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May 09 2012

(SPOILER) Death: why it makes us rage. Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin's works are discussed, particularly 'The Avengers' and 'Game of Thrones', with the focus on fans' attitudes and reactions to death.

"Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more."
-Michael Cunningham, The Hours

That's what I always go back to. Joss Whedon does like to put our little fan hearts in a blender and set it to liquify, but anytime he kills a character, it's masterfully done. And of course, it's always poignant and heartwrenching. Make them happy just to make US happy for them, then give 'em the axe.

I hate him for killing people, but I also respect it. It always serves a very special purpose in the story, and it makes for great television and film.

[ edited by WhatsAStevedore on 2012-05-09 16:59 ]

[ edited by WhatsAStevedore on 2012-05-10 15:17 ]
I have a hate/love relationship with Joss killing a beloved character. I'm always expecting it but it still manages to surprise and affect me. Always. I hate the character dying. I hate it's affect on other characters,myself and other fans.But death is a part of life and a major avenue of change so it's realistic, poignant and important.I would love more of the later but less of the gone forever &the pesky gut wrenching heart tearing out sadness&fear :(
Joss was the one who taught me never to develop any kind of feelings towards any characters he create, because he doesn't treat my feelings with respect.

When Dollhouse came around, I reminded myself "don't care about them, he'll probably just kill them." And it worked. When the show was canceled, i was just "meh".

Not sure that's really what he was after though. But he'll have to settle for the money i guess.

With Avengers I knew they wouldn't let him kill any of the mains.
@Virginia Woolf
To find joy in the death of others seems sick. I never value life when someone dies. I value life when it has value.
I tend to have complicated feelings about Joss killing his characters. Sometimes it is an incredibly emotionally effective shock (Tara/Jenny/Fred), or a quick punch to the gut that keeps the stakes high (Wash), and sometimes it's a final comment on a complicated character (Wesley/Topher, heck, even Doyle).

Where it bothers me is when it doesn't seem properly built up to, paid off, or necessairy. For me, Anya, Book and Paul fall into that category.

Everyone is going to have different reactions to each one. I like the feeling that no one is safe, and unlike Hunted, prefer the knowledge that bad things CAN happen to characters I love. It makes them feel more real to me, and means that threats in a story matter.

[ edited by rabid on 2012-05-09 19:47 ]
It's the number one reason Heroes failed (among other reasons. But that tops the list), and why my enjoyment of TVD is starting to fade. It's not that I want characters to die, and with TVD every time they do a death fake out (3 in the past two weeks) I start of going 'NOOOOO! NOT [character]!!' Only for it to mean nothing. The series developed stakes(hee) pretty strongly towards the end of the first season, but now I feel no stakes, and am sick of the fake outs. Even just take out the fake outs would be good, still no stakes but at least I wouldn't momentarily grieve for nothing.
I have mixed feelings here. I think there is a distinct difference between GOT and the Buffyverse with regard to death- Joss has not ever killed off a main character on a mid-stream season (save for Buffy and we all knew she would be back due to the network change- and I do not count Giles in the comic. Well, I suppose we could argue Doyle but that death was in part a result of having an untenable situation with the actor). But in GOT, killing Ned Stark killed a main character. I also think the Jossdeath has become a trope. We expect it. And we get it. And this from a man who tries to upend expectations. And we knew that in Avengers he could not kill a main character, because so many movies and sequels depended on them being alive.

I have learned to not invest in a Joss show. Investment matters to me; we invest to meet emotional needs of some sort, even if we cannot define them. Killing the character cuts at our own needs. I cannot forgive the loss of Tara, for example. She became a means to an end, not the end itself. She got sacrificed to the story, and to this day I refuse to believe Joss had any inkling how that death would affect people. I am not raising the old issue of whether he would have changed anything if he did. I simply say, what happened he did not expect. But now he does.

(And one last question: was anyone really surprised that Book died in Serenity? It was because I was close to certain that he would die and that no one would be surprised that I fully expected someone else to die as well, and I figured it was likely going to be Wash, for reasons I have previously explained).
"Joss was the one who taught me never to develop any kind of feelings towards any characters he create, because he doesn't treat my feelings with respect."

