Last night’s episode of The Walking Dead ended with a horrible, terrifying revelation.
Alpha and the Whisperers, as payback for Daryl and Henry taking Lydia from them, and out of spite toward Lydia herself, murdered ten of the good guys, taken from among the various communities.
These victims then had their heads lopped off and set on spikes, but not so far onto the spikes that they stayed that way. Zombified heads muttered and groaned atop their skewers when Daryl and the others found them.
But many viewers struggled to recognize some of these victims, and even the big names among them felt largely like secondary characters. To recap, here were the victims of Alpha’s monstrous retribution:
- Highwayman second-in-command
- Tammy Rose
I think the most shocking of these was actually Henry, who had been built up as a major character ever since the time jump earlier this season, and in some ways as the main character of the back half of Season 9, ever since he met Lydia.
But the rest? I didn’t even remember who Frankie was. The two Highwaymen showed promise as new characters, but they’d only been around for a minute or two before they were killed off.
The two teenagers, Addy and Rodney, had only been vaguely established as members of Hilltop and “friends” of Henry. Of these side characters, only Tammy Rose had any real character development, but she was only introduced in Season 9, and up until her and her husband were given the baby, she mostly just complained about . . . everything.
So what about Enid and Tara? I guess there’s a part of me that hates to say this, but neither character really did much for the past few seasons. Enid was starting to become something more than just . . . a girl with a strange name, taking on the role of doctor and maturing as a character. So just when she was getting mildly interesting they killed her off.
The New Veterans
Tara, meanwhile, has just been a nonentity for so long now that I’ve probably said she needs to be killed off a dozen times in the past. Both characters fall into a category I’m going to call “The New Veterans.”
The Walking Dead has a “New Veterans” problem. These characters were introduced after the core cast of Rick, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Maggie, Beth, Hershel, Carl (and others) and, at the very tail end, Michonne. Most of that core cast is now gone, except for Carol, Daryl and Michonne.
The “New Veterans” began arriving in Season 4, beginning with Tara and followed shortly by Abraham (now dead), Rosita, Eugene, Gabriel and others. In between the core cast and the New Veterans we were introduced to Tyreese and Sasha, but since they’re long dead now we’ll just leave them in that murky gray area.
In any case, we’ll end the “New Veterans” distinction with the start of the Negan War. So we’ll include everyone up to Enid, Ezekiel, Jerry and so forth. Anyone introduced after that, like Siddiq or even newer characters like Yumiko, Luke, Connie, Magna and so forth will be considered just “New Characters.”
So what’s the problem with these New Veterans? Well, frankly they’re just nowhere near as interesting, relatable or likable as the original cast. In many cases, they’re less engaging characters than the new characters introduced this season. Frankly, I would have been more bummed out to see Magna or Luke die than Tara or Enid. And that’s a problem.
You know a TV show has a problem when you’ve been rooting for an entire segment of the cast to become zombie fodder for this long. I’m constantly disappointed that Eugene and Gabriel are still among us, for instance. Aside from actively making it a worse show, I think they just remind me of how much better the core cast used to be when it was Rick butting heads with Shane, or Hershel offering up his moral compass from time to time, or Glenn being just all around a great guy.
I don’t want to spend time with Eugene. I like Rosita fine, but she’s never had much of a character arc. I wouldn’t shed many tears if any of the New Veterans died, and that robs us of a lot of tension and emotional impact. Okay, of them all I think I like Jerry the best, and he’s practically a new character if only because he gets so little screen time (inexplicably, as he remains fiercely likable.) Ezekiel is also a good character, but he needs to ditch the King stuff at this point, especially after Henry’s death.
It’s A Nice Day For A Red Wedding
My colleague, Paul Tassi, compared last night’s episode to Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” episode. And while that’s an apt comparison, where it falls short is the impact these character deaths have not just on the viewers, but on the story. The Red Wedding, without spoiling too much, not only killed off some crucial main characters, it changed the course of the entire war between Starks and Lannisters. Its implications for that show (and books) were far more wide-reaching ways than what happened last night in The Walking Dead. Of course, The Walking Dead has never reached the political or emotional complexity of early Game of Thrones drama.
In any case, Angela Kang and AMC are left in a predicament. For one, they need to kill off the New Veterans, and they did that last night. It was a good move to thin the cast and make room for new characters we can actually come to care about. But on the other hand, it means we don’t really care when this big iconic heads-on-pikes scene happens, because we’re either looking at characters we barely know or characters we don’t really care about. Yes, it’s shocking and horrible, but it’s not on par with Hershel or Glenn’s deaths, or numerous others from earlier in the show’s run.
So when I ask, “Did The Walking Dead play it safe?” the real answer isn’t just the obvious “Yes” it’s actually “They had no choice.”
The Walking Dead simply can’t kill off any more of its core cast at this point, having failed to establish replacements that we care about. Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are too precious to lose, because they’re the only two remaining core cast members that are actually willing to stay on this show, with Danai Gurira (Michonne) on the way out next season thanks to her Marvel stardom and other endeavors.
I mean, just imagine this show without these three characters and you see what kind of bind Kang was in with last night’s episode. It made more sense for Alpha to kill them when she had them captured, but that would all but kill the show. What, are we going to watch this show to follow the adventures of Henry, Eugene and Gabriel? Good lord, no.
The fact is, for whatever reason many of the New Veterans never really felt like part of the group. Enid had one foot out the door right up until Negan showed up and then she was just . . . there. Gabriel was actively trying to subvert Rick and the others and only had a change of heart because of reasons that I don’t really understand. Eugene was an actual traitor for a long time before his change of heart. Bonds of love and camaraderie are hard to come by in this segment of the cast.
I would, on the other hand, probably watch a show that was driven more by Magna, Yumiko, Luke, Connie, Kelly, Siddiq and so forth. The New Characters show a great deal of promise, and it’s The Walking Dead’s most sacred mission to cultivate them and their stories into ones that viewers truly, madly, deeply care about.
That’s no small task, but if AMC truly wants to keep this show running for ever and ever, amen, then they will need to. Because Daryl and Carol cannot be safe forever. There must come a time when we worry about them and their survival, too. And we need other characters to care about that aren’t kids (Judith) or sociopaths (Negan).
The thing we forget sometimes is that the reason we used to love this show was that we fell in love with the characters. Yes, it’s declined in other ways. But the writing was never great. There were great moments and then lots of filler episodes and silly character decisions way, way back in the day. We didn’t notice those as much because we still cared so deeply about who would die, or what other horrors might befall our favorite characters. The reason the show is less engaging now is that we just don’t care much about characters like Tara or Enid or Henry dying.
Frankly, more of the New Veterans should die to pave way for this new group, led by our core veterans, Carol and Daryl, and bolstered by maybe a few surviving New Veterans like Jerry and Rosita. Alexandria and Hilltop and the Kingdom should all burn to the ground, forcing this new group out into the wild, on to the open road, out into unexplored and uncharted waters.
We’ve largely left the comic books behind at this point, aside from some borrowed scenes and villains. Maybe we should ditch them altogether and set out fresh into the great wide open, leaving this entire, dreary, stagnant community-centered plot behind us. Perhaps some fierce final showdown sparks a new migration, and a new chapter of The Walking Dead.
They could all just walk away, and leave Negan in his cage.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook.
You can read my review of last night’s episode here.