Fair warning: there are huge massive gigantic powerful ***SPOILERS*** below. If you haven’t yet watched Sunday night’s episode of THE WALKING DEAD, read no further, unless you want me to give away the sequence where one of my all-time favorite shows finally bit the big one. (Nice pun, huh?) Then again, maybe you should just read on and let me ruin it for you rather than sit through it yourself.
Seriously, Hershel’s death. You have got to be kidding me. The way it played out was awful, and spit in the eye of decent storytelling in a way that I didn’t think The Walking Dead could ever do.
Now, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the basic fact that the man died. He was going to die sooner or later because ALL characters on this show are going to die sooner or later, except for Daryl (who will flat kill Death) and maybe Rick’s son Carl, who I’m afraid might never go away because he now owns Andrea’s position as “the one character that can’t die fast enough to suit me.” (Although we did get rid of her eventually, so hope springs, I guess.) Yes, we get it, death is the theme of the show. The world is hard. Only the strong survive. Even nice folks die. Hope is lost, people are bad, in a land of the dead it’s the living you have to worry about, the walking dead are really the people who are left alive, etc. etc..
So, yeah. I long ago accepted that, eventually, Hershel Greene would be a goner. “Eventually” turned out to be the Season 4 mid-year finale, which was sooner than I would have liked (and judging by the fan reaction I’ve seen, it was sooner than most people would have liked). But the WAY they killed Hershel last night… I think it might have ruined the whole show for me.
The gist is this: there is a right way to kill off major characters, and there is a wrong way. My favorite show of the moment, Boardwalk Empire, does it the right way.
***HERE COME MORE SPOILERS, ESPECIALLY FOR MY DARLING WIFE LESLIE, WHO DOESN’T KNOW WHAT’S COMING ON BOARDWALK EMPIRE LIKE I DO.***
At the end of Season 2, Boardwalk killed off what was to that point the show’s single greatest character: Jimmy Darmody, the wounded soul that came home from World War I wondering why he hadn’t died there, then spent two years searching for himself before finally being gunned down by his one-time father figure Nucky Thompson in an ending that would have gotten a standing ovation from Shakespeare himself. (Jimmy went willingly to his death, just like Lefty in Donnie Brasco and Fredo Corleone in The Godfather Part II, which, now that I think of it, are two more perfect endings. These gangster stories get it right.) After that, Jimmy’s disfigured fellow WWI veteran Richard Harrow — the only guy in the show with a more heartwrenching story than Jimmy — continued as the soul of Boardwalk, the character we loved despite all of the ugly acts he committed, as he sought his way out right up until the moment he died, shot through and bleeding under the boardwalk in the last episode of Season 4.
(Actually, Richard Harrow didn’t become my favorite character after Jimmy died. He was the reason I started watching Boardwalk Empire in the first place, my favorite character from the moment I caught him in a brief scene while flipping through HBO one night. His line, “It occurred to me the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t,” is one of the simpler, sadder things ever said by anybody.)
So that’s Jimmy Carmody and Richard Harrow, both from Boardwalk Empire, not coincidentally the best show on TV right now. They were two characters that seemed doomed from the start – just like Hershel – and yet when their end finally came, it felt earned. It felt like the right way.
***BOARDWALK EMPIRE SPOILERS ENDED***
The Walking Dead used to do it the right way, too. Clearly, at least, they know how to do it. See, among others: Shane, Dale, and my personal favorite, Sophia. Merle, and Milton. The crawling woman zombie in the first episode. The crazy scientist at the CDC. This show has proven that when it wants to, it can provide a satisfying send-off for a beloved character. And even in the case of Andrea, they provided one for a character I hated. (Don’t you look at me like I’m the only one!)
So, after building a great character in Hershel – who has been unquestionably the most noble person on the show for two years running now — did the folks behind The Walking Dead give the man a great send-off, befitting such a profoundly decent soul?
Of course they didn’t.
Here’s what they gave him: Hershel dies on his knees, at the hands of the Governor, who cuts his head off with a sword. THE GOVERNOR DECAPITATES HERSHEL. But wait, it’s not that simple. The Governor cleaves Hershel in the neck, then, as Hershel is trying to crawl away, pounces on him and finishes the job with a few more hacks. So, our last vision of one of the two or three best characters on the show is his headless body lying on the ground. And that’s it.
