May Sweeps are over and everyone is dead. Let’s analyze the carnage and see what we can glean from this year’s bloodbath.
Remember when we freaked out over the fact that TV Line said over 21 characters would be killed off our favorite broadcast network television shows between April 28 and May 25? Joke’s on us because it actually ended up being 57 characters. Except this is Hypable, and we don’t ever do anything halfway. We looked at the departing characters for all our favorite shows on all the networks for the 2015-2016 television year, and the death toll was more like 70 characters.
Several months, 70 deaths, and 10,000 words later, we’ve reached the end of the line and have said goodbye to many a major character. You can read about each and every death, and its impact, right here. And because I’m a masochist, I volunteered to analyze what all these deaths mean as a collective and see if I could spot any patterns. (The Dementors love me best.)
Death by numbers
Here is the final list of numbers, broken down into the sections you’ll find below.
- Total number of deaths: 70
- Network deaths: The CW (27), ABC (14), NBC (12), CBS (6), Fox (4), MTV (2), AMC (2), BBC (1), HBO (2)
- Show deaths: Arrow (9), The 100 (5), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (4), Once Upon a Time (4), Blindspot (4), Quantico (3), Grimm (3), The Originals (3), Reign (3), Legends of Tomorrow (3), Supernatural (2), Person of Interest (2), NCIS (2), Wayward Pines (2), The Walking Dead (2), Game of Thrones (2), The Catch (1), The Family (1), Grey’s Anatomy (1), Chicago Fire (1), Chicago Med (1), Chicago P.D. (1), The Vampire Diaries (1), The Flash (1), Hawaii Five-O (1), NCIS: New Orleans (1), Empire (1), Gotham (1), Teen Wolf (1), Doctor Who (1)
- Deaths broken up by gender: Men (42), women (28)
- Deaths broken up by race: 17 (9 male, 8 female)
- Deaths broken up by sexual orientation: 8 (1 male, 7 female)
A little background
Before I break down the numbers, I want to explain why we decided to write these articles to begin with. When TV Line announced 21 major characters would be dying during May Sweeps, I was interested to see who would end up on the chopping block and how their deaths would affect the show and the other characters. I also wanted to see what sort of patterns emerged and what that could tell us about the current climate in television.
Before anyone on the list was revealed, I asked the other Hypable writers to give me the biggest deaths and departures that occurred in their fandoms for this season of television. Already the parameters were confusing. Some shows were in between seasons. Some characters weren’t leads but were still considered important. Others’ deaths were impactful, but not necessarily “major.” It is for these reasons that you’ll see some discrepancies throughout our list and why we have more characters on ours than TV Line has on theirs.
The list could also be much more inclusive than it is, but we were limited by the shows we watch as a group and by our own judgement of major vs. minor characters. For example, Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow absolutely should have been included, but for one reason or another she slipped under the radar when we were gathering characters before TV Line’s list began to be unveiled. In another example, there were plenty of important, recurring characters who died on The Shannara Chronicles, but we decided to focus only on the leads.
So, yes, our list is inherently flawed. It also evolved over time, much like TV Line’s did. A lot more minor characters showed up on theirs than I expected, but in order to stay true to our initial objective of explaining the reason for and the impact of these deaths on their respective shows, I had our writers write blurbs for each and every name that showed up on their list. That’s why you’ll notice no minor character deaths that took place before May Sweeps, and yet several minor character deaths that took place during May Sweeps. It is an inconsistency that I address and try to work around in my analysis.
Even TV Line’s list grew from the initial 21 characters to a total of 57 characters. They said in the beginning of their article that nothing was final and each section would continuously be updated and updated again, and they lived up to that promise. If the list were to be narrowed down from regular and recurring characters to only major characters, we may see a cut of 25-50%.
Alas, the list is what it is, and I’ll do my best to interpret the results while working with what we’ve got.
And the winner is…
I want to look at the list topically before we do a deeper dive into the numbers. Before analyzing exactly who died on each network, I want to see which network spilled the most blood this year and which television show had the highest death counts.
And the deadliest network award goes to…
It should come as no surprise that The CW knocked everyone out of the park, with a total of 27 deaths. That puts them 13 deaths ahead of second place, which goes to ABC (14). NBC, with a total of 12 deaths, is the third place winner, and the only other network to hit double digits. CBS came in at 6 and Fox with 4, to round off the broadcast network requirements. We also included MTV (2), AMC (2), HBO (2), and BBC (1) in our count.
I say it’s no surprise that The CW came in first because they have a wide variety of shows with large ensemble casts. It’s easy to kill off a main character when you have six others to keep the show going. Superhero shows also tend to have a higher death rate considering they have extremely high stakes and a list of characters who are usually self-sacrificing (it comes with the whole superhero gig).
This is probably why ABC also has a high count, considering Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not shy away from taking out beloved primary or secondary characters. They’re also home to Quantico, a procedural with high stakes and great characterization, which basically means all your faves died or were suspected of terrorism at least three times.
