Joss the Beloved Character Slayer: Deconstructing One of the Director's Most Common Tropes (**UPDATED**)
So, in honor and celebration of The Avengers hitting DVD/Blu-ray this week -- a movie where, whether it was initially his idea or not, continues this killer trend -- I've attempted to break down the different ways major characters have perished in the TV shows and films of Joss Whedon. "Major characters" ought to be read as those whose presence in the show or movie were consistently present and had an impact on the overall narratives more times and with greater resonance than a monster-of-the-week; also, unless otherwise noted, villains do not count, though reformed ones can. What follows is an examination of who died and how, and what meanings those deaths may or may not have had in the stories or to viewers, and attempts to broach the whys and wherefores when possible. Naturally, and this really ought to go without saying, ***SPOILERS*** are in abundance.
(I also recommend checking your emotional attachment to these characters at the digital door, because things are about to get heavy up in here.)
Killed in Action
Considering the nature of Whedon projects, it isn't too surprising that a decent chunk of the characters that have perished under his authorship were slain while in the midst of performing their duties. Slaying vampires and hunting demons, running from the space-military and space-terrorists, trying to be a super villain, surviving the apocalypse, and fighting off an alien invasion are pursuits that, for realism's sake, anyway, ought to leave a trail of dead in their wake. As heartbreaking as it might be to see Anya get sliced in half, to see Wesley's dying goodbye to the woman he loved, to see Wash impaled after saving the day, to see Paul Ballard take an errant bullet in the middle of a war zone, or, finally, to see Agent Phil Coulson fail to take on a literal god by himself - and every single one of them were oh, so heartbreaking - at least they all died with a sense of purpose and for a reason. Like every soldier on the battlefield who loses his or her life because an enemy soldier, who is simply trying to survive themselves, each and every one of these characters are heroes in the context of their fictional worlds. With the exception of one, each of the KIAs mentioned here also served a narrative purpose; usually to spur on the surviving characters to keep fighting or to steel their resolve in the rectitude of their respective missions. Even Kendra*, the slayer called after Buffy's first temporary demise, is given a meaningful death at the hands of Drusilla because it's an act that forces Buffy into taking the action necessary to defeat the big bads.
The only character that doesn't fall under that second rubric of narrative impact, and perhaps this is the reason her death still lingers after all these years as the most senseless and painful, is Anya. (Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins, if you're nasty). The ex-man-flaying-demon had survived several apocalypses and one defunct relationship before the series finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and then, at very nearly the last possible second, she is cut literally in twain by unseen vampire warrior. Only the reformed wannabe-villain Andrew witnesses her death, after cowering from the final fight, so only he can relate her heroics to the rest of the Scoobs; particularly Anya's lost love, Xander. While it could be argued that Anya's death saved Andrew - indeed, he certainly argues that - since it comes at the very end of the series - and, like Star Wars, we aren't counting the expanded universe of the comics - there's really no narrative thrust necessary for it. The characters aren't motivated by it, at least not in the ultimate scene after the Hellmouth has swallowed up all of Sunnydale, because there's nothing left to do but fade to black and let the credits roll.
It is certainly reasonable that, in order to give the series finale the weight it truly deserved, some of the good guys (our guys, by this point) had to die. Neither we nor Whedon want a series comprised entirely of Mary Sues and Marty Stus, after all. But plenty of recently slayers and potentials already fell in the battle, and the unlikeliest of heroes would already save the day by sacrificing himself, so why did Anya need to die? Why not Andrew, who had no business being in a fight to the death with an army of super vampires to begin with? Why not Xander, a series regular from the beginning, whose loss truly would have been felt by every surviving character and would have surprised audiences even more? Why not lots of things? Why did the one narratively needless major character death in the entirety of the Buffy series have to be Anya? The most obvious answer is that if without her, there would have been no major female characters in the entire Whedon catalog, and not just "Buffy," who were killed in the service of the greater good rather than victims of random acts of violence. But that isn't very satisfying. The only logically acceptable answer is that she had already gotten to live, or exist, for a millennia and her time on Earth should have ended long ago; and so any other character dying in the finale would be inherently unfair. But that answer is hardly acceptable at all.
