It’s been months since Negan smashed in somebody’s skull, and fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead have not come down from their white-hot nuclear rage. After a long tease that lasted through winter hiatus, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s scary-good Negan made his smashing debut, taking out a main character before the credits rolled. The victim was not identified, and that omission sent zombie-obsessed viewers into a frothy rage spiral. Last week, comic book and series creator Robert Kirkman issued an apology in the series’ most recent issue, The Walking Dead #154.
The thing is, he didn’t need to. Fans who demand answers to the question “Who died?” are severely missing the point.
Contemporary television and the walk to the gallows
The Golden Age of Television, as it is commonly called, should and probably will be remembered for achieving storytelling highs — which were absent from the medium a generation ago. Complex characters with broken moral compasses navigate thematic mazes (The Sopranos, The Wire), sweeping cinematic visual language embeds itself into serial narratives (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), groundbreaking special effects dazzle (Game of Thrones, Black Mirror), and diverse sensibilities populate a single genre (Marvel’s Daredevil is nothing like The Flash). These trends have dominated American living rooms for the last decade, but ask any TV fan standing at the water cooler on Monday, and one question still seems more important: “Did this person die?”
At the intersection of fandom and serial narratives are viewers’ affections for a single character. Some heroes (and villains) attract more love than the central stars: think Spike and Willow in Buffy, Omar in The Wire, Felicity in Arrow (until recently), and Daryl in The Walking Dead. In some instances, fans’ love (read: ratings) make characters near immortal. In others, it makes them a target, as in the case of Glenn’s near demise in The Walking Dead.
Death dominates TV, surprise kills more so. But death shouldn’t be the most important thing — breathtaking visuals and compelling stories should be. But, the threat of a character being killed off is still the paramount draw for many viewers.
In the case The Walking Dead, set during a zombie apocalypse, not only should death be expected, but the series pretty much told viewers what Negan was going to do — kill — for a long, long time, far before Jeffrey Dean Morgan stepped out of the trailer grinning with Lucille on his shoulder.
Let’s give them something to talk about
The Walking Dead left viewers with the question they didn’t want to ask: Who died? Whether it be impatience borne of binge-watching or misinterpreting the whole season’s entire point, it was the catalyst to the online explosion of tweets and pissed-off hashtags.
“Okay, the season 6 finale has certainly caused a fervor online,” Robert Kirkman’s statement in The Walking Dead #154 reads. “EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT. Some people love it. Some people are indifferent. Some people HATE it. We weren’t trying to game the audience, we weren’t trying to FORCE you to come back for season 7…. we hope you were always planning on doing that and still plan on doing that. We did want you to talk. And talk you are.”
Mission accomplished. While I’m not a subscriber to “any press is good press,” the cliff-hanger did leave fans logging into Twitter and Facebook to voice their reactions. Many were negative, yes, but it wasn’t because the show was of poor quality (see: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow). The Walking Dead Season 6 was, by and large, a vast improvement over the meandering Seasons 2, 3, and even 4, while Seasons 5 and 6 have yielded the show’s strongest episodes. Kirkman and the minds behind The Walking Dead generated fiery reactions without sacrificing their narrative integrity. Really, they lived up to their promise: Negan will kill. Creators never, ever promised whom. Not once.
Kirkman continues: “The speculation, the frustration, the possibilities, the theories… honestly, in my mind… that stuff is FUN. I honestly feel like that’s something fun for the fans to do during the break.”
When Game of Thrones closed off Season 5 with a bloody Jon Snow, reactions differed from this past Walking Dead. Fans knew Snow was dead, but for how long? That was always the follow-up in huddled group discussions and over hazy summer day drinks. It’s clear Walking Dead hoped for a similar phenomenon, for fans at Comic-Con to toss theories at each other, mid-bite in a pricey hot dog. But as it turns out, that essential question — who died? — isn’t as compelling to viewers as being told outright.
As Kirkman states: “I know people are angry over this, but that wasn’t our intent. The idea was that after 6 seasons of the show, we wanted to stay on your mind and give you something to talk about.” We’re here now. That has to account for something.