Spoiler Alert for pretty much every popular television show
Does this sound familiar? A television series’ character, most likely a fan favorite, finds himself cornered. By what? The undead, a dozen or so enemy soldiers, a brutal serial killer … it doesn’t really matter. Somehow, against all odds, he makes his way out. It’s thrilling, pulse–pounding suspense. But then he keeps finding himself in the same situation and every time he walks out with only a scrape at most. And he owes it all to the magical device called plot armor.
Plot armor is the idea that a character is too important, through popularity or plot significance, to be killed off by a series’ writers. Take “The Walking Dead” ’s Daryl Dixon. During the show’s struggling second season, the redneck archer’s character development and general badassery stood out as a bright spot, and people latched on with fans crying “If Daryl Dies We Riot!” The character’s popularity has allowed him to be one of the few survivors that has lasted through every season of the show so far. So far he’s survived: being shot, captured and most recently falling off a bridge in a van. I’m as big a fan of Daryl as the next but whenever he’s cornered I find myself thinking, “How will he get out?” instead of “Will he get out?”
Plot armor can extend to the majority of many horror series cast. “American Horror Story” ’s cast stands as an example. The anthology series has gathered one of the more impressive casts in television, most protected by plot armor. Suspense in horror lies in whether a character will live or die in a situation. That suspense is shattered when I can pretty much guarantee Jessica Lange will make it to the final episode every season she’s in. This was most egregious in “Coven” when the plot armor was so strong that it raised characters from the dead, killing any sort of suspense along the way. What good is death when it’s easily reversed?
Subverting plot armor can lead to effective results. One of the largest draws of “Game of Thrones” is the idea that anyone can die. This was set in stone when Ned Stark’s head was chopped off in the show’s first season. Ned was a character that would typically be gifted with protection, practically being the first season’s central character, but his death served to establish the harsh realities of Westeros, as “Game of Thrones” continuously (and painfully) reminds us.
One of the first shows to utilize this subversion of plot armor was “24.” In its first season Jack Bauer had saved a presidential candidate’s life (multiple times), killed an Eastern European warlord and saved his family … almost. Following the capture of CTU mole Nina Meyers, Jack looks for his wife only to find her dead from a gunshot wound. The fact Teri Bauer was also pregnant served as a final gut punch to the audience that through the first season had seen Jack find a way to solve every problem he was in. Teri was the traditionally protected wife of the hero. Hell, she was pregnant; you didn’t kill pregnant women back then (at least not until the baby was born – then they were fair game).
This set a precedent for “24” — Jack Bauer was the traditional plot armored-hero able to fight his way out of any life-or-death situation but only to see those around him cut down by the brutal world he inhabited. The series never hesitated to kill Bauer’s friends and allies, sometimes to its own detriment.
Plot armor isn’t bad when it’s deployed well. As “24” cut down most of its main cast, it found fewer and fewer people for Jack to connect to. Why grow attached to characters if they’re just going to be killed right away? “24” had to introduce new characters routinely near the series initial end and it suffered for it. Thankfully, the series learned the benefits of plot armor before it got to Chloe O’Brian, one of Jack’s few surviving friends.
Plot armor is a useful trope for series where death is common, but when used too much, can turn a cast into superheroes instead of actual human characters.