I remember 40 years ago watching “M*A*S*H” and the feeling of utter shock when Henry Blake died.
McLean Stevenson, who had played Blake on the series since its premiere in September 1972, had decided to leave the acclaimed comedy-drama for what he thought was a better deal. Rather than just let his character leave, as first appeared to be the case, “M*A*S*H” gave Blake an off-camera death, when the plane taking him home fell into the sea.
That was one of the show’s many vivid reminders of the human cost of war. And it was wrenching. Those of us who had been faithfully watching the show had cared about Blake, had been given a moment to celebrate his going home – and then felt the absolute pain of losing him. It was imaginary, yes, but how would you feel if you suddenly lost your imaginary friend?
Blake’s death also said that a series could, in fact, have a major character die and still find a way to go on (in this case, until 1983). And, indeed, many series would follow suit for a variety of reasons, including other actors leaving their shows (Josh Charles’ Will Gardner on “The Good Wife”), the death of the actor (Michael Conrad’s Phil Esterhaus on “Hill Street Blues,” Will Lee’s Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street”) or just because it made narrative sense (Sean Bean’s Ned Stark on “Game of Thrones,” a show now famous for how many people it has killed – and how gorily).
Many in the audience now have certain fatalistic expectations. As “Justified” ended, one question asked was: Why wasn’t at least one of the three main characters dead at the end?
While TV deaths were once an example of the maturation of the medium, such events now can too often be seen as just another plot requirement or – far worse – just a gimmick to keep people talking.
We all saw that recently when two ABC series, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” included what seemed to be major deaths in their stories.
If you’re late getting to everything in your DVR, be aware that spoilers ensue.
“Scandal,” which has had a pretty high body count during its run, shocked its audience a week ago when Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) appeared to have died at the hands of a surprise villain.
For a week, discussions ran on about whether Jake should have died (among other things, he was part of the romantic circle swirling around “Scandal” centerpiece Olivia Pope) and whether in fact he was dead. Never mind that he had been stabbed again and again. And again. “Scandal” is from the mind of writer-producer Shonda Rhimes. Anything is possible, including coming back from the mostly dead.
Joss Whedon, whose many hats include one guiding Marvel projects, expressed regret recently that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” brought Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) back to life after killing him in the big-screen “The Avengers.” (He was brought back in a weird way, but never mind.) Whedon told the Mental Floss website that, when watching “The Avengers” with his children, knowing Coulson was no longer dead “did take some of the punch out of 1 / 8the movie death scene 3 / 8 for me.”
And this from the guy who decided to resurrect Coulson. And who, according to the interview, did not refer to Coulson’s revival in the sequel “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Which doubtless will have Marvel-fan completists wondering why not.
Getting back to Rhimes, even as people were wondering about Jake on “Scandal,” she had a bigger surprise in store: killing off Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Again, this is a show where characters have died before, sometimes in very emotional ways, sometimes arbitrarily. (“Grey’s” killed Kyle Chandler just as the audience got to know him, for cryin’ out loud!) But Shepherd was an original character, and a key one. While Dempsey had said in interviews that he was ready to move on, the death was agony for people who had loyally watched Derek for a decade – far longer than “Good Wife” fans had known Will Gardner.
This was a harsh goodbye. And it was made harsher by one reaction I saw online: “Derek’s dead … Or is he?”
The death was supposed to be deeply felt and unquestionable. But, because we have seen deaths and fake deaths and deaths snatched back to life at the last minute, any time a character dies, the stunned, visceral reaction almost immediately gives way to “Hey, did that really happen?”
If it didn’t, then anything you felt has been cheapened.
If it really did, then you feel a little ashamed for thinking otherwise.
In both cases, you’ve been separated from that connection you had felt to a TV character. It’s all just a show.