If there is one thing that a writer needs to be able to do, whether it is in literature, television or films, it is kill their characters. It is fine if the creator doesn’t want to kill their beloved creation, in fact I suspect that the only character any author really wants to write out is the villain, but it must be done. Especially in large ensemble casts. When you have a large group of characters in a storyline over a long period of time and none of them die it devalues the threat. The Walking Dead recognises this and has a noticeably high death count.
Of course there are some formats where it isn’t suitable to kill characters off. Literature for young kids might deal with death in a kind of soothing, abstract manner of comfort but it would be horrific for Fluffy the bunny to begin slaughtering his friends like he just walked into a slasher film. Can you imagine In The Night Garden if Upsy Daisy had a mental break and started saying ‘pip pip onk onk’ to all her friends? It might liven up the show for adults but it would traumatise children. So in some cases it might be acceptable to safe guard your characters. This isn’t about those cases.
For example, consider True Blood. Fair warning, I’m going to talk about the most recent episode so if you haven’t seen it but plan to then maybe come back later. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Anyway, in the premiere episode of what will be True Blood’s final season, long standing character Tara Thornton was killed. Tara’s actor, Rutina Wesley, has gone on record saying“I think somebody had to go. To have a main character right off the bat go, that’s gonna bring everybody into the show”. In many ways, I agree with her. I just think it should have happened sooner.
It’s not that I have anything against Tara, although she’s far from my favourite character on the show. The character however had increasingly less to do on the show. Her personal story always seemed to have little to do with the main plot and making her a vampire in the first episode of season five did nothing to rectify the problem. Instead, her storyline became whatever Pam was doing. Perhaps that’s what bothers me more about Tara’s death. They already tried to use her death as a shock and revived her just to do it again two years later.
This isn’t just a problem with Tara. It is an issue that has always plagued True Blood. Season seven boasts a total of twenty-one main cast members or twenty if you subtract Tara due to her most recent death. Compare that to Heroes which began with a cast of twelve regulars, half of which were dead by the end of the first season. Nine of True Blood’s twenty one cast were main characters in the first season, another three are guest stars who were promoted and one was a main star who got demoted and then raised back to main for the final season. That means that thirteen of the twenty one have been around since the first season and survived threats from the Fellowship of the Sun, The Authority and Russell Edgington. It really just makes those villains and antagonists look incompetent.
Characters have died in True Blood but they’re always seasonal or side characters that don’t have much impact on the overall story. Perhaps the biggest deaths in True Blood’s seven seasons have been Tommy Mickens and Terry Bellefleur. Neither death was part of the main story though. Tommy was beaten to death by werewolves and Terry arranged his own assassination due to being unable to live with his own actions during the the time he served in the military. Tommy’s death crosses over slightly with Alcide’s involvement with werewolves whilst Terry’s wife Arlene uses a vampire to glamour her husband. Outside of those two incidents, neither death nor the surrounding storyline has much to do with anything else going on in Bon Temps.
Not every death has to be by the villain and it is important for character’s to have their own issues and problems within the wider world. I get that. But for True Blood’s biggest kills to both be from personal issues says something about level of threat. Wesley’s suggestion that Tara’s death will bring people into the show is right. It instantly makes the vampires that killed her appear to be a threat. Previous seasons had some interesting antagonists but the fact that the same bunch of characters who went in came out again makes them look weak. Furthermore, I’m not sure that these infected vampires deserve to look stronger than Sookie’s previous adversaries.
As important as the personal storylines are, the larger story arcs should cause the characters to put aside their issues to deal with the life-threatening danger. In Lost, each character had their own problems but island wide events would impact everyone. If the seasonal big bad doesn’t affect more than a few characters they come across as very ineffectual. Again, I agree with Rutina’s sentiment but this should have been happening in seasons two and three. It has taken seven seasons for the True Blood writers to understand that death increases the stakes.
Yet, I may be speaking too soon. While all signs point to Tara being dead the audience was denied a visual of the character meeting the true death. Rutina talking about the character’s death would seem to cement it but it was only two years ago that True Blood pulled the same stunt with the same character. Deceiving the viewer by using a death for shock value rather than meaning and then revealing that they are still alive is a great way to annoy a lot of fans. Of course, with this being the last season, perhaps they’re feeling brave enough to actually kill off more of their core cast. Just please let Eric live. Please?