June 12, 2011, was a momentous day in TV history.
Ned Stark, the virtuous hero of Game of Thrones, had been gravely mistreated — imprisoned not for crimes he committed but for discovering the truth of the incestuous affair the queen was having with her twin brother. The queen's son, King Joffrey, unknowingly the product of that incestuous union, was to pass judgment on Ned.
Hoping to protect his daughter, who was intended to wed Joffrey, Ned agreed to plead guilty to treason and accept a lifetime's service with the Night's Watch, an organization dedicated to protecting the kingdom against supernatural threats from the far north. It was the queen's plan. All Joffrey had to do was sign off on it.
Anyone who understands how TV stories work believed they knew how this one would play out. See, one of Ned's sons was already part of the Night's Watch. Ned would accept his punishment and then go fight ice zombies with his kid. It would be perfect.
But things didn't work out that way. Joffrey had no interest in the deal his mother had struck. As the king, he wanted to show his strength. The executioner's sword swung, cleaving Ned's head from his body. The episode cut away right before the first spurt of blood.
And television changed. Maybe for the worse.
TV is drowning in cheap, sloppily executed deaths
The spring of 2016 has been marked by death after death after death on TV. Some have proved controversial. Some have passed without commentary. A couple have been largely applauded.
But the fact remains: TV is killing major characters at an astonishing rate. Vox's Caroline Framke painstakingly catalogued all the character deaths from the 2015-'16 television season (provided the dearly departed appeared in three or more episodes of their respective shows) and landed on over 230 — and because there are so many series now, it's entirely possible that number is off by a few.
But this is obvious even in smaller sample sizes. Consider the number of deaths on TVLine's yearly May sweeps report card, which tallies the deaths that happen just in May. In 2012 the number was 20. In 2016 it had nearly tripled to 57, while the number of overall scripted series increased from 280 in 2012 to 409 in 2015 — a hefty increase, but not nearly as big.
And if you're looking for an event that kicked off this massive increase, well, Ned's death is a good place to start. In my research for this story, I had dozens of conversations with people in the TV industry, and Ned's execution came up a lot.
There's a simple reason Ned's death made people lose their heads, even though the character dies in almost exactly the same fashion in the books the TV series is based on.
Even when there are best-selling novels to turn to, killing a protagonist was still a Rubicon that TV mostly hadn't crossed. Shows had killed off their protagonists before, but usually after contract disputes or in the series finale — not in season one, episode nine.
"I loved Ned Stark. I loved him in the novel. I loved him in the TV show. And when he died, it was horrifying. You had been groomed to believe that guy was the lead character in the show, and the one good and decent character in that show," veteran TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach told me. "It was the perspective-setting event for that series."
Before Ned, the closest TV had come to killing a protagonist under circumstances not related to an actor's contract or the end of a show was when Nate Fisher died with a handful of episodes left in Six Feet Under — but that was an ensemble drama, and he stuck around as an imaginary version of himself for the other characters to talk to.
The unprecedented nature of Ned's death likely led to another effect: It was arguably the moment when Game of Thrones made the leap from cult hit to sensation. Social media chatter went through the roof in the wake of the execution. Suddenly the show was drowning in YouTube reactions and tweets, in blog posts and Emmy nominations.
That's the allure of a TV death in a nutshell. It's why everybody in the industry keeps chasing it. It raises the show's dramatic stakes. It almost automatically creates lots of conversation. And when done well, it can take your show to another level.
"In this day and age, you have to do it just for the stakes, to say, 'We're playing for keeps,'" says Terry Matalas, the co-creator of Syfy's 12 Monkeys, which, as a time travel show, can always drop in on dead characters in the past. Later, thoughtfully, he adds, "I do wonder if you start to desensitize the audience to death [as a plot point]."
But if the spring of 2016 has proved anything, it's that most TV deaths aren't done well. Most are done poorly. And the medium is drowning in them.
"[Constant death] does become zapping the rat. You're doing it for shock value, even if what you're trying to convey is that everyone in this [fictional] world can die," Grillo-Marxuach says.
Making a death count takes time, care, and emotional investment
The problem with most TV deaths is pretty simple: They're frequently devoid of meaning, inserted into the plot only to create shock and boost a show's profile on Twitter.
Yet because of that all-but-guaranteed burst of buzz — and the continued success of death-heavy shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead — networks and showrunners keep pushing character death as a one-size-fits-all problem for dramas in trouble.
