Among Joss Whedon's greatest contributions to television has been the continual use of the Body Count, the willingness to kill off recurring characters in order to ratchet up the narrative tension and create a sense of danger.
Joss Whedon kills people.
This isn’t exactly unique among television drama producers and writers. Characters get killed off on a semi-regular basis on television shows. But Whedon and his team have proven to be singularly skilled at this over the past 15 years. When Whedon kills off a character, it usually hurts the viewer emotionally. At times a death on a Whedon show has felt like a sucker punch to the gut, knocking all the air out. Other demises have left a dull ache as the show has continued on without someone we thought was an integral piece. Time and time again, when characters in Joss’s shows have died, it has hit the viewers hard.
This doesn’t happen on every TV show. Law & Order seemingly has had a revolving door in its cast for its 20-year run, and they killed off plenty of characters. CSI has done it, too. But those shows were procedurals, where the emphasis was more on solving the case of the week than developing the cast of characters. So beyond the inevitably “shocking” circumstances of the character deaths, those demises didn’t linger too much. More traditional character dramas like ER and NYPD Blue had better success with this sort of thing, but they tended towards the sensationalistic as well. And there really isn’t the space here to delve into the lives and deaths of the casts of various HBO shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under. But one could argue that Joss Whedon set the template for modern character deaths and these shows just followed in his wake.
The key to having an effective character death is to have actual characters in the first place. Whedon excels at character creation and development, at making his casts three-dimensional. He makes us care about the people in his shows. That’s why it hurts so much when he rips them away from us. The fact that Whedon works in the heightened realms of fantasy, horror, and science fiction allows him to raise the stakes. At its best, Buffy put a monster-infested twist on teenage drama. Angel spun off into its own world where the actions of Angel and his friends were literally the only things stopping Hell, or a hell dimension, from taking over the Earth. Whedon took the time-honored story of small-time crooks with good intentions and expanded the scope to encompass both outer space and Western tropes. The crew of Firefly were pulling low-impact jobs in nonetheless dire circumstances. Even the slight Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, as goofy as it starts out, shows that there are real consequences when super-powered heroes and villains clash.
The actual body count on Buffy, and later Angel, was extremely high, as vampires and various demons inevitably offed a few hapless teens or random Los Angeles citizens in nearly every episode before our heroes could save the day. But that’s not what we’re discussing here. What we want to focus on is the regular cast members who have met their demise, and how relentlessly effective Whedon’s tactics have been at getting a reaction from his audience.
The first killing a cast member was in Buffy’s two-part premiere, Welcome to the Hellmouth (1.1) and The Harvest (1.2). Buffy’s new friends, Willow and Jesse, get captured by vampires, and Buffy only manages to save Willow. Jesse ends up being turned into a vampire and later accidentally killed by Xander. This could’ve been a shocking death for a series regular, but the premiere had to do so much legwork introducing Buffy, her world, and the rest of the cast that there really wasn’t any time to develop Jesse before he gets vamped.
It wasn’t until the second season of Buffy that the show and Whedon really figured out how to eliminate a character effectively. Turning Angel into the evil Angelus after he and Buffy finally slept together was a bold plot twist. But what really sold Angel’s newfound soullessness was his murder of Jenny Calendar. Jenny had been introduced and gradually developed over the course of two seasons, both as a trusted adult who could help Buffy and as the love interest for Buffy’s staid, lonely mentor Rupert Giles. To have her straight-up killed by Angelus was a sign that the show was willing to eliminate major characters and that Angelus was a serious threat. The effect Ms. Calendar’s death had on Giles was perhaps more painful than the death itself. The tragic season finale was almost as hard on viewers, as Buffy was forced to kill Angel to save the world. This was compounded by the fact that Angel had only regained his form from Angelus seconds earlier. Still, this was a death that you suspected wouldn’t stick because Angel was so important to the show.
Sure enough, Angel was back the next season and he got his own spinoff a year later. It was the first season of that spinoff that upped the stakes again for Whedon’s shows. Angel had opened a business as a supernatural private investigator and brought Cordelia and the vision-afflicted Doyle in as associates. For roughly the first half of the season, Angel found cases through Doyle’s visions, attempting to help people who Doyle saw were in deadly danger. But in the season’s ninth episode, just as everything was starting to go Doyle’s way, he chose to make a heroic sacrifice, giving his own life to save others. His death came out of nowhere, and it killed off one of only three series regulars. It was a bold move that fundamentally altered the perception of what kind of show Angel was going to be. Clearly no one on the show, aside from Angel, was safe. In later seasons this absolutely proved to be the case.
Over on Buffy, Season Five gave us “The Body” (5.16), possibly the most wrenching, and certainly one of the finest, hours of television Whedon has ever done. Buffy arrives home from school one day to find her mother dead on the couch. Nothing supernatural had taken her life; she wasn’t infected with a magical virus or slaughtered by a monster. Instead, she died of a brain aneurysm. The episode is nearly demon-free; it simply follows Buffy, her sister Dawn, and their friends through their grief as they try to process what has happened. Written and directed by Whedon, “The Body” also features absolutely no background music of any kind. This naturalistic approach enhances the emotional effect of the episode. It’s an incredible hour of television, but it’s so painful to watch that it’s difficult to revisit.
After “The Body,” the number of character deaths increased on Buffy and Angel. Each one had its own effect, from the controversial stray bullet that killed Tara to the intense, sad story arc of Wesley, who died a lingering death from a stab wound in the final episode of Angel. The most heartbreaking of these deaths was probably Fred on Angel, who finally found happiness with Wesley in that show’s final season. In the very next episode she was infected with a parasitic ancient demon that slowly killed her and took over her body. This episode, “A Hole in the World” (5.15), is on par with “The Body” in terms of emotional impact, and it’s no coincidence that it was also written and directed by Whedon. The death of Fred was wholly different than the death of Buffy’s mother, though. Joyce Summers was a regular character on Buffy, but she was never all that central to the overall story. So “The Body” begins with the surprise awfulness of her death, but as an audience member, you ache for the rest of the characters as they grieve more than for Joyce herself. When Fred gets infected, though, her condition rapidly declines. At first she’s a little off-kilter, then barely lucid, and finally almost completely gone. It’s like watching a person with a mystical, fast-moving version of Alzheimer’s disease, and it happens over the course of a single episode. This is compounded by the fact that Fred was maybe the most beloved character on Angel, lovingly developed over three full seasons. While watching “A Hole in the World,” you feel the pain right along with Wesley as she wastes away before his (and our) eyes.