By Marie-Therese C. Sulit, Ph. D.
The mid-season premiere of “The Walking Dead,” “Honor,” marks the death of beloved character, Carl Grimes, played by Chandler Riggs, whom viewers watched for almost eight full seasons as he grew from child to young man amidst a world gone awry, where those who both live and die are likewise considered the walking dead.
This is a world that forced Carl to shoot Shane, his father’s former best friend and mother’s former lover turned walker; to shoot Lori, his mother who died giving birth to his sister, Judith; to lose an eye, when the son of his father’s rival in Alexandra, turned against him; and to, ultimately, sacrifice his own life in bringing a stranger named Siddiq, whom Rick initially rejected in the very first episode of this season, “Mercy,” to their shattered community as Alexandria burns at the hands of Negan’s men, the Survivors.
At the able, if not ruthless, hands of Scott Gimple, former showrunner and now Chief Creative Officer for “The Walking Dead,” Carl’s death had been foreshadowed from Episode 6, “The King, the Widow, and Rick,” and definitively anticipated since the very end of Episode 8, “How It’s Gotta’ Be” with the devastating revelation of the fatal walker bite to the remaining Alexandrian survivors, particularly Michonne and Rick, in the sewer tunnels. The adage, “No one is safe,” particularly when a character becomes the moral compass for the community, has been the guiding principle for both the characters and the actors who portray them. But, killing off Carl (and firing Riggs) provides a thematic rationale for why Rick would allow Negan to live as viewers, since Episode 1, hear what may or may not be Rick’s dying words, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” The dream sequences of an older Rick, Michonne and Judith, viewers see, belong to Carl who shares and expands upon this vision he has for their community to his already grieving father because “there’s gotta’ be something after” and “something better” even if he cannot be there for it.
From its inception, “The Walking Dead” has always struck me as a parable for leadership with Sheriff Rick Grimes acting as the arguable moral and ethical center of the community of survivors in which he finds himself. But, it is his son, Carl, who had catalyzed him to assume this role over and again as Rick seeks to establish a safe and secure community on ever-shifting ground as he forges alliances with some communities—Oceanside, the Kingdom and the Hilltop–while fighting others who seek to enslave and altogether destroy them—the Scavengers and the Survivors.
So, why should veteran fans stay the course with “The Walking Dead” and new ones tune in even as beloved Carl, the ever-stalwart figure of hope, has been denied his future and has barely passed on from our lives? In this allegorical world of a torn America where the walking dead could be anyone confronting if not holding onto their humanity even as it disappears, we are shown it is about the choices we make in any given moment. Isn’t it always?