(HUGE spoilers for Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, and The Americans ahead. So turn away and watch them for yourselves, then come on back.)
Look, I get it. While I am no pro, I have written stories. Death is really easy to write to solve your problems. Is a character not working? Have you written yourself into a corner? Need a plot twist to grab attention? Do you want quick, easy drama? There is a reason so many dramas are resorting more and more to killing characters off. Death is the ultimate escape plan.
We’re all noticing this lately. If you haven’t seen it yourself , you’ve probably read about it. Dramas are increasingly relying on character death to drive their shows. This is no surprise when the most popular dramas on cable both made their reputation off the idea of “anyone can die.” Storytelling in all forms has always been a very derivative concept, with the innovative and popular inspiring the trends which are driven into the ground
The problem, of course, is when the overuse of death to shock loses all its shock and, worse, its dramatic potential. At what point does death stop mattering and become thought of as cheap and lazy?
I could rant for a while about the lazy, exploitative way in which character death is being used to manipulate audiences, but there has been enough of that. I’m a happy person, and I would rather give attention to shows that deserve the kind of audience The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones pull in every week (plus others can tackle those shows in ways I never could). So today I’m going to talk about two of the best dramas on TV and how they find ways to create drama the right way; Better Call Saul and The Americans, one which uses death the right way and one which hardly uses it at all.
For those who have not watched Better Call Saul but may have watched the show it spawned from, Breaking Bad, you may be surprised to hear that Better Call Saul hardly uses death at all. After all, Breaking Bad was built upon a premise of death, with a main character dying slowly of cancer. The most iconic moments involve death. Jane dying beside Jesse, Hector sacrificing himself to kill Gus, Hank’s murder, Gale’s murder, even Walt himself as the show’s inevitable final scene. Not only does Better Call Saul not follow in Breaking Bad’s violent footsteps, it seems to actively avoid doing so.
And there was really no other way to make the show. After all, we’re talking about lawyers now, not drug dealers. Quick recap; Better Call Saul takes place many years before Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman does not exist. Instead he is Jimmy McGill, a former conman turned lawyer trying to go straight after his brother Chuck bailed him out of serious criminal charges. Jimmy’s nature is that of the conman, though, and much of the show is spent watching him trick and exploit the law to acquire fame and money on the inevitable journey to becoming Saul Goodman, the scumbag criminal lawyer. This journey is the great tragedy of Better Call Saul. Jimmy is an easy person to root for and knowing what he becomes later makes his moral decline all the more sorrowful to watch.
Due to the show it spun off from, predictions for the how and why of Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman were rather unanimous; his brother Chuck would die. It made sense. Chuck was the reason Jimmy received a second chance in life. He was Jimmy’s role model, the person he idolized most. He became a lawyer to follow in Chuck’s footsteps and to try and be the better person his brother gave him the second chance to become. What better way to begin his descent to Saul than by killing off his moral anchor?
Well, Gilligan found a better way.
Their argument accomplished everything that Chuck’s death would have but in a much more natural and compelling way. The reveal that Chuck was sabotaging his brother, and the role that reveal played in Jimmy’s crisis of morality throughout the first season, was so much more interesting than Chuck’s propane tanks blowing up his house or some panic attack because of his condition killing him. This made much more sense than “my brother is dead so I’ll be a bad guy now.” This was “my idol isn’t much of an idol, so why the hell should I keep idolizing him?” It also marked a clear departure from the style of Breaking Bad, revealing Better Call Saul to be its own show.
It also helps that the scene was brilliant. Well-acted, well-seeded in previous episodes, 100% consistent with Chuck and Jimmy’s characterization, and it accomplished exactly what a death scene would have but without ridding the show of one of the best characters. I feel more tension and shock (not Shock™) with every word than any of the lazily executed deaths on TV lately could ever hope to accomplish.
(And it is all the more impressive because of Vince Gilligan’s writing style. Gilligan, Saul creator Peter Gould, and the rest of this writing staff deserve so much credit for not turning to death to write themselves out of corners.)