NBC is home to Blindspot and several procedurals (like the Chicago trilogy and Law & Order: SVU), accounting for the reason they easily swept third place. Grimm also added to the numbers with three deaths right in a row, putting them just two away from that second place spot.
And the deadliest television show goes to…
Arrow far and away won this round, killing off 9 characters total. The threat of Damien Darhk warrants this total, but considering that’s four characters higher than the next show, it seems like quite a lot. Despite the regular and recurring requirements, I’d say only two of the characters — Laurel and Damien — were important. Some of them were still significant, like Andy and Ruvé, but they were more significant to the primary characters’ stories than their own.
The next show, unsurprisingly, was The 100, which was the only other one to hit five deaths or beyond for this season. These deaths do feel more significant than those seen on Arrow, and I would argue that even though there were fewer of them, they were far more potent. Lincoln and Lexa’s deaths sent shock waves though the fandom, and while Ontari, Pike, and ALIE weren’t likable characters, they were still significant to the forward movement of the story and their deaths meant something more than just another number to add to the bad guy’s list of people killed.
Three shows tied for third place, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Blindspot, and Once Upon a Time garnering four kills each. They all fall into vastly different categories, but each one decided to take out both major and minor characters.
Quantico, Grimm, The Originals,, and Legends of Tomorrow all found themselves three characters lighter by season end, and it seems that the smaller numbers actually made those deaths more significant. Speaking for Quantico and Legends in particular, the deaths felt not only more poignant and necessary, but also more emotional because of it.
In the “two” category, we have Supernatural, Person of Interest, NCIS, Wayward Pines, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. To be fair to the latter half of this list, many more characters did die or leave the shows than we’ve listed, but like I stated above, we gathered these character deaths before we truly understood the objective of TV Line’s list.
The final shows coming in at one death each include The Catch, The Family, Grey’s Anatomy, The Blacklist, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., Law & Order: SVU, The Vampire Diaries, The Flash, Hawaii Five-O, NCIS: New Orleans, Empire, Gotham, Teen Wolf, and Doctor Who. The interesting part here is that even though only one character died on each of these shows, some of them were incredibly significant.
This is the part I’ve been most interested in analyzing. There has been a lot of controversy regarding the kinds of characters being killed off television this year, and rightfully so. We’ve seen how much the numbers skew toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters, so now it’s time to see the numbers laid out in front of us.
Men vs. women
I was surprised to note that a total of 42 men (60%) could be found on our list, versus only 28 women (40%). I was almost certain the numbers would have been skewed in the other direction. Women often find themselves killed off at the expense of furthering a male’s plot line (known as fridging). Of course, this doesn’t always happen to women for the sake of men, but it is a common trope.
In a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (2014-2015), it is stated that, on broadcast networks, women made up 42% of speaking characters and 42% of main characters. The ratio of deaths and characters on screen in speaking and major roles are roughly equal, with men enjoying a slightly higher visibility and a slightly higher death rate over women. This means that while women take part in fewer significant roles on television, the rate at which they are killed off is equally less significant than men.
White vs. POC
I am aware of the problematic usage of the term POC outside of Hollywood and American culture, but for the sake of presenting my analysis in a way that demonstrates the issue at hand, I will be using the term people of color to showcase television’s depiction of these kinds of characters.
Looking at the characters killed this season, roughly 17 out of 70 (24%) are considered POC, with a nearly equal balance between male (9) and female (8) characters. Just like in the above section, it is important to note that White protagonists are far better represented than people of color. In the same study mentioned above, a mere 23% of female characters represented on television are considered non-White, and in another study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, titled The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD), we see that “28.3% of all speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which is below (-9.6%) the proportion in the U.S. population (37.9%).”
Our group of 70 characters does not represent every single death on every single show during the 2015-2016 television season, so these numbers should not be used as conclusive statistical evidence regarding the lack of representation on television and the rate of death for these types of characters. However, our small analysis does show a shocking imbalance between the number of POC characters killed and the number of White characters killed in accordance to their representation on television.
In other words, POC representation is at a minimum and yet POC characters are killed off their shows at a higher rate than White characters.
LGBTQ+ vs. straight
The term LGBTQ+ encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others who do not identify as heterosexual or cisgender. Only one character on our list, Simon Asher from Quantico, did not fall in any particular category, but because he was introduced as gay as well as had interest in a female character, and was never explicitly defined as not queer, we are considering him as a character with fluid sexuality. He and seven female characters make up the 8 (11%) LGBTQ+ character deaths found on our list.
According to the Annenberg Report mentioned above, “2% of all speaking characters across the 414 movies, television shows, and digital series evaluated were coded LGB.” Additionally, 24% of those characters were found on broadcast television, meaning .08% of all LGB characters represented are found on network TV. With such a low total, it is shocking to learn what a high percentage LGBTQ+ character deaths had on our list.
