At first glance, killing off a beloved character is a risky move for a TV show. When John Locke and Charlie Pace were killed off, Lost fans tore into showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. When (SPOILER ALERT) the third season of Downton Abbey ended with the shocking death of dear Matthew Crawley, fans unleashed their vitriol online.
So what motivates a showrunner to kill MVP characters at the risk of alienating a fanbase? For some insight, we talked to Glen Mazzara and Terence Winter, who’ve been killing central characters left and right on The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire, respectively. As the men responsible for some of the highest body counts on television right now, they discussed why they kill off characters and how they break the news to the actors who play them.
Mazzara and Winter admit they’ve second-guessed themselves when it comes to killing characters. Ultimately, though, they’re confident that character deaths make their shows better. Fans may revolt at first, but they eventually come back for more, says Winter (who also dispatched characters on The Sopranos). It’s the uncertainty–the possibility that anyone could die–that compels audiences to keep tuning in.
For example, when Winter killed Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) at the end of Season 2, enraged Boardwalk fans threatened to boycott the show. “There was such a clamoring on the Internet after Jimmy died and people swearing up and down they’re never gonna watch the show again,” says Winter. Nevertheless, the Season 3 premiere drew roughly the same number of viewers as the Season 2 premiere –2.9 million. “I think Season 3 was more successful than Season 2 in a lot of ways. If anything, I think the people liked the show even more because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You really couldn’t predict who is going to die, and everybody is fair game.”
For Mazarra, there comes a time in the arc of certain characters when he has nothing more to add–and when death services the story more than any other arc could. “You start at the beginning of the season thinking about what’s this character gonna do in this episode? What’s the journey this character’s gonna take this season? At some point you may not have a satisfying answer. You might say, ‘Well, actually, we’ve told this character’s story and now it’s time to find a fitting death.’”
When Winter kills off a character, it’s because to do otherwise would feel discordant with the story. “[Jimmy Darmody] was the second lead on our show, he’s a terrific actor, a fan favorite, a favorite of ours, just a great character,” Winter acknowledges. “But anything I came up with that ultimately made him survive at the 11th hour–Nucky forgives him or any other number of contrivances–just would’ve felt like that [contrivances]. I thought if I was watching the show, I would be annoyed if he didn’t die.”
When you produce a dozen-some episodes each season for an extremely TV-savvy audience, it’s a constant challenge to write stories that surprise viewers. In this respect, an unexpected character death comes in handy. “As a viewer, if I don’t see something coming, I’m thrilled,” says Winter. “Especially having worked in this business for so long, you sort of start to see the wheels turning as you’re watching something. You get the sense of when you’re being set up. When I get fooled, I’m thrilled.”
Just because an audience disagrees with the fate of a character doesn’t mean the writers are wrong. “If the goal is to strictly say I want to give the audience what they want and really check who the fan favorites are and let the audience dictate the story, then yeah, without casting aspersions on anyone who chooses to do that, that’s one way of doing it,” says Winter. “But I really try to write the show I want to write and be as honest as possible and not take into consideration things like that. Forget that we’re essentially selling a product to an audience.”
Though he’s already done it multiple times this season, killing a character is not a decision that Mazzara takes lightly. He and his team terminate characters only after they’ve completed a rigorous committee process. “Our internal process is one of endless debate,” he says. “First we talk about it in the writer’s room. We really make sure that we’re comfortable with it. Then we bring it to the producers and everybody weighs in. People have certainly disagreed with me on points, but if I feel like it’s the right move I’ll move forward. Then you bring that to AMC, and AMC signs off.”
If you think it’s tough when one of your favorite characters gets killed off a TV show, imagine being the actor who plays the character. “Almost all the actors are incredibly professional, but people still take it personally,” says Mazzara. “They feel that somehow it means they haven’t done a good job or it’s about them. Also, people are very, very happy working on the show and they don’t want to leave it.” Mazzara and Winter agree it’s essential to convey that the decision is purely creative, not personal. “As long as they understand that it’s coming from a place of artistic value,” says Winter. “They’re not just cannon fodder.”