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Why Character Deaths are Sometimes Key to Good TV

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This article contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Lost, as well as Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Season 1 of Heroes. Comments may reveal spoilers for other series. Read at your own discretion.

Tuesday night’s episode of Lost destroyed me. I’m talking heaving sobs, rocking in the fetal position destroyed—and I really shouldn’t be admitting this in a public forum, huh? Oh, well. I know I’m not the only one: countless fellow viewers have confided similar cry fests. We may be grieving fictional characters, but we’re still grieving.

And yet, I really enjoyed the episode. It felt good to let it all out, and to know that Lost still has the power to move me. At the risk of sounding like a sadomasochist, I have to say, I’m a fan of character death. It hurts, sure, but it also resonates more than almost anything else a show’s writers can do. It raises the stakes of the drama, reminding viewers that nothing is permanent and any of their beloved characters might soon bite in. It also gives a taste of the grieving process—it’s rough, but it’s certainly easier to swallow than the real thing. In the same way that we want to see our favorite couple make it work, we want to see our heroes fall. Not because we’re cruel, but because we want to feel.

Lost isn’t the only show to shock us with deaths, though it’s certainly one of the most effective. There’s quality, but there’s also quantity: Tuesday’s episode dispatched four series regulars. (If you count Lapidus. I won’t believe it until I see a body.) To me, the episode felt very Joss Whedon—he also enjoys mingling short, brutal deaths with lingering, emotional goodbyes. On Lost, we barely had time to catch our breath after Sayid and perhaps Lapidus were killed, while we got a drawn-out scene of Sun and Jin deciding to die together. Whedon would be especially fond of the latter, since he also torments fans by bringing people together, only to kill them moments later.

I want to focus on Whedon, because—with all due respect to Lost creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse—he’s still the king of character death. Let’s look at Season 6 of Buffy, specifically the episode “Seeing Red,” which offers many of the show’s darkest moments. The last scene is (no pun intended) a killer: Supervillain Warren shows up with a gun and fires in Buffy’s general direction. She’s hit but survives. It’s innocent bystander Tara, Willow’s girlfriend of two seasons, who takes a bullet and dies. Willow crumples in tears, begging Tara to come back, and the audience sits with dropped jaws and, yes, wet cheeks.

Tara’s death is still at the front of my mind whenever I think about character death—eight years later, it remains one of TV’s most effective and painful fatalities. Here’s why it worked: 1. It was shocking. Tara wasn’t even Warren’s intended target, so Whedon caught us by surprise. 2. It advanced the plot. Tara’s death had severe consequences for all the characters, but especially for Willow. She went from loyal friend to an evil witch bent on destroying the world. 3. It wasn’t undone. For character deaths to carry real weight, we have to believe them. When Warren killed Tara on Buffy, Tara stayed dead. That’s rough, but consider the alternative: Bringing her back, even if only to appease fans, would have majorly diminished the impact of the initial death. Not that the series didn’t sometimes play with resurrections—hello, Buffy died, like, all the time—but the deaths that stay with us are the ones that stick.

Contrast Tara’s death on Buffy to any number of deaths on Heroes, a show infamous for bringing characters back from beyond the veil. The first season was great TV, and built up to a big finish: Finally, Sylar would be vanquished. But apparently a sword through the gut wasn’t sufficient. Sylar returned, and so did a number of characters who should have died but didn’t. These “fake-out deaths” may fit with the show’s comic-book feel—that genre is full of characters who don’t stay dead—but it took a toll on the series. While I’ll admit that I stopped caring about Heroes for a variety of reasons, the are-they-dead-or-aren’t-they thing was a major factor. It was clear that death didn’t mean much, so I began to greet it with a shrug. On a show that’s supposed to be sweeping and epic, that’s a problem.

I’m sure we’ll see more death before Lost’s finale—and not just on Lost. Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Ausiello recently posted a May Sweeps Scorecard with the promise of 18 (!) character deaths. (Be advised—that link also contains spoilers, for Cougar Town, 24, and NCIS: LA.) Here’s hoping the farewells are handled as gracefully as Jin and Sun’s, so that we can grieve, reflect, and move on. When it’s done well, character death hurts, but it hurts so good.

How do you feel about TV character deaths? Which ones have shocked, saddened, or angered you the most?

Follow writer Louis Peitzman on Twitter: @LouisAtTVDotCom

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