April 13, 2016
First thing: here’s the link to “Origin Story,” which is about the unexpected things that can happen when you live in city populated with superheroes and villains.
It’s season finale season in TV land, and a bunch of shows are pulling out the stops, giving us mayhem and cliffhangers and surprise deaths. So…much…death… Spoilers below, primarily for Arrow and Supergirl.
I think killing characters off is a necessary thing, because death is a real thing, and fiction is a good place to explore and process the emotions that come with death. It’s also just good visceral fun to realize that your favorite characters may not be safe. I learned that with T.J. in the first Kitty book — after that, and for thirteen more books, I kept readers off balance because they knew I wasn’t afraid to go there.
But there’s a point where it becomes either A) gratuitous — done for shock value rather than emotional impact (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones); or B) so predictable the emotional impact is deadened.
That’s what happened on Arrow last week. Laurel’s been a stable, reliable part of the team for almost a season and a half now. Not much character development to speak of, but she’s still been cool and awesome to have around. Then, all of the sudden in the space of one episode, she’s having heartfelt discussions with everybody, pouring her heart out to Ollie, facing a couple of big life decisions. And then she says something like “I’ll be Black Canary just one more time!” Oh, honey. No no no. I spent half the episode just a little pissed off that the episode broadcast her fate so broadly. One might almost call it satire?
Supergirl hasn’t actually killed a hero yet, but when one of them utters the line, “I’ll tell you everything when I get back,” just before leaving on the dangerous mission, you know something terrible is going to happen.
For me anyway, this saps most of the emotional impact from the event. So frustrating.
As a contrast, I think one of the most impactful deaths on recent television was Barry’s mother in the first season finale of The Flash. The situation was already twisty — I mean, we know she’s dead, she’s been dead for the entire season. But that episode made us believe that Barry would save her. We started hoping — in spite of the problems it would cause — that yes, Barry could undo that moment in time and save the life that has driven so much of the backstory of the show. And then he doesn’t. And it isn’t that he fails — he chooses not to. The potential consequences of changing the past are too huge. The moment was a surprise. It also made sense. So powerful.
Another one is that one I keep going back to: Pilot, in Captain Power. At a time when nobody died in TV shows ever, Pilot died. She was left behind at the base which was about to be overrun by bad guys. She gathers together as much tech and info as she can, the computer backup, etc. She sets the base to self destruct, prepares to leave — and the self destruct malfunctions because of the enemy attack. She has to stay behind and detonate it manually. And she does, to keep the team’s secrets from falling into enemy hands, because that could potentially destroy humanity. Her death was a complete surprise. But also intensely logical, and the emotional fallout for the rest of the team was deep, deep story meat.
That’s how you do it. And for pity’s sake, you avoid any dialog that broadcasts what you’re about to do: I’ll tell you everything when I get back. I’ll just do this one more time. I’m retiring next week. We’re getting married. Etc.