The heroic sacrifice is probably best described by Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Wrath of Khan: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In terms of major characters stepping up and biting the bullet to protect others in spite of themselves, Whedon certainly knows how to strike the right chords to evoke an resonant, emotional response. Spike sacrifices himself to save Buffy, and by extension the rest of the world, in the same series finale that unceremoniously killed off Anya. Half-demon Doyle sacrificed himself early on in "Angel" to save a bunch of other demons he didn't even know, and Angel's vampire paramour Darla, in the ultimate act of motherly love, stakes herself in order to save their unborn child. It could be argued that Shepherd Book's death in Serenity really belongs under the Killed in Action header, but the staging of his body at the AA gun makes it clear he was trying to give someone, anyone, else a chance to survive -- plus, it's sort of in his job description to sacrifice of himself. Despite having gone mad by the time "Epitaph Two" starts in "Dollhouse," Topher, knows exactly what he's doing when he sacrifices himself so that the world can be cured of the identity theft technology he helped to create. And then there's Agent Coulson from The Avengers, who, like Shepherd Book, is killed in action but he knew full-well, also like the preacher man, that he was probably going on a suicide mission by taking on an actual Norse god all by his lonesome. Even Buffy Summers**, the star of her own series, leapt headlong to her death (once literally so) in the hopes that doing so would keep the world spinning and mostly free of monsters.
Each of those moments elicited lumpy throats and red, watery eyes; even from viewers with the coldest of hearts. Similar to those killed in action, those sacrificed keep these fantastical tales grounded in a heightened reality, as well as raising the stakes and propelling the narrative for the characters and the audience. These deaths are often cited far less by Joss Whedon's fans as the writer/director callously manipulating their emotions, which is ironic because that's exactly what is happening and often in the most generic ways possible. All are well-crafted and affecting, but with the exception of Darla staking herself, none of these deaths are terribly surprising. Actually, they're often telegraphed, especially in regards to Buffy. For her part, the vampire slayer does get discounted some here, if only because there wasn't much suspense in her season one death -- Whedon had only just started messing with conventions -- and if season five had been the last, her death would have simply been a natural ending.
It is worth noting that Darla, like Anya, is the only female character (who isn't the star of her own show, where being heroic is required) who gets any sort of noble or meaningful death. Normally, I would exclude a character like Darla because of her natural state as a series villain, but by the time she was pregnant with Angel's son, the character had gone through enough changes, like Spike, to get credit where credit is due. She existed and, by her own doing, stopped existing, leaving an innocent child in her place. Hopefully Connor does something to honor Darla every Mother's Day. Then again, her sacrifice is also the only one that brings to mind somewhat troubling issues. After all, the scene could be used by the same people who rhetorically ask, What if Jesus had been aborted?, as a demonstration why all abortions should be illegal, even if the mother's health is at stake. No pun intended.*
The second most common way that a character meets their end in the Whedonverse is through good, old fashioned Bible-sanctioned murder. This is markedly different than being killed in action or making a heroic sacrifice, most obviously in the sense that none of these people had a choice in the matter. Those in battle always chose to fought and those who gave their lives always did so accepting their fate. It may or may not hold up in court, but if you can't choose and accept your violent death, then you've been murdered. It began with Whedon's first major character death, when the de-ensouled Angelus broke Jenny Calendar's neck and didn't even bother to drink her and continued in "Buffy" when Tara was shot by the douchiest (most douchey?) of the Trio, Warren. "Angel" only saw one real major character murder, the supposedly sadistic lawyer, Lilah, dispatched by a god-possessed Cordelia. Nobody in the "Firefly" 'verse was murdered, but Dr. Horrible was basically all about how one character's desire to hurt others winds up hurting himself the most, no offense to Penny, who was also clearly effected by those events. In "Dollhouse," Bennett Halverson is mercilessly shot in the head by Whiskey, under orders from Agent Boyd, immediately following her first kiss with Topher. Boyd himself is blown up not long after, and it's an even more warped scene because he's been mentally wiped at the moment, but he was also revealed as the series' biggest bad and villains don't really get counted here because that's pretty much exclusively how Whedon deals with ending their stories.
Fairly or not, these murders are definitely the major character deaths that Whedonites rue the most. Ms. Calendar and Lilah get a pass, the former for being a legitimately game changing moment for "Buffy" and all of Whedon's work and the latter, like Boyd or Darla, met her genre's necessary end. However, in the context of when it takes place in the series, Tara getting shot feels exceptionally cruel to loyal viewers (more on that in a bit), though it does serve a narrative purpose for season six's final three episodes. But doesn't that make it sound even crueler? Similarly, by the time Penny dies, also accidentally, loyal fans had already seen twelve other well-liked or much-adored characters snuffed out. It was at this point, really, that people began to realize just how committed Joss Whedon is to killing characters off, and for whatever purposes he deems necessary at the time. Sometimes for shock value, sometimes for poignancy, and sometimes for storytelling expediency. That's why most deaths in "Dollhouse" were met with responses akin to, "About time" or "I knew it!", with only suddenness and the fact that Summer Glau still had shades of River Tam -- and Whedon would never kill off River Tam -- that made Bennett's death so shocking in the moment. Still, the murders stick out as bruises that have never quite heeled.
