Joss Whedon. He's bloodthirstier than a hundred vampires. He'll kill off characters just to make a point, or to supply a story beat, or just because his assistant didn't get the right cream cheese for his bagel today. Why is he the grim reaper, and why do we continue supporting him in his murder spree? Find out in this exclusive excerpt from Pop Matters' Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, written by Kristin M. Barton.
With absolutely no spoilers for any Whedon projects that might currently be in theaters.
In the world of prime time television and major motion pictures, killing off characters within the principal cast of a lucrative franchise has become impractical, especially when it is the popularity of those characters that drives ratings and box office revenues. But for writer and director Joss Whedon, who has developed properties such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, killing off members of his central cast has almost become standard operating procedure.
As fans, we are not shocked when Whedon quietly introduces us to new characters only to have us form an emotional attachment that is ultimately shattered when their lives are seemingly thrown away in an act of casual violence. When the continued success and profitability of a franchise depends on viewers establishing connections with the characters they see, killing off those characters can prove to have costly and terminal consequences.
But in the world of TV and film, Whedon has gone against conventional thinking and killed off numerous beloved characters, and with great success. The secret, perhaps, is in how he uses those deaths to promote the gritty reality his characters face and to help motivate characters and push the stories forward. While television has provided us with some memorable character deaths along the years (Detective Bobby Simone on NYPD Blue and Colonel Blake on M*A*S*H), many of these deaths only served short-term purposes for the story, and in some cases acted as the catalyst for a single emotional episode. Even contract negations and creative differences with actors can lead to the premature demise of popular characters (such as when Denise Crosby was unhappy with how her character Tasha Yar was utilized on Star Trek: The Next Generation). But rarely do these events have any real long-term ramifications for the series or the other characters. Seldom are characters killed off in their prime or at the height of popularity, especially when that is in contrast to what most viewers would expect or want to happen.
With an unprecedented and unparalleled storytelling style, Whedon has become somewhat notorious for the seemingly indiscriminate killing of his leading characters without the usual pomp and circumstance that surrounds that kind of major TV event. Anya in the Buffy finale, Paul Ballard in the Dollhouse finale ("Epitaph Two: Return" 2.13), Wash in Serenity — all of them killed in an instant without warning and without the grandeur normally bestowed upon major characters.
Although each is killed in an impersonal and seemingly random way (sliced in half, hit by stray bullet, and impaled by wooden missile, respectively), their passing serve to remind us that death is an inevitable part of life. While we would like to believe that the good guys will always walk away and live to fight another day, Whedon reminds us that casualties occur on both sides in a war.
Perhaps Whedon articulated this sentiment best in an interview for Serenity: The Official Visual Companion when he noted regarding Wash's death, "Dramatically, the more I worked on [the screenplay], the more it became clear that in order to make people feel that this was real, a certain shocking thing is going to have to happen." To think the protagonists will always come out victorious and unscathed would be unrealistic, and notwithstanding the fantastical worlds in which these stories take place, Whedon has strived to ensure that the societal and emotional situations faced by his characters are as true to life as possible. And while these examples all derive from events where the deceased were participants in active hostilities, innocent bystanders are not immune from Whedon's lethal plot twists either.
Despite the death and violence that permeate every other aspect of their lives, Buffy and her friends are unprepared for the impact it has when they must confront it on a more personal, non vampire-slaying-related level. Highlighting the power and overwhelming effect of losing a loved one, the Season 5 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled "The Body" (5.16) shows what happens when Buffy arrives home to find her mother dead on the couch from a brain aneurysm. This episode departs from the traditional storytelling done in the series and largely excludes any reference to or mention of the occult world in which Buffy operates. Whedon spends the entire episode examining the impact of death, and carries that impact forward through the remainder of the series as Buffy realizes that she is no longer a child and quickly evolves into a mother-figure for her younger sister Dawn.
The primary difference here between Whedon's shows and others on television is that death in these cases has occurred in an instant, and is not some long or drawn-out event to capitalize on the emotional investment made by the audience. There is no heroic last stand where the heroes remain stalwart against the oncoming hordes of evil to save their companions. These deaths, like so many in real life, happen in an instant-almost so quick that we don't realize what has actually happened.
In no episode of television can this be better observed than in the Buffy Season 6 episode "Seeing Red." While confronting Buffy at her house, aspiring super-villain Warren blindly fires a gun in Buffy's direction as he scrambles to escape the gathering Scoobies in the backyard. Unknown to those below, an errant bullet has strayed through a second-floor window and hit Tara in the chest, who manages to say only, "Your shirt…" after seeing the blood spatter appear on Willow in front of her ("Seeing Red" 6.19). With those as her finals words, a principal character in the Buffyverse has passed.
No death scene.
Senseless violence randomly perpetrated against a bystander.
The result of this sequence of events is to produce a reaction in Willow that, under normal circumstances, would be entirely out of character and could quite possibly rip viewers out of the reality created by the show. But because of Whedon's slow progression towards reuniting the couple over the course of many episodes and the sudden shock of Tara's death, Willow's unimaginable rampage climaxing in an attempt to destroy the world resonates as believable for that character.
Similar to Willow's rage, Malcolm Reynolds's reaction to the death of a crew member sets in motion a sequence of events that can easily be perceived as suicidal. In the film Serenity, Mal finds Shepherd Book slowly dying after an Alliance attack wipes out the settlement where he has been living. In response, Mal goes through what can best be described as a moment of bloodlust, looking to get revenge on those who have cost him and his crew so much. While certainly not a coward, Mal was shown throughout the television series as making what he would call practical, measured decisions that, while certainly dangerous, ultimately afforded him the ability to keep his crew together and his ship in the air. Once again, Whedon uses a primary character's death to motivate another to act irrationally, sending Mal on a mission to traverse Reaver space. Certainly a desperate action, but one that Mal sees as the only option left given the circumstances.