Interesting. I feel kind of the exact opposite. The whole reason I watch television is to feel, whether that feeling is joy from seeing characters I love succeed, or pain from seeing them die/lose someone. I feel like Joss greatly respects my feelings in that sense--he seems hell-bent on ensuring that they exist in the first place.
Agreed. A well-written death, however upset it may make me at the time, is far better than characters I'm not invested in at all. Why watch in the first place if you don't care?
The funny thing about Martin is that he appears to have lost his taste for killing characters--no one of consequence dies in his latest volume, despite several cliffhangers. One fan favorite even appears alive without explanation after a cliffhanger in the previous volume! I think Martin needs to hire Joss as a script doctor, and kill off some of the extra characters he's lost his touch for.

I actually didn't flinch too much at Colson's death. My initial thought was "Oh, so that's who gets killed." Obviously, the "big 4" are entirely safe, and even Hawkeye and Black Widow would be tough to convince Marvel to allow to die. In the comics, characters come back. In the Comic-book superhero blockbuster genre, The Phoenix is the only resurrection we're likely to see.
I may go into something of Joss' expecting someone to die, but I get so wrapped up in the story I completely forget about even thinking about it. And being worried that someone is going to die isn't going to cause me to not care about them. I like fiction that draws me in and gets me invested. I don't want *all* fiction to be like that, but if none of it was, I would feel like fiction was kind of... hollow? I don't know, I had thoughts that were going to come out into a really interesting paragraph, and as usual they've already started running away from me.

[ edited by DreamRose311 on 2012-05-09 22:01 ]
@Jclemens. I have a feeling we'll see more deaths as we head forwards into the last two Song of Ice and Fire books. I think the lack of it can be attributed more to the difficulty that Martin is having with story momentum with SO many characters to keep track of in each volume. I really enjoyed book 5, but it felt like, and Martin has confirmed, that a number of major events he planned to be in that book were pushed back.

Anyways that's a different conversation altogether. I agree with you completely about Coulson.
One of the big problems with investment- and you can invest in something other than a character, but I think this is specific to investing in characters- is that once the one you care about dies, the entire reason you watch is upended. Once Tara was no longer in Buffy, I cared far less about the story and what happened. S7 does not resonate with me at all. My main point of reference and identification was no longer present.
Suddenly I'm wondering if someone here has the means to do a fascinating study type thing comparing our opinions/feelings on this topic with how we deal with things in the real world.
You know, I was a Whedon fan before becoming a Harry Potter fan, and while I loved the end of the Deathly Hallows, I felt like we'd been let off too easy because the "big three" characters were all still alive. I wondered then, as I do now reading this wonderfu article, if it's because I'm a Whedon fan, and I've been conditioned to need severe devastation in loss to happen before the story feels complete. Whedon peeps can be sick puppies!
DreamRose, that is sort of what I am suggesting. The question of how and why we invest interests me a great deal. I feel that our real life bleeds into our fantasy life in some way. I have often asked, here on whedonesqe, why it is I was drawn to three characters- Tara, Sara Sidle (CSI) and Sophie (In Treatment). Now, there is a commonality among these three characters- they are all female, all damaged and all people who overcame tremendously troubled upbringings. But, I am a 59yo guy! So, why? It seems clear that there is some sort of identification or transference here, but damned if I can get at its root.

But we might as well ask why do some people on this site invest so much in this site? What need does it fill?

Why did the GSR shippers want to destroy Lady Heather? Why is there a constant Bangel Spuffy war? Why does it matter and why can it get so heated and vitriolic? Now, I am not asking to actually get into the merits of either side, but why does it matter to the person who does take a side?

This fascinates me. And it relates to the question of death in the Buffyverse and how it was powerful but in my mind has become just a standard trope and expected.
I agree with Dana5140 who says "we invest to meet emotional needs of some sort". Is it our personalities or our lives which decide what we want I wonder. There is enough pain in life, I don't want it on the screen either.
Of course the real reason Joss should stop doing it is that its so predictable now. All the way back when I first heard he was doing Avengers, I wondered who he would kill. I assumed the powers that be wouldn't let him kill any of the "important" characters. So it would be someone 'expendable'. I guess the magic goes away when you see the strings.

