This is the year cable dramas crossed a line that even “Hostel” didn't
The biggest trend in finales this year is — ulp — child endangerment.
Shows from "Dexter" to "The Walking Dead" have made kids in danger the dramatic thrust of their finale storylines. "The Walking Dead" even killed a child — not once but twice – and had another suffer a ghastly, near-fatal gunshot wound to the gut.
FX's new "American Horror Story" didn't even wait for its finale to start dispatching kids, violently offing a pair of young twins in its first minutes.
Also read: 'American Horror Story': Where's the Terror?
Viewers will find out on Sunday's "Dexter" season finale whether Dexter's son, Harrison, will also perish at the altar of TV drama. Previews of the episode show bad guy Colin Hanks threatening to stab the toddler in the neck with a wooden sword. (Update, with a spoiler warning to those who haven't seen it: Harrison lived.)
No harm, of course, came to any actual children in the making of the shows. But whether harm could come to kids who watch them is an open question. (Assuming any parents are clueless enough to let their kids watch surefire nightmare-inducers.)
Many studies have linked violence on TV to actual aggression in children. But TV violence against children — or at least so much of it at once — is new territory.
Thou Shalt Not Kill a Child has long been one of the unspoken commandments of horror movies, to say nothing of TV shows. (Teenagers, especially sexually active ones, are fair game, as Wes Craven spelled out in 1996's "Scream.") Putting young people in danger is one of the cheapest ways to shock an audience — but can also be a legitimate way to explore serious ethical questions.
A quick rundown of the recent kids-in-peril plots:
>> "Breaking Bad": Methamphetamine maker Walter White wins back his ex-partner, Jesse Pinkman, by persuading him that Pinkman's new mentor, Gus Fring, poisoned a child and tried to frame Walt. With Jesse's help, Walt has Gus killed, preventing Gus from following through on a threat to kill Walt's wife, son, and infant daughter. Only in the finale's last shot do we learn that Walt, in fact, poisoned the child himself. ("Breaking Bad" also killed off a child drug runner in the penultimate episode of its previous season.)
>> "The Walking Dead": Carl, the youngest in a band of zombie apocalypse survivors, is shot by a hunter at about the same time his young playmate, Sophia, disappears. The hunter leads the survivors to an idyllic farm communtiy that holds a secret: Its leader keeps zombies locked in a barn, in hopes of restoring their humanity. Shane, one of the survivors, goes with the hunter to retrieve medical supplies for Carl from a zombie-ridden school, then shoots and leaves him behind as zombie fodder. Later, Shane opens the barn door, instigating a mass execution of the zombies — the last of whom turns out to be Sophia. She's shot and killed — again.
>> "American Horror Story": The new FX series threw down its anything-for-a-scare gauntlet by showing the murder of two redheaded twins in its pilot's opening scene. Thursday night's episode included a baby possibly being stillborn — or facing an even more unfortunate fate. The show has also tried to exploit viewers' potentially strong feelings about abortion. The house where the show takes place is a former abortion clinic, and the main character, played by Dylan McDermott, pleads with a former student to end her pregnancy after finding out he's the father.
>> "Dexter": Previews for Sunday's finale feature Colin Hanks's Doomsday Killer abducting Dexter's son and menacing him the sharp wooden sword. After a season that featured a "Sixth Sense" twist and a dreamed incestual kiss, a child murder might be the last shocking thing "Dexter" could do. (We've already seen, two season finales ago, Harrison sitting in a puddle of his dead mother's blood.) Whether the show will also use Harrison's peril to explore deeper issues — as "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" have done — remains to be seen.
Child deaths also play heavily into the plot of Showtime's "Homeland," which concludes its first season after the "Dexter" finale Sunday.
Freshman ethics classes love to pose questions about children in danger to explore the concept of utilitarianism — the idea that the the right course of action is the one that brings about the most overall happiness and the least overall pain. Students are asked to ponder (and sometimes do, for the rest of their lives) whether they would let one child die to save a train full of people, or kill the infant Hitler if it would prevent the Holocaust.
Walt's "Breaking Bad" dilemma fits in cozily alongside those questions: Would you risk a child's life to save yourself and your family?
Shane's decision to kill the hunter in "The Walking Dead" is another utilitatian calculation brought on by child endangerment: He decides the hunter's life is worth less than his own, and that of the boy the hunter shot. The entire search for Sophia also comes down to a cold calculation: Should all the survivors risk their lives to look for one little girl?
Her discovery as a zombie barn leads to another ethical debate about who deserves our empathy. The survivors take a fairly strict us vs. them approach to zombies — until the most vulnerable of "us" becomes one of "them."
Horror aficionado Eli Roth cleverly riffed on the no-killing-kids rule in his 2005 "Hostel," the extreme 2005 film that helped inspire the phrase "torture porn." The climax of the film includes a moment when a villain seems prepared to run over a pack of children. It seems like the most grueling possible coup de grace to a film filled with grotesqueries.
But ultimately Roth lets the kids win, by swarming their would-be killer. That's right: This is the year basic cable dramas crossed a line that "Hostel" wouldn't.
FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which also toys with audiences' boundaries, played with the no-harm to children rule this season in an episode in which a character pretended, for tax purposes, that her baby had died.
"I will say this," show creator Rob McElhenney told TheWrap in a recent interview. "That there has never been, nor will there ever be, a sitcom on television where they have a baby funeral. We're the only one."
The only sitcom, sure. But not the only show, the way things are going.