2:45pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Why Did So Many Female Characters Die on TV Last Week?
[Contains spoilers for last week's episodes of six shows, including The Americans, Arrow and Sleepy Hollow. And by warning you about spoilers, I probably just spoiled you.]
TV tropes are birthed in dozens of little writing rooms and studios around Los Angeles and the world. Every showrunner has a different reason for doing the things he or she does, whether it's honoring the story or responding to behind-the-scenes production considerations. There isn't a bat signal that goes out across Hollywood, nor are most writers thinking, "How can we do what everybody else is doing or what everybody else has already done?"
That means that there wasn't a memo that went out among the entertainment Illuminati that mandated that last week would be a great week for television to kill off major female characters. But if you happen to watch a ridiculous amount of TV, it would have been easy to feel that this was less a passive trope and more a fiat sent through a listserve of powerful scribes.
By my count, at least six of the shows that I watch had variably major female characters, some leads and some more marginal, killed in episodes last week. That doesn't take into account TV shows I don't watch, or the dozens of shows that I'm in various states of "behind" on, so the number may actually be higher.
That's six shows killing non-villain, non-victim-of-the-week female characters, which becomes dramatically more interesting when I make this observation: Last week, the number of shows that had female characters who left storylines either via natural, non-violent death or any of the myriad ways in which, in normal life, people depart jobs, cities or fantastical realms without dying equaled zero. Not one female character on any of show I watched got a job in a different state, returned to her home planet or incredulously asked, "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" after being fired.
That's when you start pondering something along the lines of, "Wow. Is this the only way we know how to do drama, and should this be a subject of some concern?" Because death is a powerful writing tool and it's one that I'll never demand scribes relinquish or even ponder toning down. And I'm not going to say that last week's estrogen blood bath was a sign of institutional sexism or anything else. In addition, because we've been talking about this a lot lately, not every woman killed off of a show last week was a minority or gay. After The Walking Dead and The 100 deaths this spring, the Bury Your Gays trope has gotten a lot of press, for good reason, specifically the Dead Lesbian Syndrome. Every scribe who has worried about this as a prevalent writing fall-back has been correct to do so. But although they're a majority in the population, women in general are an endangered minority on TV, or at least they sure were last week.
In that spirit, let's look (in alphabetical order) at the six shows killing off female characters last week — April 4 to April 10 — with a brief discussion of the narrative necessity of the deaths and the ramifications on the show's long-term storytelling. Several of the deaths felt powerful or urgent. Others did not. But case by case, what does any of it mean?
The Americans — This one hurt, but I think that its "surprise" has been overplayed. Nina Sergeevna Krilova was not designed for long-term use on FX's The Americans, but Annet Mahendru was so wonderful that the writers wanted to keep her around long after it necessarily made sense to keep Nina alive. Nina was a traitor several times over by the rules of the show. And the rules of the show demanded blood in order to remain potent. Part of the conflicted excellence of The Americans is the constant reminder that Philip and Elizabeth are cogs in a system that is vicious and adversarial to our '80s American values. They're heroes and also the enemy. It's one thing for them to contemplate killing Pastor Tim, because viewers are probably ready to kill Pastor Tim. But the show was building to Nina's death by getting soft on her and on the world she found herself trapped in. The sweetness of her relationship with Anton, Oleg's willingness to symbolically sacrifice his freedom for her, even the sudden care Gabriel (Frank Langella) has been taking of Philip and Elizabeth and Paige — those things were all setting us up to forget the show's stakes. Nina's death reminded us. Powerfully. But it was inevitable. This was already far longer than she should have survived.
Arrow — After months of teasing, last week's episode seemed to confirm that Katie Cassidy's Laurel is in the grave we've been seeing for months, stabbed by Damien Darhk, then given the opportunity to say sad, powerful, still-mysterious last words to Oliver before flatlining. Laurel was a much maligned character when The CW's Arrow premiered, but by the time she was dismissed, many of us had grown to think her Black Canary was pretty decent. Arrow was in a tough place building to a major character death. Thanks to Lazarus Pits and whatnot, killing Thea would have been an anti-climax, or at least an emotional repeat, something the show already did with Sara Lance. Killing Diggle would have raised ire for a show with an only limited minority presence. Killing Felicity would have made me and many others quit watching immediately, plus they already did a fake-out with Felicity's shooting at midseason (a fake-out that didn't fool many viewers). Nobody would have cared enough if they'd killed Quentin Lance. So instead, Quentin has now had to deal with thinking that his two daughters have been killed a dozen times, which isn't going to help his battle with alcoholism or Paul Blackthorne's battle with his native accent. So Laurel died because she was the closest thing Arrow had to a character who was simultaneously disposable, but important enough to make other characters cry. That's not a great circumstance and speaks to deeper issues, but I understand it.
