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Lelia Nebeker Headshot

Exodus: When Actors Decide to Leave the Shows We Love

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It's easy to forget sometimes that the fictional TV characters we grow so attached to have another side to them. Behind every brooding vampire, every caustic detective, every promiscuous doctor lies a real human being with his or her own life, including aspirations and careers that don't always align with the journeys of the characters they play on screen. So what happens when an actor is ready to move on, but the show is still going strong? This is something TV writers struggle with that novelists and film writers don't. As an avid TV viewer, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for writers to have their storylines dictated by circumstances out of their control. But at the same time, you can't exactly fault an actor for wanting to try something new, move to a new city, start a family, or whatever the reasoning might be behind his or her departure. Can you?

Over the last few weeks, there have been a slew of cases such as this in which a main cast member was written off a show because the actor opted to leave. It's understandable, right? I mean, after several years of filming 22-episode seasons, playing the same character (unless you're Nina Dobrev or Tatiana Maslany, in which case you might be playing two or eight different ones), anyone could get a little restless. For Teen Wolf leading lady Crystal Reed, another season would have meant she would likely turn 30 while still playing a teenager. The Originals' Claire Holt told BuzzFeed that she hadn't been home to see her family in Australia for years, since filming The Vampire Diaries and The Originals kept her stateside. Lucky for fans, Holt's character wasn't killed off, so there's still a chance that she could return. The same can't be said for The Good Wife's Josh Charles -- one of the original cast members -- whose character Will Gardner was shockingly murdered in the March 23rd episode.

I've been a fan of The Good Wife since season one, and Will Gardner was unquestionably one of my favorite characters on television. He was passionate, intelligent, complex, flawed -- and a large part of that was thanks to Charles' superb acting. When he came to Robert and Michelle King to discuss leaving the show, the Good Wife creators had to make a choice: they could have Will move away, or they could orchestrate one of the most cataclysmic TV deaths since Game of Thrones' Red Wedding. (You can read the Kings' open letter to fans in which they discuss why they made the choice they did.) Ultimately, it may not have been the ending they imagined for Will, but I respect their decision to stay true to the character, even if it meant a tragic death instead of the easier solution of sending him off to Seattle.

Like Crystal Reed's departure from Teen Wolf, Charles' decision has generated some animosity towards the actor, with some fans even criticizing him for "cutting out early," despite the fact that he stayed on for fifteen more episodes after his contract was up. In the wake of these shake-ups, scorned fans have expressed their disappointment, claiming that actors have a responsibility to their fans to see the story through, even if that means dedicating two or three more years to the same show. While I understand this perspective, don't we as fans have a responsibility to actors to let them grow and try something different? As a viewer, I may feel a little betrayed by the fact that my favorite character had to die because Josh Charles wanted to change his career path, but at the same time, I don't feel any anger towards him for choosing to leave. Instead I look forward to seeing what he does next, and I'm thankful for all the years he spent making The Good Wife the incredible show that it is.

It's hard to think of the stories we love being driven by outside forces rather than the musings of the all-powerful creators who dream them up. Who knows what Will Gardner's fate may have been if Josh Charles had stayed on for the duration of the series? As painful as it is to watch these characters meet such tragic ends, we owe it to the actors to bid farewell with grace and understanding, to mourn the characters and celebrate the men and women who play them.