The jokes are still good though.
I wanted to say we probably shouldn't attribute to Virginia Woolf those words above - words that I believe she never wrote and that she has not, to my knowledge, been quoted as saying.

They are spoken by the fictional version of Virginia Woolf that appears as a character in the film The Hours, written by David Hare & based on the novel by Michael Cunningham - though I don't believe they occurred in the original novel. (I've just been through the book, and I don't see it, though I might've missed it.)

While I don't have everything that Virginia Woolf wrote at my command - there are some letters that I've never read - it's unlike anything I've ever seen her say about real life - though possibly similar to something she might have said about her writing.

But The Hours is not Virginia Woolf - except the suicide note - it's other people's versions of Virginia Woolf.
jclemens - I assumed

I'm with Joss on this. If he (or anyone else) can make me feel, whether it's pain or joy, then he's done a good job. I've never responded as emotionally to a movie as I did to Serenity, and I thank him for that. But I "grew up" on Joss stuff and maybe he's just trained me that way. And I love every second of it.
@Hunted

I'm not talking about finding joy in death. That's the furthest thing from the truth. I'm talking about learning, through mourning, how precious life is. This recognition doesn't make life any simpler or less painful, but it is an important thing to learn, and it reminds us not to take any of it for granted.
@QuoterGal That's why I cited The Hours. I understand why, to people unfamiliar with the book, it would suggest I'm referencing the actual Virginia and not a characterization of her, so I fixed it.

[ edited by WhatsAStevedore on 2012-05-10 15:18 ]
I think it helps if you can keep yourself from looking at the strings...

But we might as well ask why do some people on this site invest so much in this site? What need does it fill? - Heh, I'm pretty sure it fills the need of wanting people who care about Whedonyworks as much as we do... since we seem to be fewer and further between than others... as evidenced by many peoples reactions to Avengers being able to tell many people 'SEE?'/'Told ya so'/etc.

I just think it makes for more believability of story. In a world where there are supposed to be life and death stakes, how can you buy it unless they both happen? Re: my point on Heroes and Vampire Diaries. Now, I think maybe it would be different if you said that the way Whedon tends to kill people is a trope, I'd be closer to buying that, though I still have my own arguments for that as well...
I don't get everyone always calling Joss the Grim Reaper. Has anyone seen Lost? 24? The Wire? The Sopranos? Etc. Death is important to provide stakes, and Joss certainly doesn't hold the patent on it. Also SERENITY SPOILERS Yes, Wash's death is sad but he was hardly the first lovable character to die in what basically amounts to the final (movie sized) episode of a show. People who complain about Whedon killing off too many characters always strike me as people who should probably just watch sitcoms...

[ edited by losthero47 on 2012-05-10 17:54 ]
I understand why character deaths happen; it makes the story more real, increases suspense. Particularly in these types of fictional worlds - battles with demons and reavers, plots and intrigue - people are going to die.

That said, I do think it can backfire. I started reading the Game of Thrones series back when the first book came out. I don't remember how far I got, it's been a few years, but after (I think) the second or third book so many characters had died that I lost interest and did't bother to read any of the following books. Somehow I doubt that's what the author was going for.
I also gave up GOT, Candace, for the same reason.

"But we might as well ask why do some people on this site invest so much in this site? What need does it fill? - Heh, I'm pretty sure it fills the need of wanting people who care about Whedonyworks as much as we do..." Well, what need does it serve for you to want to be around people who care about Whedonywords as much as you do? That's really the key question. Why do you come here? If you have invested so much in the work of Joss Whedon that you wish to share that with people who have invested as much as you do, what need does that serve?

I am not asking this as a challenge. I am asking because it is easy to dismiss someone upset at Wash's death or at Tara's death as simply not just getting the needs of the story, but I see people here who are protective of Joss to a great extent, and I wonder why? I do it for Tara; you might do it for Joss, someone else does it for Bangel. What's different? Death is written into the story for emotional impact; why then act surprised when people respond emotionally?

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