Monday, August 27, 2012

Saddest Fictional Character Deaths

I don't know if this counts as the Buffy-related reflections that I've promised you, but it's certainly a Buffy-sparked reaction. I recently watched Season 5 and (spoiler alert) in one of the episodes Buffy's mom dies. I mention it because this episode ("The Body") does such an amazing job of capturing grief from multiple angles. It shows Buffy getting completely caught up in the practical work of dealing with a tragedy without having much time to process her thoughts. It shows her friends cycling through their own pain while trying to be mindful of not intruding on hers--an awkward process I could certainly relate to. It uses silence in a way that demonstrates that some of our most traumatic moments in life are not loud and exciting, but often muted, seeping into us slowly.

And it also made me realize that there have been a lot of fictional deaths that have impacted me over the years. Sometimes it was because of a connection I felt with the character who died and sometimes (as is the case with this Buffy episode) it's because the reaction surrounding the tragedy resonated with the raw emotion that comes with loss. 

So here are the fictional deaths that I've found to be the saddest. (Spoilers, obviously, for all of these books, television shows, and movies. I promise not to put any new releases on here, and I'll put just the titles (without the dead character's name) in bold so that you can try to skip it if you don't want to know about that particular text.)

1- Stephen King's The Green Mile 

A lot of characters die in The Green Mile. In fact, the catalyst for the novel is that two twin girls are snatched from their back porch and brutally raped and murdered. Then the thing is set on death row, where we get to know several inmates awaiting their time to die. Let's just say that death isn't exactly uncommon in the book. 

But it wasn't any of the human deaths that really, really stuck with me. I first read this when I was in middle school. When it was first released, it was broken into a series of mini-novels. I remember being so anxious when I finished one and had to wait for the library to open to go get the next one. 

And in one of those mini-novels, Percy Whetmore--a guard in the prison and a whining product of nepotism who made my blood boil anyway--stomped to death Mr. Jingles, the pet mouse of one of the inmates. 

Why it was so sad: Mr. Jingles was not just a mouse, he was a symbol. To me, he symbolized the complexity of humanity. The inmate, Eduard Delacroix, was a killer. He had caused immense suffering, and he would die for it (horribly, I might add, again thanks to Percy's cruelty). But he was also a person. He repented and accepted his fate, and Mr. Jingles gave him a tiny space to feel pride in his connections to the world. He is gentle and caring toward this tiny creature, teaching it new tricks, splitting his food with it, and making it a tiny bed out of a cigar box. 

And that adds complexity to Delacroix's story. Before the mouse, he had nothing to live for and no one who cared if he lived or died. Suddenly, his death took on a meaning for him that it hadn't had before. Who would look after Mr. Jingles once he was electrocuted? Who would take on this responsibility? The other guards go through the elaborate ruse of pretending there is a "Mouse Circus" that they will take Mr. Jingles to after Delacroix dies. They understand the importance of maintaining this dying man's one connection with caring and love. They want him to die with that in tact. 

But Percy doesn't care. And stomping Mr. Jingles to death demonstrates just how much he doesn't care. That scene impacted me so much that I remember literally throwing the book across the room in frustration and crying after the mouse was killed (if I'd kept reading, I would have seen that the incident actually has a happier ending, but I had to cry first). Mr. Jingles represented all of the complexity in the world, all of that gray area, and Percy represented all of the people who refuse to see that the gray exists, who would rather just exert their power over everyone else than take the time to open their eyes.  

2- Skins (The British Version)

I'm not proud of this confession, but I really got caught up in Seasons 1 and 2 of the British version of Skins. And a lot of the reason that I got caught up in it was the character Chris. He was deeply flawed. He lived his life without much purpose or meaning, and he was irresponsible and frustrating. But he was also funny and loving. And as his story unfolded, we get to see that his irresponsibility was a byproduct of not having any parental support as well as a defense mechanism for having to deal with things he shouldn't have had to face (homelessness, poverty, and abandonment). He's another character who demonstrates that we can't ever really judge why someone acts the way they do without knowing more about their lives. Finally, Chris starts to get it together, only to have everything fall apart again. And he takes it all in stride, joking and smiling through the pain, preparing to start over again. And then he dies. Horribly and vividly.

Why it was so sad- Chris could stand in for everyone you've ever known who you've just wanted to grab by the shoulders and shake while screaming, "Get it together, will you?!" You know, the people who you love and care about but who just seem completely dedicated to making their lives as hard as possible through a series of the worst decisions imaginable. Chris was all of them. And as we got beyond the surface of his story, we started to see that he wasn't just blindly making those bad decisions; he didn't have the tools he needed to do better. And then when he finally started getting those tools, he was learning. There was hope not just for him, but for all of those people we know. And then he died. 