Empire — I'm including Fox's Empire here mostly because of its prominence, since Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) and Camilla Marks-Whiteman (Naomi Campbell) weren't cast regulars or protagonists. They were villains, and villains on soap operas get killed. They were also high-profile guest stars on a show that actors like to do because their cameos can be close-ended. But they were also the lesbian characters on the most popular show on network TV, so whether they're vintage Bury Our Gays examples or not, they need to be acknowledged as part of last week's carnage. Their absence won't hurt the show, and Empire will likely continue to have both strong female characters and shrill one-dimensional female characters in abundance. [Note that I'm just assuming Camila is dead, victim of a semi-suicide. I don't actually care. Neither Mimi nor Camilla was a good character.]
Hap and Leonard — The show is called Hap and Leonard, not Hap and Leonard and Trudy, and Christina Hendricks was always credited as a guest star on SundanceTV's six-episode series. Trudy also died in Joe R. Lansdale's novel and she was fundamentally doomed from the beginning. Unlike Hap (James Purefoy), whose relationship to his '60s idealism was pragmatic and evolved with the passage of time, Trudy was stuck. She couldn't move forward, couldn't become modern, and so there was nowhere to go. She was, however, one of several women this week to die as an enabler for the lives of the show's male characters, but at least she also led directly to the male antagonist when the male heroes wouldn't have been able to survive themselves. Oh, and Pollyanna McIntosh's Angel also died this week, but she was evil, so she doesn't count here. Did I mention that a ton of women died on TV last week?
Sleepy Hollow — This is the one that's bad and the only one that will contribute directly to my dropping a show from my viewing rotation. Per THR, Nicole Beharie's Abbie sacrificed herself in the third-season finale largely because Beharie wanted out of the yet-to-be-renewed Fox drama. But if Beharie wanted out, it was largely because in the long gap between the first and second seasons, the writers lost track of how to handle the core of the show, which was the Abbie/Ichabod relationship. And I put the names in that order for a reason. To me, it was Abbie's show. Ichabod was the wacky and lovable time-traveler. The various robots and Kyle Reese are not the stars of the Terminator franchise. Sarah Connor is. Abbie was Sarah Connor, she was the character grounded in the real world whose life was turned upside down by the discovery that these supernatural forces, forces Ichabod always knew all about, were real. Sleepy Hollow was Abbie's story and the decision to give up her life and her soul to stop this season's apocalyptic event shouldn't have been required of her, except that every character on Sleepy Hollow has effectively become disposable other than Ichabod, which is part of why, even if Sleepy Hollow is renewed for a fourth season, I'm done. The show was a two-character relationship procedural, and I might have kept watching in perpetuity for Abbie and Ichabod, but I won't keep watching just for Ichabod learning about some vast government conspiracy. Like Arrow, though, Sleepy Hollow put itself in a position where no other character's death would have had any emotional resonance, which is more conspicuously annoying when you look at the number of minority and female characters who were never adequately realized. Abbie and Ichabod both sacrificed themselves for each other over three seasons, but having Abbie make the final sacrifice was, to me, a huge misunderstanding of what Sleepy Hollow was built to be as a story and the power balance at the center that gave it its only remaining viability.
Vikings — Here's one of those circumstances where being home to more strong female characters than possibly any other show on TV pays off for Vikings, because Michael Hirst's History drama could go on an all-female killing spree for weeks and still earn the benefit of the doubt. Neither Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey), former heir to the kingdom of Mercia, nor Yidu (Dianne Doan), Chinese slave to Aslaug and then Ragnar, was necessary to the story. Kwenthrith had moments of fierceness, but her death continued this season's fantastic ascension for Jennie Jacques' Judith, whom I consider much more important. And Yidu was always a piece of Orientalist exoticism that wasn't wholly convincing, though knowing Vikings it wouldn't surprise me if she haunted Ragnar for a while. Vikings has always been vicious when it comes to killing off male and female characters alike, and with Lagertha, Aslaug, Judith and an assortment of increasingly persuasive shield maidens, queens and mistresses, it's more of a footnote here than a real culprit.
As you can see, the reasons for writing out female characters were myriad, ranging from "Our actress wanted out because we stopped being able to give her satisfying material" to "The story demanded it" to "It's what we do" to "It was the book's fault" to "There was no other character whose departure anybody would care about." There wasn't a collective Hollywood decision to kill all those female characters, nor a collective scheduling decision to have so many episodes and female deaths in the same seven days. It was just bad luck that all of those TV deaths came in one week — bad luck for people who like their female characters on TV to stay alive.
It's early, but let's see if we can kill fewer women this week, TV.