Those bruises might linger because when it all boils down, every murder has a victim and being a victim of unexpected violence is one of the scariest threats we can comprehend. In that sense, Whedon is doing his job as an effective storyteller, which was never in question. None of us wants to be victimized, so seeing our favorite characters, usually played by our favorite actors, isn't quickly forgotten. There's no meaning to them. Of course, that's the point. We all crave meaning. But it is curious that practically every murdered major character was a woman, especially when one remembers that most of the non-victimized violent deaths were men; and the women who did get meaningful deaths were exceptions to the rules. Presumably this goes back to narrative expediency, with Whedon copping to psychological studies that show both men and women have more visceral reactions to witnessing female characters dying or in danger than we do for their male counterparts. So, it makes sense that making women victims gets to the heart of the matter more quickly. Yet the casts of these shows and movies are split pretty evenly down the middle of the sex line, which raises the question of why there aren't any non-villain male murder victims in the whole bunch.
It must now be pointed out that not every character whom Whedon deems kill-offable dies at the willing hands of someone else, or even in the fields of pitched battle. Some characters die due to various medical or mystical, or medical-caused-by-mystical, problems. The most obvious circumstance here involves Buffy's mom, Joyce Summers, in one of the series' (indeed, one of the TV medium's) finest episodes, "The Body." Her official cause of death is a brain tumor, but the cause of the affliction is indelibly linked to the magical creation of Dawn, the literal Key to stopping or starting one of many end of world scenarios -- contextually via her sudden appearance in the show, and narratively due to Summers family DNA needed for said Key magic. Similarly, Cordelia's mostly off-screen passing in "Angel" is a consequence of her godly possession in the fourth season, first leaving her in a comatose state and then, finally, killing her. Following that pattern almost perfectly, Fred -- wonderful, delightful, adorable Fred -- ceases to exist entirely when her body is also possessed by a demon god from another dimension. The only major character death that isn't related to magic, and doesn't fall under the other three scenarios above, is November/Mellie's suicide in "Dollhouse." That said, however, her mind has been taken over by forces more powerful than she can handle on her own, making the Rossum Corporation's meddling the science fiction version of all that mysticism in Whedon's other projects.
Regardless that these deaths don't align 1:1 to like those in the earlier sections, they're all connected thematically to loss of personal control and an unwillingness (or inability) to accept their altered situations. Even though November's self-inflicted gunshot wound is the only death here that could be considered classically violent, all of them are forms of murder-by-rape. That isn't meant to be glib. The violence in these deaths is abundantly precent, it just happens to be metaphorical. Not only did Joyce have no choice in the matter of Dawn's creation, the male monk's who created her "daughter" never asked and wouldn't have taken NO for answer, anyway. While she certainly loved Dawn like she was real, it's debateable that she would have gone along with the Key magic had she been briefed beforehand. Likewise, when Doyle passed his powers onto Cordelia, powers that ultimately lead to her demise, he didn't ask for permission and he sacrificed himself before she even knew what happened. Fred is the same, only much worse. Not only was the death inflicted without her knowledge or acceptance, the act was so violent that it wiped her soul -- her entire essence -- from the face of existence and left in place a harder and less loving being in its wake. Because no matter that Ilyria, Fred's possessor, is still played by Amy Acker, or how much it grows on the characters and the audience by series end, it is not Fred. If that isn't an apt comparison to how some victims of actual rape react to what happens to them, I don't know what else it could be,
Again, only November's suicide alters the pattern, ever so slightly. She does get to choose how she dies and, in order to save the man she loves, maybe even accepts the inevitability of her fate. But I hesitate to place her under the heroic sacrifice banner, simply because the actions leading up that moment in the penultimate episode of "Dollhouse" is riddled with manipulation and loss of control. She took the only option she felt was available to her, but she doesn't meet her end like a stalwart soldier, because she's a pawn not a knight. Like Joyce, Cordelia, and Fred -- as well as Penny, Tara, Ms. Calendar, and Bennett -- November is a victim of circumstances far beyond her control. Once more, obseve that despite two characters having traditionally masculine names, all the actual victims are female; again, per the rules of the genre, villains do not count. For whatever reason, none of the major male characters are victimized to the point of being killed in the process throughout Whedon's work. In fact, everyone's favorite would-be rapey vampire, Spike, is victimized over and over through "Buffy" and "Angel" but he always survives to wreak vengence upon his abusers, and he only seems to perish when he gets the chance to save the day.
