One of the most tired, over-done things a show can do is kill a cast member. It happens for many reasons. Often those reasons are to shock the audience, to up the stakes, or even just to get an actor off the show. Then there are the rare times when the story calls for it. Someone has to die. Usually when this happens it is fire and forget. Characters mope for a bit, you know, for one or maybe two episodes and then things are back to normal.
On very rare occasions you get something more. The death of a character becomes a pivot in the story and causes characters to grow and change. This is what has happened in Burn Notice this season.
Be warned: Beyond this point there be spoilers.
This season we saw the death of Michael’s brother Nate while he was helping Michael on a case. It was sudden, it was out of the blue, and the show had done nothing to warn you it was coming…except, of course, in the trailer for the episode at the end of last week’s episode. What has made this character’s death special is not how the main cast has reacted. They are doing what they always do, hunting down the people, but what has really shone is how the NPCs, I mean the supporting cast, handled it.
There is the obvious impact on Agent Pearce who was running the operation that got Nate killed. She does not grieve so much as feel enough guilt to help the main cast in ways she would not normally. The result? She too leaves the show for breaking the CIA’s rules.
The real impact, and the real lesson for GM’s in all this, is in the way Mike’s mom reacts to the news. The change in her character, and the isolation between her and Mike, has been amazing. We have seen her go from needing his attention and wanting to be part of his life for the first five seasons to shutting him out.
Often, when a significant character dies in-game, it works like a TV show. It does nothing more than up the stakes. If we want to have greater impact when we kill a major NPC–or PC for that matter–we should not rely on the players to show that impact. Instead, we have to do it by making the other NPCs care, by making them angry with the people they hold responsible and the relationships between them and the person who’s changing because of the death.
Thanks for doing it right, Burn Notice, and thanks for the lesson.