Warning: this post contains spoilers for both the years-old “Brian and Stewie” episode and the more recent, death episode of Family Guy.
This is a sad day.
For years, Brian has been the cement with which Family Guy has held itself together. He’s the one character who has had two major arcs with family members – Peter and Stewie – and has dealt with everything from relationship politics to thoughts of suicide.
When I first watched the 150th episode of Family Guy, titled “Brian and Stewie”, I cried, and I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it since. It’s an episode that contains no cutaways, few gags, and only involves those two characters. It talks about Brian’s struggle with depression, about Stewie’s love for his best friend, and it not only brings them closer together but is one of the most powerful moments in cartoon history. McFarlane and co. knocked it out of the park with that one.
So, when “Life of Brian” aired, and I saw the spoiler, then watched the episode, I was confused. Dumbfounded. Really? Brian? Not Meg, or Chris, both played by actors (Mila Kunis and Seth Green, respectively) who have film and television careers to think about outside Family Guy. Instead, the one character Seth McFarlane himself plays where he doesn’t even need to change his voice. The smartest, most honest, most identifiable character in the show, and he’s dead.
If I’m honest, I don’t know how the show is going to recover.
The episode doesn’t actually spend that long on Brian’s death, and that bothers me quite a bit. Halfway through the family seek out and take in a new dog, Vinny, who has a very different personality. While kind, he’s also not Brian, and years of chemistry between Brian and Stewie are replaced with what I’ll admit is quite a sweet, genuine caring relationship between the baby and the new dog.
But what is great about Family Guy, and “Life of Brian”, is that it takes the matter very seriously. There are no cutaway gags, and I didn’t think I could get too upset about it until the quiet moment by Brian’s deathbed when Peter, in tears, silently takes his wife’s hand in his, and Chris places his hand on Meg’s shoulder. It’s the small, quiet moments in amongst the endless insanity of this show that make it such a wonderfully powerful experience that so many people have committed themselves to.
Brian’s character has always been interestingly complex. He bounces between bright and pseudo-intellectual, between rational and irrational. He is at once both our own reaction to the situations the Griffin family find themselves in, and a character we can see the flaws in when his considerable self-worth takes over. His alcoholism is an ongoing issue, as is his depression, and by that amazing 150th episode, we know enough of Brian’s history so that the revelation that he owns a gun so he’ll always have a way out of life hits like a ton of bricks.
It would be like Chandler confessing to wanting to throw himself off the balcony in Friends, or watching Jeff from Community discuss struggling with serious depression or emotional damage during childhood. More shows need to take steps like this, and Brian was a shining example of a character who was never open to compromise, and whose storylines were full of hypocrisies, which made him feel so much more real. He was deeply flawed, and incredibly loyal – something that helped Stewie not only come into his own, but also begin to start discussing his sexual preferences with increasing confidence, even if they did occasionally centre on Brian himself.
Now, Family Guy lies in a state of ruin. It’ll still run, it’ll still produce new episodes and storylines, but the writing team is in serious trouble. Either they annoyingly bring Brian back to life and the impact is lost, or they now have a show where the family’s only possible reaction is several seasons’ worth of grief. Even the promise that he will return feels hollow.
I myself feel like I’m in a state of mild shock, because after that 150th episode, Family Guy became a very important show to me, personally. I can only hope McFarlane and co. know what they’re doing, because from here, the future looks bleak.
If you are indeed gone from our screens forever, Brian Griffin, then I suppose this is a sorrowful farewell. Rest in peace.