AMC’s The Walking Dead seldom pulls its punches when it comes to killing off characters in its core cast. Case in point: the not-unexpected, but still shocking, death of Beth (Emily Kinney) in the mid-season five finale.
Of the original main cast of characters: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), T-Dog (Irone Singleton), Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), her husband Ed and daughter Sophia, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Dale (Jeff DeMunn), Andrea (Laurie Holden), and Glenn, only Rick, Carl, Glenn, Carol, and Daryl remain alive as survivors by the winter finale of season five. Of the additional season two characters Hershel (Scott Wilson), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily McKinney), only Maggie remains among the survivors as we head into the back half of season five.
The character deaths have shocked and saddened a lot of viewers, of course (the entertainment blogs have been reporting that more than 23,000 have signed a “bring back Beth” petition!). But main and supporting character deaths are necessary, both to keep the narrative realistic (they are, after all, surviving beyond the odds as it is in the zombie apocalypse), and to propel the survivors’ story arcs into new directions as they react to the deaths of loved ones and friends.
Surrounded by death, constantly “killing” zombies and, often, humans can suck the soul from a person until there’s nothing left but a shell, devoid of humanity, devoid of anything but basic survival. Especially as hope dwindles in a near-constant trickle (if not a torrential flood). But the loss of someone close: a friend, a wife, a lover in a fictional setting is a damn good way to let us into the hearts, minds, and souls of our favorite characters. It can bring out the best or worst in the survivor, or send their narrative careening in new directions. I know, it can be hard to bear–to see Rick, Daryl, Carol, and others in such despair and pain…but, oh, the angst!
In the harsh environment at the end of the world, sometimes it has meant inflicting that final, fatal blow–sometimes an act of mercy; sometimes an act of survival. And those moment, have had an even more profound effect than simple loss and grief.
So, let’s take a closer look, season by season. (And please be sure to add your own take in the comments section below). Tuesday night on Let’s Talk TV Live, we’ll discuss this topic (and unpack the season finale a bit more).
Of the 28 victims of season one, there are two that stand out to me in terms of how they’ve affected other characters going forward:
Ed Peletier: I can’t imagine there had been many tears for this death. Attacked by walkers, he is bitten. Although Daryl is prepared to drive a stake through his head, Carol takes responsibility for stopping his reanimation, taking out years of repressed rage as she drives blow after blow into his head. Years of silent acceptance (or as Carol says in the season five episode “Consumed,” waiting for something to happen) comes out in a cathartic moment.
This is the beginning of the Carol Peletier we’ve come to know and love. Through Ed’s death, she is freed, and already far from the sobbing woman trying to comfort her husband after suffering a beating at Shane’s hands (which he’d doled out because he’d struck the defenseless Carol). Although she is far from the resilient, tough Carol of later seasons, this first act of defiance begins to show Carol (and perhaps everyone else) that she is stronger than she appears.
Jim: Jim’s death is most interesting when explored in the context of season one, and where the survivors are at this point in the series. He is bitten, and the question becomes: what to do with him? He isn’t dead, and actually dies quite slowly, running a fever and being quite ill before he finally (we assume) succumbs to his bite wounds and the infection. In the first season, the group still isn’t completely certain of what lies outside Atlanta. Although Daryl, in his season one frame of mind, wants to kill Jim immediately, knowing what he’ll become, Rick vetoes him. I have to wonder if the opposite would be true in the same situation come season five.
At this point, however, they only know what they see and experience. They’ve heard of a possible cure in Atlanta, and Rick wants to take the chance of bringing Jim to the CDC in hopes of saving his life; something they might not have done in later seasons (except for a small window of hope in season five). The group is still pretty innocent at this point, and they’ve spilled little human blood. In the end, Jim is allowed the choice, and he chooses to be left behind, propped against a tree. Rick even offers him a weapon.
Jim’s treatment sets the standard for the dignity with which the group will treat all the future afflicted within their small community.
Otis: Although Otis was never a main player in the series, his death is a pivotal moment for Shane, although his death also sends a strong message to Daryl and others who believe Shane had left all sense of morality behind when the zombies came. We know Shane intentionally leaves Hershel’s right hand man Otis in the hands of the zombies in order to save himself (or more charitably, Carl). And in the aftermath, something just snaps. He can tell himself all he wants that he’s done it for Lori and Carl, but he’d done it so easily, and with so little thought, that whatever sense of humanity and obligation to the social contract he may have had as a sheriff’s deputy back in the day is just disappears. Another character might do repugnant things (and they all have by now in season five), but for Shane, that mean streak, so antithetical to Rick’s humanity comes out in high relief to the point that he’s just a danger to everyone.
Rick cannot even fathom the notion that Shane could have murdered (albeit indirectly) Otis in cold blood, but Daryl sees it, with his keen observational skills. “Rick doesn’t see it because he doesn’t want to see it,” a disgusted Daryl points out to Dale in “Judge, Jury, and Executioner.” Although Daryl has separated himself from the group mainly because of Sophia’s death by that episode, part of him also understands the cancer spreading through the group, calling it “broken.”
