This Walking Dead article contains spoilers.
There’s an old adage often credited to Abraham Maslow:“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
The Walking Dead has always wielded a hammer. That hammer crashes into the rotten brains of the undead, the fresh brains of the living, and occasionally even a nail or two. There was even a character who used a hammer as his primary weapon to defeat the dead. He’s dead now obviously. Because pretty much everyone is. Worst of all, the show’s taken that metaphorical hammer and used it to crush every storytelling nail it encounters.
To a certain extent it’s understandable why The Walking Dead has used death as a crutch because for a while there it worked beautifully. After a superb, atmospheric pilot, The Walking Dead hit a lull for the back half of its first season. It fixed itself by blowing up the Center for Disease Control, along with a handful of its main characters.
Then when season two dragged, The Walking Dead fixed itself again by killing a preteen girl, the show’s moral center, and the de facto second lead. The deaths of Sophia and Dale are still often seen today as two of the “most shocking” twists on the show.
The Walking Dead returned to the hammer early on in season three when Lori – the wife of Rick Grimes and mother of Carl Grimes – was forced to sacrifice herself so newborn baby Judith could live. This was an era of the show where such a prominent death still had the capacity to surprise (to those who hadn’t read the comic at least). It also carried with it a strong, thematic moment.
Lori’s death didn’t just produce the show’s strongest meme yet – it provided the show with its only glimmer of hope.
“You are going to beat this world, I know you will,” Lori Grimes tells her son Carl as she dies. “You are smart, and you are strong, and you are so brave, and I love you. You gotta do what’s right. It’s so easy to do the wrong thing in this world. So, so, if it feels wrong don’t do it, alright? If it feels easy don’t do it, don’t let this world spoil you. You’re so good, my sweet boy. Best thing I ever did and I love you, I love you. My sweet, sweet boy. I love you.”
That’s as powerful a monologue as has ever been uttered on this show. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s emotional, and it completely justified the cliche of dying people living just long enough to deliver an impassioned message to their loved ones. In this particular instance, the cliche was worth it. It provided a moment where a mother could impart her son with real, true love and a clear, hopeful vision for the future.
That son’s dead now.
The Walking Dead’s use of the hammer of death to pound away at problematic story nails grew stale long ago. Hell, Lori’s death may have been the last time a character death had any real impact or served a real purpose. Every death since has been ineffective, pointless, and worst of all: boring. Carl’s death is all of those things. But more than that, it’s a surrender. It’s a final admission from this show, eight seasons in, that it can no longer fix itself.
The show has abandoned all hope. As Carl lays dying (and holy shit, it takes him FOREVER to die) in the season eight midseason premiere, he tries to mitigate the dramatic damage that the show has done. He calls over his little sister, Judith (who has aged like seven years in a week, but whatever), and attempts to impart the same message his mother gave to him.
Carl tells her that their mom once told him that he would beat this world. Well, he didn’t. And now it’s her turn – this child who hasn’t had a discernible line in the entire series. It’s the show’s hasty, half-assed effort to keep some semblance of hope alive. But hope is not something you can write in as a stage direction in a script. There is no:
INT. Random Tunnel Under ALEXANDRIA
CARL GRIMES passes metaphorical baton of hope to JUDITH GRIMES
That’s not how this works. By killing Carl, The Walking Dead is abandoning hope as a concept altogether. Sure, Carl has a vision of peace for the future. Sure, maybe one day Alexandria will be a slightly less smelly Freetown Christiana with Gilligan’s Island’s Professor Eugene Porter making radios out of coconuts and slightly grayer Negan tilling the land. But Carl won’t be there. Because Carl’s fucking dead. That’s kind of how this whole thing works. Lori’s vision of the future was a narrative lie.
“Honor,” the episode that will forever be known as the one that killed off Carl, does its best to memorialize the kid, and in doing so, only makes more poor dramatic decisions. If Carl’s death has any potential appeal or purpose, it would be that it highlights the random brutality of this world. Carl, as a child and avatar for the future, carries a lot of symbolic importance for the show. By killing him off due to the randomness of a walker bite, the show could be making a grand statement about the narrative importance of not being afraid to kill your sacred deer.
“I just got bit,” Carl tells his father simply. In the right hands, that could be a bold dramatic statement. A statement that there is no getting comfortable in this world. Characters have become capable and hardened enough to mistakenly believe that the zombie-filled environment poses little threat to them. Hell, The Walking Dead comic books series killed off a long-running character in a similar fashion last year and it mostly successfully illustrated this theme.
The way that “Honor” handles Carl’s demise, however, doesn’t instill enough importance in that concept. Yes, Carl is simply bit but then the show proceeds to give him a 60-minute memorial service in which character after character sits down at his metaphorical deathbed. What could have been a simple reminder about the brutality of this world instead just comes across as a premeditated dramatic decision. The show is killing Carl not because it intends to make that “don’t get complacent” statement but because it thinks it’s the right dramatic decision to make.
Killing Carl will not fix what ails this show. It’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing probably can. The Walking Dead’s issues are so inherent to its structure that no amount of cosmetic changes can fix them. This is a show that AMC has made very clear will last forever if given the chance. That’s all fine and good but in its quest to create the eternal show, AMC has encouraged a system of storytelling in which the showrunner and writers dole out plot points from the comic at a snail’s pace.
The “All Out War” storyline that season eight is adapting runs for 12 issues of the comic and altogether takes about an hour or two for a reader to consume. When adapted to television, that storyline has now just reached the halfway point in about six hours of television. The issue here isn’t that not enough characters are dying. It’s that the show has too little story to tell and too much time to tell it. Killing Carl is not going to fix the fact that it feels like Negan was introduced 45 years ago, and we still have no idea what he’s really like as a character or why he’s such a legendary comic book villain.
Ironically, given the title of the season’s premiere,“Mercy,” the show may have decided to kill off Carl as a real life mercy to actor Chandler Riggs. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Scott Gimple claimed that Riggs’ desire to attend college had nothing to do with his being written out of the show.
“It has nothing to do with real life in any way. All the real-life things were of no concern. In fact, that’s the only thing that made it difficult — a real-life relationship with Chandler, how much we love to work with him and how talented he is. The story went in that direction. If people watch the whole season, they will see how incredibly critical it is to the telling of the story.”
Gimple’s assertion is hard to believe, though. Riggs was 10 years old when he first portrayed Carl in 2010. He’s grown up onscreen before our eyes with The Walking Dead. He’s 18 years old now and on a show that has openly boasted that it wants to last as long as possible. It’s not hard to imagine that the writers of the show would kill him off just to give Riggs the chance for a normal life. Riggs could very well remain an actor and continue a long and fruitful career. Or he could attend college (War Eagle!) and decide he wants to pursue something else. The path that one chooses for himself at 10 isn’t necessarily the path he wants to be on forever.
There is no evidence that Gimple killed Carl to give Riggs an opportunity to better choose the path of his life, but it does at least make some intuitive sense. And if he did, it is sincerely a great piece of mercy to a young actor.
Unfortunately, we can’t always judge television shows based on the solid human and empathetic decision-making that goes on behind the scenes. When it comes time to actually watch the show, we need what’s happening onscreen to make sense logically, creatively, and narratively. The death of Carl Grimes does not make sense in any of those capacities. As such, it may represent the final white flag for the show.
The Walking Dead, it would seem, is now transitioning into a vehicle that has the capacity to last forever rather than simply a show that tries to be good. All the show has left is the hammer and sure enough it will continue to find plenty of nails.