It can happen in any number of ways — a stark fade to black immediately following the firing of a gun, a body gone missing after the explosion of a building, a pair of fluttering eyes that never quite close while flirting with eternal abyss. Television loves to tease death. It loves to make us think one of its beloved (or detested) characters have crossed to the other side, only to reveal later on that the alleged deceased is alive and kicking. And there's no opportunity more advantageous for such a display than the season finale. The final episode of Boardwalk Empire's third season concluded with a highly ambiguous fate for one of the show's most vivid characters (spoilers to follow): Gillian Darmody, played by Gretchen Mol. Not long before her last moments on camera, Gillian was stuck with the heroin needle she used in the killing of the innocent Jimmy Doppelganger whom she made victim of one of her nefarious ploys earlier this season. Gillian revived the needle in an attempt to do away with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), but the gangster overpowered her and injected the drugs — presumably, a whole lot of 'em — into her system. The last we saw of Gillian, she was listing away from our world in the hallway of her own brothel, eyes gradually losing their luster but never shutting out altogether.
When you take into consideration the symbol of the needle — a murder weapon of recent past — and Gillian's candid diatribe earlier on in the episode about eventually getting her comeuppance, you're bound to let the poetry of her decline influence you: she's dead. But then, you remember the rule. The golden rule of television and movies. If you don't see them die, they're not actually dead. It's a maxim that every third act victim in horror cinema might have been wise to abide by. As such, you're wont to assume that we will see Gillian live another day, return for a fourth season and continue to wreak havoc upon everyone she meets.
And as touched on above, it's television drama season finale where this rule is nothing short of cardinal. The phenomenon dates back at least as far as its most famous perpetrator: Dallas. The third season finale concluded with the most iconic moment of the show, and one of the most iconic moments in television drama altogether: the shooting of J.R. Ewing. The cliffhanger left not only J.R.'s assailant unidentified, but the survival of the oil baron a mystery all its own. A similar question surrounded the sustenance of one Mr. Burns in The Simpsons' parody episode couplet, "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" (although no one really thought he was going to actually die... Homer has fallen down, like, 30 gorges and is doing just fine).
We've been dealt this sort of treatment in recent dramatic television as well. The Season 4 closer for Alias left the fates of car crash victims Vaughn and Sydney up in the air. The Season 7 finale of Weeds had Nancy Botwin the possible victim of a nearby sniper before an abrupt fade to black. And the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad had relatively innocent meth cook Gale Boetticher staring down the barrel of Jesse's gun, which fires just as the camera slinks ever-so-slightly to the side... again, preceding an immediate blackout. And every single one of these characters survived.
Oh, wait, no. Gale died.
Leave it to Breaking Bad to shatter convention, replacing the rules of dramatic television with an unprecedented chaos. Okay, so that show, that one show, isn't out to play games with us. In fact, creator Vince Gilligan has suggested that his Season 3 conclusion was a stylistic choice, and that he intended no real ambiguity about Gale's demise (he confirmed Gale to be dead before Season 4 even picked up again). But most shows out there, Boardwalk included, seem to like toying with us. Because we like being toyed with. We appreciate what you're doing for us, Breaking Bad. We appreciate the respect and the sincerity. But we love a good "Is he or ain't he?" too. That's proven by not only every season finale, but every episode of television wherein we're treated to would-be deaths of characters. Every show from Lost to Dexter to Game of Thrones to Revenge to Homeland to the aforementioned — it's a rule nearly as good as gold in the television game. Yet it's one that still tantalizes, because there's always the possibility of another Breaking Bad-like rebel. If you don't see the eyes close shut, if you don't see a body recovered, if you don't see a freakin' casket, you're probably not too far gone in awaiting the return of the "deceased," even if it doesn't happen right away. After all, they've got to save some big shocker for sweeps.
[Photo Credit: HBO]