The Greene Family Zombies: Ah, Hershel’s family in the barn. We never really knew them, but their reveal to the survivors–and their brutal massacre stuns Hershel. I never thought I could feel sympathy for those darn walkers, but as Rick’s group guns them down in (very) cold blood, I felt Hershel’s grief. Why is their “death” noteworthy? As Hershel becomes the group’s wise old man (and conscience) in the seasons to follow, this marks a turning point for him. We’ve seen it before during the series: the desire to hold on to zombified family and friends in the dim hope that someday there might be a cure to it. They might be saved–somehow. So Hershel had kept his “family” alive by feeding them, housing them locked away in the barn.
It is Shane in his post-Otis psychotic frame of mind that doesn’t think for a second about Hershel (his host), Maggie, or Beth and their feelings. Rage is his only emotion, and although he’s not the only one shooting, it is his adrenaline that has fueled the barn massacre.
Shane is right to kill them; our survivor group has not lived in the remote, safe homestead of Hershel’s farm. They understand that zombies cannot be allowed to remain standing–they are always a danger. However, it is the manner of their execution that is horrifying. Hershel comes out of this experience wiser, eventually understanding that barn zombies are beyond help. He doesn’t allow the experience to make him cold, however (well, maybe except–justifiably–towards Shane), and he absorbs the blow, making him stronger.
Sophia Peletier: The reveal of Sophia’s zombified corpse and the reaction to it will go down in my mind as one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series. I believe that her death is no real surprise to Carol (despite the fact that Daryl keeps trying to give her hope–and trying to find Sophia), but that moment just stuns everyone–the entire survivor group simply stops–time freezes. For Carol it gives her closure; Sophia is dead, and that corpse is no more her daughter than any other zombie (or so she says). But more importantly for her character, Carol uses her daughter’s death as a warning to stay wary, prepared and never, ever to let anything like that happen again. She grows tougher and tougher, and it’s why, in season four, she teaches the children how to protect themselves by using knives and anything else at their disposal.
In the wake of Sophia’s death, Daryl separates himself from everyone. For him, it is another blow in a lifetime of tragedy. He’d put everything into finding her, risking his life, and even going out injured to bring her back. Had he saved Sophia, it might have been for him a small bit of solace that he’d been able to save someone. A lot of Daryl’s psyche is wrapped up in that search: his kinship with Carol as an abuse victim, his similar kinship with Sophia. All three have suffered at the hands of brutal drunks. But after Merle’s death, Daryl begins an incredible transformation, no less striking than Carol’s after Ed’s death.
For Daryl, the search gives him purpose and a way to prove himself; he’d not been able to save his brother, maybe he can save this little girl. But with confirmation of Sophia’s death, every last bit of hope deflates from Daryl’s fragile grasp on it. There is nothing left in this world worth saving; hope is a dream–and a dream that can get you killed. In despair, pretending that nothing matters but survival, and that he’s better off alone, he makes camp far away from the rest of the group, isolating himself once again. But he realizes eventually he’s changed. He’s no longer the hotheaded redneck of the early days, and he’s begun to care about the people around him more than he wants to admit.
Daryl’s transformation continues (and still does). It’s interesting to see that when he reconnects with Merle, and then in season four when he hooks up with Joe and his Claimers, Daryl no longer really fits the lifestyle to which he’d been accustomed back in the day.
Dale Horvath: As annoying as sometimes he had been (especially to Andrea), Dale had provided an important voice until his demise. His concern had always been about maintaining an important streak of humanity, no matter how bad things might get. Of course, this puts him immediately at odds with Shane, who wants no reminders about his humanity. And when he dies, it is on the heels of the incident with Randall when he’d tried to be the voice of peace. His death at the hands of walkers (and euthanized by Daryl) becomes Rick’s touchstone, wanting to honor Dale’s memory by proving that the group is not “broken,” as Dale had earlier proclaimed (although it had really been Daryl’s observation).
Shane Walsh: Shane’s death was a shocker, but inevitable, and it colors everything in Rick’s life from that point on. His relationship with Lori is shattered, and Carl, who’d killed zombie-Shane has become cold as ice. In the old days, Shane and Rick could be friends–colleagues, partners. But the zombie apocalypse brings out the very worst in Shane, revealing him as a sociopath, which, with no rules–no real social contract to govern his behavior just does whatever the hell he wants to do. He’s dangerous, and in the end, Rick has no choice. But what Shane’s death does, for Rick, certainly, but for the entire group is to move that center of moral relativity many yards down the line. In the time before the apocalypse, Rick would never have preemptively murdered anyone, let alone his best friend, but the rules have changed. The moral code has eroded a bit more, and now a threat can be addressed by murder. Ironically, those had been Shane’s rules with regard to Randall in “Judge, Jury, and Executioner.” Kill or be killed.
This series continues here with a look at the deaths in seasons three, four and five.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC Sunday nights in February.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00FN5Z8UY,B005LAJ22Q,B0049P1VHS,B009NH6AOQ,1607060760,B008TZWRJ0]