From episode 1 Better Call Saul has faced a problem inherent to every prequel (and especially prequels to shows as violent as Breaking Bad was). How do you create tension when we know certain characters will not die? This is a problem Gilligan and Gould are very aware of that necessitates a different method of creating drama. Not to say that they don’t still play on the mortal dangers to Jimmy and co-protagonist Mike Erhmantraut despite the audience knowing they will survive (and they still show their expertise in somehow making you fear for them in scenes such as Jimmy’s scenes with Tuco). But the majority of Better Call Saul finds high drama in very simple scenes; a montage of Kim trying to find a high-profile client for her bosses, Jimmy working overnight to change numbers on legal documents, Chuck running out of the house to steal his neighbor’s newspaper or his harrowing torture during a hospital stay. All of these earn audience attention through strong characters and storytelling and find high drama without death or cheap plot twists.
Even when the show drifts away from the legal side of things towards the more violent world of the cartel, Gilligan and Gould find strong story in avoiding death rather than relying on it. When the man Mike began protecting in season 1 is robbed in season 2 and goes to the police for recourse, the easiest solution would be to kill him. Instead Jimmy is hired for one of the funniest scenes the show has ever done. And more than humor, it serves a character purpose for both Jimmy and Mike. Jimmy’s fabrication of evidence continues his moral decline and creates a point of contention with Kim that serves a major plot point later in season 2.
For Mike, this is part of his own character’s attempts to avoid a furthering involvement with the criminal world, an attempt we know he fails. Better Call Saul is not only the journey of Jimmy to Saul; the Mike we meet in season 1 is a far cry from the hitman carrying out Gus Fring’s will in Breaking Bad. Season 2 involves him with the cartel in ways he never wanted. Driven by guilt to help his dead son’s wife and daughter, he takes a dangerous job to get rid of Tuco Salamanca. Rather than kill him, he successfully frames him for assault and possession of a weapon, and in the process catches the eye of the cartel.
Bit by bit we see Mike’s resolve to avoid the criminal life break down as his decision to frame Tuco drags the Salamancas further into his life. Yes, his attempt to assassinate Tuco’s uncle failed and could never have succeeded. That is not the point. The point is how Better Call Saul expertly showed the process by which Mike became willing to murder. Even when the show finds ways to avoid death entirely, it shows a greater respect and skill with the subject than The Walking Dead has ever dreamed of.
Despite all this, much like with Chuck everyone expected Kim Wexler to die in season 2. That’s just how things go these days. Kim is Jimmy’s lone remaining moral support, so of course she needs to vanish. While this may happen eventually, count me among those who believes it will not. Better Call Saul has suggested to me that this is not the way they will go about creating drama or transforming their characters. It prefers to earn the journeys their characters take step by difficult step.
That’s not to say that I’m against violent subject matter on TV in any way. My all-time favorite show is The Wire, for crying out loud, which has a subplot based around gangsters boarding up dead bodies in vacant apartment buildings. For all the way it has been exploited death is still one of the most effective character moments a writer can use (which is why relying upon it for shock and board-clearing is such a disgrace).
Among this list of female characters killed off in a single week is one Nina Sergeevna Krilova of The Americans fame. (For the unaware, The Americans is a show about a married Soviet spy couple living in Washington D.C. during the 1980s.) I worried when I saw her in that list that people would assume her death was like the many others that so outraged others. In fact, this is a big reason I wanted to write this to begin with. Nina’s death was most certainly not done for Shock™, or to clear a storyline, or any of the other lame reasons given for the others on that list. Her story was a master class in how to maximize a character’s story (arguably to the detriment of the show) and deliver the right ending, though that ending may not be a happy one.
Much like Martha the secretary(who I will discuss later), Nina was marked for death soon after her introduction. She was a nobody in the Soviet embassy caught stealing by the FBI and blackmailed into becoming an informant. For nearly 3 seasons she lived a delicate balance involving double-crosses and triple-crosses, spending every moment having to be a different person to different people to maintain her covers, to the point that even she lost sight of who she truly was. In a show that quickly established real mortal danger for its main characters she seemed an easy choice for a quick death. Even showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields expected her to be gone sooner:
“At the beginning of season 1, we knew that there was a storyline that would carry us through season 1, and halfway through season 1 we realized it was going to be longer than that. And then as we broke season 2, we spent a really long time plotting out this whole storyline. We’ve hewed pretty much to the story we broke, although it took longer to unfold than we expected. Really, she survived longer than she might have – not in real time, but episodic time.”
They are very, very right about that. Nina’s storyline since being brought back to the Soviet Union to be imprisoned has been one oft-criticized by fans. Many questioned the necessity of it, and her death did little to quell those opinions. Her scenes were not entirely separate from everything happening back in the United States, but they were at least partially disconnected. It would have been very easy to just kill her off and avoid this problem.
