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April 13 2009

(SPOILER) Death Becomes Them: The Role of Character Deaths in Television. Televisionary talks to Jane Espenson about how dying is depicted in TV shows, and how some characters' deaths are "earned." Recent developments in "House" and "Desperate Housewives" are mentioned - so avoid if you're a fan, spoiler-averse, and behind on those shows . . .

Oh. Not. Going. There. About. Earned. :-)
A spoiler warning for House might be appropriate.
Agreed. That article is rather spoiler heavy for both House and Desperate Housewives (even though, according to them, everyone knew that one before it even happened).

I don't know how I feel about character deaths being "earned." To me, that somehow carries a negative weight. Like the character or audience has somehow done something to deserve them being killed off. I do, however, agree with Jane in that it does all lie in the execution. Nothing unsettles me more than when I see an ad spot for a show promoting the impending death like... "SOMEONE'S NOT MAKING IT OUT OF THIS ONE ALIVE!!!" Complete with quick montage shot of the cast in perilous situations and dramatic music in the background. Blah.
as far as "earned," Jane is clearly referring to whether the writers/showmakers "earned" the death -- was the work done to make the death ultimately believable in its, um, "execution" and in its after effects. She is not talking about whether a character "deserved" it. This is a common usage in discussing story. For a similar usage, it comes up in commentary on "earning" Buffy's return from death: Joss and co. needing to not seem like they just brushed over the momentousness of this event on Buffy's psyche as well as the other characters.
Like the character or audience has somehow done something to deserve them being killed off.

I think the idea is that the writers earned the death of the character.

Nothing unsettles me more than when I see an ad spot for a show promoting the impending death like... "SOMEONE'S NOT MAKING IT OUT OF THIS ONE ALIVE!!!"

Yeah, I completely agree. I saw the ad for the House death just last week and said the same thing to my housemate. But she said 'nah, it makes me want to watch it'. To me surprise really is important.
What doubtful guest said.

As always Jane is articulate and insightful. I also appreciated having the difference pointed out between an "earned' death (one that makes sense in the context of the story arc) and the cheap "promotional" death.
Unfortunately, there's some overlap there, because the writers write and the networks promote.
That was a crazy spoiler-heavy article for House and Desperate Housewives, and T:TSCC in the comments. That would have been nice to know before clicking the link...
I love the notion that death has become cliché. How can dying be a cliché? Isn't it kind of something we all need to do, perhaps?

I think it can be just as powerful if a death is sudden and comes out of nowhere as when it's earned- but it does need to be done right, even then- completely shocking and brutally.
"Like almost everything, it's about the execution."

I like how Jane Espenson always gets right to the point.
I think it can be just as powerful if a death is sudden and comes out of nowhere as when it's earned- but it does need to be done right, even then- completely shocking and brutally.

But even then, it can be earned after-the-fact, in the way it affects the other characters' lives.
I think that Silv has a good point about how the thing itself can't really be cliché, but the way it's handled in most media is almost always surrounded by clichés. It's like sex, in that it appears almost everywhere (because it's so relevant to life in general), but it's rare to see it portrayed with genuine originality and insightfulness.
I think that's partly because telling a good story about a death is quite different to what a death is actually like so capturing the truth of it is extremely difficult (and it's also largely not something most people want to hear, certainly not something we want to see in escapist fiction - in that we want to be told that deaths are meaningful and make a difference, we want to see death as part of a story). Broken record time but that's what makes 'The Body' so amazing - it's almost exactly what a death is actually like, it really does capture the truth of it IMO.

But even then, it can be earned after-the-fact, in the way it affects the other characters' lives.

With unexpected deaths you can "earn it" pre-mortem too in that it's only going to be shocking or brutal if we actually care about the character. So the writers need to have created a character people care about beforehand, they need to have "paid their dues" in that respect.

Kutner's death, as Jane E says, was all about House and how he (and the underlings to some extent) responded to it and because Kutner was pretty well liked by fans I guess it was also earned in that sense. It's also fairly huge in one specific sense for the show because i'm struggling to remember a time when House was left hanging without a solution so explicitly (actually i'm struggling to remember an "unsolved" episode at all) i.e. House finally meets his match and it's not a disease or his own nature or even God that beats him, it's the only mystery none of us can solve while we're still this side of the grass.
I think The Body is a really good example of throwing out the clichés and approaching the topic in a more truthful way. I was wondering why it hadn't come up earlier in this conversation until I realized that Jane made reference to it in the piece, so I guess we've sorta been talking about it all along.
Terminator Spoiler for those who have't see the final epsiode...


