Fiction that is afraid to take chances is generally not worth taking the chance to read. This is a sentiment I have taken to heart after reading many of the commentaries by Harlan Ellison in both of his Glass Teat collections as well as his collection called Watching. Fiction is supposed to push the reader. Fiction is supposed to make the reader feel something. Feeling good is not the only sort of feeling that matters, nor is a completely positive outcome the only way to resolve a tale. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made.
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Among Buffy fans and Whedon apologists (that is the only way I can see someone continually saying he is great), the latest issue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 is viewed as a major blow to the history of the franchise. The entire comic run is considered a dividing point in the fandom as it is, thanks to there being both a change in format (from TV series to comic book) and in scope (from based in Sunnydale to worldwide). This was a hard enough adjustment, with many fans trickling off and suggesting, via fan narcissism, that the book does not count. The ending of issue 39 will cement fan’s views of the comic because Joss Whedon soundly decided that it would involve the death of Rupert Giles.
The death marks the end of an era as far as Buffy is concerned. No matter who was added to the cast over time, there were only four main characters: Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles. Giles’ death means the end of the core four. People who follow Whedon tend to say that nothing is sacred and no one is safe, but that is not true. He keeps the absolutely essential characters. He never drops a character who cannot be replaced. He never drops a character who leaves more than an emotional hole.
The problem here is that people are viewing it as a major event when in actuality it is not. Giles has not been an essential character in the story of Buffy Summers since maybe season 3 of the television series. Beyond that point his character meandered a little, only becoming necessary in the conclusion of season 5 and in providing good magicks in the easy resolution for what should have been the gut wrenchingly painful villain turn of Willow in season 6. Giles was a character who was often hinted to have a dark history that would make him perfect in performing heinous but necessary acts that Buffy could not. The series rarely ever got that dark, making him functionally aimless.
His death was meant to be a shock, but that is all that it was. I read somewhere that Joss Whedon is a great writer because he knows that deaths do not matter unless you have something invested in the character. He failed with Giles. Not because Giles was not a character worth the emotional investment but because of his handling in the Season 8 book. After years of not being essential to the growth of Buffy, he plays an extremely small role in the comic. Toward the end he functions as an exposition device that explains the weird events between Buffy and Angel. (Essentially, they were both special, and an entirely new reality would have spawned from their union – at the expense of the world in which they already live.) He says this and admits that he had been aware of this for a but did not tell. A few issues later, he gets his neck snapped in a fashion closely mirroring the death of his love interest from season 2 – and I mean that literally, as Angel and his victim are facing the opposite direction this time around.
And I could care less.
Had Giles actually been a more essential player through the run of Season 8 I might have been more struck by it. I just enjoyed the shock of its being edgy – until I reasoned that it was not edgy or much of a chance at all. Giles’ was an easy death. Xander, the commander of the vampire slayers would have been a major blow. Willow, the one who basically commanded the magicks of the world and Buffy’s emotional confidante would have been a major blow. Angel, the love of Buffy’s life who was brought over from an entirely different comic book company and who just had a new series announced by Dark Horse Comics would have been an amazingly major blow. But in killing Giles the narrative does not change in the slightest. It affects the character because she has lost her last parental figure, meaning that she has finally completely ascended into the role of an adult and a caretaker herself.
This is meaningful, but it showed that Whedon was not willing to take a chance.
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By now some Whedon apologist, even if the person does not disagree about the death of Giles, might point out that the death of Wash in Serenity was a risky move in storytelling. Unfortunately, it was not. Wash was a great character who provided a certain level of levity in many situations, but his function was that of pilot. He was a great pilot, but both Mal and Zoe were capable of making the ship move forward. Even worse, River picked up the ability to pilot in the blink of an eye. His function was rendered meaningless.
Shephard Book, another great character, was also an easy character to kill off in the movie. His background, as explored in the recently released comic, would have been a rich narrative mine in their further conflicts with the Alliance. That never came to happen, though, so they dropped the character entirely because he was useless. And his death did not even have much shock value because he was barely present in the movie. Like the death of Giles, it works on a macro level for those who followed the series but failed in the micro level of the story in which it was told.
Someone might even bring up Tara’s death in season 6 of Buffy, but again she was a non-essential character. At least it was risky. They inflated the meaning of the death by finally adding Amber Benson to the opening credits of the show. They deserve quite a bit of credit for going the extra mile, despite her death’s really just being a plot device. The characters did not even get a chance to mourn her.
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Killing a character is not risky or edgy in storytelling. That is not to say that the deaths are without meaning. But when the deaths serve as plot devices or are just not substantiated enough, the whole idea loses something. Maybe it is all because I am a heavy consumer of serialized fiction and fail to attach to characters. Maybe it is because there is no perfect way to end a character’s run in a story.
What do you think? Whose, if any, fictional death actually meant something to you?