Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Twenty-three years after it originally premiered, the WB series Charmed is (sadly) most frequently remembered for its worst aspects: The skimpy costumes its leading actresses were sometimes forced to wear, the generally terrible overall quality of its last two seasons, the backstage drama that still fuels news stories to this day. But the series, which told the story of three powerful sisters who were also legendary witches, was something special in its time. That legacy remains one worth celebrating—even though it made a fatal error early in its run by killing off the wrong character.
Charmed first aired in 1998 at the peak of the WB network’s power, a time which also included such female-focused supernatural series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while the story of the Halliwell clan was never quite as good as Buffy in its prime, the shows were kindred spirits in that they both were both unabashedly for and about women. Charmed was a story of sisterhood, feminism, and family; a tale of witches that wasn’t so much about the magic as it was about the bonds between the women born to wield it.
The show initially followed the story of Prue (Shannen Doherty), Piper (Holly Marie Combs), and Phoebe Halliwell (Alyssa Milano), a trio of sisters in San Francisco who discovered they were the legendary Charmed Ones, the most powerful witches in the world. While much of the series focused on each witch learning to handle her specific abilities, the show also explored the complex bond between the siblings, and the tensions and triumphs each faced trying to live life as a contemporary woman. Though they frequently battled demons, the Halliwells also had to worry about paying bills, navigating the ‘90s dating scene, and figuring out their careers.
And though Charmed was not exactly what you might call critically acclaimed, it was very popular by WB standards. Which is why the decision to kill Prue Halliwell, one of the titular Charmed Ones and the character played by arguably the series’ best-known actress, was such a shocking choice, and a shift that ultimately changed the central dynamic of the show in a way it never truly recovered from. Sure, Charmed continued for five more seasons after Prue passed on, but it was a very different show after her death.
Reportedly, backstage feuding between co-stars Doherty and Milano played a major role in the decision to kill Doherty’s character off and ultimately replace her with Rose McGowan as long-lost half-sister Paige Halliwell. And don’t get me wrong, Paige is a charming addition to the family, and her half-whitelighter heritage did make for some interesting stories, particularly during her first few seasons on the show.
And maybe it’s weird to still be this annoyed about a narrative decision that was made over two decades ago on a show that wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking or prestige drama to begin with. But it’s time to say it: Prue shouldn’t have been the Halliwell that died, and Charmed was never the same once her character was gone.
With Prue’s death, the show said farewell to its most interesting character, and the Halliwell clan lost its most powerful member. The oldest and bravest of her siblings, Prue’s arcs were often the most emotionally complex, grounded in the trauma of her mother’s death, her complicated relationship with her father, and her overwhelming desire (as the eldest daughter) to protect her sisters at all costs. Her telekinetic powers represented the Charmed Ones’ most active magic—at least until Piper gained the ability to blow stuff up—and though all three of the sisters had problems holding down jobs, Prue was the character most often used to explore the tensions between a modern-day woman’s desire for a career and her at-home (read: magical) obligations.
The Season 3 finale in which Prue is killed (“All Hell Breaks Loose”) is probably the best episode of the entire series, a story that features multiple time resets that prevent a variety of alternate realities, including one where Piper dies instead and another where the sisters are exposed as witches. That the show never quite reaches the heights of this episode again is a shame, because it’s a solid example of how Charmed was at its best when it was willing to explore the more uncomfortable aspects of what being a witch could mean, both from a personal and professional perspective. And it was always Prue whose character fit most naturally into those darker sorts of stories, and who was willing to make the difficult choices her sisters weren’t.
By the time the series ended five years later, it was in an obvious decline of the sort that not even Prue’s presence would have fixed. From the birth of Piper and Leo’s magical, almost Christ-like son to the introduction of multiple new (terrible) characters who clearly only existed in hopes of launching a spin-off, there’s a whole lot wrong with the last few seasons of the show. But it’s possible to draw a straight line from the decision to kill off Prue to the smoking ruin of Charmed that eventually remained, and even now, it’s easy to wonder what might have been had executive producer Brad Kern and friends made a different choice in 2001.
Look don’t get me wrong: Milano’s Phoebe was fine as the younger, less responsible third of the original trio, and her forbidden romance with the half-demon Cole (Julian McMahon) was essentially the best love story Charmed ever told. But with Doherty’s departure, Milano’s Phoebe essentially became the show’s central character, and it was never a position that fit her naturally. The show frequently didn’t know what to do with her or her powers, which were, admittedly, much lamer and less interesting than her sisters’ abilities. And once they killed off Cole for good, the bulk of Phoebe’s stories seemed to revolve around increasingly forgettable love interests and cringe-worthy dating disasters.
Things eventually got so bad that it often seemed as though Phoebe existed solely to give the show an opportunity to dress Milano in skimpy outfits. (Beyond the infamous Season 5 premiere that saw Phoebe become a mermaid sporting sparkly pasties, other problematic outfits included her turn as a mostly naked Lady Godiva, a pleather-clad superhero, a Valkyrie, and more. Yikes!) This is the character we lost Prue for? Seriously?
True, it’s hard to know how Charmed might have changed—for good or ill—had Doherty been the actress who stuck around instead. But it’s hard to imagine that show could have been worse than the version we ultimately ended up with simply because Prue was gone.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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