Character death is a tough thing to get right. Whatever the medium, killing off a character is something that stirs up a lot of emotions. It’s messy. Oftentimes it’s not a purely aesthetic decision; an actor is leaving the show, the main character needs motivation to go after the bad guys in the last act, the show wants to inject some new blood into the cast, etc. A lot of great characters have these long, sweeping arcs, and when they die, it’s a capstone. A well-deserved grace note after a long, blazing trail of awesomeness.
That’s not what this post is about.
For some characters, their crowning moment is also their last. Maybe these characters never quite came into their own, maybe they didn’t quite enamor themselves to you. Maybe they never quite figured things out. Their path is a winding one, and instead of their death being a grace note, it’s an achievement. A summation. These characters die at their peak because their peak was imperfect, because they were imperfect, and that’s why we love them.
***Spoilers for The Professional, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, and The Man Who Would Be King ***
* Though if you need a spoiler warning for The Man Who Would Be King, you have some very strict standards about spoilers and probably got upset when the youth pastor told you that Jesus died for your sins, because he spoiled the Bible for you.
Leon never was quite right in the head. He’s a healthy, curious guy who watches movies with childlike glee. He’s quiet, professional (hah!) and seems almost a little simple. Oh yeah and he’s also a professional assassin. That juxtaposition is jarring at first, and then more and more interesting as we learn a bit of his backstory through the lens of Mathilda. You get the feeling that he never quite remembered how to be a human being after his lover was killed over in Europe, that’s constantly slightly confused about people and their reactions, perhaps keeping himself at a willful, careful distance.
In the end, his death is an act of love and protection, and act that’s completely, utterly human.
Ah, The Man Who Would Be King. A classic, an absolute classic. Sean Connery and Michael Caine portraying the tragic lows and steadfast highs of England, the best and the worst of British imperialism. Glorious and awful at the same time. Nothing symbolizes this dichotomy more than Danny’s death. He walks to his death with his crown on and his head held high. He dies ‘every inch a king,’ achieving what was a destructive, selfish, but somehow beautiful dream.
I really, really apologize for that video. Don’t watch it. Seriously. It’s the best I could find. Definitely mute it if you watch it. Stupid Heroes. Can’t even get YouTube clips right. Anyway. I heard Heroes actually got better after that historically awful Season 2, but I never bothered to find out. Season 1 was and is a great season of television, and vision-having painter Issac Mendez’s death at the hands of Sylar was a real capstone moment. The fact that he predicated his own death, via paintings, was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the season he’d been an important piece of the puzzle, yet never having any agency, always being a cipher. Here, he finally makes a difference, hiding his important paintings from the bad guy and defying him to the end, even after Sylar crucifies him with his own paintbrushes. He even some amazing dying words… “I finally get to be a hero.”
Now here’s a flawed character finally getting it right in the end, although in this case, getting it right is a very wonky, ephemeral idea. The whole “mutiny” arc of BSG was hit or miss, for me, but boy did they wrap it up well. BSG was always about the wounds and fractures we carry inside us, amplified through all levels – this is a society that is fundamentally hurt, the population of humanity reduced to a handful, a mere 50,000. They’re messy, and broken, and they never feel “right.” That feeling – of being fractured – moves up and down the series like a spinal cord. From the pure rift between the Cylons and the humans, to the complex rift between the Galactica‘s military and the fleet’s civilians, to the broken family that is Bill Adama, Lee Adama, and Kara Thrace, all orbiting around the missing fourth member. Everyone is hurt, and no one gets truly better. Which is why there’s something twisted yet triumphant about Felix Gaeta facing the firing squad, after the pain in his amputated leg drove him halfway insane and addicted him to painkillers, after his dissafection led him to incite a brutal, horrendous mutiny, look up with a kind of dawning, wondering comprehension mere seconds before he’s shot, glancing at his leg, and saying, “It stopped.”
These are out of order, and yet, even if you haven’t seen The Wire, watching them in this order lends Bodie’s death a kind of poignancy that’s incredibly rare in television. To be trapped in a system as fundamentally screwed up as the one portrayed in The Wire and still have the kind of integrity – even if that integrity comes in a form we aren’t used to – to stand up for what he thinks is right, in his own way… that’s pretty amazing. That little shake of his head when Poot tells him to run – that half-second clip says so much. He knows he should run, but he won’t. He’s resigned. He’s resolved. He’s tired. “I’m right here.”
Finally, here’s one you’ll all know, and yet it deserves to be mentioned. Because this clip right here pretty much embodies what I’m talking about.
Nothing I can add to that…