The shocking ending of this season's "Downton Abbey" -- shocking at least for those who managed to avoid the news when the finale was shown in Britain in December -- most likely left thousands of the show's fans mourning the loss of a beloved character and angry with the show's creators for erasing him from their lives.
The plot twist, though, was just the latest in a long tradition of television character assassinations, many of which have elicited reactions of shock, pain, sorrow, fury and sometimes laughter from devoted watchers. "Downton's" leading man, Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens, left the series in a screech of tires on a country road on Sunday, never to return. That is, unless, some other character, perhaps his beloved Mary, steps into a shower at some future time and declares that his death was all a dream. That, of course, was the infamous solution employed by the venerable television family saga "Dallas" in the ill-conceived decision to kill off a central character, Bobby Ewing, in 1985.
Generally, though, the decision to terminate a television character means there is no going back. And while many show creators say the decision to kill off a popular character carries a risk, potentially alienating viewers, in almost every case shows survive. They often thrive, the producers say, because shaking up viewers is almost always a good thing.
The death of Matthew in "Downton" recalls many other plot developments that have taken place in the middle of successful television runs, like the heart-tugging death in 1998 of Bobby Simone, the character played by Jimmy Smits in "NYPD Blue."
But some deaths have taken place on shows as little recalled as the comedy "The Hogan Family," which changed names mid-run from "Valerie" after the series lead, Valerie Harper, staged a salary protest. (Her character died, like Matthew, in an auto accident.)
As happened in "Downton," a character's exit is often driven by an actor's decision to pursue other artistic challenges or bigger paychecks. The latter was the case with the demise of Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the character played by McLean Stevenson for the first three seasons of "M(AST)A(AST)S(AST)H" on CBS.
After Stevenson signed a contract with NBC, the "M(AST)A(AST)S(AST)H" producers gave Blake a send-off episode, in which he said his goodbyes and flew away. Even the cast (other than the star Alan Alda) didn't know a coda scene would be added, to deliver the news that the colonel had gone down in a crash.
Stevenson's career went with it. His character's death stirred hostile reactions not only from the fans, who poured in angry letters, but also from CBS, which wasn't happy its hit comedy had broken viewer's hearts.
Today, thanks to the Internet and social media, audiences have more immediate ways to voice their fury. When the ABC drama "Lost" had a core character, Charlie, played by Dominic Monaghan, drown trying to save his friends, the show's top producers were inundated with protests.
"People were really angry," said Carlton Cuse, who with Damon Lindelof, was a main creative voice on the show. "They proceeded to blast the heck out of Damon and me for this woefully misguided decision. We thought people would be shocked, but we were unprepared for that level of anger."
Cuse noted the unexpected extinguishing of characters is a growing -- and mostly welcome -- trend.
"If you watch 'CSI Miami' and someone puts a gun to David Caruso's head, you know he's not going to be shot," he said. In recent years, especially on cable dramas, writers are more willingto blow up such conventions. "Now I think people are reaching further narratively, and maybe those shots of adrenaline are not as unusual as they were in the past," Cuse said, pointing out that "The Walking Dead" on AMC kills off familiar characters almost routinely. "These moments are really good for television, because as a storyteller you want to attack and break up those conventions the audience has in their minds."
The producer Terence Winter knew his character Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) was a hit with fans of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," but he decided, for the credibility of the story, he had to be gunned down. "People freaked out," Winter said. "They said: 'I'm never watching this show again. I feel betrayed.' It's a little disconcerting to have thousands of people say they're never going to watch your show again because you killed my favorite character."
Fans ultimately stayed loyal to both "Lost" and "Boardwalk." As Winter said, "Every once in a while it's good to jolt the audience, keep them off balance."
Like the time David E. Kelley, then running the NBC drama "L.A. Law," had the show's hugely popular villainess, Rosalind Shays, accidentally step into an empty elevator shaft.
"That was one of the greatest moments in television ever for me," Cuse said.
That scene played more comically than tragically, as did another famous exit, when Susan, the fiancee of George Costanza on NBC's "Seinfeld," licked wedding invitation envelopes tainted with toxic stickum and succumbed (off camera).
That decision had more to do with the show's main actors having trouble playing off Heidi Swedberg, who played Susan. As reported in Warren Littlefield's book about his days running NBC programming, "Top of the Rock," Jerry Seinfeld described having problems in a scene with Swedberg, which led the co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to declare, "I just want to kill her." With that the show's co-creator Larry David was inspired.
But television death is usually more traumatic, especially if it comes when violence is not a part of a character's usual life. The admen in "Mad Men" live a "self-destructive lifestyle," said Matthew Weiner, the show's creator. But death is not a regular part of the story line. So last season, which built to the suicide -- by hanging -- of Lane Pryce, played by Jared Harris, challenged Weiner.
"Your stomach churns a little bit," he said. "For me dealing with one of the best actors I have ever worked with and whom people have seen struggle, I wanted to make sure I didn't waste that, that I fully exploited it. Because I was committing to this. I'm going to lose this guy. The audience is going to lose this guy. It's very easy. It's the stroke of a pen. I better get some story out of it."
Angry reactions to characters killed with a stroke of the pen have a history much longer than television. Consider what Charles Dickens, who delivered his novel "The Old Curiosity Shop" chapter by chapter to his fans, went through when he decided to kill off his heroine, Little Nell.
Daniel O'Connell, an Irishman who was then a member of Parliament, is said to have read of Nell's death and cried out, "He should not have killed her," before throwing his copy out the window of a train.
By BILL CARTER
The New York times