Bring out your dead: on killing characters and historical tropes

Hi, peeps! (see what I did there, given the holiday? Heh.)

I hope this weekend treats you well and that everything is fab with you and yours.

This, my friends, IS A MAJOR LONG-ASS POST. But one in which I need to unpack a few things with regard to certain tropes.

I’ve been thinking about the characters I write, and the characters I’ve grown attached to through other people’s writing, and how it affects people when a writer decides to kill a character.

Writers make decisions all the time on which characters live or die, and that depends on a variety of factors, including the genre, narrative arc, and the personal arcs of the characters themselves. It also depends on where the story may be headed, especially if it’s a series, and how that character is going to fit into a larger picture down the line, if at all.

So there are any number of factors involved in a decision to remove a character either from the printed page or a TV show or movie. And there are any number of things that can happen, both inside the story and outside once the character’s death occurs.

There are also much larger currents at play, and those, too, have a role in reactions. Especially outside the story, among those who are following it.

Specifically, I’m thinking here of a couple of series on TV that I follow. Those are The CW’s The 100 and AMC’s The Walking Dead.

And here’s where I put the SPOILER ALERT. If you follow both these series and you have not seen the most recent episodes, DO NOT READ ANY FARTHER. STOP NOW.



Okay, fine. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Let’s proceed.

And because this is a looooong piece, with lots of rumination, grab your fave delicious beverage and snacks before reading on. I’ll wait.

dum dee dum. la la la. ::checks the Twitterz:: ::plays around on Facebook::

Okay, ready? Let’s go.

Within the past couple of weeks, both of those series killed off characters. The 100 (T100) lost a major character in episode 7 of season 3, while The Walking Dead (TWD) lost a character in episode 14 of season 6.

I want to talk a bit about those deaths and how they resonated among audiences for both shows, because there was something different at play in terms of both deaths, and they have a lot to do with historical tropes regarding the deaths of a “type” of character as well as a particular moment with regard to LGBTQ history.

First, a bit of context, for those who aren’t engaged with the shows.

Both take place after an apocalyptic event that pretty much screwed life up as we currently know it on Earth. T100 is actually a project that developed with Alloy Entertainment and YA author Kass Morgan. AE came up with the basic premise: 100 juvenile delinquents sent down to Earth from a ragtag space station that holds what the spacers think is the last vestiges of the human species to attempt to recolonize (in the eastern US, near where Washington DC would’ve been) 100 or so years after a nuclear disaster only to discover that humanity didn’t die out as first thought. Kass Morgan took that premise and created the books.

The cobbled-together space station in The 100, "The Ark."
The cobbled-together space station in The 100, “The Ark.”

For those of you who have read the books and watch the TV series, you know how very different they are. The basic premise remains consistent, but the characters and the arcs the TV writers put them on are, in many cases, completely different than what Morgan wrote in the books. The TV show further develops the different cultures on Earth, including a tribal culture without technology that is preyed upon by “the Mountain Men” — the vestiges of humanity that have sealed themselves into a science facility in Mt. Weather.

In an ingenious bit of world-building, the Mountain Men use the “Grounders” (tribal cultures) as blood bags, basically. The Mountain Men cannot survive outside the mountain because they have no immunodefense against residual radiation, something that Grounders have and also “Sky People” have (the space station folks), because they were exposed to low-level radiation on the Ark all their lives. So the Mountain Men capture the Grounders and turn some into drug-addict slaves the grounders call “Reapers.” The Reapers round up more Grounders for both Reaper use and blood transfusions for the people in the mountain. The blood of the Grounders helps mitigate the radiation effects on the people within Mt. Weather, but only temporarily. The culture in the mountain has basically become a really ghoulish one, using Grounders and Reapers at will and subjecting them to medical tests shades of Nazi-era Germany.

The "harvest room" in Mt. Weather facility, where Grounders and, later, "Sky People" are drained of their assets, if you will.
The “harvest room” in Mt. Weather facility, where Grounders and, later, “Sky People” are drained of their assets, if you will.

Suffice it to say that the TV series really explores this, and that the Mountain Men meet their demise when they attempt to use Sky People for bone marrow transplants in the most horrible and painful ways possible.

