Storytelling, Tropes, And Feels
“Person of Interest” spoilers ahead…
From her introduction in the first season till her death on last week’s episode, Root from “Person of Interest” was one of my favorite characters on television. She had a wonderful arc—Amy Acker is absolutely stellar in the role—evolving from chaotic hacker antagonist to hero over the course of the five seasons. She was troubled, charismatic, brilliant, and a little trigger happy. It was hard not to enjoy her plots and plans, especially once her role as analog interface to The Machine (the artificial intelligence that is central to the premise of the show) was established. For other characters, The Machine was a tool. For Root, it was a higher calling; almost a religion.
It didn’t hurt that Root was totally into—and eventually involved with—the other killer lady on the show, Sameen Shaw, but Root won me over before she met Shaw. And, while her relationship with Shaw might have been my favorite—I may yet devote a post to them—Root’s relationships with the show’s other characters also evolved over time. This is especially true of her relationship with the creator of The Machine, Harold Finch.
Root and Harold had a particularly contentious beginning (she kidnapped him and made him watch her torture a man, you know, like friends do) and it took a long time for them to actually start working together instead of against each other. It took them much longer to actually like each other—so the fact she died saving her now friend Harold was a fitting, amazing, heroic, awesome end to her character; and while the details remain unclear, it seems Root will kind of live on after a fashion, as the artificial intelligence has taken on her persona. As Acker herself pointed out in a tweet, this was always kind of Root’s dream: transcendence, to be one with The Machine.
However, even though Root’s death hit all the marks for a worthwhile, satisfying character death in general, it also fits the “Bury Your Gays” trope. As a gay consumer, “Bury Your Gays” has ticked me off to no end for years now, and because of it I find myself feeling rather torn over Root’s death. (This freaking article has been in various states of draft for hours now while I tried to figure out my feelings on this.) How do I deal with both my appreciation for the story and my anger that yet another gay character is dead? It’s a vicious combination of fangirl sadness and rage that not even a pint of Ben and Jerry’s could temper.
I spoke briefly with an acquaintance of mine after the show aired. He said, “If this wasn’t such a rough year for the trope, I’d have been slightly more okay with it.” I agree. I know these shows were written months ago, and that no one was running between networks checking on a gay body count, but the fact that so many different shows managed to hit “Bury Your Gays” this season, to the point where it felt like it flooded the market is hugely problematic. “The 100” is the most prominent example in my mind; I never watched the show, but, boy, did I hear about it between social media and friends. That said, lesbian characters also died on “The Walking Dead,” “The Magicians,” “Empire,” and “Blindspot,” to name a few of the shows that contributed to a total of 15 lesbian deaths in 2016 so far. (my numbers are based off of Autostraddle’s dead lesbian list). Well, now it’s 16; Root hadn’t been added when I referenced the site for this article. Did “Person of Interest” get the shaft because Root’s story came to a close at a time when their audience had been saturated with gay character death for months? Yes. Is it still fair to lump them in with the general criticism over the use of the trope? Yes.
It’s not because I think the creators (or anyone involved with production) are bad people, bad writers, monsters, homophobic assholes, or any of that. I read a couple interviews with the creators responding to Root’s death; they loved this character, and they wanted to do right by her. (They certainly did, in my opinion.) They also wanted to do right by the show and the fans in their treatment of the relationship between Root and Shaw–which I’d argue they were successful in overall—but how many other shows in 2016 tried to tell the best story possible while still killing off gay characters? Too many.
While I’m not going to tell creators what they should write, I will say that they really need to work on their awareness with respect to representation when they’re when they’re creating characters and when they’re marking them for death. I’m hoping the discussion which opened up over the last few months about killing gay characters carries over into planning sessions for the upcoming television season, because here’s the thing: I want to live in a world where a sacrifice like Root’s was simply an awesome character arc and not a pain point with respect to representation.
There needs to be some balance here. Balance, not avoidance. After all, why can’t a gay woman be the hero and sacrifice her life to save the day? But when character death is more of a norm than a rarity, it starts to cheapen the intended impact of the death. When it seems only the gay characters are dying, creators alienate fans who just want to see themselves reflected in the things they love. I don’t know where that balance is—I think this is an area where more diversity in terms of characters would help—but I’m confident that, with a little effort, writers can find it.
I love Root; I’ll miss her, and I’m excited to see how the remaining episodes play out in terms of an artificial intelligence taking on her persona. Maybe in time I’ll be able to reflect on the story differently, without the shadow of an all too frequently used trope looming over it. Today’s not that day, though.
Damn it. I need more ice cream.