The producers (Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman) of one of my favorite shows, Person of Interest, have announce not-so-cryptically that Somebody’s Gonna Die, or as they put it, “We promised our actors and our audience that these characters wouldn’t be static, stuck in an endless loop — that they would have a journey. And, of course, every journey comes to an end.” I am not happy. I love all of the characters on this show including the dog, especially the dog, and I’m not prepared to let go of any of them, so as a viewer, I’m apprehensive. I am not going so far as to say, “If they kill X, I’ll never watch again,” because this is a stellar show, but I also don’t want to mourn a character I love. I’ve been doing that too much lately in real life, I need TV as an escape, not a reminder that people I care about die. So as a viewer I’m against this.
But as a writer, I see their point.
If you don’t change your story after a stretch of time (an act in a novel, a season in a series), readers get story fatigue. “We’ve been doing this forever,” they say. “Bored now.” Case in point: The Mentalist, a show that’s been fun because of the characters but that’s been running on plot fumes for a while now because Patrick Jane has been looking for serial killer Red John for six freaking years. Now that he’s finally got Red John (whoever he is; my money’s still on Brett Stiles) on the run, it’s picking up again, but dear God, they’re even dragging that out. When you stretch things out that far, the story gets thin.
So you have a couple of options. You can keep your story as it is but keep it short. Life on Mars is the gold standard here; they knew their premise wouldn’t stretch past sixteen episodes, so even though it was a huge hit and the BBC offered them another year, they ended it, going out strong and creating a classic that still stands up seven years later and I’m betting will still be amazing twenty years from now. But if you want to go for the long form, you’re going to have to put in turning points, things that spin the story around in a new direction, make it all new. Person of Interest has been brilliant at this, essentially remaking the story each season, but now they’re flirting with death.
Killing an important character is a great way to turn a story around; you’re pulling out an integral piece of the structure, and all the other characters have to redefine themselves without that piece, adapt to the changes that the death brings. Joss Whedon killed Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sending Tara’s lover Willow into a murderous rampage, creating crises for the other characters who loved Willow but had to stop her ending the world, spurring Xander to sacrifice and maturity, and bringing back Giles (still one of the greatest sit-up-and-say-OH-MY-GOD moments in TV) to repair the fractured family. Compare this to the death of Wash on Firefly/Serenity, a death that had no real impact on the plot, its impact on the characters summed up as “We’re all really unhappy now.” Wash was a great character, but his death was meaningless from a story-telling perspective.
I think that’s the key to killing a loved character: it has to have meaning. Whedon, a serial loved-character killer, did it again in The Avengers when he killed Phil Coulson (I have the “Keep Calm, Coulson Lives” T-shirt), but he gave Coulson death-with-meaning, his death unified the otherwise contentious superheroes into The Avengers, who then worked together to save the world and not incidentally to kick Loki’s murderous ass. Coulson’s death transformed the story, so the story earned it. I’m thinking of Saving Private Ryan‘s “Earn this,” something every important doomed character should say to his or her writer: “If you’re going to kill me, earn it, make it mean something.”
Which brings me back to Person of Interest. They’ve been so gutsy up to now about spinning their story, taking a premise they could probably have milked for at least another year and turning it by unleashing the mad Root on the plot who not-so-insanely points out that The Machine is in the hands of ruthless killers and they have to set it (“her”) free. That led to the second season, a conflict between Our Gang and the shadowy government branch The Machine also talked to, ending with The Machine setting itself free, which lead to the current great third season, the Machine talking to Our Gang, the government, and Root, spooling out multiple instructions in complex layered stories that boggle a storyteller’s mind. These writers know how to plot. Which is why they probably really are going to kill a vital character tonight or next week, the bastards.
