Shannen Doherty was famously written out of Charmed at the end of season three, paving the way for new sister Paige (Rose Matthews) to be introduced. Season 4 is commonly regarded as one of Charmed’s better seasons but how might it have been different if Shannen had stayed on?
While not exactly taking the ratings or awards season by storm, Charmed has a strong cult following owing to its incredible imagination and the strong female relationships that form its core. Under Constance M. Burge, Charmed was an Aaron Spelling project that ran from 1998 until 2006 for eight seasons. Initially the tagline for the show was “sisters who happened to be witches”, and much of the drama of the early seasons revolved around the interactions between highly strung, neurotic Prue (Shannen Doherty), perpetual peacemaker Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and flighty, hedonistic Phoebe (Alyssa Milano). Upon their discovery of the Book of Shadows in the attic, each of the sisters’ magical powers are awakened and they must fight evil and protect innocent lives, all while trying to juggle their own personal lives and careers at the same time.
Alas, the fight against evil proved to be fatal for the eldest sister, Prue. Fortunately, however, it turns out that there was another sister witch: Paige Matthews, a younger half-sister on their mother’s side, who joined with Piper and Phoebe to create a new Power of Three and allow their destiny to live on. With Paige came a shifting in the sisterly dynamic. No longer was Piper the warm, gentle middle sister, but now forced to be the leader of the trio, becoming increasingly neurotic and sarcastic. Phoebe, too, experienced a change, becoming wiser and more settled as she tried to settle in Paige at the same time as appeasing Piper’s grief. Paige, in her turn, fulfilled the role of the irresponsible younger sister, especially at first. What’s more, with the behind-the-scenes departure of Constance M. Burge, the later seasons took more of a step back from the sisterly dynamic and started to lean more heavily into mythological concepts, seeing the inclusion of creatures such as nymphs, leprechauns and vengeful gods.
Out of the later seasons, Season 4 definitely demonstrated the most promise. Like Season 3, it was dark and compelling, featuring the Charmed Ones finally taking on the Source, as well as Cole’s descent into leading the Underworld with Phoebe as his Queen. The strength of this arc, as well as Paige’s intense distrust of Cole later in the season, has persuaded many fans that Season 4 was initially written and conceived of before Doherty’s departure was decided, and some scripts merely shifted the sisters around to accommodate these changes. While there is very little substantive proof that supports this idea, it does beg the question as to what Season 4 might have looked like with Prue still within it.
The “Charmed and Dangerous” as a season finale theory
An idea that is often banded about as fact on the internet (as so many things are), yet with actually no proof, is the idea that Episode 13 of Season 4, “Charmed and Dangerous”, where the Charmed Ones finally defeat the Source was originally intended to be the season finale. It’s understandable to see why people think this: the episode definitely has a season finale feel. From the get-go it is epic and fraught with high stakes and tension. The Source’s unleashing of the Hollow to allow him to absorb each of the Charmed One’s powers in turn is brilliantly dramatic, and the episode is probably one of the best that Charmed ever produced.
Furthermore, you can really see how the episode could have worked with Prue being involved. Not very much would have to change at all, in fact, just merely substitute Paige’s actions with Prue’s. And perhaps throw in a little astral projection instead of orbing – though having said that, Prue’s powers easily could have developed into teleportation had she stuck around into the fourth season.
Other than the fact that it “seems like a season finale”, however, it’s almost impossible to work out what the rest of the season would have looked at from there. The fourth season up until that point had primarily been occupied with introducing and expanding upon Paige’s role within the team. It’s after “Charmed and Dangerous” that the real story arcs begin, as Cole becomes possessed by the Source and Phoebe becomes evil.
Much as this theory seems credible, therefore, it honestly doesn’t seem to be realistic, and there’s no remaining hint within the season as to what it would have looked like – even if it makes the most sense to defeat the Big Bad at the end of a season.
The “Queen of the Underworld” as first part of Season 4 theory
Another popular theory is that Cole and Phoebe’s “Queen of the Underworld” storyline would have kicked off the fourth season. Some claim that this might have worked better due to Phoebe being trapped in the Underworld at the end of the third season as part of the deal to have Tempus rewind time and restore Piper to life.