Just as these deaths faced by so many characters in Whedon's world may seem senseless and be heart-wrenching for the viewer, it is clear that the torment brought about by death continues even for those who manage to return from the dead. In worlds populated with vampires, demons, and demigods, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. For a few characters, resurrection becomes a second chance at life filled with new pain and torments that only Whedon would inflict on his beloved characters.
At the beginning of Season 5 of Buffy, Buffy learns that the person she thinks is her sister Dawn is actually the embodiment of a magical key. In the season finale, Buffy comes to realize that only her blood (and thereby death) can prevent the oncoming apocalypse. In a classic moment of heroic sacrifice, Buffy leaps to her death and saves the world once again, leaving her friends behind to mourn and endure without her ("The Gift" 5.22). Not long into Season 6, her friends have discovered a way to bring her back and soon Buffy has returned to Sunnydale and the land of the living ("Bargaining" Part 2, 6.2). But rather than allow Buffy, her friends, and the audience to enjoy this moment of triumph and exalt in what can easily be described as a miracle, Whedon instead chooses to incorporate the consequences of her death (and rebirth) into her new life.
What we quickly learn (and the Scoobies learn in the musical episode, "Once More with Feeling" (6.7), is that in bringing Buffy back from the dead they had inadvertently ripped her out of a peaceful and serene existence where her problems and worries didn't exist: Heaven. In doing this, Whedon has taken his perception of death as the final transition and carried it forward through to the next evolution. Buffy has been inherently changed by her experience, and Whedon doesn't give the audience an opportunity to revel in her return before reminding them that death affects everything, and nothing is the same afterwards. Her life, her actions, and her interactions with her friends are changed as a result of her reappearance and thus moves the story forward in a direction that would have seemed out of character for Buffy prior to the events surrounding her death and return to life.
Like Buffy, Spike's return to life in the Season 5 Angel episode "Conviction" (5.1) turns his noble sacrifice at the end of Buffy ("Chosen" 7.22) into a return to the life he'd chosen to give up. Choosing to sacrifice himself so Buffy and others might live, Spike's rebirth in the Wolfram & Hart offices in Los Angeles brings with it consequences no one could have foreseen. While certainly the character of Spike had evolved significantly since obtaining a soul at the end of Season 6 of Buffy ("The Grave" 6.22), the change in Spike prompted by his return from the amulet (where he was, for all intents and purposes, dead) in Angel brought about more change that would result in pain and emotional distress for the vampire. Upon getting a soul, Spike dealt with issues that could be seen as selfish and centered largely on himself; his feelings for Buffy, whether people liked him, sacrificing himself to save Buffy (would he have done the same for Xander? Probably not). But upon his rebirth from the amulet, Spike begins making choices that are about others, looking at the bigger picture and considering the welfare of others he may not know or even care about.
Spending the first seven episodes of his return incorporeal, Spike realizes that he is quickly fading away from the living world and is being drawn into Hell. After regaining his physical form ("Destiny" 5.8), Spike's behavior and attitude appear to change, even more so than the change that took place after his re-souling in the final season on Buffy. Spike becomes close with Fred, taking on the role of her big brother and protector. When Fred is killed, it becomes clear that Spike has evolved into a much more complete person that his near-descent into Hell helped prompt. The downside for Spike, at least from one perspective, is that in his new life filled with moral choices and putting others before himself, Spike is faced with heartache and emotional pain that he'd possibly never experienced before.
For all the hardship that death brings to the characters of Joss Whedon's worlds, it also serves as the impetus to push characters towards being more than they thought they could. Without Doyle's death in the first season of Angel ("Hero" 1.9), Cordelia could have very easily become a stagnant character who continued through life as she had in high school. But through Doyle's death and his imparting his gift to her, she became a better person (and a more complete character) as a result.
In the series finale of Angel, Wesley's death brings about a turn in Illyria, where for the first time we see her act out of compassion and caring for someone else. In asking Wes, "Would you like me to lie to you now?"("Not Fade Away" 5.22) and shifting her form to appear as Fred, she shows that she has moved beyond the self-centered being who took over Fred's body and has come to appreciate more fully the importance of having others in her life she cares about and that care about her.
In Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as Billy/Dr. Horrible half-heartedly points his death ray at the cowering denizens of the bank, we're given insight into just how profoundly Penny's death has affected this would-be super-villain. It becomes clear (though not explicitly stated) that what he thought he'd wanted out of life is now a distant second to what he might have had. As he enters the Evil League of Evil's boardroom and meekly stares into the camera to eke out his final line, we can appreciate how unprepared he was for the consequences of the life he's chosen and how completely the reality of his situation and Penny's death has affected him.
In the past, Whedon has suggested that no characters are ever truly safe on his shows; that unless your name is in the title, you're fair game for an early demise (and even Buffy was killed twice during her series run). Maybe this is what makes Whedon such an exciting writer: his unpredictability. Most people would consider characters like Fred, Wash, and Tara indispensable fan favorites, sure to cause uprising and revolt should anything happen to them. But using their deaths to advance the story, Whedon provides justification for changing the essence of his characters and progressing storylines to places that they could not have otherwise gone.
Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by Pop Matters comes out on May 1.