If you haven’t seen the fourth episode of the third season of “Last Tango in Halifax” yet, then don’t read this until after you have.
Last night’s “Last Tango in Halifax” brought back a feeling I hadn’t had in years. The elation of having same-sex marriage approved in two thirds of the country, of a new Pope who is calling for tolerance and acceptance, and of the myriad gay characters that almost every show on television has now, has made me forget how to prepare myself for what used to be commonplace: the killing of the queer character.
Homophobic writers used to do it in the name of restoring social order, or as punishment for a sinful lifestyle. Then they did it to teach a homophobic society a lesson, to show them how miserable gay lives are and make them feel bad about it.
We used to eat crumbs because we were starved and we grabbed anything they would give us with both hands, devouring it and writing mass amounts of fanfiction to keep ourselves warm and happy the rest of the year. A couple of intimate moments between two female characters would be enough to satisfy us for months on our shipping* websites.
But this is 2015, and that is no longer acceptable. And when a show gives its central character a lesbian epiphany, a struggling coming out story, and a beautiful relationship that leads to a wedding and a baby, you can’t just go ahead and kill half of this couple the day after the wedding and expect it to be a tolerable storyline.
I watched the episode last night with great resentment. Not only was it true, Kate was dead, but Sally Wainwright felt the need to start the episode making us think she was alive after all! Why taunt us further? That is just cruel! “OMG, she’s alive!” “Wait, no, she’s dead. She’s talking to her fucking ghost!”
After the episode, I found myself grieving. A television show creator’s biggest job is to make people fall in love with his or her characters. The show needs us to want to invite those people into our lives every week and enjoy spending time with them. Killing off favorite characters may work for “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones,” but it does not work here, and Wainwright showed that she understood that when she scared us with Alan’s heart attack but did not pursue it beyond the dramatic emotional effect it had on the characters.
Then I started feeling sorry for Wainwright. She had obviously by then started to realize what a terrible mistake she had made. She had started feeling the wrath of the angry lesbian. And I do still love the show and her writing. But Wainwright is an intelligent and experienced enough writer. She should have been able to put together that when you take on the responsibility of writing a story about a historically discriminated-against minority and in return receive the eternal loyalty of legions of lesbian fans, then you can’t go on and kill half of this beloved couple and expect that to be okay. And again, even from a storytelling standpoint that was a cheap cliché.
There is great division in the lesbian fan community right now. Some people are very angry from years of disappointments and have banned the show, much like they did with “The L Word,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Chicago Fire” and countless other shows that let us down. Some do not want to bite the hand that feeds us and are worried that the show might be canceled and Caroline might never get another chance at happiness.
Well, I don’t want the show canceled, but I do want this to be a teaching moment, for Wainwright and everyone who follows her. I want us to scream loud enough, I want them to hear, and I want to finally earn their respect. Lesbian lives matter. Queer lives matter. Stories on television matter. They give voice to those who are struggling to be heard, and they give a face and a familiarity to the Other.
Sally Wainwright fucked up, and it’s important she know it. Now I want to see her make up for it. She is the best writer we’ve seen in years. She can do it.
*Shipping is the act of taking two already-created characters, most frequently from television shows, and putting them together, usually in a romantic relationship, in fanfiction.