Death and Violence: A Cop-Out for Television

Television, at its best, provides a medium for which multiple subplots and characters’ journeys can emerge. Audiences are drawn to shows such as “Game of Thrones”, “Orange is the New Black”, and “Black Mirror” because of the compelling characters inhabiting these various environments. As expected, the deaths of beloved characters in series can vary from painless to unnecessarily violent and gratuitous.

One must look no further than the disappointed fans reeling from “The Walking Dead’s” season 7 premiere deaths to see evidence of this. Violence does have a place in TV today but when it’s used liberally as a plot device, the effect is wasted and distasteful. That’s where shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “Mr. Robot” and “Black Mirror” excel and where shows such as “The Strain” and “The Walking Dead” fall short.

Sure, a violent death every now and then may shock viewers emotionally at first, but after a while, these deaths become as poignant and poetic as a cement brick through the window. Viewers of “The Walking Dead” have definitely built a tolerance to violence. This is why each major death has to be more shocking and grotesque than the one before it. Writers should (and they certainly could) think of novel ways to advance the plot without using gruesome deaths. If a show repeatedly relies on shocking violent moments to advance the plot, it is lacking what makes other shows great. Great shows have the ability to captivate viewers by creating psychological tension and emotional crossroads for their characters. Gore and violence may surprise and sadden the audience temporarily but is rarely an effective send-off.

“Mr. Robot” is a prime example of a show that doesn’t rely on gruesome deaths to shock viewers. The show utilizes an unreliable narrator to toe the line between illusion and reality. The most shocking scenes throughout its two seasons didn’t involve death, rather, they involved the bombshell revelations of hidden processes in the backdrop. “The Wire” is another critical darling, albeit an old one. “The Wire” worked as a character study, investigating how its people interacted with the system they were in. Similarly, “Breaking Bad’s” seasons got better over time and rarely had a violent death to advance the plot. It was used sparingly at critical junctions of Walter White’s storyline to signify his dynamic character progression.

No spoilers here, but I do agree with the sentiment that graphic death on television is rather distasteful a majority of the time. Death doesn’t have to be the only way to incapacitate characters and make them irrelevant to the story. “The Walking Dead’s” violence in earlier seasons seemed to have a purpose. It represented how unforgiving the world had become. Seven seasons later, the violence has scaled up significantly.

In certain shows, such as NBC’s canceled “Hannibal” and the freaky “American Horror Story” series, violence does contribute to the story. It doesn’t feel misplaced. AHS viewers are watching a horror anthology play out in front of them, so they can expect to see graphic, and often off-putting imagery. “Hannibal” had instances of extreme gore and disturbing imagery but the writers never lingered on the actual killings. Rather, it was the opposite. Hannibal’s victims would be shown in one scene, then in an unrelated cut, he starts cooking scrumptious meals. This leaves the viewer to connect the dots themselves, rather than bludgeon the obvious into their heads. “Game of Thrones” has the distinction of taking place in a separate world. It distances itself from the reality of today’s world just enough for the explicit scenes to shock viewers. Right from the first season, it’s clear that the audience will be shocked regardless. No major character is immune to death, which is something you can’t really say about “The Walking Dead.” I don’t tune in worrying whether Rick is going to bite the dust, rather, it becomes a topic of discussion whether our favorite supporting character will die or not.

However, there is still hope for shows like “The Walking Dead.” It does have the capability of giving its characters compelling stories and does well when it explores those roots. It helps explain character motives and display character progression in future episodes. That’s part of what makes it somewhat interesting to watch. I don’t condone the amount of violence portrayed in media, but there is a distinction between using it for artistic resonance and manipulating it for ratings. Violence is often misplaced and jarring when used in certain shows, but it speaks greater volumes when one is able to grip the audience without resorting to cheap, brutal violence to advance the plot.

Eashan R. Kotha is a first year Biological Sciences major. He can be reached at ekotha@uci.edu