There’s a sort of covenant, an unspoken contract, entered into when a person commits to a television series. Something like, “I, the viewer, agree to watch this program, to care about these characters, to invest in this world week after week, because you, the TV creator, agree to make it fun.” Last night, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes broke this “we watch, she entertains” contract by engaging in reckless character assassination-by which I mean she actually went and assassinated one of her main characters.
Death is not, in and of itself, a TV dealbreaker. Anyone who’s ever cried her eyes out at a TV death (even a mediocre TV death ) knows they can be entertaining. They deliver drama, catharsis, and a little bit of the twisted glee you feel when imagining your own funeral-the emotions are muted enough that you can focus on the eulogies.
So life-shortening storylines are contractually acceptable-when used appropriately. Appropriately doesn’t even mean sparingly. Lost has probably killed off more major characters than any show in history. On Wednesday it likely executed the best female character it’s ever had, yet it has not broken its pact with its audience. The deaths aren’t vengeful. The creators aren’t trying to punish their audience or their actors. They’re following the dictates of the story. They’re advancing the plot.
What went down on Grey’s last night felt as vengeful and coldblooded as a contract killing-which, in a sense, it was. Both Katherine Heigl , who plays the cancer-stricken Izzie Stevens, and T.R. Knight , who plays George O’Malley, have been rumored to want out of their contracts. This episode ended with both of them flat lining. Coincidence? Rhimes says no, telling EW, ” I don’t think there are any coincidences . I think Katherine’s stated publicly that she’s happy to stay. I think that there have been lots of rumors about TR, but TR’s never said anything. Take from it what you will.” I, like all other sentient beings, take from that, come Season 6, Izzie will have a heartbeat and George will not.
And it’s George’s death, not Izzie’s, that was the breach of contract. Izzie’s been seriously ill with metastatic skin cancer for weeks. Her illness has been conducted along ideal TV death lines, which is to say, there have been some tears, some laughter and a swanky last-minute wedding. It’s not that I wanted Izzie to die last night. But if she had, at least her story had been moving, fleshed-out, thought-through, and had affected other characters. At least it was entertaining.
Not George’s death. Nope, George’s death was a big ol’ eff you to the actor and to the audience. Last night George, who has been noticeably and woefully underused all season, enlisted in the army as a trauma surgeon, which would have been a perfectly acceptable, if totally lackluster way to send him off. But getting shot at in Iraq was too good a fate for George, who instead became “roadkill” (as one of his doctors put it) after pushing a stranger out of the way of a bus. His friends only realized it was him underneath all the swollen damage a few seconds before he coded.
George is a character Shonda Rhimes has spent five years making us care about-and she didn’t even give him his own death scene. Instead he got a brutal, shocking, expedient death he had to share with the show’s real star (Izzie). His violent end wasn’t necessary to the plot, the character, or the story. It was just some grizzly afterthought. And you know what? I don’t tune in to Grey’s Anatomy to see a huggable, sweet guy die just so the cliffhanger is more hangy. If I want to consume ultra-violent tragedy, I’ll read Shakespeare or watch the episode of The Sopranos where Adriana gets whacked . I watch Grey’s for fun-there’s nothing else to watch it for! And the particular fun of Grey’s has more to do with multiple sex partners than multiple funerals. I’m sure I’ll watch the show again, but I’ll know better than to trust it to be a good time. The contract’s in the shredder.