The word that kept coming up during my research is the one Matalas used: "desensitized" — as in, the more deaths people see on TV, the more difficult it is to make them feel anything other than dull apathy.
Obviously this is most true of shows where death happens almost as a matter of course. Both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have struggled with a desensitized viewership as their ensembles have been whittled down to a core group of characters who essentially need to survive for a while longer, as the series head toward their respective end games.
"The Walking Dead used to be the best suited to this, because obviously it makes sense to have characters die, but also it benefited from the turnover in its ensemble," says the Atlantic's David Sims1, a TV critic I know who's been particularly vocal about how unnecessary most TV death is. "But the problem now is it has this core of actually beloved characters and a lot of side characters. So it’s mostly offing these side characters. To me, it feels like the show is too fearful of killing off a big character except as some special event."
Sims and I worked together at the A.V. Club for several years.
Since it's hard to simply force audiences to care about the deaths of extreme supporting characters, both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have increasingly turned toward sensationalizing the deaths that do occur, making them bigger and bloodier, with mixed results.
The problem only compounds itself if you survey television as a whole. In isolation, a death that is adequate, though not particularly stirring, becomes harder to take when there's a whole wave of mediocre deaths around the programming grid. It gives off the appearance of a medium that's turning, increasingly, toward desperation.
"I hate the argument that the audience needs to understand that 'the stakes are high.' There are so few examples of actually important characters dying. When someone dies, it’s usually because they are expendable," Sims says.
So what marks a "good TV death"? I asked several showrunners this question, and while their responses varied, they all inevitably returned to one central idea: A good TV death has to feel somewhat inevitable in terms of where the character's journey has taken them. And that takes time and planning — and sometimes essentially saying the death is coming and there's nothing anybody can do to stop it.
"As a fan, I want to feel like a character's death isn't perceived as 'killing off.' Sure, the shock value can be awesome in the short term, but if you don't evoke some kind of emotion as a result of the death, you probably haven't earned it," says Lost and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof. "We spent an entire season foreshadowing, then explicitly stating, that Charlie would die [on Lost], but it still would've been meaningless if we didn't make his death count in some way. Mr. Eko's death was sloppy, emotionless, and unmemorable. We could've and should've done better."
Or at the very least, TV industry types say, the death should have some sort of weight or meaning to it.
"How does that death spin the rest of the story, and how does it impact the characters?" says Dave Erickson, the showrunner of Fear the Walking Dead, the much less death-heavy Walking Dead spinoff. "What I never want to do is have an obligatory death. ... 'Oh, it's the finale, so who's it going to be?'"
If nothing else, a death should have emotional resonance, says Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. On her show, which is a high-wire balance between soapy telenovela and heartfelt family drama, she tries to make sure each death both furthers the plot and changes the characters. If she feels it won't do that, the character lives.
"We always have a lot of discussions in the writers' room about if somebody's going to die; the feeling is it has to be processed by everyone," Snyder Urman told me.
But later, she added something that comes up all the time in these conversations: "It creates a tension in the narrative if the audience knows that a character could be killed. ... You're raising the stakes."
Why cheap death makes for cheap dramatic stakes
If you read a lot of TV criticism, you're aware of that word: stakes. The concept of stakes migrated from TV writers' rooms to criticism because it answers a useful question: What do we care about in this particular episode of television?
On a cop drama or a medical show, the answer is easy: Will the detectives or doctors solve the case of the week and save lives?
But as television becomes more serialized, that question becomes harder to answer. The case-of-the-week structure may have been formulaic, but it gave TV characters a constant replenishment of problems that needed solving. On a serialized show, giving viewers something to care about in any one episode usually involves tossing greater and greater obstacles into the characters' paths.
Now combine that idea with the notion that the highest possible stakes are life and death, and you have some sense of why TV writers too often turn to "The characters could die!" for an instant escalation of drama. And if characters don't sometimes die, the show's attempts to suggest life-and-death stakes become meaningless (or, as TV writers often call it, "schmuck bait," a term rooted in the idea that anyone who would buy the show actually killing such a character is a schmuck).
Yet this understanding of stakes can end up feeling a bit simplistic. If the worst thing that can happen to a character is that she could lose her life, then that character probably isn't terribly well-developed in the first place. Remember: Death on TV is most successful when it feels inevitable, like a crucial part of a character's journey, not something that just happens to them.
