Day 6

How to kill a TV character, from Roseanne to Ned Stark

This week, The Conners debuted, having killed off Roseanne. Culture writer Alyssa Bereznak runs down why some TV deaths work and others don't.

‘If you are going to kill off a character, you might as well take some notes from Game of Thrones’

On Oct. 16, actress and executive producer Roseanne Barr said she didn't like the way her character was killed off in the Roseanne spin-off The Conners. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday, the Roseanne spin-off show The Conners premiered on ABC.

In the first episode viewers learned the matriarch of the family, Roseanne Conners, had died from an opioid overdose.

In May, ABC cancelled the Roseanne reboot after actress Roseanne Barr made racist comments on Twitter.

But Barr wasn't pleased with how ABC killed off her character in The Conners.

"That it was done through an opioid overdose lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show," Barr said in a joint statement she issued on Tuesday with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

"This was a choice the network did not have to make."

Killing off main TV show characters has become more common, according to Alyssa Bereznak, a culture writer at the Ringer.

Sometimes show writers are left with no option because of contractual issues with actors, but they also kill off characters to generate a buzz or further the plot.

A delicate art

But killing characters, particularly beloved ones, and keeping fans interested is a delicate art.

"There are some really searing memories in my TV watching experience that have stuck with me as cheap deaths or deaths that we're not executed properly," she said.

"Pun intended."

Day 6 asked Bereznak for examples off when killing off a main character did and didn't work.

(Warning! Spoilers ahead for Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Scandal, Game of Thrones and Halt and Catch Fire.)

How not to kill a character: 

1. The death of Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey

Matthew Crawley, who is played by Dan Stevens, was in a will-they-or-won't-they relationship with Lady Mary Crawley, another main character, for many years before the two finally got married.

"And just the moment when she has [a] child and they're happy and he's going to celebrate and he wants to tell everyone the news, he gets into a fatal car crash," Bereznak said.

Fans who had long been invested in the emotional success of the couple were justifiably upset by this "vicious," twist in the story, she added.

"I think it was clear to everyone that this was so abrupt that it wasn't actually purposeful," Bereznak said, adding Dan Stevens had ended his contract and didn't return to the show.

2. Glenn and Abraham's death in The Walking Dead

Season six of The Walking Dead ended with a cliffhanger in which Negan, a bad guy played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, declares he's going to get revenge against protagonist Rick Grimes's group.

"He has this big wooden stick and it's covered in barbed wire and he starts playing eeny-meeny-miny-moe with all of these characters that people spent six seasons ... working up relationships with."

Although the season ended with Negan bashing somebody's head, fans had to wait till the next season to find out who it was.

"When they came back, not one but two beloved characters were killed and in a really gruesome way," Bereznak said, adding one much-loved character's eyes popped out of his sockets while his pregnant wife watched.

"It felt like it was veering on the edge of torture porn. I think that this is a case where maybe the show writers got a little too carried away with the attention that comes with killing off characters."

3. James Novak's death in Scandal

Death is all too common in Shondaland. But the demise of James Novak in Scandal was one of the first that aggravated Bereznak.

Novak, played by Dan Bucatinsky, was a reporter in the White House Press Corps, and he was married to Cyrus Beene, chief of staff at the White House.

Their relationship was full of drama and tension, but Bereznak says she was rooting for them.

"Would they have a baby? Would they finally feel comfortable being public as a gay couple and the political environment that is D.C.?"

The building drama between the couple ended abruptly when Novak started investigating government conspiracy and his became the target of an assassination.

His death seemed as though the show writers "were bored of Cyrus as a spouse and they wanted him to be this much bigger political animal," Bereznak said.

How to kill a character:

1. Ned Stark's death in Game of Thrones

"If you are going to kill off a character, you might as well take some notes from Game of Thrones," Bereznak said.

Ned Stark, the hero of the show, makes a political miscalculation that ends with his head under the guillotine.

To the very last moment, fans were hoping he would somehow come out alive, Bereznak said.

"But then the blade falls and he dies and you realize this is not a fairy tale."

Despite how hard the moment was for fans, the show was staying true to itself, Bereznak said.

"It was it was a declaration that the importance of the show didn't lie in one character but in the really cut throat rules of this universe," she added.

Later, in season three, the show once again killed off main characters, but in doing so reaffirmed the fact that the rules of Game of Thrones apply to everyone, according to Bereznak.

2. Gordon Clark's 'poetic' death in Halt and Catch Fire

If there's such a thing as a great TV death, Bereznak says it would be Gordon Clark's in Halt and Catch Fire.

Clark is a once-promising engineer who works a lot on computers and has been exposed to chemicals at work.

The show writers "needed to actually wrap up that plot line and they really didn't resort to something cheap or gruesome," Bereznak said.

"His passing is illustrated as a series of flashbacks in his life," she added.

When Bereznak spoke to the show's creators about Clark's death, she says they told her it was almost as if his brain was processing the moment like a computer.

"I thought that was really poetic," she adds.

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