“Homeland” returned for its fourth season on Showtime Sunday, Oct. 6, with a big question to answer -- how would it handle killing off Brody (Damian Lewis), the show’s most significant male lead? The dilemma is all too common in the modern television landscape. As the procedural has given way to the serial episodic drama across much of television, especially cable, emotional and surprising character deaths have become more common and more important, if controversial. When done right, a well written, well placed and well executed (no pun intended) character death can bring with it both critical acclaim and a ratings boosts without losing fans along the way, but what is the trick for a show surviving a major character death?
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
One rule that seems rather obvious is that a show cannot get away with killing its main character, although no major drama has ever really attempted to do so (not counting series finales). Sure, HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” killed off the closest thing it had to a singular protagonist when it cut off Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) head in Season 1, but the world of “Game of Thrones” is so large (much like that of ABC’s “Lost,” which had a habit of routinely killing off a couple of its two dozen “major” characters each season) that it can withstand one character’s death. In fact, “Game of Thrones” has made an art out of using the character death to turn rabid fan anticipation into killer ratings.
“Game of Thrones” raises another interesting point. A show can kill off plenty of fan favorite characters, as long as it doesn’t kill the fan favorite character. Ned Stark may have been the most influential character of the “Game of Thrones” story in Season 1, but could the show have survived killing off Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)? Tyrion provided the most complex and charismatic character in the series and his relatability earned him the most passionate fan following of any “Thrones” character. Ned may have been the driving force behind “Game of Thrones” in Season 1, but Tyrion was the heart.
“Boardwalk Empire,” another HBO hit, killed its own fan favorite character when Nucky (Steve Buschemi) put a bullet in Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) at the end of Season 2. Even though Nucky was the main character, Jimmy was more beloved and the move has been criticized ever since.
One character death dynamic that seems to work well is killing off the second lead in show centered on a strong character pair (especially a mixed sex pair). Netflix’s “House of Cards,” for example, killed off Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and “The Good Wife” killed off Alicia’s (Julianna Margulies) love interest, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). This situation allows the show to explore new and interesting emotional territory in the other (surviving) character. This is especially true if another character can fill the void, as Matt Czuzhry has as “The Good Wife’s” Cary, providing a new (non-romantic) male counterpart to Alicia.
In killing a character the most important thing a show must consider is if they will have enough character and story left to work with when the initial excitement of the death fades. Maybe no show made this mistake more drastically than Showtime’s “Dexter,” which killed off Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) whole family, including wife Rita (Julie Benz) in Season 4. One of the most important story arcs in the show was the coldly unemotional Dexter’s gradual building of true love and affection for his family. As powerful of a season ending as his family’s murder was, it left the show without much of a heart (as mentioned before) and, while there are many reasons for the show’s famous decline in quality, many can be traced back to that point.
Time will tell how “Homeland” will handle the character death dilemma, but one thing is for certain, they will not be alone. As many character deaths as fans see today the only real question is who is next?
What is your favorite and least favorite character death? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.