I really enjoy the exploration of these new expressions of human cultures on a postapocalyptic planet. T100 provides some rich world-building and explores the clash of cultures as well as the tentative relationship-building between them. One of the Sky People is Octavia, who was one of the original 100 sent to the planet. She hooks up with a Grounder from the Tree Crew clan, named Lincoln. The two make an interesting pair because neither has ever really fit into their origin cultures, and so they really understand each other.

Clarke Griffin (left), from the space station, and Lexa, Grounder commander.
Clarke Griffin (left), from the space station, and Lexa, Grounder commander.

The other pairing between Grounder and Sky Crew is Grounder commander Lexa with Sky Crew member Clarke, who was also one of the original 100. These two women, who I’ll be discussing in greater detail in a bit, are both considered leaders within their respective groups, and they develop an initial relationship based — grudgingly — on mutual respect that evolves into something more. If you follow the series, you know whereof I speak.

The Walking Dead (if you’ve been under a rock for the last 5 years or so) is a totally different view of postapocalyptic Earth. It’s AMC’s adaptation of the comics by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore, which debuted in 2003. The premise is simple. Some kind of terrible virus has created the means through which people die and come back as zombies (“walkers” in the most popular parlance of the show). Society collapses, and we follow a group of characters living and surviving in the Atlanta area, then in the Arlington, VA area.

Michonne brings it to walkers in The Walking Dead.
Michonne brings it to walkers in The Walking Dead.

The TV series does stay faithful to more aspects of the comics than T100 does to its books, but not entirely, as it’s introduced characters that are not in the comics (like Daryl) and kept characters on much longer than the comics did (like Carol). For those who follow the series, you know that the greater danger to our band of characters are other survivors (as it is in T100). In a world so soon after a complete breakdown, there are no rules beyond what a strongman or woman makes in a group of survivors, and those rules are enforced either through force and intimidation or mutual respect, as in the case of our group that we follow.

In T100, by contrast, all the cultures have had decades to evolve rules and traditions that come into play when they clash, and it’s interesting to watch how these are enacted on both personal and larger levels.

So now let’s talk about death in these series.

Both bring death from the beginning. Neither series spares grief or pain, as those who watch them know. No one — other than the seriously main characters (like Rick in TWD and Clarke in T100) — is exempt from a writer’s decision to kill ’em off. And who knows? That could probably happen, ultimately. Other characters — both minor and major — don’t get a pass. Both series have lost so many characters who played either major roles or were closely associated with major characters that it would take a while to tally them all.

But a couple weeks ago, both shows lost characters with cultural baggage beyond the context of the shows.

The first to go was Lexa, the Grounder commander in T100, whose death came in “Thirteen,” episode 7 of season 3. Lexa and Clarke had FINALLY managed to move their relationship to a physically intimate level after a season and a half of building something between them. They consummated (for lack of a better word) before Lexa died as the result of a “stray bullet.” Like, BARELY ONE MINUTE after she and Clarke finally expressed their attraction to each other.



I admit, I’m still pissed about it, too. And about the weird plot contortions that had to come into play to make it happen (see below for a comment I quoted from a blog that will point these out).

The second to go was Denise, in TWD’s “Twice as Far,” episode 14 in season 6. Denise was the sort of nerdy medical person at the Alexandria settlement who, in the TV series, developed a relationship with the show’s one surviving lesbian character, Tara.

Denise (right), sharing a moment with girlfriend Tara in The Walking Dead.
Denise (right), sharing a moment with girlfriend Tara in The Walking Dead.

We never saw Denise and Tara “consummate,” but they did share a kiss and some hugs. At any rate, Denise dies while out on a medical supply run with Daryl and Rosita. She’s in the midst of a really excellent and passionate speech while standing on some railroad tracks when she’s shot with an arrow from behind by another group of survivors Daryl has previously encountered.

First, Lexa.

OMG the outcry on the interwebz was TREMENDOUS. Lexa was an immensely popular character, and had a huge LGBTQ following. When she died, the outrage generated immediately brought up the historical trope to which I alluded earlier.

