Cast your minds back to 2012. Armageddon was looming and the world was preparing when out of nowhere one brand came to usher us into the end of days. Lynx. With the spray of a can, women flock in pairs to an ark built by one guy prepping to ‘get it on for the end of the world’. Now, clearly there are many issues with this ad campaign, but none larger than the name itself: Lynx 2012 – The Final Edition.
Thirteen-year-old me was shocked that a company would announce their final product this way; sure, we were told the world was ending, but did we really believe it? I couldn’t understand why Lynx had sealed their fate, but at the same time I didn’t understand that of course they bloody hadn’t.
2013 rolled around and with it came Lynx Apollo. I refused to acknowledge it. 2012 was their Final Edition, so surely that meant they weren’t making any after. There’s been about 10 since. Even then, all I wanted was for a brand to commit to something ending. It’s a show of bravery as well as a way of taking control; in a world where everything is based on consumer demand, what could be more satisfying for a company than deciding on their own time to end something?
This is why I am endlessly frustrated by the zombies on my tv screen, and I’m not talking about The Walking Dead, though the same case can probably be made for that show. There are countless shows that do not yet know the value of death: that have either been going on far too long or cannot commit to killing a character simply because the audience likes them.
It always happens the same way, too. In the season finale a protagonist will be facing their toughest challenge yet. Through a final witty remark, a heart-breaking tragedy or a brave sacrifice, their fate is sealed, and they get the heroes death they deserve. Not to worry, though, by the end of the first episode of the new season, order will be well and truly restored. They will be reincarnated by time travel, magic or whatever made up logic the show runners create in order to keep them going. The new season is ready to begin as if the last barely happened.
It’s a curious phenomenon that is usually reserved for a series – rather than a serial, in which a narrative arc follows the whole season. In a series, episodes usually follow the same pattern: there’s a disruption of the status quo which causes a conflict, then over the course of the episode we follow the conflict until eventually either the equilibrium is restored, or a new one is set (but it’s usually the former). Think of The Big Bang Theory, for example. The reason that show got to run for twelve years is because nothing ever really changed. It was only as it drew to a close that real moves started to be made and core character progression moved faster than ever before. The key to longevity is consistency, and some serials have started to follow suit.
The reason this does not work so well in a serial, or particularly with a drama, is because it removes any and all tension. Stakes can be at an all time high, with our hero fighting their even biggest battle yet (somehow they get bigger every time), but what difference does it make when we know there is no chance for them to suffer? You have to ask, what is the point of even killing them when we know they are going to come back? Is it to show that they won’t just win every fight, to give them some revenge plot to follow in the future, or do show runners actually think we believe these fates are permanent?
These resurrections come at a time when TV creators have more access than ever to our feedback. As soon as episodes air they can garner reactions from social media that may dictate where they take the show in the future, but is this a good thing? Yes, feedback is great, but making a character stick around because fans want to ship them with someone else, or find them particularly charming, will only harm the story when they have no intended future.
Of course, television is a money-making industry, and I don’t blame creators for wanting to follow the desires of the fans; they are ensuring loyalty from viewers, but this loyalty is not being rewarded when there is no capacity for actual change. Understanding the context and the journey each character has been on is one of the most engaging aspects of watching a show. So, when they click reset each time a new season begins, it starts to get a little old.
There’s a reason people latched on to Game of Thrones the way they did. If you were to ask everyone what the most exciting aspect of that show was, it was, without a doubt, its unpredictability. Any character could die at any time. It’s the same reason people were so disappointed with the final season – there wasn’t enough death. Who expected Game of Thrones, of all shows, to have a happy ending? Even in its final moments it could not commit to killing its heroes.
In Stranger Things, the first season ends with the perfect stereotypical sacrifice – as Eleven saves the day but dies in the process. Of course, she returns in season 2, but as a companion book released last year revealed, that wasn’t always the plan. Originally her sacrifice was meant to be the end for everyone’s favourite Eggo-loving telekinetic, but once the Duffer brothers learnt the show would go on for more than one season, they changed their minds: “we knew how special Millie was. If there was going to be more Stranger Things, Eleven had to come back”. That wasn’t the only death they backtracked. Though he never actually dies in the show, they also revealed that Steve Harrington was meant to meet his end, but they changed their minds after seeing how much the fans liked him. Sure, they found a path for him to follow and he is now many fans’ favourite character, but what can we expect for the future if we are establishing the audience as such a valuable contributor to a show’s story?
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D have used the ‘get out of death free’ card. As an avid fan of the show who has watched every episode since its premiere seven years ago, I cannot wait for it to end. In fact, I think it should have ended with season five – when even the creators thought it would. They were not expecting a renewal, the episode is called ‘The End’ for God’s sake. The loose ends are tied up nicely, we get one last sacrifice and a heartfelt goodbye, and the future is left slightly open ended yet optimistic. It was the perfect ending to a show that had arguably already been going on for too long, but there has since been a sixth season and a seventh (and actual final one) is on the way. They should have had the guts to say no to the renewal. As if I have not had to see Fitz live and suffer for seven years already, I will have to make it through one more.
Side note: I know, I could just stop watching. I know, I’m part of the problem. But I made it through the sixth season now I have to see it through to the end. I’m sorry, I’m too attached.
Some shows capitalise on death in different ways. Whereas Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D uses death as a landmark event to put its characters through the wringer, Gotham is an absolute riot of a show and has pretty much at least one death per episode. When it kills a main character, they usually return but are always different in some way. Gotham also uses death as key character progression, it just does so in a very different way. In a show about the origins of villains who are literally insane, these reinventions work pretty damn well. It’s exciting when someone dies, because you get to guess how they are going to come back, or who they are going to come back as. Seriously, there have been like five versions of the Joker-esque character on this show. Gotham takes it so far that it goes beyond predictability back into keeping you on your toes and, largely, it works, but admittedly it does struggle when it comes to high-stakes situations. You know that Jim Gordon is a safe bet, partly because of the series being a prequel to the Batman stories we know and love, so your attention is drawn to whoever around him is going to suffer. It is only in its final season where you can really trust a death to be permanent. Overall it makes for an exciting and violent show that albeit does not hit the emotional beats, but that’s not really what it is trying to do, so go forth and have fun with it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I just want more shows to do whatever the hell they want, not what they think will keep us watching. Gotham could have killed off Bruce or Gordon in any episode and a lot of people probably would have loved it, but they had the comics to adhere to and comic book stans to fear. I still believe Eleven should have died with season one of Stranger Things, mainly to avoid the mess that was season 2 episode 7, but also to cement the show as one to be taken seriously. I wish Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D had chosen to end with its fifth season, perhaps before they were initially ready but when they had come to terms with the end and created an episode suited to it. Maybe more shows need to take note from The Good Place – who announced that their upcoming fourth season would be their last, after planning the entire series run since their second season renewal. They knew the story they wanted to tell and they stuck to it, despite the demand fans may have for more. Yes, television needs the fans to watch the show in order to make the money to tell the story, but the fans won’t stay if the story suffers.
Take a stand, kill your darlings, put the content first.
Just don’t kill Fitz. Again.
by Georgia Carroll
Georgia Carroll is a Broadcast Journalism student from the University of Leeds, currently living and studying in Wellington, New Zealand. She is a proud Mancunian who loves radio, film and pretty much anything sci-fi or 80s. You can find her on Twitter and letterboxd here @georgiacarroll_