Joss Whedon: Pioneer of the Body Count

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.

Whedon has continued to kill off his characters away from the ‘Buffy’ universe

As effective as Whedon and his team have been at handling the deaths of major characters, it hasn’t always worked quite as well with more minor characters. The death of Cordelia on Angel came after her character arc took some truly bizarre turns. First she spent some time as a “higher being” before supposedly becoming dissatisfied and returning to Earth, whereupon she seduced Angel’s son Connor and became pregnant. It was later revealed the Cordelia had been possessed by a powerful god the entire time she was back. After giving birth to this god, she slipped into a coma from which she never awakened, eventually passing away. Although she was given a poignant sendoff halfway through Angel’s final season, the whole “possessed by a god” story arc did irreparable damage to her character. This, combined with the long-term coma, dulled the impact of her eventual death.

On the other end of the spectrum was Anya on Buffy. She was cut down in the middle of a battle in the series finale, dying quickly and without much fanfare. It was a terrible way for the character to go out, but it was clear that Whedon needed to kill somebody during the massive battle against the forces of Hell. Anya was a formerly great character who was marginalized after Season Six’s disastrous aborted wedding episode, “Hell’s Bells.” Without much of an arc after that point, her death made sense because there just wasn’t much left for the character to do. This was also the case with poor Giles in the penultimate issue of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight comic book. Giles was always a welcome presence on the show, but after Buffy graduated from high school he was never as effective as the mentor character, eventually leaving the show to let Buffy fend for herself. Giles appeared sporadically during Season Eight, mostly as a mentor to Buffy’s fellow slayer Faith. But he was heavily involved in the comic book’s final story arc, where he was eventually killed by Angel for reasons too complex to get into here. This was a death that may have had a major impact for Buffy herself, but with little left for Giles to do as a character, his death in the comic book felt perfunctory. And that’s a damn shame considering his importance in Buffy’s life and to the property as a whole.

Whedon has continued to kill off his characters away from the Buffy universe as well. While Firefly managed to keep its entire cast intact over its brief 14-episode run, the same can’t be said for the movie follow-up Serenity. Shepherd Book, the mysterious preacher with a secret past, has left the ship, and the remaining crew arrives at his new home to find it ravaged and Book mortally wounded. As far as Whedon deaths go, this one ends up somewhere in the middle. Book was a great character, but a good portion of his allure was his mysterious past. The fact that he dies without the audience ever gaining real insight into his backstory is as painful as the death itself. But that’s a function of the television series failing in the ratings before Firefly could reach its full potential. The storytelling of the movie is compressed, and Book’s background necessarily gets short shrift in deference to the main plot.

The death of Wash, on the other hand, is classic Whedon. Joss seemingly loves to set up his characters with moments of great happiness before killing them off. It happened to Doyle, it happened to Fred, and it happens to Wash, too. Wash is the pilot of the Serenity, and he makes a nearly impossible crash-landing on a planet’s surface. Wash and the rest of the crew are briefly jubilant. And then Wash is instantly killed by a harpoon from one of the crazy bad guys, the Reavers. His death is sudden and completely unexpected, and it produced audible gasps and loud “No!” reactions from the audience when I saw the movie in the theater. It’s the very definition of a shocking death, and it very effectively sets up the movie’s climax, where you aren’t sure that any of the cast will make it out alive.

The death of Penny in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog comes under similar circumstances. In the climactic battle between the wannabe villain Dr. Horrible and his nemesis, the heroic but arrogant Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible finally achieves victory. Unfortunately, his moment of celebration is cut short when he realizes that his love interest has been caught in the crossfire and mortally wounded by shrapnel. Penny is such a sweet, easygoing character that her death comes as almost as much of a shock to the audience as it does to Dr. Horrible. Even though longtime fans should’ve seen it coming by this point in Whedon’s career, Penny’s death still hurts. It also hardens Dr. Horrible’s heart, seemingly putting him on the path to true villainy since the only other thing he had to live for is now gone.

This brings us, sadly, to Dollhouse. Whedon’s second attempt at a show for Fox lasted almost twice as long as his first, but it still netted just two 13-episode seasons. And the concept of Dollhouse was much, much harder to set up than any of his other shows. It’s sort of amazing that the show ended up being as solid as it was, because a show about a secretive corporation renting out mind-wiped “dolls” to rich clients is creepy and difficult to sell. The cast eventually ended up rebelling and trying to take down the corporation, but it required a large chunk of the first season just to set up the ins and outs of said corporation. The amount of legwork Dollhouse needed to do to really get going was much longer than the attention span of general TV audiences. Still, Fox graciously bestowed a second season on the show, where it improved greatly.

But all that legwork made the various character deaths in that second season sadly predictable. The show introduced Bennett Halverson, a fascinating love interest for resident tech-geek Topher, and their relationship haltingly began to develop over the course of just a couple episodes. And then Bennett was shot in the head and died. It was supposed to be a huge shock, but at this point, audiences were onto Whedon’s tricks, so the reaction was more “of course she died” than the intended “Oh my God, they killed Bennett!” As the plot twists piled up to give the show its appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, Topher made a completely predictable noble sacrifice to save humanity, and the surprise villain Boyd Langton ended up as dead as expected of a Joss Big Bad. It’s possible that Whedon’s bag of death tricks was finally empty by the end of Dollhouse, but it’s just as likely that the show’s general awkwardness made it much harder to surprise viewers.

Despite some stumbles along the way, Whedon and his associates remain masters of the character death. The effort they put into character development makes it that much more effective when they pull the rug out from under us. It’s tough to kill this many characters and still make us care about it nearly every time. Next up for Whedon is his horror film Cabin in the Woods and Marvel’s Avengers movie. One expects that the former will have plenty of death, but how much character development Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard will be able to work into a horror movie is a legitimate question. Avengers, on the other hand, is the biggest project Whedon has ever worked on. As the steward of characters from several other movie franchises, it will be tough for him to use his familiar techniques. We already know that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson has a ridiculous nine-picture deal with Marvel) will make it through the movie alive. So the question becomes how much leniency will Marvel allow Whedon with the second-tier team members? If that answer is “a lot”, then fans of Hawkeye and Black Widow might want to brace themselves come the summer of 2012.

CHRIS CONATON lives in Houston, Texas, where he spends most of his time teaching music to elementary school students. He became a Joss Whedon fan by watching Buffy reruns for three straight months on the FX network in the fall of 2000. He named his first cat Anya.