That is, when a lesbian couple finally finds a bit of happiness in literature or movie/TV media, one always dies. It applies to gay male characters, too. And bisexual and trans characters. Also known as the “bury your gays” trope and the “dead lesbian syndrome” trope, it was much more prominent in earlier portrayals (as in pulp lesbian fiction of the 1950s and 1960s and earlier than that), but it still exists in modern fiction, whether written or TV/movie. In the wake of Lexa’s death, the site Autostraddle pulled together 148 examples of the dead lesbian trope in TV shows to demonstrate its existence and, sadly, prevalence.

Autostraddle is clear to point out that, obviously, not all of the characters died in fulfillment of the trope, but nevertheless, they’re included here to bring attention to the fact that every dead LGBTQ character adds to the baggage we as LGBTQ audiences deal with in terms of representation in TV. (NOTE: a similar trope applies to characters of color, whether straight or LGBTQ; Autostraddle included characters of color in its list who identified as LGBTQ).

Back to T100 and the backlash in the wake of Lexa’s death. The show’s writers tried to explain the decision to kill Lexa — the actress who portrays her, Alycia Debnam-Carey, had become a lead on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, the prequel series to TWD that launched last summer, and had to leave T100. But the question kept coming up — why did that necessitate killing her?

A few days later, Denise died in TWD. Obviously, the show’s timing was a coincidence with what happened in T100, but there were some troubling aspects to Denise’s death. In the comics, Denise is straight, and involved with a man. Also, the character Abraham died in the comics the way Denise did in the TV show. Which means the Denise character was written for TV as lesbian, and granted a death that was supposed to go to another character after she’d found another woman in the postapocalyptic world. Brief happiness for a lesbian couple, ended all too soon. In the episode, after she falls to the ground dead, the man who shot her says to Daryl and Rosita that he wasn’t even aiming for her.

Dead lesbian collateral, basically.

Happens all the time.

But with the death of Lexa and then Denise, the LGBTQ and ally audience was not having it anymore. Something shifted, and the bury your gays trope moved front and center, as more and more people took to the interwebz to challenge it and express their anger and disappointment.

Hollywood Reporter notes that these 2 characters are actually 2 of 4 LGBTQ characters who died on TV shows in the past 30 days.

Dorothy Snarker, who wrote that piece, says,

To date, we have seen some 146 lesbian or bisexual characters perish on TV shows. Yet, in the history of television, we have seen only around 18 couples (on some 16 TV shows) who have been granted happy endings. It doesn’t take an advanced calculus degree to see that the math is clearly off here.

It is particularly galling when LGBT visibility continues to lag behind that of our straight counterparts on television. For sure we’ve made recent, needed and very welcome gains on that front. But also consider that there are currently more than 400 scripted TV shows on, between broadcast, cable, premium and streaming services. That we’ve seen fewer than 200 deadly or happy endings, period, should show how few-and-far-between our representatives remain.

So when you couple our low rate of representation with our high rate of death, you see why folks could get, well, mad as hell. –Dorothy Snarker, “Bury Your Gays: Why ‘The 100,’ ‘Walking Dead’ Deaths Are Problematic (Guest Column),” Hollywood Reporter

I want to talk a bit here about story arc. There are fans of T100 who acknowledge that Lexa’s character may have had to die — eventually — but they question the way in which her death occurred in the episode it did. She had just engaged in an expression of physical intimacy and love and affection with Clarke (yay for surviving bi visibility!) and then BAM! gone. So though in terms of the story and character arcs, sure, it’s conceivable that Lexa may have had to die eventually, but killing her off in such a trope-ish way added insult to injury.

There is something to Lexa’s arc toward death, given Grounder culture and the way in which the Sky People’s new chancellor, Pike, has allowed his bad personal experience with Grounders to influence how he perceives all of them. This is a violent, crappy world. Lexa knew that, and she knew that death loomed all the time. She was pragmatic about it, but she could have died in other circumstances, long after she and Clarke consummated, and the story arc could have survived intact.

