Stay Tuned: The problem with resurrection TV plots
If you watch “Game of Thrones,” you know it’s a show that’s not afraid to kill off main characters suddenly and without remorse. (This is all the more shocking if you haven’t read the novels on which the show is based.) I haven’t read the books, so I’m always left looking around in complete dismay waiting for someone to explain what just happened. Lately, killing off central characters has become a plot device, as other TV critics have noted, sometimes in place of good stories. As a viewer, you start to anticipate a surprise death of a principle character as your reward for watching instead of a well-crafted plot. It’s a problematic trend.
Of equal concern is the dead character who comes back to life. The walking dead (of the non-zombie variety) were all over the screen this season, and I’m here to protest. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) If done smartly and thoughtfully in service of the plot, a surprise return from the afterlife might be intriguing. But too often this season, previously dead characters pop up for no good reason. Some reappear because their deaths weren’t confirmed, however unlikely their survival was, and they happen to be the show’s main character, but others’ reappearances are cheap ploys that add little or nothing to the story. Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) comes back after seemingly perishing in an inferno on “The Following” to spend a second season tormenting law enforcement and his nemesis Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon). But the show doesn’t work without him, so it’s not unexpected. What is aggravating even in a series where the plot is basically a string of red herrings is that Joe’s ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea) turns up. She is stabbed at the end of Season 1, and her death is a fact at the beginning of Season 2. Except it’s not because she’s actually in witness protection.
Then there’s damaged, accomplice-to-her-serial-killer father, Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl) on “Hannibal.” Her father cuts her throat. She survives. Then she’s alone with Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in a kitchen. He tells her that he regrets that he can’t protect her “in this life.” The next scene is blood on the kitchen floor. It’s Hannibal Lecter. No room for error here. Yet she shows up in the season finale because — surprise! — she’s alive. Then Hannibal cuts her throat again. Is she dead this time? I think I stopped caring.
In “Scandal,” Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) mother, who Olivia has spent most of her life mourning because she died in a plane crash, is actually a dangerous prisoner being held by a secret government organization. Helena (Tatiana Maslany), the crazy Ukrainian clone on “Orphan Black” is shot in the chest. And dies? Of course not. We later find out that the bullet missed her vital organs which, thanks to weird clone science, are the opposite of where they should be. Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) of “Revenge” spends three seasons concocting absurdly successful plans to avenge her father’s wrongful execution for an act of domestic terrorism. Guess who appears in the season finale not dead?
What used to be the bread and butter of soap operas has found its way into shows that should do better. (Arguably, “Scandal” and “Revenge” are basically primetime soaps.) But generally, a surprise resurrection is rarely a surprise that doesn’t cheapen what should instead be a suspenseful story free of gimmicks — unless your show is called “Resurrection.” In that case, go for it.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.