I'm in two minds about the death of Derek, it was shocking and unexpected, he was doing something we'd seen them all do many times before and out of the blue, he's dead. For the show, the life the Connors are leading, it was appropriate, as was their reaction.
But it's his comeback that I'm uncertain about. Using the time travel to have his character return, either at a time before his death or, more likely, in a timeline where he doesn't end up dying that way, could be really cheesy and hokey. Except that the whole Terminator world is totally dependant on time travel and it's effects. John himself wouldn't even exist without it, so Derek's new timeline is almost inevitable and therefore "earned".
I think part of why that reappearance works fine for me (emotionally) is that he doesn't know John--the relationship they had is lost, even if Derek really isn't.
I think it's important that Kutner's death wasn't 'earned' simply because of the fact that it was a suicide. Kutner was a pretty stable character, and the fact that he would commit suicide was meant to come completely out of the blue and shock us. And it's important for House's reactions that the death wasn't 'earned'. If it had been 'earned', House wouldn't have come up against the puzzle like he did. And if he hadn't been so invested in the puzzle, we wouldn't have the revelation that Saje pointed out:

i'm struggling to remember a time when House was left hanging without a solution so explicitly (actually i'm struggling to remember an "unsolved" episode at all) i.e. House finally meets his match and it's not a disease or his own nature or even God that beats him, it's the only mystery none of us can solve while we're still this side of the grass.


This is a big moment in the series, where House is finally without an answer. He's always found the answer, even with Amber and all the other deaths on the show. And I don't think it could have gotten to the point where House doesn't have answer if Kutner hadn't commited suicide so suddenly and out of the blue. For this death, it had to be unearned.

Also, I think the writers did really commendable job with the decision that Kal Penn wanted to leave the show. I actually thought they were going to play their long over-tired 'I'm quitting/You're fired' game. It was nice to see it handled in a much more significant way.
We might want to mention in the description that there are spoilers for T:SCC as well as House and Desperate Housewives, especially given that we're talking about T:SCC in the comments.

Spoilers for T:SCC and House follow:



Edit to invisitext spoilers

[ edited by Dizzy on 2009-04-13 22:42 ]
**Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles spoilers**

(being pretty liberal with the invisitext even though it's been mentioned above)

Yeah, , a real "Oh no way !" moment, it was hard to believe it'd actually happened for a few seconds. And again, as with Kutner, it was all about how everyone else responded - .

And as jcs says, the relationship is what really died, that was the tragedy - .

(also, as with Wash, )

[ edited by Saje on 2009-04-13 22:31 ]
What impressed me about Derek's That's what you'd expect from a terminator, but in tv terms, that's different.
Death is good in TV. Some shows need more death. Heroes needs a lot more, not so much for drama but to get rid of the horrible characters they've allowed to stick around - Ando, Ma Patrelli, Mohinder, and Parkman, that's you.

But as a whole, I much prefer the Whedon style of death, found in BSG and Terminator as well than (deep voice) "Someone will die tonight" (flashes through characters, then it turns out it some worthless secondary character you never seen before). Frankly Joss has really soured my view towards show that don't kill people off in horrible, depressing and surprising ways... of course this then makes me surprised when this is averted, as in the case with Mellie.

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-04-13 23:38 ]
I have to say that after growing up with Buffy and Angel, death is something i look forward to on tv because i know how much it usually shakes up the paradigm. I'm sure its cliche to say around here, but nothing has moved me like The Body episode has. Only problem is, not many shows execute it nearly as well as Joss and his team do.

** House, TSCC, spoilers below **

I usually cringe as well when i see those tasteless "Someone will not make it through" ads. Nothing turns me off an episode more then pimping death because that is not what death on a show should be about for me. But i have to admit, the Kutner moment took my breath away and i thought it was masterfully handled. Like Kon4MItY said, the fact that it was not earned was what made it so powerful. I know its supposed to be this big unsolvable mystery to haunt House but for me it was simple as realizing when Foreman said "His parents were shot right in front of him." Seems how Kutner is not Batman and this show follows a more logical progression, i could see never being able to get past that kind of darkness.
Surprisingly, i liked the Derek moment as well. If someone told me about it i would have probably thought that it was stupid or lazy, but seeing it and the fact that there was no anything, just a shot and the action kept going was incredible and so realistic.

