And no, I don’t mean the fact that every few days another famous person seems to be shuffling off this mortal coil.
Thinking about some of the biggest dramas on TV right now, it strikes me that all of them have a unique relationship to death and human mortality. AMC shows in particular almost seem to have this as their driving force: Walter White faced by his own mortality and possible imminent death, decides to become a meth cooker; mankind becomes universally infected by something that at the moment of death, turns them into mindless, flesh-eating, zombies…no one is safe; a man who sheds his past life assumes a new one belonging to a dead comrade in arms and spends the rest of his life fearing the inevitability of his own death, be it actual or merely the death of this construct he has based his life around.
Of course on non-AMC shows death looms, HBO has its fair share. In the world of Game of Thrones most people seem to be alive merely be the grace of their gods or by sheer cunning and will. True Blood has an entire race that lives only by consuming the literal life-blood of humans. Prohibition had death flowing right alongside the money and the booze in Boardwalk Empire.
But unlike The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, death never struck me as much of a character, lurking around corners on those other shows.
I should say that from this point on, there are very clear spoilers for all of the above shows through the most recent episodes. So be warned.
Don returns from this dream vacation in Hawaii in fugue state. He seems disconnected from his own reality and then he discovers he has lost the lighter that both made and declared him Don Draper. Don seemed utterly lost. He is then forced to confront death head on at the more than slightly uncomfortable funeral of Roger Sterling’s mother. The emotions and the booze cannot stay hidden and Don literally throws up everything that is inside him.
As Pete and Ken are herding an inebriated Don into the elevator at his apartment building, Don has to stop and ask his doorman Jonesy “What did you see?” Jonesy recently recovered from a heart attack that he suffered right in front of Don and as such, has touched the void and made it back. It’s easy to see why Don would attribute some sort of mystical power to Jonesy’s experience. Death has taken a front seat next to Don throughout his life: his mother dies in childbirth, his father in a freak accident, his brother took his own life, his father in-law died after moving into his house, the only woman who really knew him as he turned into this Donald Draper died of cancer, his business partner hanged himself in his own office…even his secretary dropped dead at her desk. He even reads about Hell while in Paradise.
Heck, it even seems as though he’s the one falling during the credits.
Don is a man who wears death as a second skin.
So it is natural that as he is confronted with death once more – and confronted with the lack of family and that sense of security and interconnectedness that comes with it – he would grasp for the straw presented to him by Jonesy and his brush with death. Jonesy is of course not really sure what to say, and gives Don some bs about a bright light. Cold comfort.
Do I need mention how Roger’s entire monologue to his shrink was about the closing of doors, i.e. experiences, leading up to the end of your life, signifying nothing?
Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change your direction, but it turns out that’s not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.
Breaking Bad is yet another show that start with looming death that never seems to really go away. At least at the start, Walter White has a good reason for worrying about the end of his life — he has cancer. As he looks for some way to provide for his family should he die, he chooses something that has death soaked into every pore. From the cook to the user. And as he gets deeper and deeper in the business, the danger increases, the violence increases, and we fear for Walt’s life, Jesse’s life, and the lives of anyone they care about. But of course, all this merely feeds into who Walt really is, deep down and hidden away. When it is time for him to go to war, he doesn’t hesitate to have Jesse kill Gale. His slow progression from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to drug kingpin extraordinaire has also transformed him into the figure of death. He stands by as Jane chokes to death on her own vomit. He is the indirect cause of a mid-air collision, killing untold numbers. Repeatedly he attempts to engineer Gus’s death til he gets it right. He is even the cause of accidental death as with the kid on the motorbike and with Mike. And Walt’s famous speech when Skyler confronts him about coming clean and saving the family from Gus…
He is the one who knocks. He has taken up the mantle.
We have gone from worrying about Walt’s death to, at least in my case, wishing for it. The question is will Walt die in flames and violence, or as Skyler has suggested, finally killed by the cancer that started everything in the first place?
It’s almost a cliche to say that The Walking Dead is shrouded from head to toe with the concept of death. It would appear most of mankind has died off or turned into the living dead. Major characters die (twice) with a snap of a finger. Death, and killing, is so common place that we are seeing Carl grow up into a right psychopath, as happy to kill a man as let him live. Some have even learned to embrace it; think of Merle drinking and blasting his music as he drove slowly to Woodbury, bringing a parade of death with him.
What fascinates me most about where death fits into The Walking Dead is that even in death, we don’t die. Because we are all infected and one final heartbeat away from turning into zombies ourselves, death is bigger and more frightening. There is no relief in death in this world, it is not an end anymore. You die and then become an agency of death yourself. As the Governor told Milton “In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill.”
AMC even has a fourth show whose very title, The Killing, puts it in line with these other shows, even if the quality of the show does not.
Is our society so obsessed with death and dying that these shows speak to us in a way that has made them some of the most watched and most talked about programs on television? Is it the violence? The living, or dying, by proxy? Or is it that death is such an integral part of the human existence that we gravitate towards it unwittingly?
Perhaps it is merely that we want to watch something exceptional and visceral, with characters that surprise us or intrigue us, and stories that keep our interest. In other words, to hell with death, give us good television.