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We Kill Heroes (and villains)

March 25, 2014

Forbes: With A Shocking Plot Twist–And A Letter of Explanation–CBS’s The Good Wife Takes On Cable Rivals At Their Own Game by Allen St. John:

Last night, as it so often does, the busiest TV night of the week yielded a shocking plot twist–and the death of a major character. Except it wasn’t a character in the zombie-riddled wasteland of the The Walking Dead who met an untimely death …

LeaderPost: “Good Wife shocker latest in morbid mania“:

Gardner wasn’t the first – nor will he be the last – TV character to make a jarring departure. On zombie epic The Walking Dead, gruesome, stunning departures are a way of life. … all part of a grisly buffet for the ravenous zombies.

The gist of these articles is that the cable television story arc of killing off main characters is migrating to network television. Of course, network TV shows have killed characters before, but in light of so many recent shock deaths on cable, this shock death on CBS feels like a potential watershed moment in “morbid mania”.

The audience doesn’t want to see the character just sent off to Seattle or otherwise set aside, they want completeness, and so to get the ratings, they decide to kill the character dead. The more surprising the better, the more you loved the character the better (see Downton Zombies), simulations of death and schadenfreude…

Recall last year “Cable wins Sunday with Zombies, Jesus and Dragons“. And so clearly the major networks are responding.

Earlier this year in HuffPo, Dr. David Katz, M.D. wrote “Do We Need to Kill Our Heroes?” ascribes it to problem of dualism:

Our literature — even our greatest literature — seems to sanctify the insoluble problem. It suggests to us that we live in a world of either/or, good and evil, us and them. In such a world, our heroes must fight, all too often to the death,… The origins of this dualistic view of reality likely extend to scripture, …Our character, which says everything about who we are, inevitably comes in shades of gray. And yet, we propagate the simple expediency of good versus evil, us versus them. … We can’t stop killing heroes until we see another way for us, and them.

How does this relate to the issue of heroes killing their villains? Do dead heroes make it easier to justify dead villains? Recall Alex Zalben’s lament of the modern superhero killing spree:

We need to know there’s another choice other than killing, so that we can become the screenwriters of our own lives, and our children can do the same for their lives. We can take control, and realize that beyond killing, or mutual destruction, there’s always a third choice.

And many more than that. As with so many binomial choices, it’s false dichotomies. Still the audience enjoys the suspense death. Expect more character deaths on television.


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