Viewers can learn a lesson about how to respond to those in mourning
Most viewers tune into the Hallmark Channel because they know what they’re going to get: a happy ending. That’s certainly the case for the romantic films the network has become known for – and it seemed that it would hold true for the lead characters on Hallmark’s Christopher Award-winning flagship series “When Calls the Heart,” about Canadian Mountie Constable Jack Thornton and the love of his life, school teacher Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow).
But the end of last week’s episode and last night’s season five finale, titled “Close to My Heart,” finally revealed the truth that those of us with an eye for foreshadowing had suspected for a while: Jack Thornton was dead, killed while heroically saving the Mounties he was training from a landslide.
Though the show’s writers, executive producers (especially Brian Bird), and even Hallmark president Bill Abbott took a lot of heat from fans (known as the Hearties) in the past week for killing such a beloved character so soon after he and Elizabeth got married, they likely had little choice. The facts behind this decision won’t be officially revealed until a Facebook Live event tonight, April 23, in which Bird, Krakow, Lissing, and fellow star Lori Loughlin, who plays Abigail Stanton, will explain the whole thing. But chances are that Lissing, whose five year contract was up, wanted to move on from the series to work on other projects.
In a sense, the writers, along with Krakow and Lissing, are victims of their own success. The writers could have had Jack and Elizabeth break up, but their love for each other against all odds (and Krakow and Lissing’s chemistry together) was so well established that it wouldn’t have rung true. So instead, Jack died a hero, and Elizabeth and the town of Hope Valley were left to deal with his loss.
As heartbreaking as this episode was, it also provided meditations on grief that conveyed depth not ordinarily seen in Hallmark’s more upbeat productions. Elizabeth, for instance, learns that even happy memories of Jack carry a soul-crushing level of emotional pain during the early stages of mourning. And when she receives Jack’s horse Sergeant as a gift from the Mounties, we see how something physical can connect us to the invisible or transcendent.
Later, a group of the town’s widows, who lost their own husbands and sons in a mine disaster years ago, gather to try and comfort Elizabeth. But she doesn’t connect with what they’re saying until Clara, whose husband died soon after they were married, says his death made her feel “cheated.” That resonates with Elizabeth because she and Jack were just starting their life together. It’s a small thing, but Elizabeth finds a little healing knowing that someone understands where she’s coming from.
That scene, and many others throughout the episode, also convey the importance of community after someone dies. People often tell the person who lost a loved one to call them if they need anything. But the person usually doesn’t call because they don’t want to be a burden.
In Hope Valley, Elizabeth doesn’t have to call on anyone for help. They are there with her every step of the way, offering a lesson to viewers on how to respond to grief. And this is in spite of many of them dealing with their own pain at Jack’s loss. Bill Avery (Jack Wagner), the town’s sheriff and former Mountie, in particular, feels broken. He cries, telling Abigail that “young men aren’t supposed to die” and that he can’t make sense of Jack’s death. Again, Bill is reflecting something we all feel when someone dies young: it just doesn’t make any sense.
As the episode progresses, Elizabeth starts to journey toward healing. Perhaps her biggest step comes when she tries to help Opal (Ava Grace Cooper), one of her youngest school children, who is struggling with Jack’s death as well because he once saved her life, but she never thanked him. Elizabeth tells Opal that Jack knew she was grateful, and that he once saved her life, too. They agree to thank him always in their prayers. And once again, a sense of community moves things forward.
In light of how devoted the Hearties were to Jack and Elizabeth, this is likely an episode that nobody on the “When Calls the Heart” staff looked forward to working on because it would end that love affair. However, writer Derek Thompson, director Neill Fearnley, and everyone behind and in front of the scenes achieved a level of excellence in their storytelling that can’t be denied. And with Elizabeth’s journey through the stages of grief, Erin Krakow may have delivered her best acting of the entire series.
“When Calls the Heart” has already been renewed for season six, so it remains to be seen if fans who are upset about Jack’s death will return as viewers. Some say they won’t and that’s understandable, to a degree. Many of these viewers tune in to Hallmark because they need a break from tragedies and heartache in their own lives. Their yearning for happy endings serves as a spiritual balm for them.
Yet I hope these viewers give the show a chance when it returns in 2019 because Hope Valley’s virtues are a rare commodity in today’s television landscape. As Abigail says during the episode, “Even though there will always be sadness in life, there will always be hope, too.”