Reportedly, Shannen Doherty had to leave the show because of backstage tension, but what if the creatives had made a different decision?
Okay, okay, hear me out. Yes, this is my second Charmed post in a week. And yes, it’s a very similar premise. Leave me alone.
Rumour has it – and by rumour I mean, pretty much confirmed by everybody and their mother – that Shannen Doherty’s abrupt departure from Charmed, just like her unceremonious exit from Beverly Hills, 90210 was due to backstage tension with her costars. In the case of Charmed, this was apparently between Doherty and Alyssa Milano, who played Phoebe Halliwell, as well as Brad Kern, the showrunner, apparently due to Doherty’s intense views on pushing the show in a darker direction.
Got all that? Cool. Forget it.
Because, I have seen lots of posts online citing why Phoebe should have been written out of the show in favour of Prue, but I am positing another alternative history. For Phoebe is not the life that I shall trade for the eldest Halliwell. No, siree.
I’m not sure why I’m building the tension so much. There’s only one other sister left.
“What?!” I hear you shriek. “AOL TV’s third Top TV Witch in 2007 and 2008? Are you insane?”
That’s sort of why I love this idea so much. I’m more creative when I take the most ridiculous path. Sure, Piper’s the heart of the show, certainly so in the first three seasons. So, if you’re going to kill a sister, you might as well devastate the fandom when you’re at it. Anyway, this article isn’t too much about Piper’s loss, but also what Prue would have been able to do if she’d stuck around.
Prue, Piper and Phoebe’s mother died when they were all very young, which forced Prue into more of a caregiver role rather than a traditional older sister. She took that position incredibly seriously, and you can see her protective instinct for both her sisters throughout the first three seasons, as well as her forthright leadership.
Piper’s death would have had a profound and lasting impact upon Prue and indeed upon Phoebe. Phoebe fell quite easily into the role of inducting Paige into the Power of Three, while Piper mourned her big sister, but Prue would have struggled massively with her feelings of failure over not protecting her innocent, middle sister enough.
What’s more, this would have opened up more story opportunities for Leo. Prue’s death wasn’t felt by anybody other than the sisters, as she didn’t leave behind a boyfriend or a husband. Piper, on the other hand, would have left behind her undead husband, Leo, who would understandably be devastated that he had let her down by not being able to heal her in time.
This could have seen a longer-reaching storyline, with Leo continuing to try and find ways to resurrect Piper, while Prue and Phoebe focussed upon introducing Paige.
One of the massive changes that accompanied Prue’s death was the sudden shift in the sisterly dynamic from Prue, Piper and Phoebe to Piper, Phoebe and Paige. As originally written, Prue was the leader, a highly protective older sister, Phoebe was the impulsive and carefree youngest sister, while Piper was the mediator. Generally the most emotional and approachable: the one that all of the others would argue was the most innocent and nice. That’s certainly how she was painted in the earlier seasons.
One of the huge mistakes that I think the show made was trying to change the sisters’ personalities to fit their new birth order. Paige was slotted in as the impulsive, screw-up youngest sister, while Piper matured into a more neurotic, sarcastic and bitter iteration and Phoebe became the mediator between the two, settling down and maturing into an advice columnist. It was a jarring transition, to say the least, and one that would be wholly unrealistic.
With Piper out of the picture, there’d be no real reason to change Prue or Phoebe’s personalities to accommodate Paige’s presence. Paige, in turn, could have been presented as more independent and headstrong. As an only child, who lost her adoptive parents when she was in her teens, Paige had been through a lot and had to mature before her time. She should have been able to balance her career with her witchy duties, while also having an opinion over how they tackled situations, instead of just following along with the others blindly.
I can see the dynamic being hugely different between the three sisters. Prue could still be the leader of the pack, Phoebe still the younger sister who is more carefree and loose, while Paige can be more independent in the new version of history.
New storyline opportunities
Other than Leo’s character being preoccupied with bringing Piper back to life, this would also have been an opportunity to extend the grieving process. Prue’s departure was overshadowed by Paige’s introduction and the reconstitution of the Power of Three. I find it difficult to believe that this would have been the same for Piper’s death, especially with the profound impact that this would have on both Phoebe and Prue.
I can see the sisterly relationship completely falling apart and having to rebuild. Prue would likely push Phoebe away, angry at her for not being there when she and Piper needed her, leading to Piper’s death. She would reject Phoebe’s attempts at reconciliation and commit herself to defeating Shax, leading her to discover Paige. Prue would be determined to protect her as an innocent without knowing that she was their sister.
Eventually, Prue and Phoebe would reconcile and grieve together. We know from past experience that they work well as a team, and they would both be able to help train Paige in their upcoming battle against the Source, but I definitely feel there would be more of a sentiment of “we can’t replace Piper” moving forwards.
Other than this, Prue would be able to be involved Cole’s descent into becoming the Source in the role that was clearly meant for her but was then reassigned to Paige. Prue having these doubts and suspicions about Cole would make much more narrative sense, considering Prue’s history with his character and her overall paranoid nature that we saw throughout Season 3. This would further drive a wedge between her and Phoebe, and Paige would be acting as the mediator, being more at an aside in this particular situation.
Losing Piper would have longer lasting impacts upon the season as a whole and definitely produce some more meaningful character growth and development than the arbitrary and sudden change in Piper and Phoebe’s demeanours following Prue’s death.
Another reason why it makes more sense for Piper to die is that she had already died in “All Hell Breaks Loose” before they had Tempus rewind the timeline. To have her die again would have made a much larger statement about how some events are fixed, and are destined to happen. It would definitely be hard on Phoebe and Prue, but it would feel more tragic that they had gone to such lengths to protect Piper, ultimately only to lose her again.
From a real-world point of view, Shannen Doherty was a huge proponent of the darker storylines within Charmed. You can see this throughout Season 3, as it definitely took a much moodier tone. It can also be observed that, following Season 4 (which arguably could have been written with Doherty’s character in mind), the series became much more “light” and “fluffy”, introducing all manner of ridiculous magical creatures for the sisters to butt heads with.
With Doherty still involved in the show, it could have taken a much more interesting creative direction, and continued the massive success of its third and fourth seasons, which were far darker than the others, which have been less well-received by fans.
Ultimately, a show without Piper feels more real to me. The fallout would have been much less forced and allowed for a bit more realism in how the sisters moved forwards. Lots of the issues I raise aren’t even specific to which sister died, but I definitely feel like, narratively, Piper’s death has the most potential in terms of where the story goes from there.