(This post contains immediate and major spoilers for The Walking Dead.)

Carl Grimes is dead. In all the seasons of The Walking Dead so far, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that one of the zombie apocalypse’s casualties would be Carl, one of the show’s original and longest-running characters. For many fans, a show without Carl is like a show without his dad,  Rick – it just wouldn’t be The Walking Dead. It would be a completely different show that didn’t sign up for.

You would think the creative team behind The Walking Dead would respect that. But instead, they have thrown caution to the wind and committed one of the most asinine decisions in the show’s history. They killed Carl. What’s even worse, they killed him without any ascertainable reason.

Carl isn’t The Walking Dead’s first unfortunate tragedy. The show is littered with the bodies of characters who should still be alive, but somehow aren’t. These characters were cut down in their prime, full of storylines and pathos and potential to be mined. But all they were used for is to show, once again, how brutal a zombie world can be.

The Walking Dead is beginning to be a victim of its own circumstances. In order to show how hardcore living with zombies is, the show’s go-to tactic is to show a beloved character dying, either by zombie attack or by some other bloody tragedy. But just how many times can a show, one that’s designed to showcase death on a grand scale, actually draw from the death well? How many times can it show fan favorites die without it feeling like a habit or lazy writing? Thanks to The Walking Dead, we now have our answer.

Desensitized to death

“…I’m left more annoyed than sad,” said Forbes’ Erik Kain when writing about Carl’s death. “I’m thinking about just how many characters this show has killed off, and I’ve come to the conclusion that killing main characters that audiences have come to love should only be done incredibly sparingly. Killing off Carl to shock us, to bump ratings momentarily, to give us an ’emotional episode’ like last night’s – this is a mistake.”

Kain’s right in his aggravation. The Walking Dead regularly misuses the shock value of death as a shorthand for portraying a hardened, frontier-esque world. The main purpose of killing characters in a story, if you do it at all, is to make a point about the story’s theme in the most absolute terms possible. It’s an exclamation point on the message the story is presenting. One of the most famous deaths in comic books, that of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, highlights exactly what he meant when he told Peter “with great power comes great responsibility.” But a character death must be organic to the story in order for the audience to feel its weight and for it to feel justified. A character death, in other words, is a sacred thing.

Writing experts have had discussions about killing characters for years, and those conversations have never been more valuable than right now during this time of the character killing zeitgeist. Reading some of these experts’ suggestions showcase just how far off the mark The Walking Dead has been when regarding the gravity of death.

K.M. Weiland, author of books Outlining Your Novel, Structuring your Novel, and founder of the writing website Helping Writers Become Better Authors, wrote in an infographic that some good reasons to kill a character are to advance the plot in a meaningful way, to fulfill “the doomed character’s personal goal,” to motivate other characters, to act as karma for a character’s actions, to emphasize the story’s theme, to create realism within the world of the story, or to kill an extraneous character. Some of the bad reasons for killing characters includes “shocking readers just for the sake of shocking them, making readers sad just for the sake of making them sad.” The Walking Dead could have been a show that became exemplary in its doling out of death, especially since, by nature of it being a show about zombies, there’s so much death happening on a weekly basis. Instead, what we have is a show that regularly overuses death for cheap dramatic effect.

Yes, it is within the show’s scope to showcase death more than others – this is a show about a zombie outbreak, after all – but sometimes the show’s handling of death can be seen as treating characters with a lack of respect. The biggest instance before Carl’s death was Glenn. Glenn, like Carl, was a fan favorite, someone many people hoped (and expected) they’d see survive all the way to the end. But Glenn was unceremoniously and quite gruesomely killed off once Negan came into the picture. The death he received from Negan, in which his head was bashed in by a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, could be seen as pornographic in its gruesomeness. Perhaps the thinking here was that the more heartbreaking Glenn’s death looked, the more it would show how valuable he was as a character and how missed he’ll be.

But for some fans, it just seemed like more proof that the show didn’t respect the type of character they had and how he could be utilized in other storylines. Remember, Glenn’s fans had already been through the wringer when the show made it seem like Glenn was dead many episodes before. The fact that fans felt like they had already lived through one death just to see their character die a second time was like a punch to the gut and a signal to some that maybe it was time to give The Walking Dead a rest.

Glenn’s not the only one who’s been misused in service of a shocking death. It’s now cliche to discuss how many black characters have been needlessly killed off on both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, never showing their true potential as characters. And then there’s Lizzie, a young girl who was killed by Carol; while she definitely was a serious problem for the group to handle (she killed her own sister Mika and believed the zombies were harmless), showing an adult killing a child is still a TV and film taboo, a line that only a few shows and films cross.

On some level, The Walking Dead did great work in desensitizing its fanbase to the amount of death in its storytelling. Not only are the living getting killed, but those fighting to survive are killing hordes of zombies in every episode, turning death into less of a monumental life change and more of a video game body-count scenario. But the fans can only be desensitized to a point; Glenn’s death was the tipping point for many fans, and Carl’s death has taken others over the edge.

Continue Reading Why Walking Dead Deaths Are Pushing Fans Over the Edge >>

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