Murderous Intent: Go Ahead, Kill That High-Profile TV Character

Dec 21, 2013
Originally published on January 1, 2014 10:42 am

(Ed Note: This post contains spoilers that reveal the plot of several shows, so stop here if you are months and months and months and months behind on your TV watching).

This time of year has become a sort of wonderful purgatory for TV critics.

That's because there has been so much good television on broadcast, cable and online, that our year-end tradition of choosing Top 10 lists has been a deliciously maddening experience (I actually had to flip a coin to choose between three shows at the end of one "best of" list this year; a friend who also columnizes on the subject just extended his list past 20 names)

But rather than subject NPR listeners to a discourse on the 30 coolest shows of 2013, I've tried a different tack; looking at some of the most interesting TV trends of 2013.

And, for me, there was no more compelling trend this year than the dramatic, high-profile death.

Of course, AMC's Breaking Bad capped the best ending of the best show on TV with the best death — handing Bryan Cranston's Walter White his demise after he finally atoned for all the carnage involved in building his multi-million dollar meth empire. That his death came while protecting surrogate son Jessie Pinkman from machine gun fire was another delicious irony in a bravura finale filled with them.

But no one expected Walter White to get out of his self-made hell alive. What shocked us more this year were all the deaths we couldn't see coming: Hank Schrader, Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law on Breaking Bad; kindhearted PTSD sufferer Terry Bellefleur on True Blood; Dexter Morgan's sister Deb on Showtime's Dexter; Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey; and the conscience of AMC's The Walking Dead, gentle veterinarian and father figure Herschel Greene.

The bloodbath which saw Robb Stark, his mother and entire entourage killed in Game of Thrones' "Red Wedding" episode removed the show's closest thing to a hero and left some fans who hadn't read the Thrones books wondering who to root for next.

Speaking of wondering what's next, Homeland fans are scratching their heads after watching the show's co-lead, Damian Lewis' conflicted marine-turned-terrorist-turned CIA asset Nicholas Brody, get hanged by Iranian authorities at the end of the show's third season this year.

Can a series which always toggled between Brody's frantic lies and his bond with Claire Danes' bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison really survive without him? Can we even believe he's really dead?

FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy offered up two amazing deaths this year; the demise of Ron Perlman's stepdaddy from hell, Clay Morrow — which came two seasons too late, if you ask me — and the murder of Tara Knowles by the mother of Knowles' husband, Katey Sagal's Gemma Teller Morrow. Just when you think showrunner Kurt Sutter can't raise the stakes any higher, he has Gemma stick a fork in the skull of the woman she's hated for quite a while.

We learned a few rules about TV deaths. When a marginal character starts getting more screen time, look out. Producers may be setting you up to like the character, just so it hurts a bit more when they get whacked.

And death can sometimes just be a head fake to get attention. What else should fans think when Fox's Family Guy kills off beloved character Brian the Dog, only to bring him back again a few weeks later with an explanation involving time travel?

But mostly, the death of a major character is a way to reset the table for a series in the modern era of quality television, opening up new storylines or new characters.

What better way to tell your audience you mean business than to kill off a character they love?

During this week, I'll be exploring lots more interesting TV trends from 2013, including: why British crime dramas made the best binge viewing; how Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany became the most overlooked actress of the year; how a fake twerking video provided the best media criticism of the year and why a certain CBS sitcom remains the coolest old school comedy on television.

But no trend interests me more than the high profile character death.

It might be a tragedy in real life. But death is often the best thing that can happen to a long-running TV show.

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TV shows in 2013 brought the demise of many major characters. Still, as the casualties piled up, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans reminds us that the best television deaths of the year also highlighted some of the best moments on the small screen.

Before we start, we should include a spoiler alert to those fans who are still catching up on episodes of "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "Family Guy." You may want to turn down your radio, or maybe hum loudly for the next three minutes.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: For some fans, the murder of Hershel Greene on "The Walking Dead" was like killing off Santa Claus. Greene had a face full of white whiskers and a kindly manner. He was taken hostage, so the show's hero, Rick Grimes, was forced to beg for his life. It was powerful moment, Grimes pleading for compassion in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.


DEGGANS: With one stroke from a sword...


DEGGANS: ...the show's villain killed Hershel Greene, "The Walking Dead's" social conscience. It was a brutal answer to the show's central question: How do you hold onto your humanity in a merciless world? And that's the best thing about a major TV character's death - it jolts the audience with an unpredictability that feels just like real life.

Certainly, "Game of Thrones" viewers reacted that way when the show unleashed its horrifying "Red Wedding" episode. As a wedding banquet ended, a rival king slaughtered nobleman Robb Stark's pregnant wife and his friends. His mother grabbed a knife. She threatened the king's wife, to stop him from killing her son.


DEGGANS: As his armed men drew closer, the king delivered a chilling conclusion.


DEGGANS: Now, that's a truly merciless world.

TV nerds might say the year's most important onscreen death belonged to Walter White, the teacher-turned-drug lord on AMC's "Breaking Bad." But I was more interested in an earlier killing, the execution of Walter White's brother-in-law, drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader. White's neo-Nazi business partners captured the DEA agent after a shoot out. And as the Nazi leader pointed a gun at his head, the agent told White why he refused to plead for his own life.


DEGGANS: Walter White thought he could outwit both his DEA brother-in-law and the neo-Nazis without anyone getting killed. But Hank Schrader's death ended that illusion.

But there's one TV demise that shook the foundations of the industry, redefining one of the most enduring series on television.


DEGGANS: Say goodbye to Brian the dog, on "Family Guy." Brian's death hit hard. Fans signed petitions, critics wrote stories and suddenly, a show that wasn't getting much attention was drowning in it.

For many TV shows, a major death is a reset button. It's a chance to shake up the series with new directions or new characters. It might be a tragedy in real life, but death can sometimes be the best thing that happens to a TV show.


MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.