"A character death is the redemption of a ticket that you bought when you created the character," says Grillo-Marxuach. He later adds, "Are you honoring that character's existence in the show with a death that is dramatically relevant?"
Of course, it's much easier to create stakes that pertain to a character's physical body. Creating stakes that pertain to someone's mind or soul is inestimably harder, because it requires digging deep, creating great characters whose lives you care about so much that even if, say, they lose their job or a lover, you find yourself distraught.
Physical stakes also tend to be easier for an audience to glom onto. Consider, for instance, two of TV's best shows, a pair of cable dramas that lack the sorts of life-or-death stakes other shows have and are, thus, less watched.
Sundance's Rectify revolves around a murder, one that sent its protagonist to prison, but that murder is nearly two decades in the past. Yet its aftereffects still haunt the characters every day of their lives — especially the hero, who has to live with the knowledge that he might have committed the crime.
AMC's '80s tech industry series Halt and Catch Fire, meanwhile, has some of the highest dramatic stakes on television, even though it's unlikely to start axing characters left and right. Its characters all have dramatically different visions of what the future of computing might look like — visions that we, living in our hyperconnected future, can judge for their realism — and those differing ideas frequently bring them to loggerheads. But because you understand exactly why all the characters feel as they do, those fights have real punch and meaning behind them.
There's even a man who's built a whole esteemed career around the kinds of shows where characters rarely die: Jason Katims, whose NBC series Friday Night Lights and Parenthood utilize death here and there, but almost always in the way we experience it in our own lives — as an inconvenient intruder that takes those we love away from us.
On both shows, the focus is never on the actual moment of death, but instead on those left behind to mourn and question and feel sorrow. When a character in a Katims-scripted episode of Hulu's The Path commits murder, it splits his life in two — as it would for most of us.
In that way, then, maybe TV's spate of death is its own form of escapism. Most of us don't have lives filled with life-and-death stakes. Instead, we have lives where we worry constantly about, say, being valued at work or maintaining or saving relationships with family and friends.
TV often suggests that death is the worst possible fate that could ever befall someone, but we know from our own lives that this is not true. Certainly death is not something most of us would invite upon ourselves, but there are all manner of living hells that one can experience, even if it's just having to spend every day working a job you hate.
How the cheap TV death problem became a TV diversity problem, too
When I meet Grillo-Marxuach for coffee, I'm convinced he won't want to speak on the record. Though he's loquacious when it comes to talking about the state of the industry with other journalists or on his own blog, he's also the man who wrote the episode featuring arguably the most controversial TV death in years: that of The 100's Lexa, played by Alycia Debnam-Carey. (He wrote a little more about the episode here.)
Lexa proved just the latest of many, many lesbian characters to die on TV. Indeed, in our data set, fully 10 percent of all TV deaths were of queer women. That's a ton, considering how few LGBTQ women are on TV in the first place.
Lexa was killed under incredibly strained circumstances that involved her taking a stray bullet immediately after sleeping with the show's protagonist, rather than, say, dying gloriously in battle. Offscreen, Debnam-Carey had been cast in a full-time role on another series and could no longer commit to The 100. But fans still (justifiably, in my opinion) cried foul.
When I ask Grillo-Marxuach what happens when the needs of a story and the needs of society might diverge, he frames this time as a unique one in TV history, explaining that a most likely short-term movement he dubs the "age of death" — in which TV creators are exercising more and more freedom to shock viewers — has dovetailed with a hopefully longer-term movement toward greater diversity both onscreen and off.
The effect has been this: Straight white men might still die on TV (hi, Ned!), but the supporting characters who get the kinds of non-resonant deaths that cause fans to roll their eyes are much more likely to be women, people of color, or LGBTQ characters.
"The age of diversity in TV is coming whether people want it to or not," Grillo-Marxuach tells me. "That is not to say that every writers' room and every ensemble is going to have a representative of every group who finds the exact same things offensive that every member of their group finds offensive."
He points to himself. He's a Latino, but his Puerto Rican, middle-class background means he'd be as unlikely to understand the motivations of, say, Mexican gang members living in Los Angeles as any given white person.
And TV is still overwhelmingly produced by those who are straight, white, and male. Thus, most shows tend to gravitate toward series protagonists who are straight, white, and male — and who are still unlikely to die, Ned Stark be damned.