3- The Wire

So, there are plenty of deaths on The Wire that were hard to watch: Wallace, Bodie, that woman who gets wrapped up in a rug and tossed into a dumpster. But that was part of the ride, right? You knew the moment you started each episode that you couldn't have any expectations that anyone would be alive at the end of it, certainly not just because you like them. That's not how this world works. All those rules about which characters you can kill off without upsetting the audience are thrown out the window. That elementary school kid looking out the window when a gunfight breaks out? Dead. That kid who seemed to be getting it together and might actually escape without becoming a drug dealer? Drug addict. So a lot of the show was sad, but without a doubt the hardest thing to watch was seeing Omar killed. 

Why it was so sad- He's Omar. He's not supposed to die. Or rather, he was supposed to die a long, long time ago. He was never supposed to live to begin with, and the fact that he did it so long was proof that he was going to just keep on doing it. He was one of the only people in this seedy underworld who consistently operated by a moral code--perhaps not the moral code we would use, but a code nonetheless. Do you really think Michael--who is foreshadowed to be his replacement--is going to operate with the same consistency? The way I felt about his death reminded me of the way I felt about Hunter S. Thompson's death. "Too strange to live, too weird to die." But then he died. It throws the whole balance of things on its head. And who is going to come along to replace someone like that? Is that even possible?

4- John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

Alright, so--again--you probably shouldn't be expecting a cheery ending from Steinbeck. I mean, have you read The Pearl? It's sort of like sitting down and waiting for a good kick in the teeth. And yet Lenny's death in Of Mice and Men impacted me so much. I think that this is because--like many of the people I know who encounter this work first on a high school required reading list--I was so young when I read it.

Why it was so sad- They worked so damn hard. They had big dreams and put them into action. They took setbacks in stride. They built a team. George doesn't have to accept the responsibility for Lenny, but he does because--even in the most rugged of individualism--we still have humanity. They followed all the rules that we're taught will lead to success and it doesn't work. I mean, it really, really doesn't work. It's not like they got close to success and had to settle. It's not like the plan needed a little tweaking. Everything is ruined, and it didn't matter how hard they worked or how much they cared. That's a tough lesson anytime, but in high school, it's a really, really tough lesson. 

5- Casino

My husband and I have a long-running argument over which is better: Casino or Goodfellas. I don't know why he insists on continuing this debate, as the answer is clearly Casino. And the reason it is Casino is because of Ginger, the most misunderstood woman in film. I know that this story is based off a real-life biography, but I don't know where fact ends and fiction begins, so I'll keep my commentary confined to the fictional character. It's interesting to talk about Ginger right after the characters from Of Mice and Men because Ginger follows no one rules. She privileges money and jewels above all else. She wants nothing to do with love if it doesn't end with her own financial success. She has very little interest in becoming a mother and a wife, even as she's trapped into doing just that. She wants to live her life without the confines of patriarchal oppression, but she's certainly willing to use every patriarchal bargain imaginable to get there. 

As she lies, cheats, steals, and charms her way through the glitz of Las Vegas, she draws the attention of the protagonist who aggressively woos and "wins" her hand in marriage (with the promise of luxury) but never her heart. The fact that he can never have her drives him mad. In the end, her choices--bad choices out of a smorgasbord of terrible options--leave her to an undignified fate. She's given a "hot does" of drugs and left to die in ill-fitting clothes, alone in a hallway. 

Why it was so sad- I can't say that I relate to Ginger. She's really portrayed to be a pretty terrible person with very few scruples and little sense of responsibility. But she has plenty of male counterparts in the film who live life by the same amoral code. And many of them, too, met their end violently, but at least those deaths had some heat. Nicky (Joe Pesci's character), for instance, is savagely beaten to death for the choices that he makes. I'm not arguing that that's a "better" death, per se, but it demonstrates that his enemies at least took the time to be angered by him. Ginger is like an afterthought, the trash that needs taking out at the end of the night.

What fictional character deaths have been the hardest for you to take?


  1. Mr. Jingles got me too. Inman dying in Cold Mountain was gut wrenching.
    For a long time I thought I didn't like scary movies. I don't really but what gets me even worse is movies where someone experiences a huge loss. They usually lose someone they love and it ruins me.

  2. Ditto on Mr. Jingles.

    Also, a lame confession: I wept over the "death" of Wilson the volleyball in Castaway.

  3. Wilson made me cry. Probably for the same reason Mr. Jingles did--he represented someone's last hopes. It's always sad to see last hopes die.