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Do TV death theories give us the illusion of control?

Mar 11, 2014

According to the internet, the “How I Met Your Mother” finale will reveal that The Mother (Cristin Milioti) has died. First, Jenna Mullins at E! proposed a theory breaking down the last few episodes, focusing particularly on how Ted (Josh Radnor) stresses how badly he wants an extra 45 days with her.

“Exactly 45 days from now, you and I are going to meet,” he says. “We’re going to fall in love and we’re going to get married, and we’re going to have two kids. We’re going to love them and each other so much. All that is 45 days away, but I’m here, now, I guess because I want those extra 45 days with you. I want each one of them . . . I am always going to love you. Until the end of my days and beyond.”

And we’re all crying. Why those 45 days, Ted? Where did she go?

On top of that, Mullins highlights the fact that in all scenes set in the present, Ted never refers to his wife as alive. He never refers to her as dead, either, but at no point is there a “Mom’s making dinner” or “Oh she’ll be home soon” line, alluding even more to the fact that she’s no longer in the picture.

Miriam Krule at Slate covered these but also brought up Ted’s story of Robin’s (Colbie Smulders) wedding, in which her mom makes a surprise appearance.

“What kind of mother misses her daughter’s wedding?” the Mother asks. Ted looks at her and cries. In response, she asks him to tell a different story, alluding even more to the fact that something horrible happened.

Of course, Milioti dismissed the theories as completely untrue, going on record with The Hollywood Reporter as saying that they’re “insane” and “so crazy.” Which, granted, they probably are.

So what’s our fixation on death and TV shows all about? Last year, “Mad Men’s” Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) was the victim of the conspiracy that she’d be killed in the same manner as the slain Sharon Tate. She wore the same t-shirt as Tate, so it had to mean something — as did the fact that she was an actress, that she was heading to Los Angeles and that the season’s fixation on death seemed to increase per episode.
pare Do TV death theories give us the illusion of control?
Then, the season finale came, and nothing happened. As far as we know, Megan Draper is still safe and sound–maybe even a bona fide movie star.

Meanwhile, “Breaking Bad’s” theories only mounted as the series’ end approached with certain deaths coming as a complete shock and the survival of others being equally surprising. Flash-forwards seeing Walt (Bryan Cranston) prepare his birthday breakfast in the same way as Skyler (Anna Gunn) did alluded to her death — especially since he seemed to adopt the rituals of people he killed. (Example: folding a towel in front of the toilet to kneel on while throwing up in the same way Gus did.) As a result, the internet went full-on conspiracy theorist, only to have our expectations met reasonably in the finale while still being completely wrong. (Though at least Jesse has finally driven into “Need For Speed.”)

And it’s not even just a trend about new shows: a Reddit thread recently revealed a theory that Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was actually killed in that fight on the basketball court, and his taxi ride to his aunt and uncle’s, was a ride up to heaven — in a cab driven by God. There’s also the theory that “Rugrats” is merely a narrative Anjelica created to combat her parents’ negligence, and yikes, it is horrible (and has totally ruined “Rugrats” for me).

What we know about death conspiracies is that they create a discussion. From “Who Shot J.R.?” in the ’80s to last week’s “True Detective,” we love to broadcast our opinions in the hopes of saying “I told you so.” (None of us were right about Maggie Simpson shooting Mr. Burns, by the way.) But in addition to creating discourse and small talk fodder at work, it also gives us the illusion of control: If we can claim to know what TV writers are thinking, and how shows that consistently surprise us will end, we fool ourselves into thinking we somehow have a hand in it; that we’re not merely consumers, but “in on it” — whatever “it” may be.

Theories give us a sense of independent thought, or at least work to re-affirm our own intellect. They give us a chance to feel in charge of anything.

But in terms of death theories, those help us to deconstruct and break down death and our relationships with it. Death is the one finale none of us are any closer to understanding. But if we can try to understand the end of a character (who’s going to die, how and why), or the signs pointing to their demise, it gives us the illusion that we’re more in control of our own end. If we can predict who “Mad Men” is setting up to go, then we can apply it to the big picture, and dismiss the surprise of the real deal.

Or, perhaps this is the greatest TV conspiracy theory of all. And I just wanted to remind everybody about Megan Draper.

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