One of the biggest trends in TV storytelling in the 2010s has been the rise of character deaths as a plot device. It had become so pervasive — and so ineffective — that I wrote an article attempting to diagnose the problem in 2016.
But something welcome has happened since I wrote that article. Certainly many, many shows are still killing off characters, but more major series are finding ways to extract drama from how there are fates worse than death.
Take, for instance, The Handmaid’s Tale, a series where death would be a release for almost any of the characters, many of whom are women kept alive solely to carry children and subjected to ritualistic rape on a monthly basis. Thus, the state does everything it can to keep them alive, and much of the show’s stark grimness stems from how life is almost always worse than death.
Similarly, Westworld — while it’s killed a handful of major characters — is set in a world where most of the characters are robotic hosts, whose consciousness can always be re-uploaded into a new body, or whose cybernetic bodies can always be repaired, so their minds can be wiped and they can be subjected to ever more horrors. In some sense, then, the hosts, who are slowly but surely becoming aware of their situation, long for death, which would make them more human, on some level.
And then there’s The Americans. Spoilers for the show’s series finale follow.
The Americans defied expectations for what happens in a final episode
The Americans has not been averse to killing off major characters over the course of its run. Among others to have died are the Russian double agent Nina (killed early in season four) and FBI boss Frank Gaad (killed late in season four). But the longer the series ran, the more its core cast whittled down to a handful of characters. Practically speaking, it would have been very hard for the show to kill off any of the characters without fatally unbalancing the show.
But as the show approached its series finale, surely, the predictions suggested, some of the characters would die. Whether it was spy daughter Paige, or Soviet politico Oleg, or handler Claudia — or Philip or Elizabeth Jennings — the series would show the human cost of espionage and the Cold War by having one of the characters pay with their life. Even I, someone who finds most death on TV cheap, figured the series wouldn’t dare exit its final season without killing off one of the regular characters.
And, yes, the show’s final season had a high body count, mostly of characters who were unfortunate enough to come in contact with Elizabeth when she was on a mission, collateral damage in the seemingly unending war between US and USSR. But the final season’s most notable death — in terms of a character who’d appeared in multiple episodes, across multiple seasons — was Soviet Rezidentura worker Tatiana, who was working with forces within the KGB hoping to carry out a coup against Gorbachev. Tatiana was killed by Elizabeth in the midst of an attempt to assassinate a Soviet diplomat, in the series’ penultimate episode.
But when it came to the above-the-title stars, everybody lived. Philip and Elizabeth escaped to the Soviet Union. Their children, Paige and Henry, stayed behind in the United States, Paige by choice and Henry without realizing what was going on until it was too late. Their FBI agent neighbor and friend Stan Beeman let Philip and Elizabeth escape, even after he’d finally obtained a confession from them that they were spies. Oleg rotted away in an American prison, Claudia simply left, and FBI agent Aderholt cracked the case — too late.
And yet from reading that paragraph, I hope you can see that none of these characters got what amounts to a “happy” ending. Yes, Philip and Elizabeth return to their home country (and save the world in the process, by providing proof of the coup against Gorbachev), but they are without their children, and their marriage has never been on shakier ground. What’s more, they’re in a country they no longer recognize, that is rapidly Westernizing and will soon see its system of government crumble in favor of something ostensibly more capitalist — that eventually devolves into the authoritarian Russian government of today.
Similarly, Paige is on her own, having essentially admitted to treason to Stan and now living without identification or a means of obvious survival. Henry has to live, forever, with the betrayal of his parents and the fact that they didn’t even try to bring him with them. If either child gets to see their parents again, it won’t be for many, many years — if ever.
Stan and Aderholt have to live with having overlooked obvious arrests right under their noses, and Stan will have the added sorrow of suspecting, forever, that his wife Renee might be a spy. (Philip suggested as much on his way out the door, but also admitted he wasn’t sure.) What’s more, Stan has lost his best friend. Without Philip, he won’t have a sympathetic ear outside of the bureau.
And then there’s Oleg, who will miss his son growing up and be cut off from his family, potentially until he dies, all because he tried to do what he thought the right thing.
These are all slow-motion tragedies, some more overt than others. They carry with them the momentary respite that comes from knowing you survived to fight another day, but surviving also means confronting all the issues you might have thought better buried. I don’t want to oversell the tragedy of the show’s ending. There is a stark romanticism to some of it (particularly when it comes to Philip and Elizabeth’s survival together), but even the “happier” endings come with a great cost, what co-showrunner Joel Fields dubbed to me “story karma.”
This strikes me as truer to the way we actually live than the constant stream of big deaths on shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Yes, life-or-death stakes can have a visceral, straightforward quality to them that is hard to overlook, especially in heightened settings like a fantasy kingdom or the zombie apocalypse. But there are fates worse than death, as Oleg could tell you, and lives that can be happy here and there but are still lived with that hint of melancholy of what once was but is no longer, as everybody on the show could tell you.
It’s easy to think of death as offering a TV series the ultimate stakes — and sometimes it does. But TV is often about finding ways to prolong sadnesses, to draw them out and play them back in slow motion. That is where series like The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld and The Americans can influence a new generation of showrunners, who understand that death is always a period or an exclamation mark, but life is lived amid commas and semicolons, a sentence we can never quite know the length of. That can be its own sort of prison.