I finally finished Death Note the other night. Overall, it’s very good, and definitely a part of the modern canon, and the protagonist is the one of the more hateful, soulless characters I’ve encountered.
However, I do think the first third-to-half of the show is by far the best part, and that it definitely falters as it goes on. In particular…well, I want to avoid spoilers, but there is a certain development that takes place about half-way through (if you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about) that kills a good deal of the interest. The development itself is fine, but I think it should have heralded the end of the series rather than the half-way point.
In some ways, it reminded me of Cowboy Bebop, another brilliant, extremely moody and atmospheric show that ended on what I thought was a disappointing note. Bebop‘s problem, for me, was the finale itself; Death Note‘s is more the whole final act, while the climactic conclusion is overall pretty satisfying when it finally comes.
The first third or so of Death Note has a very strong, simple premise: a genius young man finds a notebook that kills the person whose name is written in it. He experiments with it to learn its full capabilities and begins a campaign against criminals, quickly developing a megalomaniacal streak. Meanwhile he’s partnered with the shinigami (death god) who owns the book, becomes the object of devotion of a cute, perky, and equally evil pop star, and pursued by a quirky detective who is at least as brilliant as he is, along with a cadre of dedicated police officers led by his own father.
Great stuff there, and it’s gripping for a long time. But the problem is, all this stuff begins to get diluted or finished; character arcs finish, more complications ensue (e.g. multiple Death Notes and complex legal details of who owns which Note), new characters and factions get introduced at later stages and have to be given their own arcs, and so on. The way I would put it is that the show spends too much of its ‘dramatic capital’ too far from the ending, leaving us with a drawn out and unsatisfying third act.
(That, and I personally really don’t like time skips, where a story jumps ahead four or five years or more. It makes me feel like the characters are stuck in a rut, or like the whole thing had dragged out too long to still be of interest).
As I say, it’s overall a very good show, and the first third-to-half is fantastic. There’s a lot of great stuff to glean here, and it’s very entertaining and extremely suspenseful. And even after the disappointing third act, the climax is pretty darn satisfying. But I think it’s also a good example of what happens when a story is kept going beyond its natural lifespan.