Not again, I thought, as I finished watching the second season of House of Cards and saw my favorite character, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), chief of staff and general fixer for the ruthless politico Frank Underwood, eliminated for good — if death is for good, which I realize that on television it may not be (i.e., Dallas). Still, for all that Frank Underwood is a masterful manipulator, raising the dead isn’t among his skills — and the series isn’t into meta-storytelling — so I assume that Stamper won’t rise from the dead. And so I am upset; I had looked forward to seeing him combine poker-faced efficiency with angst-ridden depth.
I’ve had this happen to me before in the past few years — characters of some complexity that I’d become attached to annihilated without warning. There was the death of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and, then, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in Boardwalk Empire; Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in Homeland; Will Gardner (Josh Charles) in The Good Wife; and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in Downton Abbey — though the last of these didn’t bother me as much as the others. I happen to find Harrow’s half-a-face more appealing than Crawley’s pretty-boy looks.
The sacrifice of these characters is not new. TV series have long killed off major players for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, an actor gets tired of being confined to repetitive television roles (presumably the case for Charles and Stevens). Sometimes an actor actually dies, and his death or elimination must follow on screen (John Spencer on West Wing). And sometimes, a character’s death simply serves the plot. Soap opera actors have long worked in fear that they would be eliminated as their shows’ plot lines twist and turn.
But the new trend of eliminating a key character, though it may often be connected to the above reasons, also seems to have a more psychologically subversive aspect. These deaths seem derived less from a sense of necessity than from a desire to kill off someone to whom viewers have become attached. At first, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why would these shows want to punish us this way? Doesn’t it go against their interest to eliminate characters who are drawing an audience to the show? But some reflection suggests that this may be what that audience subliminally wants. The shows are feeding our masochistic desire for a certain kind of intense realism.
What I’m describing can be traced back to Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 film, Psycho, in which the death of the marquee star, Janet Leigh, in the role of the protagonist, Marion Crane, occurred less than mid-way through the film. Hitchcock’s marketers made a point of asking audiences to keep this dramatic event a secret so that future viewers could experience the jolt of surprise when, relatively early in the action, a compelling character played by a famous and beautiful actress is stabbed to death in the shower. But even today, when people know the plot of Psycho, the death of Marion Crane still manages to arouse a powerful double response. “It just doesn’t seem right,” to quote someone I know who watched the film recently, “but it’s brilliant.” There, in a nutshell, lies the value of this maneuver. Wrong but brilliant — unfair but real.
For in fact, that’s what life is like. People we love deeply can drop dead when we least expect it, and a void can suddenly open that was once filled by a vibrant presence. In a television series, where the characters have been expertly developed so that we have invested in them over time — in some cases, a year or more — the effect is even more like life than in a movie.
But if the deaths themselves are disturbing, what comes after is even more so. The action in these dramas proceeds unimpeded. We see that most of the other characters don’t feel as strongly about the dead character as we do. Even when they do, their grief is used in the service of other plot entanglements and quickly submerged in the forward drive of the story. Thus, we have to figure out how to handle the characters’ disappearance on our own.
What is interesting about these cases is how quickly we do adjust to the loss of the figures we liked so much. I know that I and others swore we would not watch Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire after Jimmy Darmody’s death. We felt that the character had so much more to reveal about himself; his removal from the series felt like a betrayal. The killing also seemed to mark a shift in the character of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the show’s protagonist. Despite his often brutal behavior, he had acted up until this point according to some kind of moral code. In killing Jimmy, he breached that code. Many of us concluded that with this act, the show had “jumped the shark,” in the terminology now standard for marking a series’ exhaustion and imminent demise. And yet, this prediction did not prove to be true. Everyone I know has continued to watch Boardwalk Empire and has forgiven Nucky. In other words, we have forgotten what he did, or at least subordinated it to other, more pressing and interesting developments in the plot that have placed him in a relatively positive light.
This, I suppose, is the way life works. There are few uninflected, sustained villains in everyday life. Even those who do awful things, if they get away with them, can rebuild their reputations, even among those who know what they did or who were directly affected by it.
As for the people sacrificed, they, like the misdeeds of those who remain, fade from view. What we don’t see we don’t feel much about anymore. It’s a sad but true commentary about how our minds work and how our loyalties to life adjust to what remains at hand. Poor Jimmy, Poor Brody, Poor Stamper. It’s not that we hardly knew thee; we knew thee very well. Even so, we can forget and move on. No character, represented or real, is irreplaceable, and rubbing that in our face is part of the postmodern nature of our best TV series. It’s a lesson that television learned from life. • 4 June 2014