They're Going To Kill Everyone You Love (On TV)

by Adam Carlson

Spoilers of all kinds throughout.

On March 17, 2014, a 17-year-old archer named Allison Argent was stabbed outside of a corrupt mental institution in California while battling demons at or near some hour seeming like midnight. She died minutes later. The obituaries went big. There was “Allison Argent was, for a few reasons, one of the most important TV characters in teen soap history,” and “Why Allison Argent Matters Beyond ‘Teen Wolf,’” and “Why Allison Had to Die.”

“In order for Allison to truly exist as her own character, ‘Teen Wolf’ made it clear that there was far more to her than a Season 1 romantic pairing. She and Scott had a great thing, but Allison had an even better thing on her own,” Louis Peitzman wrote on BuzzFeed, in an essay seen more than 170,000 times. “It’s one of those great heroic deaths that I love,” said “Teen Wolf” creator Jeff Davis to Entertainment Weekly, referring to the teenaged girl’s stabbing.

Audience reaction was… less kind: “my entire dash rn is basically just ‘fuck jeff davis up the ass without lube,’” to give one example.

Murray Smith, in 1995’s Engaging Characters, devised a “Structure of Sympathy” by which to explain the process by which we are consumed by the stories we consume. Smith actually disliked the word “identification,” as it is commonly used. (We are all Lester Burnham, etc.) Not every viewer responds to every character in the same way and how would that even work anyway, really. But something is at work. (Some of us are Lester Burnham; and probably quit our jobs in rapture even though we couldn’t find the nearest Mena Suvari.) So Smith went particulate. Audience identification involves three pieces: allegiance, alignment and recognition. Approximately: Does the audience want what this character wants? Does the audience spend any significant time with the character, with any significant access to her subjectivity? Is the character recognizably herself? Each piece is a position in its own right: you can be aligned with a character you don’t identify with, and so on.

Television characters die all of the time. Did you know that “deaths in soap operas were almost three times more likely to be from violent causes than would be expected from a character’s age and sex”? The consensus holds that there is no consensus on what constitutes a “good death,” least of all in television — and least — least of all in serialized television, a mode of production that has acquired enormous economic and cultural capital in the last 15 years and which, as a function of its form, requires an emotional investment from its audience of matched enormity. Don’t we immediately accept the assumption that pretty and/or grave people on a large screen necessarily suck up more of the Earth’s oxygen, attention, and vital nutrients? We were way more aligned with Walter White than we ever were with Michael Corleone.

In this way, we make room for all kinds of characters in our heads and hearts. Like in life, we tend not to want to let them go; and if we do (like in life), we want to be repaid with purpose — if not God’s plan, then a worthwhile executive producer’s.

Death draws its own conclusions; as shorthand, it becomes a period — Boromir, stuffed with arrows; Buffy, hurling herself into the void. But even lack can absolve itself. “We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives,” “Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King wrote on the same night fans watched one of the show’s main characters suddenly and unexpectedly murdered: “It’s terrifying how a perfectly normal and sunny day can suddenly explode with tragedy. Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. Your last time with the loved one will always remain your last time.” That wasn’t really good enough.

When Adriana spoiler died on “The Sopranos,” we had only so many ways to say goodbye, only so many rites. That was ten years ago this coming May. The rest of the show was spent waiting to see if and how Tony Soprano would die. The TV industry has become bloodthirstier and bloodthirstier — the Ned Starkification of storytelling, if you like labels. This should exhaust our grief, not multiply it: Even people devoted to a TV show and devastated by the death of a character know that none of the deaths are real, with none of their real-world ripples (estate taxes, casseroles for the wake). The opposite, instead, seems true.

Smith gets at some, but not all, of this paradox. He needs a bit of stretching. Identification is a political statement as much as it is personal; in every fundamental way, it is where the two coalesce. Who we mourn and how we mourn them say something about what they meant to us and/or if they should still mean anything at all. This is where the politics of fiction and reality often double: In both, men usually die differently than women; white people die differently than everyone else. Communities like Tumblr empower “Teen Wolf” fans to experience the death of Allison Argent as an entirely political moment. Not just who and how but also why and why her. A woman’s death in a cast of several tiers of attractive men reverberates especially. Rumors flourish of behind-the-scenes misogyny. The show’s fans double as scorekeepers and triple as torchbearers, carrying a flame if there isn’t one, or magnifying it if it isn’t bright enough, or redirecting it if it’s shining on the wrong corpse.

Examples form a cross-section of fannishness, past/present/future. “There are other ways for a character to leave than to kill them. you know who threw a bitch fit and left and still has an open window? colton whiny haynes,” someone wrote on Tumblr, in a post that was liked or reblogged a few hundred times. That post abuts this one — “it really does say something that there were at least four significant female characters killed in the last week on cable television” — which abuts this tribute to Allison, a GIFset, with text from Paul’s second epistle to Timothy — his valediction: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” What kind of GIFset would we have made for Adriana? Well here’s a good set about Will Gardner — and the death of fandom itself, killed by the death of beloved characters.

Thinking that means we all care too much about a small hit on a cable network is to invest the wrong words in that sentence with meaning — not too and much but we and thinking. “That’s how we determine what we value and what we’re afraid of, what we’ll tolerate from some characters but not from others, and what sorts of ideas are hot and which are marginal, or even untouchable,” wrote the critic Alyssa Rosenberg.

More characters are dying on TV at the same time that we have all discovered a multiplicity of ways to mourn them, often on platforms programmed as inverse systems of privilege (how who speaks about what). This is not an accident. It is a pretty old thought about the Internet and a pretty older reality about burial rites reflected in every new fictitious death. We have lived through the Golden Age of Television and the End of the Golden Age of Television and have forsaken all hegemonies forever; and if we have finally forsaken this hegemony, too, unfastening “death” from “meaning,” it is at least partially because characters like Allison Argent keep dying and because her many deaths — the heroic one and the misogynistic one and the one focused mostly on her stylish black archer’s gloves — exist simultaneously.

Adam Carlson has somehow written about Teen Wolf for several publications.