Plus, the kinds of shows on which characters die are generally dramas. In the US television industry, drama casts tend to be more diverse and less homogenous, because, broadly speaking, the vast majority of US dramas are workplace dramas (like any given cop show or medical drama), about characters forced to spend time together due to professional circumstances. And the workplace drama has always lent itself to the death of supporting characters. Once more supporting characters are played by diverse actors, it creates an environment where it increasingly seems like everybody but straight, white men dies.
In comparison, look at American TV comedy casting. It tends to be more homogeneous, because the predominant form is the family comedy. Thus, diversity in comedies often begins at the level of the premise. Nobody's worried about the safety of the characters on Fresh Off the Boat — where nearly all of the roles are played by people of Asian descent — because it's not the kind of show where characters routinely die.
The solution, then, isn't to stop killing off diverse characters entirely — there will always be situations that will require such a move — but rather to broaden the scope of roles a diverse character is allowed to play.
That will mean a continued move toward diverse comedies, certainly, but also more dramatic protagonists who don't fit the usual templates — and above all, more diverse voices behind the scenes, to guide those stories past potential land mines.
"It's not about bending over backward for political correctness. It's about having a certain sense of empathy. As writers, one of our gifts should be to create any number of narrative outcomes for a situation," Grillo-Marxuach says. "Though shocking and beguiling in its immediacy, death is not always the answer to a narrative problem."
What makes a good TV death? Here are two recent examples.
So after all that, why would TV writers even try to pull off a TV death? Two from recent months may point toward why writers keep hitting what Grillo-Marxuach sardonically calls "the death button."
Take one character whose death came up over and over again in my conversations: The Americans' Nina.
"[It] was about as perfect as they come," Lost's Lindelof told me. "Brilliant performance, direction, and writing, as shocking as it was inevitable. More so, it reminded us of the stakes for our heroes and played fair, if not brutal. Cold or not, every war has casualties, and this one haunted me."
The character, who had been sent from the Soviet embassy in Washington to a Siberian gulag after spying for the Americans in the show's first two seasons, found herself with a chance at freedom, thanks to the influence of the rich and powerful father of her lover, Oleg.
Yet Nina couldn't seem to stop putting herself in dangerous situations. She befriended a scientist named Anton, who had escaped to the US but was forcibly returned to the USSR, and helped him smuggle a message to his son, which ultimately sealed her fate and doomed her efforts to secure her release from prison.
In the fourth episode of the fourth season, after a short fantasy sequence that teased Nina's release, the character was deemed guilty of treason in a swift, jarring sequence that apexed with her being shot in the back of the head. Then the camera pulled back as her blood oozed onto the floor, and a cleanup crew arrived to ensure no sign of her remained. Life, dark and full of dead ends, went on.
"[Death] was the only place she could end up, but it was still surprising to me," recalls Jane the Virgin's Snyder Urman.
What's remarkable about Nina's death — and The Americans' treatment of death in general — is the way it suggests that death is almost a relief, a release from a life in which she had rarely controlled her own destiny. Her choice to help Anton contact his American son became her first act in ages that wasn't motivated by either her American or Soviet handlers. It was something she did because she knew it needed to be done, and because it was the right thing to do.
The result was that Nina's death marked not only the end of her life but also a moral victory of sorts. She died with a clear conscience, with a sense that she had repaid whatever debt she owed the universe, in some tiny form.
It also preserved the series' historical verisimilitude. Says Weisberg: "We've got this thing about the KGB and trying to keep them real in terms of that historical time period."
His co-showrunner, Joel Fields, adds: "In Nina's case, there was this very moving character transformation, but it came at a price. And it certainly was clear after all she had done, they weren't going to let her return to the United States."
The second Nina was sent to prison, there was little doubt as to how her story would end up. The fact that she was able to find some measure of inner peace before it happened made her death almost hopeful. But that makes sense. On a show that suggests life is an unending struggle, death isn't an antidote. It's a method of escape.
Then there's Norma Bates, the protagonist of Bates Motel. From the start, the series charted whether Norma could find a way to protect her psychologically damaged son, Norman. In so doing, she seemed only to doom him further. In the fourth season's penultimate episode, Norman filled the pair's house with carbon monoxide, killing his mother in her sleep, in a dreamlike, elegiac sequence set to the song "Mr. Sandman."