Why didn’t they? Because Weisberg, Fields, and their writers understand the importance of complete character arcs, even for characters marked on day one to die.
Weisberg: “She was really out of choice. How many more chances could you give her? They’d been reasonable, been fair, they’d given her extra chances even more than a person could hope for. It’s exactly what you say: it would start to seem like bullshit if they forgave again.”
Fields: “Look, they could have given her a bullet in the head long ago, before she had a chance to grow as a human being.”
These questions were framed in response to the question as from the viewpoint of the Soviet government, but isn’t it obvious how it applied to Weisberg and Fields as well? Instead of killing her at the first chance they saw the character through to her logical end. She did fail multiple times; it is kind of inevitable when a person must have so many different personalities that she can barely remember herself. She played the KGB. She played the FBI. She played her cellmate in prison. All throughout we saw a woman so lost that she could not possibly tell you who she really was.
And she did receive numerous chances where lesser characters have been killed. She confesses her role as an FBI informant to the KGB. She fails to turn Stan Beeman. Despite this she is given yet another chance with the operations to gain a confession from her cellmate and afterwards to determine the reasoning behind a kidnapped scientist’s lack of productivity and change it. Even then she blows it by attempting to smuggle a letter from the scientist to his son in America.
So why bother? Why stretch the credibility of your story by giving this character so many chances others would never receive? What was the point?
To allow Nina to rediscover herself, even at the cost of her life.
And regardless of what anyone has to say about its impact on those episodes, it was the right choice.
We never really got to see the real Nina before prison. From her first scene we see her having to adapt and become entirely different people in order to stay alive. She is far from alone in this on The Americans, but unlike Philip and Elizabeth, who were trained many years to play numerous roles, Nina is just some woman thrust into a terrible situation. By the time she returns to the Soviet Union she can barely remember who she was. Her life is lying in effort to escape death. This is clear in her dealings with her cellmate, a young girl accused of helping her boyfriend commit treason.
Nina pulls a confession from her through blatant, awful emotional manipulation of a girl whose culpability is questionable despite her eventual confession. She fakes nightmares, shares experiences, and creates a connection. In this girl Nina may even see someone much like her. Yet when this poor girl is dragged screaming and crying from their shared cell, Nina cares more for the meal she has earned and doesn’t even spare a glance.
This was Nina at her lowest, and all for a few basic amenities and a sentence reduced to 10 years from death.
When she was given a further chance at reducing her sentence through Anton Baklonov, most viewers expected much the same. Yet from the start we saw something different as the kidnapped scientist rejected her sexual advances and efforts. As they slowly began to bond over their shared captivity, we saw small glimpses of the real Nina emerge. We learned of the husband she had never divorced. We saw a scene of them together. Nina and Anton sat together and spoke English to hide their conversations. She learned his story and confided her disillusion with her government and the life she had been reduced to, how tired she was from buying back her life bit by bit while nothing changed. Doing so had turned her into someone she did not know and did not like.
And so she made the decision to sabotage her last chance at freedom by using her husband to try and smuggle Anton’s letters to his son out of the country. Predictably, this scheme failed and she was sentenced to death. She is executed coldly (if you read further in the interview I linked, that execution was historically accurate and they go into further detail on the method) and hauled away like some nobody rather than a main character we followed for 3+ seasons.
I wholeheartedly loved this decision. It completed Nina’s character in a way she deserved, even if she as a person deserved better than this kind of death. Yes, they could have thrown her in prison at the end of season 2 without the audience ever seeing her again. Yes, they could have killed her much earlier. Instead we saw a true ending to her story that allowed for one of 2016’s very best moments on TV.
She is a brilliant example of how to utilize the terrible dramatic power character death can have in a story. Which The Americans has shown multiple times they excel at, even in the most recent episode on Wednesday. Death is powerful and does not go forgotten.
Gregory’s suicide-by-cop still haunts Elizabeth 3 seasons later when she and Philip compare traumas with their agents. Philip visits the grave of a FBI tech whose death he framed as a suicide. Elizabeth’s murder of an unwitting woman she used to gather information was the final straw convincing their handler, Gabriel, to scale back on the operations they are given. The murder of another KGB couple drives Philip and Elizabeth’s resistance to the KGB’s second generation program, aimed at bringing their daughter Paige into the family business. This all makes for incredible television as each new tragedy chips the foundation from the fragile psyches of main characters.