Every moment of intimacy — regardless of its form and participants — in this world is something to be treasured and celebrated. Clarke and Lexa weren’t granted the time to revel in it, whereas T100’s Bellamy, who also lost his girlfriend Gina (episode 3, season 3), had already had time to build a relationship (3 months, at least) and consummate (presumably) a lot more than Clarke and Lexa had.

Gina (left), and Bellamy in The 100.
Gina (left), and Bellamy in The 100.

That said, Gina’s death did serve the purpose of helping create a deep grief and rage in Bellamy that played into his role in advancing new chancellor Pike’s anti-Grounder agenda. So in that sense, it makes sense, as horrible and tragic as it was.

Lexa, on the other hand, could have died a death that served a greater purpose within the plot of the overall series that didn’t have to happen so soon after she and Clarke came to acknowledge their feelings for each other. And that was part of the rub in the backlash.

What of Denise’s death? I thought quite a bit about it afterward, and decided that in terms of the mechanics of the story, she didn’t need to die to bring our survivors into contact with the other [asshole] survivors. Especially since she’d just had a major revelation about herself and her place in the world and scored a gift for her girlfriend. Denise’s death didn’t really move the story one way or the other. It just made people pissed off, and that could’ve happened without killing her. She could’ve been shot with the arrow in such a way that ultimately, she survived, but painfully, and people still would’ve been pissed off at the other survivors who did this to her.

The other problematic trope-ish aspect to Denise’s death was that Tara didn’t get to mourn her. The actress who portrays Tara, Alanna Masterson, was pregnant during the filming for season 6, so she was largely absent in many of the episodes, which should have been taken into greater account by the writers. As a result, we see Denise die, and then the only closure we the audience get with regard to that is when Daryl is burying her in the graveyard at Alexandria while Carol watches.

Daryl (left), and Carol burying Denise in The Walking Dead.
Daryl (left), and Carol burying Denise in The Walking Dead.

Tara is not present at all to mourn and in fact doesn’t make any appearance in the episode, which robbed us of closure to that relationship, and made Denise’s death seem that much of an afterthought. “Oh, just another dead lesbian. Whatevs. Nothing to see here. Move along.” Every other character in TWD has gotten some sort of reflection about their deaths from other characters while in this instance, the person who meant a great deal to Denise is nowhere to be found.

And in extra insult to audiences (though I’m sure it wasn’t intended as such), the actress who portrays Denise, Emmy winner Merritt Wever, was unable to participate in The Talking Dead, the after-TWD show (which many of us use to process what happened), something that practically every other actor who has died on the show has done, right after the episode airs in which their character dies. So Denise became an afterthought, it seems, in the larger arc of the story.

So what does all this mean?

Well, first, that yes, characters (even beloved ones) die in books and TV shows. We get that. But there’s a baggage with characters that are openly LGBTQ in many of those venues, because of the historical ways in which LGBTQ people have been marginalized in societies, and the ways that pop culture and literary culture has worked to affirm that marginalization.

So even though a character like Lexa most likely would end up dead anyway in T100, the way in which she died and the circumstances surrounding her death reinforced the “bury your gays” trope, even in this era of greater positive visibility for LGBTQ people and the expansion of certain rights. The sea change we’re experiencing in terms of LGBTQ people and the larger societies in which we love doesn’t make change overnight, or dispel deeply rooted and sometimes unconscious biases. Writers who aren’t LGBTQ may not be conscious that they’re engaged in perpetuating something that has served as a way to ensure continued marginalization of LGBTQ characters and, by extension, a larger body of people in the real world, when they write the deaths of characters like Lexa and Denise.

But because of this moment in LGBTQ history, and the availability of social media, it didn’t go unnoticed or unquestioned. In fact, T100 fans have raised over $70,000 for the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth — a major part of the audience to whom the character Lexa was beloved. (Click HERE if you’d like to donate.)

And the writer at T100 responsible for Lexa’s death, Jason Rothenberg, has actually apologized for writing Lexa’s death the way it occurred, and has acknowledged that he didn’t understand the “bury your gays” trope, and he wishes that he had, because Lexa’s death, he says, would have played out differently.

Which may or may not be true (see below), but 10, 20, or even 30 years ago, a writer saying anything about burying the gays in a trope was pretty much unheard of.

