1. DeathHowever, now and again, a writer/director/actor uses these approaches to good purpose.
2. It's just a dream.
3. The lady or the tiger
*WARNING: Spoilers appear in each section below.*
It's also easy profundity. Kill off a character: get a pass for life. If anyone dares to criticize, well, that person is a pollyanna who can't accept harsh realities, blah, blah, blah.
Face it: lazy writers kill characters out of sheer laziness.
And yup, I am including Joss Whedon. In fact, I hold him more responsible than I do your average HS Freshman because (1) he should know better; (2) he's a good enough writer not to fall back on death as a solution.
The exception: Coulson's death in Avengers (which Whedon actually claims he didn't plan!).
I was a fan of Coulson from the beginning. I got such a kick out of that guy in Iron Man who kept bothering Pepper Potts. I liked his cool laid-back attitude and the easy way he marshaled reinforcements at the end of the movie.
So I was sad about his death in Avengers (I do realize that technically, he is still alive). But it was such a remarkable pay-off for a total bit part, a small character who grew throughout the films, got his own short, and then got us to giggle over his Captain America obsession. He may have been Avengers' red shirt, but for fans of the franchise, he was the one consistent character who could make us feel a need to avenge. He was beloved, so the death actually mattered--it wasn't just a throw-away.
IT'S JUST A DREAM
Nope, I'm not going to talk about Inception.
Usually, the "it was just a dream" approach makes nonsense of the viewer/reader's investment. Oooh, we got you to care, but guess again!
Exception: "Changeling," Stargate SG-1, Season 6. Teal'c dreams that he is a member of SG-1, then that he is a member of a firehouse. The viewer knows--or thinks she knows--that SG-1 is the reality even though Teal'c as a fireman makes a good deal more sense in the "oh, I don't have to suspend my beliefs or disbeliefs" sense.
Except it turns out that both are dreams. The reality is that Teal'c is dying as he shares his symbiote (or, in the fireman sequence, his kidney) with his mentor. The dreams are a coping mechanism.
What makes the dreams even cooler is that Daniel Jackson--as an ascended being--plays a role in helping Teal'c cope. The Stargate writers did an excellent job not closing themselves off to the possibility of Daniel's return. It is sometimes hard to remember which season he was technically not in--his name and guest appearances are used so effectively in Season 6, he is as omnipresent as a regular.
By showing up in the dream sequences, Daniel makes the dreams real; they may be Teal'c's imaginings, but they occur while Daniel is present--and although he is present as a "psychologist," his last line to Teal'c ("I haven't left your side") clarifies that he has been present the entire time as his ascended self. It makes the dreams much more than "oops, we never really meant that to happen" events. They matter.
THE LADY OR THE TIGER
The Lady or the Tiger refers to a short story by Frank Stockton. Like many people, I read it in high school.
At that precise point in my life, I decided that I would never, ever, ever end a story in such a way. (Since then, I've learned the wicked truth: as the writer, I know what my character chose, but that doesn't mean I have to tell the audience: hee, hee hee.)
Still, I dislike open endings in general. "Oh, do your job and just tell us. Why leave us wondering?"
Exception: And then I saw the end of "Cura Te Ipsum," the fourth episode of Person of Interest, Season 1.
Here's the final exchange between Reese and a serial yuppie rapist:
Andrew Benton: Please, you y-y-you don't want to do something that you're going to regret.Actually, the entire dialog is well-worth reading as Benton and Reese discuss the possibility of change, the use of fear to control behavior, and the meaning of "good."
John Reese: Which do you think I'll regret more - letting you live or letting you die? [Insistently] Andrew, help me make a good decision.
The episode ends on Reese's line. We are never told what he decided (I'm assuming; I haven't seen beyond Season 1 yet: the first disc of Season 2 will arrive from Netflix soon!). Reese leaves the viewer with a true philosophical problem, not some simple-minded "either/or" issue. What does one do with evil? What can be prevented or helped when an evil person (Benton isn't merely bad) is eliminated? On the other hand, what unintended consequences might be thrown into motion? What about the good guy? What might this action do to him? Reese has taken charge of Benton to protect the innocence of the good doctor who intended to kill him herself. Reese didn't want her to taint herself:
John Reese: I lost that part of myself a long time ago... not sure if I can find it... not sure it matters anymore. Maybe it's better this way, maybe it's up to me to do what the good people can't. Or maybe there are no good people, maybe there are only good decisions.Not every rule may be made to be broken. But literary rules certain can be. Stargate, Avengers, and Person of Interest broke the rules right.