Additionally, 72.1% of those characters were male, while 27.9% were female. It is then tragic to learn that all but one of those eight LGBTQ+ characters were female. It’s not surprising why fans have been up in arms about the growing trend of “burying your gays,” and why writers have taken the Lexa Pledge to do better by the LGBT community, and lesbian portrayals in particular.
If you’re still around after all that number crunching, I commend you. Now I’d like to look at the characters whose deaths have caused the most controversy in their respective fandoms.
Lexa’s death from The 100 immediately springs to mind, as she’s probably the most high profile LGBTQ+ death on the list. The reaction to her death resulted in the showrunner, writers, and actors sharing their thoughts and reactions to her departure, with other shows signing the Lexa pledge, as stated above. Though I hadn’t heard any specific rumblings about it, I’m sure Captain Mayfair’s death’s on Blindspot did not go unnoticed, considering she was an LGBT woman of color.
The 100 didn’t just see the departure of Lexa this season in terms of significant characters, but also had to say goodbye to Lincoln. The controversy surrounding his death had more to do with alleged behind-the-scenes conflict between the actor and the showrunner. Also along these lines was Kira’s departure from Teen Wolf, which has not been specifically addressed in the media, but did see a lengthy video from the actress citing the fact she would not return, making it seem as though the decision was out of her hands.
Robin from Once Upon a Time was another character whose departure sent red flags up across the fandom, especially after the actor confessed he wished he did not have to leave the show in such a way. Michael Socha (Will Scarlet) had harsher words to say about his own departure in the same article.
Then there are deaths like Abbie Mills and Elizabeth Keen, who are the stars of their own shows — shows that will continue to air despite their departures. Castle was nearly added to that list as well with the announcement of Stana Katic’s departure, but the show was canceled instead. Note that all three of these characters were women, and one was a woman of color.
The last so-called controversial death was Carl Elias on Person of Interest. I don’t watch the show, but fellow Hypable staffer Brittany walked me through confusing twist after twist with this character, who was supposedly killed at the end of the previous season, brought back for this season only to be killed off again, and then resurrected (and crossed off of TV Line’s list) only to be killed again once and for all. Show of hands if you have whiplash.
There are issues with this list in that so many minor characters ended up being canon fodder and were subsequently placed alongside major characters and even the stars of their very own shows. It puts them on equal footing and makes the list seem much bigger than it should be.
I also wish I’d had the foresight to start this list much sooner and with a better grasp of the parameters. I am aware that the list is both limited and incomplete. As I stated above, it is not inclusive enough to warrant a deep analysis of the issues at hand, but I would like to think it is a more accessible look at the information. If you’d like to explore the subject further, please read through the studies I linked above, as they are much more cohesive, if a bit drier.
But the list is what it is, and I still find it fascinating to analyze, despite spending countless hours on both this article and the previous one. It shows me, and, I hope, the writers and showrunners of these television shows, that death on a show is more impactful when it is both rare and necessary. No one would celebrate the loss of Henry Allen on The Flash, but I think many would agree that one death of this caliber hits harder than most of the deaths found on Arrow. But even in the case of Laurel, her death feels less significant given the high causality rate on the show and their penchant for bringing characters back to life.
The fact that the rate of women on television in speaking or leading roles and the rate at which they are killed off those shows are equal is to be commended. However, that women still don’t enjoy as many significant roles as men is something we cannot condone or gloss over. Hopefully this pattern will continue to improve in women’s favor, and not just in the numbers but in the types of roles women often portray on screen.
More so than female representation, we see a horrifying trend of erasure when it comes to both POC and LGBTQ+ characters. Not only are they severely underrepresented in media, and particularly on broadcast networks, but the rate at which they are killed off their shows is out of proportion with their presence on television. The fact that females make up a mere 28% of all LGBTQ+ representations in media, which only finds these characters making up 2% of all speaking roles across film, television, and digital series, and still nearly found themselves exclusively populating the LGBTQ+ death rate on our list, is both mind-blowing and disheartening.
There is a lot that could be said about the controversial deaths this year, but I think it is important, no matter which side you find yourself on in the debate, to continue discussing these issues. I truly believe that many creators do not see race or sexual orientation when considering whether or not to end a character’s storyline, but I also believe that the obvious pattern of killing off underrepresented characters needs to stop. It would be nice to think that all characters are equal on the verge of death, but this can only be true if they are equal in life. We must see a rise in the number of these characters on our television screens before their deaths can be seen as equitable to those of straight, white, male characters.
My writing of the previous article and this analysis were both stressful, frustrating, annoying, deeply satisfying, and eye-opening all in a single breath. If nothing else, I hope it allows some of you to see the numbers regarding representation on television and start a discourse about what we can do to influence change in the media. Then it will have been worth it.
Let us know what you think
This shouldn’t just be an article you read and then dismiss. It should be an article you discuss. Please let us know in the comments section what you think these character deaths mean and what showrunners and writers can do to improve upon the underrepresentation we so often see on television.