But . . . read the comments on that post. Fans are still pissed (I’m one of them), because the apology was a long time coming, and apparently the writer was allegedly a jerk to fans of the show who expressed their disappointment and frustration and anger about the episode. The comments point out several things that this writer allegedly said and did, and point out the queerbaiting that the show engaged in (coyly promoting the relationship between Lexa and Clarke before killing Lexa) and then, one commenter notes, throwing the actress who played Lexa under the bus, because she was put in a position where she had to address the issue while the writer(s) remained silent.

Here’s one comment from the Rothenberg blog that addresses all of that, and I think nicely sums up why people are still pissed.

As a showrunner and a writer, you have a responsibility to your fans, queerbaiting them for 11 months to get social media buzz and raitings [sic] is not the way to go, not when this community is already starved for representation that always gets killed off to “further the plot”.

You told us you knew about the trope and heavily implied that you would avoid it. Instead we got a rip off from Buffy and a scene full of plotholes so that the death could happen (where were Lexa’s guards? Where did Titus find the gun? Clarke saved Jasper when he was speared to the chest, saved Finn when he was stabbed with a poisonous knife but can’t save Lexa? Where were the healers in Polis? Why would Lexa enter a room after hearing gunshots? How did Carke, who survived three months alone in the woods, fall for the pathetic set up Titus had with Murphy?)

You said you didn’t expect this backlash but, aside from the fact that you lied to fans and killed Lexa, did you not stop for a seconds when watching the scene unfold and thought that it could trigger people? A religious father figure disapproves of the queer relationship, shoots at the bisexual and ends up killing the lesbian 64 seconds after a moment of real happiness? Really?

Why did you send one of your writers to a lesbian forum to give people hope if queerbaiting wasn’t your intention? Why did you invite fans to watch the finale filming on the only day you were filming specifically Clexa scenes outside, thus giving fans hope that Lexa would still be alive? How come the only important things that leaked were always related to Clexa, first the kiss then the sex scene? Let’s be real, queerbaiting was your intention from the start, whether you realized that you went overboard is not important.

You used a vulnerable community, got your raitings [sic], then threw us away like yesterday’s trash, and frankly, we are done being treated like that by white showrunners that think they can pat themselves on the back for giving us a few episodes of representation and then taking it away with the excuse of “everyone is treated equally in my show, anyone can die” (which clearly doesn’t apply to your show, let’s be honest)

Thank you, commenter.

As for TWD? Well, Denise played a significant role — she was the medic, and saved Carl (Rick’s son) from his horrible injury. Interesting, too, that Carl got shot in the eye and survived while Denise was shot in a similar fashion with an arrow and didn’t survive. The relationship she had with Tara didn’t have the visibility that Clarke’s and Lexa’s did, nor was it used by TWD PR to get LGBTQ or ally fans. It was just part of a larger macrocosm, but Denise’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it and the rewrite of her character for the TV show leaves this watcher, at least, with a “squick” factor.

Vanity Fair noted that though the Denise character does die in the comics, the TV show had to do some contorting to sub the lesbian character for the “straight, white alpha male” character. Merritt Wever did address the bury your gays trope and Denise’s death after the episode, but admitted she wasn’t sure that was what was going on in terms of the character’s death, though she is familiar with the trope and how it can affect the wider culture.

As far as I know, the outcry over Denise’s death isn’t nearly that engendered by Lexa’s, but it is being linked to it, and to the trope.

So where are we in all of this?

Well, I’m pissed because I really liked T100’s Lexa, and I really liked the relationship that was developing between her and Clarke. Emissaries, both, for their respective cultures, willing to put differences aside to explore their feelings. I’m pissed because I’m going to miss Lexa and that relationship. I’m pissed because it does feel like queerbaiting, and I’m pissed that Rothenberg seemed to have reacted like a jerk initially and then finally offered something that came too late. On the other hand, perhaps he did do some reflecting, and that will play out in the next season.

But I’m also pissed because now Clarke has to just continue to suck up all the shit that character deals with all the time on that show. I mean, COME ON. Please cut her some slack.

