Jen Krueger: Surviving the Fall
When we last saw the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, he watched from afar as John Watson beseeched, “Don’t be dead,” to a headstone bearing Sherlock’s name. Watson does this at the end of “The Reichenbach Fall” after seeing Sherlock seemingly leap to his demise, and I thought it bold of series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat to tackle this update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” in their second series. A faked death on a show is as logistically tricky as a real one, and if there’s one thing that almost always creates a make or break moment for a TV show, it’s dealing with a major character’s death.
For a lot of shows, it’s a break moment. Perhaps some of the problem comes from the fact that a character’s death is often prompted by an actor’s exit from the show. When Dan Stevens decided to leave Downton Abbey at the end of his three year contract, his character Matthew Crawley was killed in a car crash that struck me as a spiteful way to explain his forthcoming absence in series four. Aside from the fact that the crash itself didn’t look severe enough to be fatal (I mean, how fast was he going, 30 m.p.h.?), it also felt like an afterthought to the 2012 Christmas special, as if the episode had been scripted to end in the preceding scene and the death was tacked on once it was official Stevens wouldn’t re-up. This was particularly disappointing from a show that had so recently served up an amazing character death by killing off Sybil Crawley mid-season. Even if I hadn’t hated her character (we get it, you like irking daddy by playing blue-collar), I would still have been pleased with her demise because of the way it affected the other characters on the show. Watching her parents, sisters, and husband deal with their grief was more interesting than Sybil herself had ever been, yet asking viewers to watch the family hit the reset button at the top of series four to mourn Matthew is grating.
But perhaps worse than the character deaths that are forced are the ones I don’t believe even within the world of the show. When Peter Bishop stepped into the doomsday device at the end of season three of Fringe, I didn’t for a second buy him exiting the show. His character was too important, and the circumstances of his disappearance too obviously pointed to a return for me to believe I’d never see Peter on the show again, which seemed to be what the writers hoped I would assume. Instead, watching became a waiting game centered on his return, and one that wasn’t concluded quickly or satisfactorily enough to justify his unbelievable disappearance in the first place.
That’s not to say shows can’t kill important characters successfully. When Boardwalk Empire concluded its second season by offing Jimmy Darmody, the character who’d served as the audience’s entrance into the (under)world of the show, it was wonderfully stunning. Even though the drama had blossomed into a sizeable ensemble by the time Jimmy was eliminated, he was still the most frequent point of view character, which meant his death irrevocably changed the show’s direction. But Boardwalk Empire had managed to build to Jimmy’s death in such a way that it seemed inevitable, and created plot momentum that carried forward into even the most recent season finale.
Of course, the holy grail of TV character death is the surprise demise. Four episodes into its third season, Southland unceremoniously killed detective Nate Moretta on the job. The disturbingly quick and brutal death was shocking in and of itself, but it also demonstrated no character on the show was safe regardless of their rank, skill, or narrative importance. From that moment on, I watched Southland with my stomach in knots every time a character I liked was in peril because I truly didn’t know if they’d emerge from it unscathed, or at all.
Though the titular character of Sherlock didn’t actually die in the series two finale, his faked death was just as striking to me as the most successful of these actual TV character deaths. The charade has the same effect on Watson as the real thing would have, meaning the audience still gets the emotional payoff of a pivotal character death, while how Sherlock managed to pull it off is a mystery fans are as eager to solve as they are any of the eponymous detective’s cases. Which, of course, is precisely the point. American audiences will get their answers in the series three premiere on January 19, but having already seen it myself, I can say “The Empty Hearse” sated my curiosity and I’m very glad that, as this prequel minisode promises, #SherlockLives.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY: Mike Gold
THURSDAY MORNING: Dennis O’Neil