So clearly, there is nothing wrong with death as an important part of a story. The problem arises when death is used and tossed aside, lessening its importance. Or when death is used because writers can’t think of a better way to resolve plotlines, or so often that the impact is lost because death is commonplace. The Americans avoids this problem by making even the most minor of deaths (such as Philip’s brutal strangling of a potential witness this season) truly matter (Philip’s involvement in the est program deepens in the aftermath).
The Americans also, much like Better Call Saul, avoids death when it can. This was seen in their resolution of the Martha plotline this week. I have to admit, I was a little worried having written basically all of this before this episode aired that The Americans would kill Martha off and possibly in a way that invalidated my entire point. Thankfully this is the real best show on television and knew better. We were introduced to Martha back in season 1 as the naïve secretary Philip was playing for information about the FBI office where she worked. Over time, to maintain her as an agent, he developed a relationship with and eventually married Martha. All along fans assumed the day would come where the cover would be blown and Philip, cold-hearted as he was, would kill Martha to maintain secrecy.
Only that did not fit their relationship or the person Philip has become. From the start Philip has been portrayed as the more…reluctant between himself and Elizabeth when it came to their work. I could probably write a whole article about the inversion of typical gender roles, especially considering this show takes place in the 80s, regarding Philip and Elizabeth and their commitment and attitudes towards their children. Even to start with Philip has been the more soft-hearted and less committed to the cause. He was ready to turn traitor in season 1 in order to protect his family. While both have grown somewhat disillusioned and Americanized over the years, this is especially true with Philip, who finds it harder and harder to live the espionage lifestyle.
When Martha’s cover was finally blown, he did what you would expect this character to do at this point in the show; he nearly went rogue to pull her out and force his bosses to extract her. Because that is the person he is, and the connection he had formed with her despite the false pretenses upon which their relationship began. Martha was made to matter. She was her own person with her own faults and strengths that Philip grew fond of despite the deception of their life. We all rooted for her.
As you would expect of a woman whose entire life was crumbling around her, Martha did not make this extraction easy. There were so many moments where she could have been killed; when she ran from Gabriel’s house, when Elizabeth found her afterwards, when she was back in safety but the risk had been made clear, even during the long drive out to the plane waiting to fly her out of the country. Most fans expected her to die at some point in the past 4 seasons. Most television would never pass on the opportunity to upset their audience by killing such a beloved character in her situation. Instead the writers found a perfectly satisfying way to resolve this issue without the finality of death, where they lose the amazing character they have helped create alongside the absolutely incredible Alison Wright who plays her instead of having her available for potential future plotlines.
(Not to go too far off-tangent, but I loved this interview with Alison Wright where she mentions that she had written a note about Martha having an abortion back during season 1 as part of her character back story, well before this was written for the show during season 4. It goes to show how in-sync she and the writing staff were with her character. That synergy shows in the strength of the Martha character on screen.)
Weisberg and Fields also showed an awareness of the implications involved in killing two female characters so close to each other. Like it or not, this stuff matters to people. This is no case of a belated attempt to avoid controversy. Season 4 would have been written and filmed well before the week of dead women happened. This was a genuine understanding of the issue that allowed them to avoid these implications entirely. I know it sounds like nothing worth mentioning, but we are increasingly seeing an obliviousness or lack of care towards these kinds of implications that disheartens me.
Ultimately, death is final. While death may open doors, it closes many more. That is what makes its dramatic potential so powerful. You know when you see a character die…that is it. They are gone. That is a decision that should not be made often and/or lightly. Where you can, you should avoid it. And if you can’t avoid it, you should make sure to portray the ramifications death has on the characters involved. Otherwise death is nothing more than a cheap distraction thrown on screen so people won’t notice the flaws surrounding it.
The writers of Better Call Saul and The Americans fully understand this issue, and it shows in the way they tell their stories. They are masterful at creating drama born naturally from their characters and without relying on death or cheap shocks to do so. I wish these two shows had the kind of audience that The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones receive, because they deserve it. Unfortunately they are not the first and will not be the last great shows to excel in the shadows where too few will ever notice. I’m glad to say I did notice them. I hope anyone reading this decides to notice them, too.
Images courtesy of AMC and FX