And this is where Viewer and Story Wonk collide. I don’t want to lose anybody in that show. I love them all, even the insane Root, a role Amy Acker is pretty much having for breakfast, even if Harold does have her imprisoned in the library at the moment. The character they’ve been teasing as doomed is Fusco, the formerly corrupt cop, now redeemed and part of the team, the everyman in a team of super-skilled human beings. When your cast is a computer genius/billionaire, a superspy with extraordinary combat skills, a brilliant former-military cop who’s also a loving single mother, a fixer with connections all over the city who’s also the occasional lover of the superspy, the female version of the superspy with an even lower emotional affect, a batshit computer genius with no moral compass, and one great dog, there’s really nobody in there who steps up and says, “You know, I’m kinda boring. Off me.”
And yet one of them really does have to go. That cast is just too damn big; at this point, there are more people working for Harold than are working for the government (and I’m not even counting Elias, the mob boss, although I should because he appears to consider them all allies at this point). It’s a stellar, stellar cast–Michael Emerson, Jim Caviezel, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Chapman, Amy Acker, Sarah Shahi, Enrico Colantoni, Paige Turco–and they’ve all established their characters as complex, flawed, fascinating people. There are just too damn many of them to keep the paranoid tension up, especially now that Carter, the single-mother cop and my favorite character on TV right now, is poised to take down half the police force in a corruption scandal. Our Gang has enemies, but they’re getting tired (HR) or they’ve been co-opted (Elias) or they’re as confused as Our Gang (the government); time to upset things again.
That leaves fans playing the “Please don’t kill” game and me, as a writer, trying to figure out whose death would have the most impact on the story without destroying it. Fusco is the Ordinary Man in that tribe, they need him to ground the story, so it has to be one of the extraordinary people. Reese’s number comes up tonight, but I don’t believe they’re going to kill off the lead. Harold is the linchpin of the plot; without him, the center cannot hold. They wouldn’t dare kill the dog, I really would stop watching then. That leaves Carter, Shaw, Root, Zoe, and Elias. Leaving aside my own viewer bias (“Touch Carter and die, you bastards”), as a story wonk, I’d pick one of those five.
But not Elias. I love that character, I love that actor, but he just isn’t important enough to the team to change the story. Not Zoe for the same reason. It has to be one of the core group. So Carter, Shaw, or Root.
I’d pick Carter. Again, one of my favorite characters of all time, her arc over three seasons from dedicated by-the-book cop to bad ass avenger makes me cheer, I want to see her stride into the future, probably as police commissioner after she takes down HR, but as a storyteller, if I had to pick one character whose death would remake the story, it’s Carter. Harold sees her essential, Reese loves her as a fellow warrior, Fusco considers her not only as a partner but a sister, Shaw respects her and laughs with her which she does with no one else, Carter is loved. That’s the key: she’s not only necessary to their mission, they all love her: she’s bright, she’s dedicated, she’s brave, she’s loyal, and she’s beautiful in every sense of the world, and she’s still a believable human character. Killing Carter won’t just make the team sad, it’ll throw a bomb into their world.
That choice is underscored when you look at the other two candidates. As much as I love Shaw, she’s redundant; they already have a low-affect killing machine in Reese. I have loved everything Sarah Shahi has done with this character–her interaction with the little girl at the end of “Razgovor” was amazing and her comic timing is perfect–but we can spare Shaw. And Root, crazy-fascinating as she is, is essential only to the Machine, not to the story (which is another reason I think she’s safe: the Machine will protect her), so we can spare her, too. That’s the problem: we can spare them. The team can spare them, even though they’d be sincerely mourned (well, maybe not Root). The strong move really is Kill Carter. Damn it.
Having said that, I’m really hoping the writers don’t make the strongest story-telling choice. Maybe somebody else will step forward and become the hero that dies, although not Leon, I’d miss him, and not Elias’s right-hand man because there’s something about a loyal, cheerful sociopath . . .
Killing characters is hell on storytellers and readers. Too bad it’s such a great way to turn a plot. (Please don’t kill Carter. Or Fusco. Or . . .)