No last words. No drama. Absolutely nothing. Hack, hack, dead. Maudlin reaction shots from the prison crowd, then BOOM! Bullets are flying and everybody is trying to get the hell out of there.
What exactly was the point of doing that, other than cheap shock and special effects? Doesn’t The Walking Dead pride itself on being so much more? Couldn’t they have come up with something that served the overall story better? How about this: instead of that annoying woman with the daughter and sister, what if it was Carol that the Governor found? What if he took her back to the prison, to intimidate Rick, then killed her to set off the shitstorm? That would have been a nice circle – Carol loses herself when she gives in to violence by murdering the two sick people earlier in the season, then ultimately gets murdered herself by a truly sadistic killer. That death could also give Rick some great guilt since he was the one who sent her out to the world in the first place, and yeah, BTW that death right in front of Rick and Daryl would also have set off the same firefight that we saw between the prison folks and the Governor’s tank team. We could wrap up the Carol storyline, the Governor storyline, and the prison plotlines all at once, losing a couple of weaker characters in one neat finale while strengthening the story on the whole.
That, my friends, is economic storytelling.
Then again, if that annoying woman and her daughter hadn’t come around we never would have gotten to see the mean ol’ Governor shoot the poor little girl in the head after she got munched by a mud zombie. And I guess that moment was important to the show’s writers, just in case, you know, we forgot that the Governor was a bad person, had lost whatever was left of his soul, saw the world in stark kill-or-be-killed terms, wore an eyepatch, etc. Just like it was important that other little girl shoot the bad lady in the forehead because kids grow up quicker than we ant them to in this harsh world, there is no such thing as innocence, sometimes you have to fight violence with violence, Lord of the Flies, etc. etc.
Anyway, Carol’s still wandering out there, alive and well and bound to come back in the latter half of Season 4. Whatever.
After all the stirring death scenes they’ve given us – like Dale, Shane, and Sophia (my favorite of all) – we were robbed with Hershel. Hell, like I said, even Andrea had a good death – not to mention one that was true to her character. Hershel’s fate wasn’t true to anything. They took arguably the most beloved character on the show – actually, that is downright inarguable — and gave him a death that could have been died a hundred times by a hundred other generic faces. What was the point of that? To show how OOOH CRAZY! the Governor is? LOOK AT THE GOVERNOR. HE’S MEAN! HE’S CRAZY! HE KILLS PEOPLE! It’s safe to say, that was already established. And just in case you needed that little extra bit of proof, may I remind you: he shot a little girl in the head. A little girl! In the head! He’s so damn crazy!
(He’s also a stupid, poorly drawn cartoon character that doesn’t fit in the rest of the show. It’s like the writers can’t resist moments of, “Look at the Governor! What a bad man!” “Look at his face in the flames, he’s so evil!” “Look at what he did to Milton, his right hand man!” “Look at what he did to Andrea!” “Look at that, he shot all those people!” “He’s wild! He’s crazy!” Yes. The Governor is wild. The Governor is crazy. We get that, by God. You know what else he is? Boring. He single-handedly made Season 3 the absolute worst of all and he’s nearly brought down Season 4, too. That’s an article for another time, though. This one is for Hershel.)
When you build a successful character like Hershel, you get people to invest in that character. It’s your greatest goal as a storyteller. You want your audience to care about what happens to their favorite characters so that they go along for the full ride with you. In hindsight, it would have made more sense and been a much more fitting ending if he’d just succumbed in the prison a few episodes back, heroically trying to save all those sick people. There’s actually a part of me that thinks the whole reason they sealed off the infected wing of the prison was so Hershel could die at that door, with the walkers closing in and his daughters safe on the other side of the glass. But alas, the show didn’t have the balls to go full-on Wrath of Khan and I guess it’s been done a few times anyway. Still would have been better than what we got, though.
And so, here we are. A spectacular show having suffered a serious, self-inflicted wound. A once-great series possibly ruined by the ill- conceived and poorly executed death of one of its best characters. The creators of The Walking Dead have put a lot of effort into building their characters and making it actually mean something when they died. Hershel was one of their best, which is why it’s so disappointing to see how it went down. With Hershel, we cared. We did from the moment we met him in that big farmhouse in Season 2. There was a great end waiting for him somewhere, but instead, he got his head hacked off with a sword.
The Governor sucked. He was a half-assed character and I’m glad he’s finally dead. There’s another spoiler for you.