To Kill A Character

(This article was featured in our print issue, which was published on Nov. 10, 2012.)

WARNING: Spoilers. Lots of spoilers. Oh, and Snape kills Dumbledore.

Photo: Emmy Magazine

As a fan of the FX drama Sons of Anarchy, I have been on an emotional roller-coaster since the death of Opie, the loveable teddy bear of a biker that was the main character’s best friend. Opie’s death was tragic, violent, and unexpected, and caused extreme pain among the fans of the show.

This is a feeling I’m slowly growing used to. I read things like Harry Potter, The Dark Tower and The Hunger Games. I watch Supernatural, Doctor Who and Game of Thrones. I enjoy Joss Whedon’s body of work. Yeah. I’m getting used to it.

This feeling is one that’s hard to escape; movies, books, video games, comics and especially television are all guilty of fan abuse. You find something you enjoy, you get attached to a set of characters, and the evil genius who created those characters takes them from you. But lately, it seems like NO genre is safe because even comedies like Scrubs and Futurama have heart-wrenchingly painful episodes (“Jurassic Bark,” anyone?).

Entertainment, television especially, is often meant to be escapist. It takes you out of your own problems and allows you to think about these characters and the world they inhabit for somewhere around 46 minutes. You’re meant to laugh with them, cry with them, and maybe occasionally shout at them because they’re doing something dumb. But why, then, do creators feel the need to inspire raw emotions like loss in their viewers?

It’s really simple, actually. Pain is universal. The way we respond to it and handle it is deeply individual and personal, but losing a loved one is far from unique. At some point, everyone goes through it. Pain is basic and carnal and indisputable—someone dear to you dying is something that isn’t open to interpretation.

If a character is unlikeable, evil, or in some other way flawed, their death might not mean as much to a viewer. It might even be enjoyed by the viewer if the character “had it coming.” That type of death inspires debate, or at least conversation, within a fanbase. But the death of a universally beloved character isn’t meant to do that. Losing Opie on Sons of Anarchy, Charlie on Lost, Joyce on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wash in Serenity, Dobby in Harry Potter, Lane Pryce on Mad Men, and even Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street isn’t meant to get you talking. These losses are meant to silence you, stop you in your tracks, and make you and everyone else watching feel the same thing.

When a fanbase sees the characters we love feeling the same loss, we’re compelled to keep watching so that we can then see them rise to action, rise above, and ultimately deal with that loss. Watching that process makes the characters so much more human to the viewer, because we can sympathize with them. Loss unites us.

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