I can see this working: the Queen of the Underworld storyline, with Paige’s growing distrust of Cole could easily have been played with Prue, considering her frame of mind at the close of Season 3. I suppose my main confusion with this proposal is the fact that Cole and Phoebe don’t actually start that storyline being in the Underworld, but rather finish it there. The only way that I can see it happening is having a season premiere geared towards freeing Phoebe, thus reigniting the Source’s fight against the Sisters, and perhaps intentionally setting up Cole as his unwitting successor. Then, we could neatly go into “Charmed and Dangerous” fairly early in the season (other theories have proposed that “Charmed and Dangerous” could focus as a season opener) and immediately go into the Source Cole and Phoebe storyline.
Once Cole has eventually been vanquished in Love Live the Queen, more time could have been dedicated to the Seer as the main enemy trying to get her hands on Phoebe’s baby, and the season could still end with “Witch Way Now?” and deciding to give up their powers having fulfilled their destiny. “Witch Way Now?” would certainly be a more compelling episode if it concerned Prue, Piper and Phoebe instead of Piper, Phoebe and Paige – you always get the sense that Paige is very new to magic and won’t be particularly inclined to give it up.
The “Charmed and Dangerous” as season opener theory
As I previously mentioned (literally like one paragraph ago) another proposal is that “Charmed and Dangerous” could have functioned as a season premiere. I think it would have been an incredibly strong opener, and starting in the middle of the action always makes for a fantastic episode. It would need quite a lot of reworking for it to sit just right, personally.
I think that it would have been interesting to dive into the aftermath of Shax’s attack, and I can’t see the Charmed Ones fighting the Source in the same episode as getting rid of Shax, but I suppose there could have been a time jump after the initial flashback. The Charmed Ones would also have to free Phoebe from the Underworld before they would be able to defeat the Source. It definitely could have worked, but there’s not much evidence to support this idea. Then again, there isn’t terribly much evidence to support any of this. It might have been nice, but getting rid of the Source in just the episode after his introduction seems a missed opportunity.
“The season was written for Prue” theory
Technically this isn’t a theory, it’s just something that I think could work quite well. From “Charmed and Dangerous” onwards is an incredibly strong arc and pretty much contains nothing that would have been altered by Prue being there. Essentially in these scripts, it seems as if Prue’s name had just been replaced by Paige’s. Even the episodes that are ostensibly used to introduce and expand upon Paige’s character, like “A Knight to Remember” or “A Paige from the Past” could easily have been retooled scripts from the original plans. I’m not sure what purpose they would have served within an original Season 4 plan, as past lives had already been explored in Season 2 quite successfully, though exploring somebody else’s backstory (probably Cole’s) in the space of “A Paige from the Past” might have been quite successful.
Here’s how Season 4 could have worked had Prue still been alive:
Episode 1: Charmed Again
Instead of focussing upon Prue’s death and Paige’s introduction, the season opener would have had Leo and Phoebe rushing to Piper and Prue to revive them from death. Prue would be especially traumatised by the experience. They could go to Doctor Griffith’s episode and see Prue becoming increasingly emotional and unstable in the wake of her brush with death. Their fight against Shax would be waylaid by Prue’s anxieties, much like Piper’s in “A Witch’s Tale” that opened Season 5, but ultimately the sisters would band together to defeat Shax here.
Episode 2: Brain Drain
With Shax now defeated and without Phoebe under his control, the Source would kidnap one of the sisters (it could be Piper, but in the interest of shaking things up the most, I’d rather it be Phoebe or Prue) and try to brainwash them into relinquishing their powers.
Episode 3: Black as Cole
This would remain largely as is, with Cole confronting and ultimately stripping his demonic powers, while Leo and Piper face expanding their family.
Episode 4: Muse to My Ears
The only significant change here would be to have it revolve around Prue’s photography instead of Paige’s artwork (like that ever mattered anyway), as well as being here just to explore Cole’s feelings of anxiety over not being able to protect Phoebe.
Episode 5: Trial by Magic
Episode 6: Lost and Bound
Episode 7: Charmed and Dangerous
A pretty much flawless episode, very little would need to be changed here.
Episode 8: The Three Faces of Phoebe
This is the episode where, originally, Cole discovers that he has taken in the Source.
