Think back to the halcyon days of this summer, a more innocent time, when people still thought True Detective’s second season might be good. Remember when it briefly made us think Colin Farrell’s character was dead? No? Even if the show’s second season wasn’t a comically incoherent mess you want to expunge, you probably still would have forgotten that particular death fake-out in the wake of so many others: The Walking Dead’s Glenn, The Leftovers’ Kevin Garvey, Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow. If TV in 2015 had a unifying trend, it was its failure to kill off its darlings.
Reneging on a character’s death isn’t new, nor is it necessarily bad storytelling. Unfortunately, this past year has done it so much — and engaged in denial and audience trickery — that killing off a protagonist is becoming the TV equivalent of crying wolf. It’s a shame, because Joss Whedon showed that, when spun the right way, it can be an intriguing turn.
Hark back to the end of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy kicked the bucket in a surprising development made no less emotional by its ridiculously dated graphics.
Fifteen years and several technological advancements later, Game of Thrones ended its own fifth season in a similar manner, only with the extra sting of betrayal (Ollie, you little fucker). Ever since then, everyone from Kit Harington to David Benioff’s wife to the HBO programing president has insisted the Lord Commander’s watch has ended forever: Jon Snow is deader than dead, so damn dead he makes Evil Dead look like Evil Just-Taking-a-Nap.
The Walking Dead did the same thing with Glenn, seemingly killing him off until the big reveal a few episodes later. Fans were not impressed. They’d either guessed it or thought that this death, at least, might break television’s cycle of deaths that don’t stick. Nobody likes being played for a fool or feeling like the writers of their favorite show don’t respect their intelligence.
The Leftovers mercifully waited just one episode to resolve Kevin Garvey’s death, and any annoyance fans felt at the “Is he dead?” cliffhanger was abated when the show answered the question with a masterpiece of an episode, the best dreamlike hour of TV since Buffy’s “Restless.”
The Walking Dead did it and saw failure; The Leftovers met success; True Detective met exasperation. Game of Thrones is the only show that, like Buffy, is waiting an entire year to answer the question. Since GoT already lost some fans, the show would do best to learn from 2015: The Year TV Character Death Became Meaningless, and look to Buffy for guidance.
The marketing campaign for Buffy’s sixth season cleared up any questions. Bold red posters proclaimed that the show had better things to do than yank fans around.
It didn’t take the suspense away — there was still the intriguing question of how exactly Buffy would live; how death would change her, and how that would impact the Scoobies group dynamic. But Joss Whedon didn’t need to lean on gimmicks. He knew the narrative and characters were strong enough for the fans to return in spite of knowing how the cliffhanger resolved. Luckily, Game of Thrones appears to be taking a cue from the Buffy playbook. This Jon Snow does not look unchanged by his detour through the afterlife.
Believe it or not, when the relationship between a show’s creators and its viewers is transparent — when the viewer feels respected — the audience keeps coming back. A show and its audience don’t have to have a relationship like Buffy and Spike’s. 2015 may have been the year of TV Death Fake-Outs; let 2016 be the Year of TV Honesty.