Everybody Lives: Rebels and Character Death

kallus escape

Star Wars Rebels has just wrapped up its third season with the biggest Empire-versus-Rebellion showdown we’ve yet scene from the show. Prior to the episode, speculation swirled around the promised battle, with many wondering just exactly how the rebels we know and love are going to make it out of thione. And, inevitably and tiresomely, spirited discussion sprang up around which Ghost character would die in the ensuing conflict.

It’s not the first time there has been speculation around a major character dying in the show. Like clockwork, the closer we get to a season finale, the more discussion there is about why someone on the Ghost needs to bite it. Rex and/or Zeb needs to go out in a blaze of glory. Kanan needs to die for pathos and so the fandom can make tragic fics about Hera. Ezra needs to die because of a thousand and one reasons (the main one being that the majority of the older fanbase finds him irredeemably annoying). They all have to die because we don’t see or hear anything about them in the original trilogy. Inevitably, it all comes down to fans wanting to see that things are different, that the rebels have finally faced a serious threat and come up short and now have to find a way to overcome.

And yes, that’s certainly a good (and necessary) narrative to explore. After all, it’s not exciting if your heroes never face any serious challenges or defeats. But why is it that we automatically go to “major character death” as the best way to show the severity of a threat or to shake up the status quo?

A large part of it is, I’m sure, due to the current TV landscape. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, etc. have set a standard that “realism” automatically means “anyone can (and will) die at any moment.” It’s dark, it’s gritty, and sometimes it’s a bit edgy. It’s Serious Television, where the world is an unhappy place and people make hard, morally grey decisions, and no one is safe. Whatever your opinion on those shows, you can’t deny that they have become cultural juggernauts and it’s only expected that other media tries to emulate their success. And soon it becomes shorthand for what good, realistic storytelling looks like.

But what’s wrong with a little plot armor? What’s wrong with a happy ending (or at least an ending that isn’t a worst case scenario)? Star Wars is full of ridiculous coincidences that happen to work out in our heroes’ favor, so why is it unrealistic for our ragtag heroes to make it through their encounters with the Empire (or worse), often only by the skin of their teeth (and maybe a little luck)? Killing your main characters isn’t the only way to create a dramatically satisfying story.

Of course this isn’t to say that no one should ever die; sometimes that is that natural development of a character or story and that’s fine. As Gary Whitta recently said, if you’re having to work hard to find a survival scenario then that probably means your characters aren’t supposed to make it out alive. But you shouldn’t need to kill off major characters just to establish stakes. Frankly, it’s lazy to immediately jump to “someone needs to die to show things are Serious” when there are so many possible ways a story could go.

rebels kallusAnd it’s good that Star Wars has largely avoided falling into this. Even when a character seemingly has a death foreshadowed all season (e.g. Kallus, as Thrawn’s noose drew ever tighter around his identity as Fulcrum) it’s subverted at the last moment and they manage to escape. And I think that’s for the better. To continue with the example of Kallus: it would have made sense to have him killed while trying to escape or executed after being caught. But instead he’s now joined up with the Ghost crew to continue the fight against the Empire. The addition of a former Imperial officer (who may not be entirely trusted) to our ragtag band of rebels suddenly throws an interesting wrinkle into the dynamics of the group.

To go back further, we have Kanan and Ezra on Malachor. It would’ve made sense for Kanan to be killed during the duel with Maul and would’ve served as a painful lesson for Ezra. But instead he survived, albeit completely blinded. As a result we saw Kanan grow more into his spiritual side as he learned to rely more deeply on the Force in the absence of his physical sight. Not to mention it still served as a reminder to Ezra of the importance of not getting in over your head (a lesson he is slowly learning as the show progresses). Both of these instances make for a more interesting show.

kanan blind
A far more interesting development than death at the hands of Maul.

And even fan favorite Ahsoka is rumored to have survived her duel with Vader. Admittedly it’s the most far-fetched of these survival tales, but in a universe where nine-year-olds can survive deadly podraces and a barely-trained farmboy can destroy a planet-killing superweapon by using the Force, it’s hardly the most unrealistic scenario to ever happen.

It’s possible to have a tense, high-stakes story without needlessly killing off main characters, and so far Rebels has done an excellent job of portraying the dangers of fighting an evil empire while strapped for resources. At this point, killing any of the main Ghost crew would be akin to killing Han, Luke, or Leia during the original trilogy. They may be separated, they may be on the ropes, but somehow they make it through and live to fight another day. And the story is better for those trials. Death is such a permanent decision; it’s far more interesting to see the adventure continue.

6 thoughts to “Everybody Lives: Rebels and Character Death”

  1. I agree with you 100%! What the entire Ghost crew has gone through is in itself a story of joy and sorrow of what went on behind the scenes. There is still more to find out about each character. I am one who would like to see the entire Ghost crew see the end of the Empire and find their happy endings even if it means that they go to Zeb’s people’s home world in Wild Space.

  2. Star Wars has long been a subverter of this trope – in Empire Strikes Back, the so-called “darkest” of the original three movies, the only real character death is Dak! I thought that Kanan’s disability-as-character-development was a nice call-out to this sort of stakes-raising without having to write a major character off of the show entirely.

    Aside from a large number of dead orange-shirts, the OT deals with character death in a very specific way. The movies were built not on the idea that “anyone can die at any time,” but rather the idea that specific character deaths at specific narrative points could drive the story. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin aren’t victims of a “die anytime” mentality – rather, their deaths are central to advancing the story of Luke Skywalker’s quest to become a Jedi. Indeed, far from being random, all three deaths have an element of choice to them – Obi-Wan and Anakin both commit suicide-by-Sith-Lord, while Yoda’s final dialogue reflects a recognition and acceptance of his mortality.

    Of course, not every story (or even every Star Wars story) needs to adhere to the hallowed tropes of the OT. However, I find the OT’s purposeful deployment of death ultimately more interesting than the “gotcha” deaths of contemporary TV shows. I don’t enjoy shows that use random character death as a tool to retain audience attention – in general, it comes across as lazy storytelling. No doubt Rebels has avoided this temptation largely because it is marketed as a “kids” show. Ironically, we live in a time when children’s fiction is allowed to explore more interesting themes than so-called “adult” fiction.

    Great article – thanks!

  3. Star Wars plays off of myth. That means it is meant to teach. Sometimes the lesson to be taught may be that death can strike suddenly – there are stories that do that. But that’s never been Star Wars’ thing – even though Billions die.

    It’s been more focused on how one lives in the midst of death, how one strives to love and serve and protect – and what the limits of that are.

    In this Rebels is still doing a good job, I think.

  4. “Death is such a permanent decision; it’s far more interesting to see the adventure continue.”

    That, for me, is the crux of the argument. Death can (and often is) a cheap storytelling device. I’d say it’s use (and overuse) goes further back to Joss Whedon on Buffy, Angel, in Serenity, in the Avengers…

    It’s a quick and dirty way to generate stakes (especially when you can easily undo it in any way). Dealing with death in the real world is hard (spoilers), but dealing with it dramatically is easy. Unless your show or movie or play or whatever is ABOUT grief, it’s not dramatically interesting. Your characters can’t be shown grieving for too long because then it becomes boring.

    What is decidedly more interesting? As your last sentence suggests: the adventure continuing. It’s more interesting, and it’s harder, to show characters living with consequences. More often than not, in my experience, when a story leaves me feeling unsatisfied is when there are no consequences, when there’s no thought of, “Oh, man, they’re gonna have to LIVE with that.”

    You pointing out Kanan’s blinding is what really drove that home for me. Kanan could have died, sure, but what would that have gotten us? Everyone being sad for… how long? Instead, we got to see his journey, with the Bendu, with Ezra, with SABINE.

    Death, for writers, is the easy way out. Unless, yes, like Gary Whitta said, it makes sense. (I don’t watch the Walking Dead, but I will defend Game of Thrones in this regard: while the deaths we’ve seen may have been shocking, you CAN trace their reasoning back. Game of Thrones is all about consequences–and it’s subversive in that they ACTUALLY go through with it. If it’s a “joke” now, it’s because people can’t believe that the show has stuck with it. In this world, murder is a language of its own, and people have to be careful. I mean, IN THE GAME OF THRONES, YOU EITHER WIN OR YOU DIE. IT’S RIGHT THERE.) Anyway.

    I’m just repeating what you said. Yours is better because it’s detailed and provides examples.

    I don’t want these characters to die, which is what makes it even harder when they have to live with heavy stuff.

  5. An excellent article.

    In terms of how to do character deaths, I really like how Rogue One did it. Everyone dies, but it’s not everyone dies pointlessly. (There’s also a neat bit of satisfaction in that Tarkin’s desire to kill Krennic in as overkill a manner as possible ultimately dooms his battlestation.)

    What gets overlooked in the ‘anyone can die’ method of generating jeopardy is that the audience, like any technique, will get used to it. Some will not go along with the story and invest in characters. Why bother when they’ll get killed anyway? Might as well treat it as a chess game with mostly disposable pieces. The problem there is stories rely on engagement – intellectual, emotional – lose one of those and the effect is lessened.

Comments are closed.