There are a number of reasons the sequence worked as well as it did, but chief among them was that the death had a dark inevitability to it. Even Bates Motel's most casual viewers would surely know that the series was a prequel to the film Psycho, and in that film Norman Bates's mother is a skeleton in his cellar. Thus, Norma always had an imaginary clock ticking away over her head.
Even though showrunner Kerry Ehrin knew Norma would have to die sometime during the show's run — and even knew from the first season on that it would come late in season four — she still bore some reluctance. And that reluctance may indicate why Norma's death resonated so much.
"I denied it. I pushed it away and didn't think about it. We wanted to tell a story where you would be on the ride with these two people, where you would be invested in what they wanted, where you would hope that their dreams were going to come true for them," she told me. "I've spent more time with Norma than I've spent with any friend in the last four years, and it was really hard to go, 'Well, now we have to kill her.'"
Bates Motel also benefits from the presence of a different "version" of Norma within its universe, in that Norman frequently hallucinates a different, much more villainous version of his mother. This will allow the series to keep actress Vera Farmiga around for the upcoming fifth season.
As Ehrin points out to me, the original novel Psycho features frequent conversations between Norman and his mother, which are later revealed to be taking place inside his damaged head. Bates Motel can adapt this idea directly where the film (which needed to preserve the "twist" of Mother being dead) could not.
"I feel like every time you kill someone on a show, especially about a serial killer, you take a little bit away from [its] power as a story," Ehrin says.
Yes, both Nina and Norma's deaths feel inevitable. But each also represents a different type of karmic retribution. On The Americans, Nina's death becomes a kind of small moral victory, an execution that suggests a life finally well-lived. But on Bates Motel, Norma's death arrives because she's unable to have her son committed and get him the help he needs. She makes the wrong choice, and she pays the price.
In real life, death has no morality. It comes for all of us, regardless of how good or bad we are. In a story, though, it can be used to suggest a kind of lesson. The subject of the lesson will differ from story to story. But what's important is that both The Americans and Bates Motel realized fictional death can have moral weight, something the constant race toward shock value can gloss over.
The stark divide between fictional death and real death
In all this talk of fictional death, it's easy to lose sight of something primal: In real life, death doesn't really work the way it does on TV.
I complained above about the randomness of fictional deaths that seem mostly thrown in to goose the storyline or provide shock value. But isn't this often how death hits us in our real lives? Someone makes a wrong turn, or a fault line slips. A plane's safety inspector misses something, or someone meets the wrong person at the wrong time. I could die writing this sentence. You could die reading this one.
Would these deaths be meaningful? Would they in any way provide the kind of moral reading of our lives we might want? Or would they, like so much else in life, prove ultimately empty?
It's possible that television's embrace of meaningless death is an attempt to suggest how trivial death can feel in an age when flying robots drop bombs on what too often proves to be the wrong target, where mass tragedies happen and then disappear from the headlines after a day or two.
Maybe all of TV's meaningless death isn't nihilism. Maybe it's just an attempt to see the world as it actually is, as a place where promising lives can be snuffed out at a moment's notice.
But death can be something else, something we rarely see in fiction. It can be quiet, small and sad and mottled, lives slowly seeping away on hospital beds. Death is rarely dramatic. It almost never has a lesson to impart. It just happens — either randomly or because time catches up with us all.
"Most of us don't experience death the way people do on TV," says Grillo-Marxuach, "which is they're hanging off of a cliff, and a train hits a guy, and the grenades go off, and you weep. Most people experience death through a phone call."
And some night your phone will ring, too, and it will be someone you love, telling you about someone else you loved. The d at the end will be new, the past tense a sudden, bracing reminder of how your life has changed. You can know it's coming, can pretend it's not a surprise, but it always is.
What we want, I think, is an acknowledgement that death — meaningful, meaningless, or otherwise — has weight to it, has significance. We want to believe that our fictional characters will be mourned, even if they died in a sudden, random accident, because we hope that we, too, will be mourned.
And that's what TV too often misses — the mourning. The loss. The sorrow. It exchanges that hollow, haunting feeling at the bottom of despair for something more shallow as it moves on to the next plot development, the next episode. It may feel exciting in the moment, maybe even kinda badass or cool. But it's ultimately without resonance. It's not death as we know it and as we fear it. It's just empty spectacle, just slaughter.
Vox Video: How a TV show gets made