After some really awful death scenes lately its so refreshing to see some people getting it right again.
Knowing the House has to find a reason for disease/death makes Kutner's death amazing! He was a happy go lucky guy (so it seemed) and there were no "symptoms" of his depression. It was something he didn't share with House and therefore House could not have diagnosed/solved it. That the crux of the show and Kutner's death just turned it on it's head. Brilliant!
On the same note I am not niave enough to think that this wasn't partically a ratings ploy. They advertised as something like "once in every ___ there is an episode that ____. This is that episode." Yada yada. Hello lure, I'm the fish, please hook me! That said, I still think Kutner's death was a great plot development for House's character.
Agreed, Kutner's death itself was really well handled, but it was definitely promoted as an especially important episode, and on House that probably means someone dies.
I have to admit, I stopped watching House. Used to watch it regularly, liked it, but with the season that introduced all the new people, by the end I didn't really care anymore. Yes, he's a hilarious grumpy doctor, but it just seemed not worth it anymore.
I will always have the distinct memory of sitting on my couch with my wife watching the Angel episode 'Hero'. We literally screamed at the television. I can honestly say that that remains my most shocking TV moment.
Most recent shocking TV moment- Dualla on BSG. I won't elaborate for fear of spoiler but I so did not see that coming.
Death is good in TV. Some shows need more death. Heroes needs a lot more, not so much for drama but to get rid of the horrible characters they've allowed to stick around - Ando, Ma Patrelli, Mohinder, and Parkman, that's you.

Leave my pretty boy alone. ;)

I started watching House because of Kal Penn. It was entertaining enough, but it's pretty repetitive in its formula. I think I'm going to stop now.

I did have a friend (from our Firefly group) suddenly commit suicide. I thought that was handled pretty well. Sometimes there's things you don't understand.

Though I would have preferred it if someone on Facebook hadn't spoiled it for me, since I watch On Demand. Apparently Fox had a memorial site up before the show had even aired all across the US.

The best Joss ones, for me, were Joyce and Wash. My dad went very suddenly, and they seem realistic to me.
You've missed some of the best of 'House' if you started from season 4 IMO. S4 was patchy but generally good especially the truly excellent two part finale, S5 has been even patchier, had some fairly dull storylines - ? - and been largely lacking in the best types of episodes which for me were always those where they subverted (or just plain broke) the formula ('Three Stories', 'No Reason', 'The Mistake', the Mark Blucas episode 'Top Secret' etc.).

In combination those factors have made the procedural element more noticeable and repetitive (I hate to say it and very much hope S6 proves me wrong but i'm starting to worry that they're running on fumes slightly, hope David Shore has enough awareness and juice to either fix it or let the show go out on a high).
Yeah, setting my watch for Seizure or Passout 1, Fake Cure 1, Blood In A Scary Place, Fake Cure 2, Dangerous Test, Cardiac Arrest or Seizure 2, and House's Out Of Context Epiphany is getting a little boring.

Someone on Metafilter did a little spoof that made me laugh. Lacks Cameron flirting though.
I've been watching earlier seasons of House too, in syndication.
Very funny spoof. Hadn't been to metafilter in a while, so went to home page and found THIS. Wonder how long before it shows up on House.
They've said before that they've had to not use certain real-life cases just because they didn't think anyone would believe it.

I've been watching earlier seasons of House too, in syndication.

Cool, if you watch earlier seasons of 'House' then you are not missing some of the best of 'House' IMO ;-).

Cheers for that link Sunfire, funny stuff (i'm now trying to come up with a real-life scenario that fits "Only stupid people try the medicine drug. You are stupid.".

The worst part about the repetitiveness is that 'House' was previously always so aware of its own formula, it played with it and it let us join in the fun (taking the piss out of the "walk and talk" for instance, or the "bowling shoes" bit which as much as said "No, that's not the real solution because this is only the end of Act II" among many others). A lot of that playfulness seems to have gone and I miss it. That said, it was a clever show and its writers are still clever writers so i'm not quite ready to write it off yet (hey, it could even be deliberate - after House's "misery epiphany" last season maybe it's not as playful because he's lost his playfulness, he's just going through the motions ? Stranger things have happened. Can't think of any at the moment right enough ... ;).
Yeah, I like when they used to play with the formula more, too. I started watching when they were still doing that and then stopped for awhile. I actually like the show the best when it takes them completely out of the hospital context though. There's always so much going on under the surface with House and Wilson that they won't say until they're somewhere else. And even then it takes considerable work to get to it. Deciding somewhat randomly I missed House and watching the two episode arc where was what got me watching it regularly again. I've only caught part of the intern selection in syndication.

Watching House struggle to save someone with self-endangering urgency while he was unsure for the first hour or so who he was even trying to help was about the neatest thing ever, on that show. And I really liked that he couldn't save her, despite all that. It was horrifying how innocuous the events leading up to her death were, before the one violent moment no one could have stopped or saved her from. And it's all backwards. That's killing someone off with style.
They've said before that they've had to not use certain real-life cases just because they didn't think anyone would believe it.

I have a friend like that. He's been misdiagnosed with cancer twice, had to fight to get treatment for the sarcs he does have (always a speculation for cause on House, but never seemingly the actual cause)... Well, more stuff than I could get into here. Walking House case.

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