shortcomings. The current Dark Willow ‘homage’ storyline is the perfect example. In Buffy, Willow went over to the dark side for a host of deeply emotional reasons: her irritation at not being allowed to explore her powers to the fullest, her resentment towards Buffy, her fear of how much magical potential was inside of her, and, most heartbreaking of all, the murder of her lover, Tara. On Teen Wolf, Stiles is possessed by a nihilistic trickster fox spirit, but I can’t think of one concrete emotional reason why this would happen to his character, other than to give the cast’s strongest actor, Dylan O’Brien, a chance to shine. Which he does. The storyline is fun, and thrilling, and engrossing by turns, but it’s all glossy artifice. On Buffy, the Dark Willow storyline hurt viewers where we lived.

To my mind, the true successor to Buffy’s throne is… wait for it… Fringe. Yes, it started off as an X-Files rip-off. I actually remember saying to someone that I’d stopped watching the first season after a few episodes because “I’ve seen The X-Files.” But then, at the end of that first season, something curious happened. Fringe learned how to go deep. It began to mine and mine and mine its characters, all the while bedazzling us with some diamond-quality mythology and sci-fi gems. Olivia Dunham out-Buffy’d Buffy in terms of emotional isolation and willingness to sacrifice herself to the cause. Her doomed romance with John Scott was like a mini-Angel situation, with Peter later cast as a gloomier, but no less sarcastic meld of Spike/Xander. With her very own Scooby Gang around her, each member so unique that that’s really where the direct comparison with the characters on Buffy ends, Olivia, like her mother slayer before her, came to understand that she was, in her own way, a chosen one. Then Fringe took some basic Whedon tropes psychedelic, and blew everyone’s mind, with its alternate universes, dopplegangers, and Observers.

While too derivative to be a blueprint in its own right, Fringe went where no sci-fi action show had gone before, while never losing its emotional core. Just saying certain characters’ names makes my heart sigh: Lincoln Lee, Astrid, September, Walter. Oh, Walter! I can cite Fringe episodes that moved me to tears the same way that I know the names of the Buffy episodes that cut deep: “White Tulip” and “The Bullet That Saved The World” in the former, “The Body” and “The Gift” from the latter. In spirit and execution, Fringe is Buffy’s spiritual daughter.

There are countless other shows whose creators undoubtedly double-dipped in the Buffy, er, dip – True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Sleepy Hollow come to mind, and to a lesser degree Arrow. I keep hoping that one day an innovative showrunner will get the chance to bring his or her (preferably her) original spin on the action-horror genre to life, that someone will sketch a new blueprint for lesser shows to follow. Until then, I’m just grateful to have gotten in on the ground floor of Castle Whedonverse, when only the chosen few knew how special and how revolutionary their little show about a girl who slays vamps and saves the world a lot was.