Sometimes it’s good for a show to be at the unexpected intersection of two seemingly unrelated trends in television, to spark a conversation that uses narrative specifics to connect with some larger socio-political issue.
And sometimes it’s not.
The death of lead character Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, during the third-season finale of Fox’s supernatural drama “Sleepy Hollow” provoked howls of rage from fans, many of whom could not see the point in the show continuing without the female half of its central team (it’s not clear if the show will get a fourth season).
Many feel that TV’s attempt to increase cast and character diversity is increasingly undercut by its equally new willingness to kill off popular characters.
Especially those who are not straight white males.
For years complaints about black men being used as zombie fodder have dogged “The Walking Dead” (which may or may not have just killed one of TV’s few Asian leads), while the recent deaths of LGBT characters on a wide range of shows seem to be resurrecting the Bury Your Gays and Dead Lesbian tropes. (Bury Your Tropes, Not Us is the new protest slogan.)
Long before this year’s finale season, death came to a wide variety of non-straight-white-male characters, including several on the CW’s post-apocalyptic drama “The 100"; early April saw the death of so many fictional women that some critics felt compelled to list them, like soldiers lost in a strange new war.
But when “Sleepy Hollow” killed Abbie, things got real.
For those who do not watch “Sleepy Hollow,” which is to say the vast majority of Americans, her death may seem the very definition of a non-event.
A freshman hit, the show seemed to lose its way in Season 2, and by Season 3, despite a change in showrunner, it was in how-did-this-happen free-fall.
So it’s not terribly surprising that Beharie, who had previously drawn attention in the films “42" and “Shame,” decided to leave, or even that the writers chose to explain that departure by death.
After all, why not? The finale, with its out-of-nowhere formation of a George Washington-sanctioned ghoul squad, was clearly a Hail Mary attempt at renewal, and certainly the American television audience is used to loss. Having survived Sean Bean’s beheading in “Game of Thrones,” Dan Stevens fleeing “Downton Abby” and Josh Charles’ murder in “The Good Wife,” we are a very different nation from the one that collectively collapsed on learning that Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane had been shot down over the sea of Japan after McLean Stevenson decided he’d had enough of “MASH.”
Except Abbie was one of two lead characters in “Sleepy Hollow,” and even in today’s bloody clime, killing the lead is historically reserved for the dramatic final episode of a big hit (i.e. “Breaking Bad”). When the “Blacklist’s” co-lead Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) died after giving birth during a recent episode, a narrative fake-out was immediately assumed, just as Stana Katic’s recent decision to leave “Castle” appears to make a full ninth season impossible.
More important, Beharie was one of the few nonwhite female leads on television. Indeed, the Season 1 cast of “Sleepy Hollow,” which included Lyndie Greenwood as Abbie’s sister, Jenny, and Orlando Jones as her commander, was praised by many (including me) for being a model for the industry.
It’s a legitimate reading of the show, though perhaps not the only one, but the fact of the analysis is far more important than its detail.
After years of obsessive and often-myopic deconstruction of certain series, the television audience is broadening its gaze to the bigger picture and realizing that the personal really is the political. The shows we watch are part of a larger presentation of modern life, and they matter both separately and as part of that whole.
Yes, there are more non-straight-white-male characters on television than ever before, and perhaps they seem equally represented in your favorite show, but overall white men continue to rule and everyone else exists mostly in the ensemble.
Which, in these days of death-at-anytime exposition and OMG pacing, makes them very vulnerable.
And while plenty of straight white guys get killed on television too, when one falls, another inevitably springs up to take his place. We miss Josh Charles, but would we trade Jeffrey Dean Morgan to get him back? Probably not. Because Will’s death on “The Good Wife,” though upsetting, was not in any way political.
And that’s what’s changed. With television’s new status comes increasing responsibility; if you’re going to be at the vanguard of popular culture, then you need to, well, be at the vanguard of popular culture.
Where, one wonders, are the “If They Kill Michonne, We Riot” T-shirts? Because I want one.
And writers need to be aware of this, or face the increasing and righteous wrath of those whose attentions they seek. Sure, social media was born to make mountains out of molehills, and no story should ever be formed by focus group or Twitter trend.
But viewers often see what the creators do not, and if networks and show runners are going to leverage the audience through social media for their own marketing ends, they had better get used to being leveraged right back.
An alarming trend has emerged in television, and whatever the intentions of each particular show, each group of writers, the end result is undeniable.
Oh, and Elizabeth Keen (“The Blacklist”) had better not be dead, and there really is no “Castle” without Kate.
A previous version of this post identified the film “42" as “24.”