The Noble Death

February 10, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's nothing wrong with killing off characters in TV series and movie franchises, but there's a rule that should always be observed: Be respectful. Longevity plays into this. If the character has only been around for a few TV episodes or a movie or two, he/she can be disposed of rather quickly. But long-lived characters, especially beloved ones, should go out in a blaze of glory. A death is more poignant if it's meaningful. It gives an heroic character a full, legitimate arc. It causes fans to rejoice through their tears. Unfortunately, TV and movie producers often don't understand this. They blow away characters without a second thought - all in the name of a brief shock. Most of the time, this approach feels cheap, crass, and arbitrary. When a character dies, do you feel sad for the loss or pissed off at the producers for allowing it to happen in the way it did?

Battlestar Galactica understands this rule. Although none of the major protagonists have died yet (the night is young...), a handful of lesser characters have, and each one has been given his/her due. The deaths were sometimes surprising, but they were always respectful. None has left a sour taste, and none makes the viewer feel like the producers expressed contempt for the character or the audience. This is the way it should be.

Contrast this with 24, in which characters die left and right, most in meaningless ways and for no apparent reason. The David Palmer assassination at the beginning of Season 5 started a rash of executions. But there was meaning behind that, it made sense from a plot standpoint, and it was handled decently. Consider Michelle and Tony, however. They had been on 24 for three and four seasons, respectively. Behind Jack, Tony was the second most popular character at the time. Yet both were summarily dismissed (although Tony got to lie in a coma for half the season before being unceremoniously eliminated). Would it have hurt the producers to give these characters heroic endings, perhaps dying together stopping a terrorist attack? In fact, Tony's death was handled so badly that there's a core group of 24 fans who are sure he isn't dead and will be making a comeback. I don't believe that but it's a testimonial to how poorly those situations were handled. Earlier this season, Curtis went down like a punk. After two seasons of solid support, does he get a brave send-off? No - he gets shot by Jack because he's threatening to kill a key informant. The writers assassinated the character, both literally and figuratively.

Moving to the motion picture realm, one needs to look no further than the Star Trek series to find examples of deaths done well and poorly. In Star Trek II, Spock met his end. (Okay, so he came back later but in 1982 it looked like he was gone, even with the softened, hopeful ending.) He did so saving his ship and crewmates, and his final farewell to Kirk was moving. Twelve years later, the franchise elected to eliminate Kirk. So how did he die? Commanding the Enterprise as it vanquished a threat on a direct heading for Earth? Saving his ship and crewmates? No. Kirk died because a bridge fell on top of him. It's hard to think of a bigger slap in the face for long-time Star Trek fans than to have one of the Big Three perish in such a pointless way.

Darth Vader wasn't a "good guy" by any sense of the imagination (although, in the end, he could be considered a tragic figure), but George Lucas gave him a grand send-off. By his final action, Vader saved not only that galaxy far, far away but his soul as well. Whatever his faults (real or perceived), Lucas gave Vader a worthy death.

I could go on, chronicling death after death (although more would be on television than in movies). However, I think the point has been made. Death is an effective dramatic tool but it should be employed intelligently, especially when the character in question is beloved by fans across the world. A weak death is a betrayal; a punch to the gut to those who have supported the character. A noble or meaningful or at least spectacular death validates the character. Kirk and Spock were on roughly equal footing through most of their journeys. In death, they separated. Spock died a significant death. Kirk took a tumble then got squashed by a bridge. Filmmakers and TV producers may ultimately control the fates of their characters but, in the case of long-running franchises and series, they should acknowledge the faithfulness of the audience by respecting the characters those viewers have bonded with - in life as well as in death.