Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”
Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)
The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.
A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.
A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:
There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.
And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.