Captain Comics: What does the death of Carl Grimes do for the life of 'The Walking Dead'

Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service on

Published in Comic Books

Some viewers may be dismissive of the latest casualty on "The Walking Dead" as just another Sunday in the zombie apocalypse. But it could well be a turning point for the show.

Before we continue, though, here's a big, fat, honkin' Spoiler Alert. If you are interested enough in TWD to read this article, and you somehow don't know to whom I'm referring, here's a hint: We were shown that he was going to die in the Dec. 10 episode "How It's Gotta Be." The show then went on mid-winter break, and when it returned Feb. 25 -- well, by golly, the character did up and die. In between, many words were typed, posted and tweeted about it.

Still unsure? OK, I'm talking about Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), son of series star Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Carl, one of the few remaining survivors from the first season, is ... well, he's not a survivor any more. In the immortal words of John Cleese, he's kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible.

Of course a major character snuffing it is almost commonplace on "Walking Dead." But this death could be a game-changer. Here are three reasons why:

1. Carl's death comes during a time of upheaval.

Ratings for both "Walking Dead" and sister show "Fear the Walking Dead" are down. According to Kathleen Joyce of foxnews.com, TWD "suffered its lowest midseason premiere ratings in the show's history" on Feb. 25. And while "Fear" was always expected to have lower ratings than the mother ship, those ratings are declining -- and, according to Craig Elvy of screenrant.com, "it's the velocity of the decline that will have network executives losing sleep."

There's no need to panic, though. "The Walking Dead" is up slightly from its midseason finale, and even beat the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics Feb. 25. "Fear" still regularly tops other AMC programs like "Better Call Saul" and "Preacher," and is in no danger of cancellation. And, as Paul Tassi of Forbes.com notes, "all TV ratings are dropping pretty sharply in this new digital age."

Even so, AMC execs must surely be looking for ways to goose the numbers of the two shows. One of those ways is probably the long-awaited crossover announced by "Walking Dead" showrunner Scott M. Gimple in November. Morgan Jones (Lennie James) will leave TWD after eight seasons to join the cast of "Fear" when its fourth season premieres April 15.

There's a sea change for you. Meanwhile, there are a lot of new faces behind the camera.

Angela King, a writer on "Walking Dead," has been promoted to showrunner. Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss, producers on "Once Upon a Time," have replaced Scott Erickson as showrunners on "Fear." And Gimple has been promoted to Chief Content Officer for the two shows and other brand extensions.

That's a lot of changes -- and a lot of opportunity for new directions. Which brings us to:

2. Carl's death forces a wedge between the comics and the TV show.

"The Walking Dead" TV show has never followed writer Robert Kirkman's comics slavishly. It tends to follow the big storylines in a general fashion, but meanders along the way or changes the details (like who lives and who dies).

For example, TV stars Morgan and Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) are both long dead in the comics, while Sophia (Madison Lintz), who died on TV several seasons ago, is not. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), one of the show's biggest stars, never existed in the comics at all.

"To fulfill the feeling of the book you often have to sort of drift away from the book to get back to the book," Gimple told Dominic Patton in a Feb. 25 Deadline Hollywood story. "Sometimes with verbatim fidelity, sometimes not. Also, to even crank up great stuff from the book you have to sometimes change the book to get even deeper at the message or the moment, or the turn that the comic story was telling. So, we intend to tell stories from the book, but we are trying to do it in very unexpected ways that can even heighten the feelings that you got while reading the book."

Or ... something. I don't understand that either. Except to confirm that Gimple diverges from the comics where it suits the TV show to do so.

Even so, few diversions have been as seismic as the death of Carl Grimes. In the comics, Carl survives "All-Out War" as a major player in succeeding storylines. He becomes a blacksmith's assistant at Hilltop, and is on the front lines when The Whisperers -- wait until you meet them! -- become a threat. So much so that he becomes romantically involved with the Whisperer leader's daughter Lydia. When teenage hormones take their course, a bizarre, heavily armed "Romeo & Juliet" plays out on center stage as the adults battle in the background.

Almost as important, Carl develops an almost filial relationship with another character that cannot even be discussed in this space without spoiling the end of "All-Out War." But that relationship is a perfect reflection -- and an almost inevitable result -- of the decisions Rick makes after the war.

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So who's going to do all that? Henry? Macsen Lintz may be a fine young actor, but he's only 11. And Maggie's child isn't even born yet!

Wherever the TV show goes next, the absence of Carl means it will maintain only a tenuous resemblance to the comics. Which means:

3. Carl's death could set up a new paradigm for the show.

Here's a spoiler for the comics: The happy future vision sprinkled through the last several episodes of "Walking Dead" reflects pretty strongly where the comic book actually goes. Even Rick's cane exists in the print version, a result of injuries sustained in the war with Negan.

But it isn't Rick's vision we see on TV -- it's Carl's. Which upends the whole concept.

Why would Gimple show us that future if that's not where we're going to go? On TV, we are only told the plans that are going to fail. (If the plan is going to succeed, they show, not tell.) So that exact outcome is probably not in the cards.

But what? Something similar? Carl says at his end, "You can't kill all of them, Dad. There's got to be something after. For you. For them. There's got to be something after." That dying wish probably is a roadmap for the future. Which means the program is going to shift from simple survival to trying to re-establish civilization.

"As of now, the surviving characters of 'The Walking Dead' have two options before them: keep fighting, or think bigger-picture," says Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair. "That's basically the decision the series must make as well -- and with several planned seasons still ahead of it, a tonal shift will be necessary to keep the show from devolving."

Phil Owen of thewrap.com takes it perhaps a step farther. If the survivors work to make Carl's vision real, he writes, then "Carl's death will have more meaning than any that happened before."

Says Gimple in the Deadline Hollywood interview: "It seems like they have a choice now.

"Carl's way or the way they're currently doing now, and it's so hard to even imagine what Carl wants. They're sitting in the burning ruins of Alexandria, but it is his wish and a giant wish of an incredible hero that's not going to be something they could shrug off."

Whither "The Walking Dead"? Wherever they go, it seems they'll be treading some new ground.


(Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.)

(c)2018 Andrew A. Smith

Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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