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January talking meme, Jan 29. From harsens_rob: Choose 2 Joss-verse characters who've died. One that you believe was handled very well and one that you think... wasn't.... How were they handled differently and why do you feel one worked and the other just didn't?


As usual, giving thought to this put it beyond two characters.


It's said one of the hallmarks of urban fantasy (this also obviously applies to contemporary horror) is that all characters are Fair Game. The potential death of any character, no matter how central to the narrative, ups the stakes and lets the reader/viewer know the characters are playing for keeps.

Joss Whedon, of course, isn't just an example of this, he's the King.

Joss sets the tone for his attitude towards character death in the very first episode of BtVS with the death of Jesse. It's well-known that Joss wanted to put Jesse in the main credits of Welcome to the Hellmouth just so he could stun the audience by killing him off. And behind-the-camera troubles aside, I'm pretty convinced that's (the writers' reason) for the death of Doyle in Season 1 of Angel. Both deaths were, IMO, non-gratuitous. Jesse's death occurred to instruct both viewers and the characters (in particular, Xander and Willow) that This Is Serious, Folks. Doyle, on the other hand, chose to die for a noble cause. It was no less shocking than Jesse's death, though, and you can imagine Joss' glee at finally being able to kill off a credits character.

Characters die for all sorts of reasons on BtVS and AtS, but one of the main reasons they die is to signal a change in the character who killed them. For Joss, this is usually a character we've come to trust, but sometimes, it's the rise of the bad guy (or both). Showing a character murder someone is Joss' signal that "something's changed." Examples abound: Jenny Calendar (Angel(us), Deputy mayor Allan Finch (Faith), Maggie Walsh (Adam), Katrina (The Trio), Warren (Willow), the wine cellar W&H lawyers (which Angel allows through inaction), Lilah (Beast-Master!Cordelia). The problem isn't that Joss does this. The problem is, he does this A LOT.

There are lots of other ways you can signal a change in a character and a change in the direction of a season. Wesley's betrayal of Angel in Season 3 was an effective way to change the stakes mid-season and resulted in interesting developments for both characters, without anyone having to die during the act of betrayal.

Joss' over-reliance on this trope lead to a lot of "the devil made me do it" story lines in which trusted friends (e.g., Angel, Cordelia, Spike [season 7 *oy*] must be robbed of their agency in order to make them kill somebody.

The other thing Joss overdid was Beloved Character Has to Die to Enact Change in the Hero or Season. Now, this can be an extremely powerful plot development. The first episode Joss did this in, Passion (Jenny Calendar's death), remains one of my favorites.

But there is a tipping point in keeping the stakes high where you start to lose a viewer or reader's investment, where it becomes so common for characters to die, viewers are no longer willing to invest emotionally in the characters. When a viewer reaches this point, they can either take a more flippant attitude towards the show, or stop watching it all together. I doubt either of these outcomes is something show-runners want.

I think the tipping point for me was Tara in Season 6 of BtVS. I could deal with Joyce dying in Season 5 to mark the transition of Buffy into adulthood. But Tara's death taxed me. Follow up that up with Cordelia's slow fade in AtS, and Fred's gratuitous assault in Season 5 of AtS, and I pretty much held my "giving a shit"-edness together only by sheer force of will to the end of AtS season 5. My issue with each of these deaths went beyond "too much is too much." They were also each out-and-out slaughters. None of these characters had a chance against their killers (Cordelia was effectively killed by Jasmine in Inside Out, despite her coma and brief return in Season 5). They were ruthlessly slaughtered by a Baddie just to shake things up.

For me, when it comes to major characters, the best deaths (1) show a victim dying against their killer after a valiant defense and because no other, alternative plot developments can effectively accomplish what their death can in the story (hence why Jenny Calendar's death works better than Tara's or Fred's); or (2) someone (directly or indirectly) causing their own death because their actions, or deliberate inaction, either heroic or villainous, resulted in it. When this happens to a villain, it's poetic justice. When it happens to a hero, you get Doyle, or Buffy (but she always comes back), or Darla in Lullaby (although there is a Madonna/Whore element to her death that annoys me a little).

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( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
masqthephlsphr
Jan. 30th, 2014 12:05 am (UTC)
I was going to go into a tangent about writers' bloodlust leading to the death of characters that they later decide they like and so reanimate. It's fortunate only SF/F (and outlandish soaps) can really get away with this.

It's really gotten absurd with Vampire Diaries. I rather enjoyed it when the character in question was Darla.

One reason they went into this whole, "Fred's soul was destroyed in the fire of Illyria's resurrection" crap on Angel was so that they could get around the viewer's "Someone can do magic to bring her back." Thus allowing Fred's death to be truly tragic and motivating to the survivors.

Of course, disgruntled viewers can always find a loophole, and so series writers as well. The fact that the guy who claimed Fred's soul was destroyed was a untrustworthy W&H doctor lackey always gave me a fan fiction way to bring Fred back.
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sophist
Jan. 30th, 2014 03:42 pm (UTC)
"Unavailable" being the polite term.
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sophist
Jan. 30th, 2014 11:06 pm (UTC)
Her initial response, IIRC, was that she didn't want to do it -- "it" being the avatar of the First -- because of the fallout from SR. When Joss later mentioned that he'd had the idea of resurrecting her, she denied ever hearing of that plan.

A high school? That's pretty scary, especially given Joss's view of high school. Hell, my own memories of high school consist of far too many stupid things I said or did, and I generally *liked* high school. Of course, if they just meant the sex and drugs, that's different. :)
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sophist
Jan. 30th, 2014 11:46 pm (UTC)
I'd love to read a gossipy account of life on that set. I doubt we ever will, though. Maybe NB will do a tell-all bio.
masqthephlsphr
Jan. 30th, 2014 11:50 pm (UTC)
I like watching the writer and director commentaries on DVDs. But that's the creative process, not backstage politics.
masqthephlsphr
Jan. 30th, 2014 04:09 pm (UTC)
My understanding was they were going to bring Tara back as an avatar of the First Evil, which Benson objected to, and that's the reason she didn't come back. And they used Cassie instead.

Edited at 2014-01-30 04:09 pm (UTC)
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masqthephlsphr
Jan. 30th, 2014 11:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, behind the scenes stuff, I am oblivious to.

They would have had to keep Tara on (off and on) for the remainder of the season and nixed the Kennedy stuff.

I am pro-Kennedy, but I'm more pro-Tara.
chaos_by_design
Jan. 31st, 2014 12:39 am (UTC)
You make a lot of damn good points.

I don't have much to add.
masqthephlsphr
Jan. 31st, 2014 04:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
treadingthedark
Feb. 1st, 2014 08:36 pm (UTC)
"But there is a tipping point in keeping the stakes high where you start to lose a viewer or reader's investment, where it becomes so common for characters to die, viewers are no longer willing to invest emotionally in the characters. When a viewer reaches this point, they can either take a more flippant attitude towards the show, or stop watching it all together. I doubt either of these outcomes is something show-runners want."
I agree. I started the slow slide, during the shows, but really, the comic was I realized how far it had gone. The end of season 8 with it's big death only got an eye roll from me. How things had changed.
masqthephlsphr
Feb. 1st, 2014 09:36 pm (UTC)
"Joss is killing someone again. And whataya wanna bet they'll be back?"

*Yawn*
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )