It was Lisa Faulkner’s deep-fried face that started it. Almost 20 years ago, swishy new BBC spy drama Spooks seized viewers by the lapels – and saw the Broadcasting Standards Commission inundated with complaints – in only its second episode when Thames House trainee Helen Flynn (played by Faulkner) volunteered for a risky undercover mission, but found herself getting served up with salt and vinegar.
Brookside alumnus and lads’ mag favourite Faulkner had just completed a stint on Holby City. Among a cast of newcomers, hers was the biggest name. Viewers assumed she would be a key player in the show taglined “It’s MI5, not 9 to 5”. Hence it was a jaw-dropper in spring 2002 when her character infiltrated an extremist group but got rumbled and gruesomely murdered.
First, her hand was plunged into a deep-fat fryer by Kevin McNally’s far-right leader, which was wince-inducing enough – until he shoved poor Helen’s head in, too. Her fellow agent, Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom (not Wambsgans, sadly) was held at gunpoint and could only watch in horror.
The set piece was originally pencilled in for the series finale, but as producer Jane Featherstone reasoned: “Let’s move the most dramatic thing you’ve got to episode two and kill off the only actress the audience recognise and then you’ve got them hooked.”
The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker approved: “The moment her head was forced into the deep-fat fryer, viewers reared on the formulaic, it’ll-be-alright-in-the-end blandness of cookie-cutter populist dramas … sat up and blinked in disbelief: here was a major BBC drama series that actually had the nerve to confound expectation.”
Despite airing after the watershed, the grisly scene sparked the most complaints of any show that year. It also set a trend in box set drama for bumping off big names early. It might be risky (what if fans switch off in protest?) but it’s a bold move that drastically raises the stakes. Viewers are kept guessing and gripped. If they can wipe out a headline name, what else might they do?
ITV’s bomb disposal drama Trigger Point began with a similarly loud bang on Sunday night. Slight spoiler in case you have miraculously managed to avoid them and intend to catch up, but a central character got blown to smithereens before the credits rolled on the opening episode. As with Spooks, the message to viewers was clear. In this show, the jeopardy is real. Nobody is safe.
Trigger Point, of course, hails from the Jed Mercurio stable. The don of tense TV thrillers didn’t script this one, but he executive-produced, and mentored screenwriting debutant Daniel Brierley. Mercurio the Merciless has a track record of swiftly killing off his star signings. Keeley Hawes was blown up by a briefcase bomb before the midway mark of ratings blockbuster Bodyguard. Jessica Raine, Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins got guest-star billing in Line of Duty series two, three and four respectively. None survived beyond the first episode.
Sign up a major star, then unceremoniously off them – that’s the Mercurio method. His trademark life-or-death cliffhangers suddenly become a lot more potent when someone genuinely could cark it. (As a budgetary bonus, it also means paying a pricey performer’s fee for fewer episodes.)
The trick soon spread across the Atlantic, where perhaps the prime exemplar was Game of Thrones. The debut season of HBO’s shagging-and-dragons saga placed Sean Bean’s brooding patriarch Eddard “Ned” Stark front and centre, not just on the billboard posters but within the narrative. It had been a casting coup to lure the craggy Lord of the Rings star back to the fantasy genre, let alone the small screen. Ned was established as the show’s moral centre – until episode nine, when he was gasp-inducingly beheaded on the whim of punchable poison dwarf Joffrey.
“This is probably the first time a US drama series has ever killed off its main character in the first season as part of its master creative plan,” wrote Entertainment Weekly. “It’s just not done. You don’t cast a star, put him on bus stops and magazine ads, get viewers all invested in his story, and then dump him nine episodes later just because it arguably makes the story a bit more interesting.”
Oh yes you do. Showrunner DB Weiss admitted that Ned’s early demise had been a “selling point” for him and co-creator David Benioff. “It completely ups the ante whenever a character is in danger if you know someone else didn’t survive a similar situation,” he said.
Slaughtering a high-profile cast member early not only has shock value but promises all manner of unexpected twists. Christopher Eccleston’s amiable scientist was viciously mauled to death in the first episode of Sky’s frost-bitten Fortitude. Ariana Grande was dispatched equally swiftly in Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, stabbed in the back while sending a tweet. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Real-time thriller 24 gleefully killed off anyone who wasn’t Kiefer Sutherland. David Haig’s spook lasted just three episodes of Killing Eve before Villanelle did her thing. Tragedy at the end of act one provides an emotional climax early in the piece.
And who can forget Nancy’s beloved bestie Barb (Shannon Purser) getting dragged into the Upside Down and killed by the Demogorgon within two episodes of Stranger Things’ debut season? It not only cranked up the fear factor but made her such a cult figure that #JusticeforBarb trended on Twitter. Purser earned an Emmy nomination for mere minutes of screen time.
We got another big one – or should that be Big one? – only last month. Divisive Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That began with Carrie Bradshaw living smugly ever after with John “Mr Big” Preston. Forty cringe-making minutes later, Chris Noth’s cigar-puffing, eyebrow-waggling alpha male keeled over from a fatal heart attack after a home workout – plunging Peloton into a PR crisis in the process.
HBO execs can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief though, because multiple women have since accused Noth of sexual assault. He has denied the allegations but writing out his character proved a smart move in more ways than one.
The show itself immediately switched from nostalgic lifestyle larks to bittersweet sad-com. Not entirely successfully, sure, but at least grief and midlife widowhood made for more interesting subject matter than cosmos, corsages and camp one-liners. And just like that, Carrie swapped her bright blue silk Manolos for a deeper, darker hue.
Moral of the story? On 21st-century TV, no character is safe. Nowadays the bigger the star’s name, the higher their odds of getting cruelly killed early doors. Also: steer clear of exercise bikes, deep-fat fryers and improvised explosive devices.