Of course, heroes deserve honorable endings—but not the fictional ones. Let's suck the life out of them until they're hollow shells.
In the lead up to The Walking Dead's season finale, the show staged a massacre of ten characters, one featuring beheading.
It managed to be a timid bloodbath, sacrificing only minor characters, but at least they committed to character death—most shows approach the end of a character with kid gloves, either sending them away to find themselves or extending character arcs to unnatural lengths for fear of displeasing fans.
But in fact, the art of killing off main characters is nuanced and powerful; Game of Thrones tapped into the appeal of an unstable, normless world beginning with Ned Stark's execution at the end of season one. Rather than resetting a show, letting a lead succumb to their own mortality adds a daring layer of chaos. Fictional characters aren't granted protections for being beloved by fans, and viewers don't have the right to expect happy endings. Smithsonian Magazine noted the visceral chords Game of Thrones strikes within its fanbase: "The emotional bonds we forge with fictional characters can be just as strong as the connection we feel with some people in the real world. So when bad things happen, the emotional responses we have can be powerful."
While modern audiences can relate all too well to the anxiety of living in an unpredictable world, production studios also stand to benefit from character death in terms of storytelling and series momentum. Inevitably, some shows will exploit the precarity of its lead characters for an easy rating boost (look at any season of Grey's Anatomy, for instance). Regardless, allowing a character to encounter fatal consequences now and then is still a valid device to underscore that the worlds we relate most to are as unstable as our own. This also forbids fiction from plateauing, even if that means ending the series. Imagine what heights these popular franchises could reach if only they were willing to kill their heroes.
Marvel's extensive line-up of superhero movies scheduled for release through 2020 practically confirms the fact that they're going to undo the epic extinction that took place at the end of Infinity War. But imagine the payoff if they didn't. Rather than perpetuating the fairy tale notion that good guys possess an infinite capacity to counteract all evils, Avengers: Endgame could feature the heroes' fighting to save the world while accepting their own limitations. That kind of empathetic realism would turn the trite superhero narrative into a survival story in which strength is as much about coping with loss and moving on as attaining all of one's goals.
Furthermore, the kind of clearcut, onscreen deaths like those in Infinity War defines what's at stake in the supposedly grand battle between good and evil. Rather than teaching kids an "unnecessary cruel life lesson," letting Thanos' destruction remain permanent would finally challenge Marvel's penchant for deus ex machina solutions in which external forces always deliver the heroes to safety. Obviously, that's a tried and true formula that's worked for Marvel, if not all superhero flicks in general. In particular, Nick Fury's secret machinations with S.H.I.E.L.D. always deliver a Hail Mary plan or unveil a secret weapon; but Nick Fury is dead by the end of Infinity War. Good. What now? Without his oversight guaranteeing the Avengers' safety, the conflict is legitimized as one with real stakes and clear consequences if they fail.
In the CW's longest-running show, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) has died 111 times throughout its 14 seasons, and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) has died six times. Why? Even the title character of Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi show in television history with 43 years under its belt, has only died and regenerated 13 times. But death just won't stick to the Winchesters. The show's unexpected success and cult following won't let the demon-fighting brothers go.
Eric Kripke, creator and co-showrunner for its first five seasons, originally had a tightly plotted "five-year plan" for the series. The entire arc was supposed to depict two brothers fighting to stop demons from starting the Apocalypse. Soon, familiar angels from Christian mythology would join the fray with, oh hey, surprisingly human characteristics. Regardless of who won, the humans, demons, and angels would mirror each other's inner conflicts and unifying bonds of brotherhood. Maybe one brother would die, and the world as Sam and Dean knew it would be over. The end.
Instead, the show found enough success and support to be handed over to new showrunners, new writers, adopting an antipathy towards death that's pushed the series into its fifteenth and final season, due to air next year. After running out of interesting stories to tell and jumping into ridiculous terrain after season six (including purely meta-episodes in which Sam and Dean are magically transported to a world in which strange men named Ackles and Padalecki film a series called Supernatural based on their lives—yes, seriously), the show could've enjoyed a legacy as a stand-out mythological allegory if the brothers had just died after season five.
Kripke's recounted how his original plan deviated for ten additional seasons: "The dark secret was always that Sam was going to be [Lucifer's] vessel. Originally, it was just that Dean would then have to hunt down and kill his brother...It evolved from just, 'I have to hunt down and kill my brother,' to these two mirrored stories about two sets of brothers, the brothers in Heaven and the brothers on Earth, and how they compare and contrast. A lot of it was dumb luck, and a lot of it was noticing the opportunities that we had in front of us, at the time, and taking advantage. For the most part, it worked out."
With a die-hard fanbase and two healthy careers for its stars, Supernatural outlived its promise and sacrificed quality storytelling for the sake of keeping the franchise alive. While few could deny the financial incentive at work, saying goodbye to the lead characters ten years ago would've done justice to the show's creativity.
A Disney Princess Who Dies
Give this concept a chance: instead of Disney's preferred tactic of killing off mothers, imagine a blend of an empowered princess who's also a terminally-ill teen. With young adult fiction already skewing towards sickly youths falling in love and appreciating life while they still have time, the concept of a cartoon princess reconciling with her own mortality isn't too far off. Additionally, children's animations already dabble with themes of death, with Disney's Coco laying festive guitar tracks over its depiction of the Land of the Dead, not to mention every other classic Disney film opening with a minor character death, from Lion King to Frozen.
The magical surrealism imbued in most of Disney's feature animations is the perfect tool with which to tackle the concept. Rather than confronting the finality of death with the sudden loss of a pet or family member, children could understand a fictional character's death as the first step in processing its reality. Even better, instead of being buried under a sense of taboo and unspeakable loss, death could be depicted as a natural part of a hero's strength and journey. We're not saying Elsa should die in the Frozen sequel; but if she did, it'd be an impactful, groundbreaking story.
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