When I watch a good television program or film, one with a narrative that builds its characters and takes the plot in ways one might not expect, I feel the dichotomy in me between watcher and writer. In the moment the story is happening, the emotional connections I feel with the characters, if they are written and acted well enough, feel vital and affecting. Afterward, in retrospect, I can observe the direction and outcome of those moments, and fully understand the foundation behind the decisions the writers made as well as postulate where they might be headed.
It’s important to remember that any character in a story can die. It’s all in the manner of how, when, and why. I think ‘why’ might be the most important piece of the puzzle, and I don’t mean the motivations of their in-story killer. The writer, callous and unfeeling as they might seem, should have good reason for offing one of their creations, especially if that creation is well-liked. Knowing this, I think, actually helps in reading stories as well as watching them. Chuck Wendig could easily kill Miriam Black. Jim Butcher’s under no obligation to keep Harry Dresden alive. And we all know how George R.R. Martin feels about the immunity of popular characters to the flashing scythe that is his pen. Character death is one of those writerly decisions that can hang on the fringes of the story, either making the whole thing more tense or dragging the whole thing down.
Here’s an example before I discuss my Fringe feelings. Joss Whedon writes two major character deaths into Serenity. Shepard Book dies defending the colony of Haven from Alliance forces, and Wash bites it the moment after he gets the ship down safely on Mr. Universe’s station. I’ve thought about this, and as different as their deaths are (Book dies in Mal’s arms giving a poignant line about belief while Wash is snuffed out instantly by a giant splinter from a Reaper ship), they serve very different purposes and, I feel, Wash’s was not necessarily required. I’m not just saying this as someone who loves Wash; I legitimately feel his death’s place in the story was superfluous. Reminding us that ‘anyone can die’ in this way feels a bit cheap. We’d already lost Shepard, a well-liked and well-established character. Wash’s death does do the job of raising the stakes, but in retrospect I’m not entirely sure it had to happen.
By contrast, the death of Etta in Fringe was a necessity. The effectiveness of her character is evident in how shitty I feel even writing that out. But her death is the catalyst for so many things, an acceleration of motivations and events towards the end of the series. At the same time this painful loss is drawing Olivia closer to Peter, it’s driving Peter to such rage-induced distraction that he takes matters into his own hands by lethally stripping an Observer of his tech and augmenting himself with it. In turn, this also distances Peter from Walter, who desperately needs his son to anchor the man he is, lest he drift back into becoming the man he was when he broke two universes. Etta’s death in and of itself did not necessarily raise the stakes, but it did push Peter to a point where they became incredibly heightened. Do you see the difference?
Yes, any character can die. But you need to think long and hard about what will come next before you pull that trigger.