At the moment, it seems that deaths are to TV shows what coffees are to Starbucks – that is to say filled with them, the central focus of advertising campaigns. Of course, that makes sense, everyone wants to see that their favourite character has survived, tension makes for exciting viewing. However, with nearly every show dropping bodies like a serial killer, viewers tend to find themselves less affected by a visit from the grim reaper.
A good TV death needs to resonate emotionally – the audience needs to care. If we don’t, what’s the point? Look at Glenn and Abraham’s deaths in The Walking Dead – though both died at the same time in the same manner, Glenn’s death was the bigger event. The reason for this is that Glenn has been in the show from the start, a central character, and often one who brought levity and humour to the dark world of the show. Comparatively, Abraham came late to the action and also was just another tough guy in a show full of tough guys – the two just don’t compare.
If the death has some symbolic meaning, then it hits home harder too. Think of characters that have sacrificed themselves to save others, like the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who. It’s that ultimate selflessness, the fact that they chose to protect the people around them, no matter what the cost. And as is the case with Charlie in Lost, the death takes on a greater meaning if a doomed character still tries to aide their friends. The words ‘Not Penny’s Boat’ might be meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with Lost, but if you love the show, I’d find it hard to believe that you don’t feel a tugging at your heartstrings.
Furthermore, a good death should be final. If a show keeps resurrecting characters, death will lose the significance it holds. Why bother getting upset about losing a character if the chances are they’ll reappear next episode? If the Red Wedding had happened after Jon Snow’s extended nap, it would not have had the same impact. In Gotham (and comic books generally), death is just a temporary state, a convenient plot device, which strips it of all meaning.
Most importantly, all great TV deaths must add more to the story than is taken away by the loss of the character. The other characters must respond, react and grow accordingly and the overall theme of the show should be promoted or challenged in some way. Some deaths are darkly entertaining, theatrically gruesome or just plain shocking. But when they seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, they can’t help but seem cheap in a way. The best storytelling should not do that – it should portray as much as possible the value of human life.