Character Use, Emotional Investment, and The Walking Dead

I've recently been on a Walking Dead binge, and a couple days ago I got caught up on the backlist and began watching the current season. You know, season 7. With its explosive and highly controversial premiere. And damn did that shit make me think.

First off, I knew it was coming. After Glenn's apparent death during season 6 I did a Google search and found out that he did not die in that moment after all, but that he died in season 7 at the hands of Negan. So obviously when everyone was on their knees waiting for judgment, that seemed like his time. Except Abraham died first, and then Daryl lashed out, and then Glenn died. And it made me wonder why things had to play out like that.

First let's look at Abraham, who remained a relatively one-dimensional character throughout the show. Guns, duty, and the greater good: that's him. Emphasis, of course, on the greater good. Everything about his character screams sacrifice, right down to his deliberately defiant stare in the last moments of his life. He wanted Negan to pick him, and the audience wanted Negan to pick him too.

Despite the show's half-hearted attempt to get the audience invested in his character through his out-of-the-blue relationship with Sasha, if someone had to die, we all wanted it to be him. He's the good character, the noble, selfless character, who will die for the sake of the group. That's his role. That's his job. He's there to die on behalf of others, and knowing that, it's hard to see him as anything more than expendable. It's hard to get emotionally invested in him, especially when the show tries to force it on you through a relationship.

And that's why he had to die so horribly.

If he'd been bit the audience can say, oh well, that happens. If he'd been shot by Negan the audience can say oh well, at least it was quick. But when we watch Negan bash in Abraham's skull in front of his friends, when we see his headless body lying on the ground, suddenly we give a shit. The gruesomeness of his death is what triggers the emotional investment, even if only for a moment. The lesson here seems to be that if you've got a character you can't make your audience care about in another way, kill him spectacularly.

So then why did Glenn have to die the same way?

Because that's how he died in the comics, you say. I hear you. They were just being true to the source material. But then why did Abraham die first, and in the same way? To relieve the tension that had built up all summer? To trick the audience into thinking everyone else was safe? To make a bigger impact?

If so, I think they missed the mark. And it's because of Glenn's pseudo-death earlier in the season, when he and Nicholas were trapped on top of the dumpster.

Glenn's character has been around since the start. We like him. He's a good guy. He's got a wife and a baby on the way, and we've watched him go through the wringer over the course of the show. We're invested. We care. We don't want to see him die.

Especially not as an afterthought.

And that's what the baseball bat beatdown felt like.

Glenn's pseudo-death was amazing. Perfect. The kind of thing you didn't see coming. He's made it this far, there's no way he'll be killed by walkers. Except he was. Because of course he would be. Because it was always going to end that way, for everyone. Because there's no winning in this world.

Dying alone, in a horde of walkers, with everyone wondering what had happened to him, that would have been a great end for his character. Because we already cared. And that sense of unfinished business, of the rest of the characters not knowing his fate, that's the kind of thing that lingers, that makes us care more.

But his brutal death at the hands of Negan, bookended on either side by Abraham's death and the almost-chopping off of Carl's hand, was more what the hell? than oh my God. Twice the deaths made them half as effective. Especially when we'd already grieved for Glenn once.

What I'm taking away from the season premiere is that it's never worth it to jump the shark, because that's essentially what The Walking Dead did. They went for shock value, rather than true impact. They sacrificed character for ratings. And when your audience already gives a shit, that's the wrong move. The fans deserved better. The characters deserved better.

Lesson learned.