The Walking Dead is once again heading into dangerous, potentially controversial storytelling. And while this has been part of its appeal all along, the question looms as to whether the shows creators have learned from past mistakes.
Most recently, they had to weather considerable backlash after killing Beth (see above, and if that was a spoiler for you, you haven’t been watching and probably never will). This backlash has elements of an argument I have been making since a milestone mistake happened in the comic. More on that later.
I believe the reasons people reacted so strongly to Beth’s demise are 1) she was a favorite, and 2) her death wasn’t organic to the story line.
As for the first, this is part of the ride for this particular story. Favorites will die in an apocalypse. While it will stun, shock, infuriate and devastate us, that is part of why we watch even if we are unwilling to admit it. We want to share in characters’ lives, root for them, put ourselves in their shoes, etc., and if they die, that is part of the journey.
I can live with that, and believe The Walking Dead often does this well.
I find the other reason to be the stronger argument.
And this is worth discussing because of who is coming.
I believe the strong negative reaction to Beth’s death is tied to Neggan, not as part of his plot line (though her death did make it impossible to stay in that allegedly safe haven) but more as part of the creative team’s responsibilities.
Here’s a theory I subscribe to regarding long-form writing: by offering their work for public consumption, the creator/creators enter into a sliding scale commitment with their audience. By that I mean creators are asking their audience to come along for the ride, to invest in the characters they create, and are offering entertainment and an emotional rollercoaster as a payment for that investment.
However, the responsibilities of the creative team grow in direct proportion to the amount invested by the audience. Should an audience invest just two-hours in a movie, the creative team can do almost anything, and have a basic responsibility to their audience to reward that basic monetary and time commitment from them. Same goes for a single novel or other finite storytelling experience. But should an audience invest a continuing amount of time on a creator or team of creators’ work, that reward must grow.
Beth’s death was seen by some as almost an accident, and that angered many. She deserved a better death. Both Beth and the audience who had invested so many seasons watching and rooting for her had earned a more dramatic and meaningful resolution to her storyline.
So what has this got to do with Negan?
Well, he’s coming, and he’s bringing both a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire named Lucille and some seriously random homicidal tendencies with him. This was clearly demonstrated in issue 100 of the comic, wherein the creators committed what I believe has been, to date, their worst violation of the creator/audience, relationship; they killed off a major character with over-the-top, inorganic brutality that many saw as a stunt to make the 100th issue “special”.
Instead of paying of the audience’s invested time and emotional connection to this popular, heroic character, they went for shock value. I suspect it lost them readers (at least one I know of), and cost them the trust of many more. The problem was that, after investing so much in this character’s journey, and investing time and emotions into that character for so long, as a hero, as a survivor, as one worthy of our attention, they ended that character without any of those elements he was known for continually demonstrating.
The character’s death was unearned.
That plot point was inorganic.
It violated the sacred relationship between creator and audience.
And now Negan is coming to the TV version of this relationship.
Am I saying Negan or the creators shouldn’t be allowed to kill anyone? No. Am I saying some characters should be considered untouchable? No.
I am saying that creators are responsible for respecting their audience if they want that audience to keep watching, reading, listening, whatever. Should creators decide to kill characters, they must reflect on the length and depth of that character’s relationship with the audience. How long has s/he been around? How much has character and audience gone though together? The larger the answer is to those questions, the more that death must be earned. And yes, this is a sliding scale, and yes, it makes it that much more challenging for the creators as the show continues, but that is the deal creators make with their audience- stay with us and we will continue telling you a great story.
A magician cannot wow an audience for years, and then suddenly switch to basic card tricks, neither can storytellers.
Negan is coming, guys. Please don’t pull out that cheap deck of cards again. Because both sides of this relationship want to ….