(There are surely some spoilers of TV character deaths in here; you are now warned.)
When Downton Abbey Season Four was due to premiere this month, my mother told me that she was not going to watch it. Because of Season Three's shocking ending, the death of the beloved character Matthew Crawley, my mom was standing in silent protest against the show. After (not) much convincing by me -- I explained that she was only hurting herself -- she conceded and has been happily watching this season.
I don't watch Downton Abbey (it's on my long list), but I am well aware of the uproar Matthew's death caused in the public spectrum. People were outraged! As I understand it, the actor who portrayed Crawley, Dan Stevens, had his sights set on bigger things and departing the show was something he wanted to do. In a recent article in the New York Post, not only has Dan Stevens moved on, but he also doesn't even want to discuss the character anymore. Unlike my mom, he is not still shedding tears over the incident.
The whole thing got me thinking about untimely deaths of our favorite television characters and how we react to them. In one of its many 2013 round-ups, Entertainment Weekly decried that 2013 was the year of TV deaths. There were a lot of them and many of them were major characters. Shows like Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire and even Family Guy had major characters killed off. And let's not forget Game of Thrones, in which a huge portion of the Stark family kicked the bucket.
After Crawley's death last year, Huffington Post's Michael Hogan mentioned that what bothered him about the death was that it was plot-line dictated by contract, meaning that when a death in a show comes about organically, it's one thing, but when the actor wants out or the show wants to get rid of the actor, it feels wrong.
Regardless of the reason for the character's demise, what happens when we the audience take the death to heart? Is that so wrong?
Getting attached to a television character is commonplace, so when he or she dies it can be incredibly upsetting. There have been many studies about why we get so attached to fictional characters and television in general. Television is one of the most powerful mediums, if not the most powerful, and we tend to see the images on screen as factual. It sounds silly to think that people actually believe what they see in fictional programs, but it's very true. A New York Times article in 2012 about Claire Danes's role as the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison on the show Homeland mentions that the program began to receive letters from real people with bipolar disorder who pleaded with the producers to let Danes take it easy; they were worried about her disorder getting out of control. Her fake disorder that she pretends to have.
In an article in Psychology Today, author and Ph.D. Thalia Goldstein writes about "The CSI Effect," a genuine problem in which juries feel that all cases are to be solved as easily as they are on CSI. There are tons of examples like this in media and communication studies that theorize about the profound influence television has over us. I once read a study showing that the majority of people think they could properly use a hospital defibrillator because they had seen it done enough times on television. Turns out characters are doing it all wrong on TV; go figure.
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In the book The Psychology of Entertainment Media: Blurring the Lines between Entertainment and Persuasion, the authors discuss the connection we feel to television, among other things. Reality and imagination often get fuzzy and we begin to think we know the characters on television, especially those with whom we feel we have something in common. We want them to be our friends and we may even consider them friends...which is weird. In fact, in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors found that participants who were lonely were more likely to report watching their favorite television shows. So your depressing habit of looking forward to drinking a few glasses of wine by yourself watching the latest episode of Parenthood is not at all uncommon.
Given how attached we become to fictional television characters, it's no wonder that when one of them dies, we act like we've lost a good friend. This can be over protagonists or antagonists. I remember when Stringer Bell died on The Wire, I could not get over it for a few more episodes. I was in disbelief that this guy that I had become so in love with would never be back again. And he was not on the good-guy team.
So I don't blame my mom for wanting to sit vigil over the death of Matthew Crawford, even if it was over a year ago; I get it. I'm still mourning the loss of Buffy Summers's mother and that was 14 years ago!