As for TWD? Well, my feelings aren’t as visceral as with T100. TWD has tried to diversify in terms of LGBTQ characters, and I do think it’s crappy how Denise was re-written to create a lesbian character then the plot really contorted to kill her off rather than Abraham, but TWD doesn’t promote itself as a venue for LGBTQ relationships. That’s never been its focus, unlike T100, which really did promote the LGBTQ relationship and then killed it off in such a horrible way. TWD didn’t engage in queerbaiting, so I’m not as pissed about what happened there, though I am disappointed.

Ultimately, I do think things are changing for the better. But really, TV writers need to consult with those of us who write LGBTQ characters all the time, in every possible walk of life.

Maybe then we could finally stop burying our gays in TV.

Oh, and T100 writers?

Call me. I know a few people who can help you get back on track . . .

Happy weekend, all, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate it.

Thanks for making it to the end of this very long blog. And please do share your thoughts in the comments. It’s a topic in which I’m personally invested, obviously.

8 thoughts on “Bring out your dead: on killing characters and historical tropes

  1. Well, here it is, 7:00 on Saturday night, and I’m still upset about Denise’s death last Sunday. Don’t really know how I feel about watching the next episode. Thanks for your thoughts. They helped me understands mine.

    • Glad you stopped by. Strange, isn’t it, how we get so invested in people we don’t even know but feel like we do? The human species is about connection, and it always hurts when those are broken.

  2. Thanks so much for writing all of this! I’ve been mulling over Lexa’s death for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still heartbroken. Most because, as you said above, I will miss Lexa and her dynamic with Clarke, and because wtf is Clarke supposed to do now? Everyone she touches romantically dies or gets the crap beaten out of them–usually because of her. And, if she’s really going to be bi, then she’ll have to be with a man next….mostly I’m just sad that the actress who played Lexa was double-booked–can’t we avoid such things?!

    • Ditto everything you said, Blythe. I so wish that Clexa could’ve stayed part of the show. Still kind of grieving. Funny, isn’t it, how characters that don’t exist can just twist our heartstrings…

  3. Thanks for this, Andi. I did read to the end – because I live under a rock and haven’t watched either of these shows. But I empathise as we had the very same thing with the last series of Last Tango in Halifax. Two lesbians get married – happiness, bliss all round – the next day one of them gets run over by a car after going out to buy milk. Tragic – and it does happen in real life – but in this case, why did it have to be the lesbian? The writer took a lot of flack for this – but didn’t manage to come up with a credible reason for why she did it.

    • Bury your gays trope. That’s why. And that’s why the backlash to producer of The 100 is really fascinating. We’re witnessing another paradigm shift, I think, and this moment will define how this is handled in the future, and I think it’ll also help put an end to this godawful trope. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. It took me a while to complete work projects and find an afternoon to catch up with the world. I’d bookmarked this post for just this day and hadn’t read any others on the topic. I knew you would write more than the explosion of emotion found elsewhere on the interwebz; I knew you’d write the backstory, the facts. Thanks for that. I did read the whole post.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about bias: white privilege, male privilege, anti-gay, anti-black, Maori, Chinese, Native. Laws have changed, but it seems that attitudes have not. People who claim to be open-minded speak with such obvious bias and superiority it shocks me. When I call them on it, they are equally shocked I would make an accusation.

    We recently told our teen that we walk hand in hand, in public, because it’s the only way we know to effect change. If we hide who we are, the world won’t see kind, intelligent women, embracing family and each other in a stable and loving relationship. We told him that we expose ourselves in gratitude for those who fought for our ability to do so and in support of those who can’t.

    I don’t know how many centuries it will take for attitudes to catch up with laws. I have to hold on to the hope that they will, and I have to keep trying. Thanks for being a voice for us all.

  5. Thanks for stopping by. And thank YOU for all you do to try to effect change. We do live in our own privileges and it’s painful when those are pointed out, but hopefully when they are, we can learn from them and continue to grow as a global community of humanity. I’m hopeful in many ways, because things are already so different now than when I was a kid. Change doesn’t come overnight, and yes, there are steps back as we work our way up the mountain, but it’s possible to reach the top.

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