[DOWNTON ABBEY SPOILER ALERT]
We’ve all been there — sitting on the couch in stunned silence, surrounded by tissues, reeling from the death of popular characters on TV. We’ve all gone through the five stages of television-junkie grief: They can’t be dead, we’ve said, it’s a dream or alternate reality (denial). That actor just wants more money, we’ve shouted (anger). Couldn’t they wait one more season to wrap up the story line, we’ve asked (bargaining). I’m never watching this show again, we’ve cried (depression). We’ll always have season one on Netflix, we’ve sighed (acceptance).
But every time we’re forced to say goodbye to a popular character, the question remains: Was that really necessary?
Most of the time, the answer is “yes.” As much as it hurts, that’s drama, folks. If nobody died, Downton Abbey would be a comedy about kooky British aristocrats and their zany servants. World War I, what a hoot!
Sure, watching Lady Sybil and Matthew Crowley die (surprisingly) violent deaths was not enjoyable. I, for one, needed a drink as stiff as Lord Grantham’s upper lip after each episode. But think about how much more interesting season four will be because of those deaths. Will Mary give in to her dark side and become The Uber-Snob without Matthew’s calming presence? Will Branson — I mean Tom — betray his revolutionary roots and take guardianship of Downton? Will the Dowager Countess mutter something acerbic and profound at the same time, reminding us the real reason we tune into Downton Abbey is to watch Dame Maggie Smith at her absolute best? We can only be sure about the last.
Imagine a television drama that never killed off important characters. Wait, you don’t have to. It was called Heroes and it dragged on for four seasons under the sagging weight of half a dozen useless characters. Without death, the stakes aren’t high. Without death, there is no drama.
As Julian Fellows, creator of Downton Abbey, said recently, “Nothing is harder to dramatize than happiness.”
In other words, happy characters are boring.
It’s not exactly a novel theory. Aristotle said something similar in his “Poetics,” written around 335 BC. Drama “is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude,” he wrote.
Lost, despite its other flaws, knew how to keep the stakes high. Sure, it killed off its fair share of ancillary red-shirts (Dr. Arzt, Nikki, Paulo, etc.), but it also bumped some of the show’s most beloved and interesting characters. Lost showrunners sent a clear message to the audience with the death of characters like Mr. Eko, Charlie and Juliet: No one is safe.
As viewers, we need that message. We need to be surprised, kept on our toes.
“These moments are really good for television,” Lost co-creator Carlton Cuse recently told The New York Times. “As a storyteller, you want to attack and break up those conventions the audience has in their minds.”
Even comedies employ these techniques — remember when Radar announced Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s death on M*A*S*H? (If not, watch it here.)
Gary Burghoff’s brilliant performance as Radar gives us another reason why killing characters can strengthen a show. Death lets us see actors at their very best.
Sarah Michelle Geller was great at snark, sass, and all-around butt-kicking as Buffy on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But her shell-shocked performance when Buffy’s mother died brought the show to a new level and made “The Body” one of the best episodes of the series.
Part of what made Lady Sybil’s death so heart wrenching were the performances by Elizabeth McGovern and Allen Leech, begging their beloved Sybil to wake up. Say what you will about Matthew’s death, but I’m excited to see how Michelle Dockery plays a widowed Mary.
Despite grumblings, we’ll keep watching shows like Downton Abbey — not despite the death of popular characters but because of it. We want to see what happens next. And if we don’t like it, we’ll always have season one on Netflix.
Find Leah Burrows on Google+.