Episode 9: New Episode
Here could be a new episode, which would make sense as an instalment which explores Cole’s inner conflict at being possessed by the Source. In the original, Cole’s possession happens quite quickly, so it might be nicer for him to slow down and explore his previous brushes with his demonic side and how he enjoyed being human. Ultimately, it might be a nice story beat to then show, in his mental state, the Source killing Cole’s essence/soul, just to demonstrate that the “Cole” we know is now gone, replaced by the essence of the Source within his body. That never really came across well in the original, because of the tricky conflict that Cole had through still loving Phoebe throughout. I never really got it so it would nice for it to have more a focus as Cole battles with having the pull of the Source within him, as well as his love for Phoebe and not wanting to hurt her.
Episode 10: Marry-Go-Round
As originally happened, but with Phoebe suspecting that Prue is trying to wreck her wedding, just like she wrecked Piper’s, causing a huge buttload of other issues to fly around too. Cole wants a dark ceremony so that Phoebe can be his Queen and so he can destroy the Power of Three.
Episode 11: The Fifth Halliwheel
To discredit Prue, who has realised there is something amiss with him, Cole infects her to try and kill her while scheming with the Seer to impregnate Phoebe in order to assure a massively powerful hybrid baby (like the evil version of Wyatt).
Episode 12: Saving Private Leo
Cole continues to try and create a wedge between Phoebe and her sisters by encouraging her to move out.
Episode 13: Bite Me
I love this episode, and it could easily work with Prue being the one taken over by the vampires instead.
Episode 14: We’re Off to See the Wizard
As happened before, but with a more compelling reason for Phoebe to turn evil here. It’s quite sudden originally, so perhaps she is more tricked into the ceremony that makes her the Queen of the Underworld.
Episode 15: New Episode
I only have vague ideas, but some sort of narrative where Prue feels like she has failed as a result of Phoebe turning evil, considering her distrust for Cole and that she should have done more to protect her. I feel like this is the sort of episode that Grams and Patty would be involved in, and ultimately Prue would restore her faith in herself by saving an innocent. Meanwhile, Piper tries – and fails – to connect with Phoebe.
Episode 16: Enter the Demon
This episode would be changed somewhat by Phoebe now being the Queen of the Underworld, but Prue would do a body swap on purpose, which would force the two to meet up and talk, with Prue threatening to split up with Cole and end the agreement there. Phoebe says that she’ll refuse to vanquish Cole if that’s the case and, eventually, the pair reach an understanding. Phoebe knows that what she’s doing is wrong, but she loves Cole, and she thinks that she can change him.
Episode 17: Hell Hath No Fury
With Prue now understanding Phoebe more, Piper goes off the rails and rages against Phoebe, resulting in a massive showdown that has Phoebe questioning whether she can really free Cole from the influence of the Source.
Episode 18: New Episode
Phoebe wonders whether there is a solution to her conflict between Cole and her sisters. Since she’s tried to make Cole come around, she casts a spell that allows her to see what would happen if her sisters did. When she sees the three of them as the Evil Charmed ones, Phoebe realises how wrong it is, and announces to Cole that she’s going to leave him unless he stops being the Source.
Episode 19: Centennial Charmed type episode
Cole realises that Phoebe’s love for her sisters is what is keeping them apart, so he alters time so that they died at Shax’s hand. Prue skips over the timelines because she’s practising her new teleportation power, and she reunites with Phoebe, who kills Cole when he’s about to kill Prue. Ultimately, this reverses things to how they were before, and Cole vows to destroy Piper and Prue so that he and Phoebe can be happy.
Episode 20: Long Live the Queen
I love this episode, so I don’t think I’d change very much about it at all. Phoebe’s vanquish of Cole continues to be one of the best scenes in the show.
Episode 21: Womb Raider
As it happened the first time, but Cole is actually dead this time so he doesn’t appear. Instead of getting rid of the baby, it might also work to cast some sort of protective spell over it. I never really liked the show’s assertion of nature over nurture. I think that Phoebe’s half-witch, half-demon baby could be good. Just because he can throw fire doesn’t mean he’s all bad, and the show struggled with those aspects of grey.
Episode 22: Witch Way Now?
The Charmed Ones ultimately elect to give up their powers and live normal lives once again, their destiny in defeating the Source fulfilled.
Ultimately, the strong sororal relationship at the centre of Charmed is a massive part of its enduring appeal. While Paige developed a great relationship with her sisters, the awkward change in all of their personalities was somewhat jarring. The way that Paige’s role is written in the latter half of the season would have been so much more satisfying coming from Prue and this would have served as a perfect culmination to their Charmed journey had Doherty been allowed to stay on for a fourth outing.