Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead Season 9 midseason finale.
The Walking Dead continues to be a conundrum for readers of the franchise’s comic book source material as one game-changing divergence after another occurs. Pertinently, the show’s Season 9 midseason finale, “Evolution,” proved to be aptly named in more ways than one, since yet another colossal comic-diverging death occurred as Tom Payne’s Jesus was abruptly killed during the show’s epic introductory skirmish with the new antagonistic group known as the Whisperers. However, according to Payne, the demise of his character was a welcome one.
Payne, while enthusiastic for his work on the series, has apparently been an unhappy camper behind the scenes regarding the way the show has been using Jesus (a.k.a. Paul Rovia), a character who, in the comics, is still quite alive and remains a formidable force for good. While Payne described the moment he received the dreaded call from the showrunner on after-show Talking Dead, he elaborates, in a postmortem interview with THR, that news of his exit from the series wasn’t exactly shocking. As he explains:
“I know people will be disappointed and shocked,” he said with smile in his voice, “but I’m happy.” Adding, “It was mutual, and they knew I would be OK with it. It’s an amazing show and I was so honored to be a part of it, but at the same time, being the same character without anything fun to do is a bit frustrating.”
One might wonder why Payne would be “OK” with being handed a pink slip from a regular role on The Walking Dead; a series that, despite its ratings woes, remains one of the most popular (and imminently expanding,) television franchises in the world. Well, it has to do with years of frustration about the way that Jesus has been used on the series, which – many viewers would agree – is lackluster and watered-down compared to the comic book series, which portrays the character as a high-flying, sword-swinging badass who has fought some unforgettable battles and even (forgoing specific spoilers,) makes the key kill in the comic’s climactic battle with the Whisperers. Yet, on the series, he’s more of a mellow post-apocalyptic hippie who occasionally breaks out a bit of kung fu and serves as an LGBTQ check-off by virtue of a few instances of offhand dialogue.
Indeed, Payne revealed that much of the physical preparation for the 2016 Season 6 start of his Jesus role proved to be pointless. As he further explains:
“I loved the character. It’s sad to say goodbye to the character. But there was just so much potential in the character that wasn’t realized. I was frustrated by that and wished we had explored it further. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to that frustration. It was constant. I had been training for two years. I was so prepared for this character and what he was capable of. There was just lots of unrealized potential. That was very frustrating for me. When we finally showed off this year what he was able to do, that was great. I have no wish to go back to being frustrated by a character.”
Fortunately for Payne (and fans of the comic version of Jesus), the character’s final scene saw him finally manifest in true comic book form, even if briefly. The scene, the culmination of one of the most exciting and terrifying battle sequences in the show’s history, saw Jesus and Aaron (Ross Marquand), part of a search party for the missing Eugene (Josh McDermitt), find their injured friend, only to experience firsthand what’s been slowly hinted over the past few episodes: they are being hunted by a seemingly intelligent herd of the dead that can even be heard whispering plans to one another.
Cornered, the group make their stand in a spooky fog-strewn cemetery, leading to an encounter with the hungry herd. While Jesus dispatched the dead in a legendary fashion that would give the cast of Into the Badlands a run for their money, one last straggler would shock him – and the audience – by ducking the perfunctory blow and countering Jesus with a stab in the back, killing him, to utter shock of everyone, especially his hinted love interest, Aaron. After backup forces in Daryl and Michonne, joined by the show’s newcomers, arrive and dispatch the Jesus-killing walker and his cohorts, the embattled group finally see the face of their enemy after ripping off the killer’s stitched walker skin mask.
As Payne lauds of Jesus’s exit:
“I was happy to tell that story. This is what the show’s about, and I just wanted to be a part of that. You want to be part of the shocking sequences. I ended up being very lucky in the end. I got to introduce you to the Saviors, and now I’m introducing you to the Whisperers. It’s a pivotal moment for the show.”
Interestingly, while Jesus met his end in the six-year-advanced Season 9 timeline of The Walking Dead, the possibility exists for him to reprise the role, prospectively in the upcoming spinoff TV movies, in which the post-helicopter rescue exploits of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes will be depicted – presumably at a point shortly after his fateful flight. When asked about a possible role reprisal, Payne answers:
“I would never say never, but I would only want to do it if it was good material. I don’t have any interest in being there in the background or showing up just for the sake of doing it. I would love to tell a story about Jesus’ beginnings or whatever happened in those six years, and there’s a lot of scope for that. If the material is strong, I would be interested.”
Regardless, The Walking Dead – and the now-leaderless Hilltop colony – will have to move on from the loss of Jesus as the series enters a frightening fight against the Whisperers when it returns from its midseason hiatus on February 10, 2019 on AMC.