Back in the 80’s somewhere, everyone’s favourite kooky city girl turned farmer, turned new mum lost her battle with cancer and died as the closing credits rolled on A Country Practice. Lying on a lounge and covered by a blanket, Molly watched as her husband and young daughter ran down the hill playing. The image started to fade, and the viewers saw Molly’s final image, of her daughter and husband, playing happily.
The moment is burned into my mind. I was only a child but I remember watching A Country Practice with my parents every week. Frankly, Shirley, the kooky medical centre receptionist was my favourite character, but I remember as a child watching the storyline of Molly’s cancer battle and subsequent death. I admit it, I cried. Given that I have never seen that episode again, remembering it as clearly as I do means it obviously had some form of impact on me.
Twitter last night went into social media meltdown over the death of a character on the TV show Offspring. Now, to be fair and honest, I’ve never watched the show. But what I found interesting was the introduction of social media into the mix. Back when Molly drew her final shallow breath and passed away there was no social media; hell there was no internet.
I’m sure telephone services lit up all over the country as viewers called friends to discuss poor Molly, and poor little Chloe who would never know her mum, but I know for a fact not a single tweet or Facebook post was made.
Death is a part of life. It always has been. And it’s a part of entertainment. George R R Martin, the author of the Game Of Thrones series uses death like most people use poetic language to describe the scent of a sunrise. He kills of characters – it seems – almost faster than he comes up with replacements.
The recently aired “Red Wedding” episode was another television death that sent social media into over-drive. I’ll admit to sitting there watching it all go down with a surreal, slack-jawed sense of “are you F*ing kidding me!!” (Yes, I’m a new convert, never read the books, but I’m doing that now, he’s not catching me out again like that!)
I’m sure people out there with a better education than I’ve had would be able to give you the psychological reasons why the death of TV characters can have a lasting impact. I’m pretty sure therapists Australian wide would be remiss if they didn’t offer “So Your Favourite TV Character Died” grief counselling sessions.
But quite frankly, in writing or entertainment, death is great for ratings – or sales. When George R R Martin wiped out the King of the North, his pregnant wife and his mother, not to mention pretty much the collective army of the North during that wedding sequence he was resetting the game. Bringing into the equation a sense of the “unknown”.
Offspring – following on from Downton Abbey who killed off the character of Matthew as he was returning from visiting his new born son – has done the same thing. Killing off a favoured character; a soon to be new father, in order to heighten the drama of next season. It will be interesting to see what differences there are between TV’s too favourite newly single mums. Lady Mary on Downton Abbey with her stiff upper lip, aristocratic persona and Nina, a character I once heard described as neurotic to the point of ridiculous.
“To Kill Your Darlings” is a favourite of a writer. Build them up, take the audience on a journey and then kill them off. Frankly, if I was a writer on Offspring I’d have been gunning for Nina herself. Yes, the show is all about her and her relationships, but I’d have killed her off in child-birth, a nice, juicy, double whammy that would have left all the supporting characters to raise a baby.
Then again, there’s a reason I’m not a writer or producer and I’d probably need a 24 hour, 7 day a week bodyguard if I ever really got any level of success as a writer.
In a writing course I did a few months ago, I killed off 90% of the population of the story world in a battle between two Gods and their children. The ultimate sacrifice of one Godling sort of naturally blew the world to hell and took out most of the population with it. The instructor of that course told me I’m a dangerous writer. When I asked what she meant she said “you have no fear in killing people off and I have a feeling as your story unfolds it’s going to be dangerous to develop connections to characters because you’re never going to know if they live or die.”
She’s right. That series – 3 part fantasy series – is pretty much planned out. While I’ve been writing it I’ve had characters turn up I didn’t expect and one main character who I wasn’t expecting to die but appears most likely they will.
What I find most interesting in all of this, is the sense of “entitlement” and “ownership” fans have over their favourite shows and characters. The character who died last night – I think his name was Patrick – is an actor. He moved on. That is all. If you like his performance continue to support him, watch his new works. But he’s not really dead. He’s probably sitting at home this morning with a cup of coffee and the paper reading some ridiculous article lambasting Channel 10 for allowing his character to be killed off in the first place.
I guess the point to this post is that writers write, actors act, and when all is said down, Art Imitates Life. Life is a cycle. Births, Deaths and Marriages, and in between we love a little, cry a little, celebrate and commiserate. The death of a TV character – as I remember reading online when someone died in a car accident on Packed to the Rafters – is an exercise in the grieving process for a lot of viewers.
My thought is that creativity can not be allowed to be dictated to by the viewer, or the reader. Like an artists work, it’s why they do it. But to turn your back on the product just because a decision was made you don’t like is ridiculous. I kept watching A Country Practice, even after Molly died. I keep watching Game of Thrones if only to see who’ll get killed of next. I probably won’t watch Offspring but then again, I never have.