When I wrote about The Nolan Brunette this summer, I only wanted to point out the patterns in the director's work, and the same is true here. Below you'll find my very unscientific cataloging of everything I've touched upon here, and I've noted how all of these major character deaths break down by gender because a) it's fascinating on its own and b) it's even more fascinating considering that Joss Whedon is rightly hailed as a pioneer in his depiction of gender roles in his fiction, especially his treatment of women. Maybe this isn't an avenue worth pursuing, because it's highly unlikely any creator puts this much thought into observing their own tropes and so shouldn't be responsible for everything his or her characters do or do not do. But that elides the basic truth that all creative endeavors involve choices, conscious or not, and the only real person making those decisions is the author. After enough years and enough produced material, patterns will always emerge, and only then can we begin to ask what all of it adds up to, or whether there is has any meaning at all.
The pattern here seems pretty clear: Many characters get to be heroes in the worlds of Joss Whedon, and many die heroically, but only the non-male characters get to be victims when they die. So, how does one reconcile Whedon's deserved kudos for his treatment of women in genre fiction with the fact only the women, even (especially?) the empowered ones, wind up as victims when it's their turn to greet death? Does it make a difference that most of the women are victimized by the men in the various series and films? Is that the whole point?
Why did it have to be bunnies?
Joss Whedon Major Character Deaths, By the Numbers
Total Deaths = 21** (23-2)
Total Main Characters in all Projects: 65 (give or take; approximately 10 per)
Women = 12 (13-1)
Men = 9** (10 - 1)
Negated = 2 (1 man, 1 woman; villainy, lack of screen time)
KIA (killed in action) = 4.5 (2-1 women, 3.5 men, Coulson splits, non-victims)
Sacrificed (death accepted) = 6.5 (6; 2 women, 4.5 men, Coulson splits, non-victims)
Murdered (killed, not in action) = 6** (7 -1; 2 men, 5 women, victims)
Other (usually non-violent but for the metaphor, save for 1 suicide) = 4 (all women, victims)
Victims (murdered, other) = 11** (10 women, 1 man)
Non-Victims (KIA or sacrifice) = 10 (3 women, 7 men)
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
Ms. Calendar - Season 2, murdered
Kendra - Season 2, killed in action (negated due to lack of screen time in series)
Joyce - Season 5, complications due to brain tumor, Key magic
Buffy - Season 5, heroic sacrifice (not negated due to dying and resurrecting twice)
Tara - Season 6, murdered
Anya - Season 7, killed in action
Jonathan** - Season 6, murdered
Spike - Season 7, heroic sacrifice
Doyle - Season 1, heroic sacrifice
Darla - Season 3, heroic sacrifice
Lilah - Season 4, murdered
Cordelia - Season 5, complications due to coma
Fred - Season 5, complications due to godhood
Wesley - Season 5, killed in action
Shepherd Book - Serenity, heroic sacrifice
Wash - Serenity, killed in action
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Penny - Act 3, murdered
November - Season 2, pre-Epitaph Two, suicide
Bennett Halverson - Season 2, pre-Epitaph Two, murdered
Boyd - Season 2, pre-Epitaph Two, murdered (negated due to villain revelation)
Ballard - Season 2, Epitaph Two, killed in action
Topher - Season 2, Epitaph Two, heroic sacrifice
Agent Coulson - The Avengers, killed in action and heroic sacrifice
** UPDATE: Thanks to readers pointing it out, it's clear that I missed a rather important character death in the form of Jonathan. I don't know how I could forget him, as he's in several of my favorite "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episodes, but I did and I deeply regret that. He absolutely is a major, and a beloved, character who was murdered and was a victim throughout. As such, he helps to balance the gender scales a bit, but the number of women who died as victims still outweighs the men. For those who mentioned Holland Manners or Lindsey in "Angel," I stand by my Villains Don't Count Rule. In my reading of the series, Lilah had done enough over time to a) be considered a main character and b) a more equitable good-bad guy, like Darla or Spike. Thanks for reading and all the discussion!