Cutting Dead Weight in The Walking Dead by Jesse Manley
Fair warning: I’m about to spoil the shit out of The Walking Dead, both the show and the comic. If you aren’t caught-up and you don’t like to know what’s coming, you’ll want to cleave my head with a machete if you read any further.
After Sunday, March 4th’s episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead [Season 2, Episode 11, “Judge, Jury, Executioner”], the Internet could hardly contain the vitriol for Carl Grimes, the adolescent son of de facto group leader Sheriff Rick Grimes. And the vitriol was completely warranted, at least for the television version of the character. The comic Carl Grimes is made of much sterner stuff, as you should see now that Shane Walsh is dead.
The Walking Dead is a critical and commercial tour-de-force, setting basic cable records left and right and garnering adulation and celebration at unprecedented rates from critics and audiences. I don’t know what show those people are watching. The show I’m seeing every Sunday is developmentally hamstrung. I say this not as a frustrated comic book nerd who is unhappy that the TV show is merely doing things differently, but as a writer, frustrated with the stilted narrative of the adaptation, and even more so because I am familiar with the comic, and know how much better it could be. The root of the problem was that one now-dead character undermined the development of the show’s plot and four of its prominent characters. Shane Walsh was killing The Walking Dead.
Jon Bernthal’s Shane Walsh was wildly popular with a large number of viewers, and understandably so. While he was most certainly flawed beyond redemption, and a bit rapey, many viewers considered him a better option to lead the rag-tag group of saviors through the post-zompocalyptic wasteland than Rick Grimes. Shane’s rough edges allowed him to rationalize and implement actions that, while morally questionable, were optimal from the standpoint of group survival. Rick, as he is portrayed in the show, is too impotent to do this. The catch is, Rick is only impotent in the TV show because Shane was still around. Shane’s presence provided a challenge to Rick’s authority and Shane assumed the role of the one who made the tough decisions, decisions that Rick was unwilling to make. In the comic book, Shane dies in issue #6 (before they even leave the first camp, which is covered in season 1 of the TV show), and Rick fills this role. Comic Rick is decisive and reactionary—dangerously so at times, which I’m sure comes as quite a shock to viewers of the TV show, who have only seen Andrew Lincoln’s passive, “aww shucks” Rick Grimes. Rick was simply not able to become the gritty, capable leader that the group requires until he no longer had to play the character foil for Shane Walsh.
Though Shane most obviously usurped Rick in the TV series, the character whose development he most thoroughly undermined was Carl Grimes, the target of Mar 4th’s viewer uprising. Carl is, in a way, the most intriguing and most important character in the comic, which makes his complete ineptitude in the TV show all the more infuriating. While the older members of the group struggle to adapt and shed their old-world ways of thinking, comic Carl is free of such encumbrances, and thus he makes the transition much more quickly. Carl comes of age in the zombie apocalypse, and is a stronger and deeper character for it. In fact, in comic issue 6 where Shane meets his demise, it is Carl that pulls the trigger, after sensing that Shane is up to no good and his father is in danger. Carl stalks the pair in the woods, and while Shane is preparing to shoot Rick in the back, Carl shoots Shane through the neck. Viewers of the show will recall seeing this scene, only it plays out differently; Carl is replaced by Dale, who doesn’t shoot Shane, but instead chastises him, leaving Shane around to sabotage more plots.
In last weeks’ episode [Serason 2, Episode 11, “Better Angels”] , where Shane finally meets his demise, the writers chose to let Rick kill living Shane and had Carl off zombie Shane. Their decision is understandable, given the adversarial dynamic between Shane and Rick they spent two seasons cultivating, but were this not the case, they might have felt free enough to allow Carl to kill the living Shane as he does in the comic, which is a subtle yet profound difference for his character. Comic Carl ultimately does things that not even Rick can do, and becomes the strongest and best equipped to survive in the post-zompocalyptic world; hopefully the writers will allow TV Carl to outgrow his feeble shell and approach the hardiness of the comic version.
Speaking of Dale, in the comic, Dale plays the role assumed by the TV Rick, that is the voice of reason. In fact, Dale leads a splinter group away from the main group because he is so concerned about the risky decisions that Rick makes. With TV Rick as the foil to Shane’s “whatever it takes” leadership style, Dale was a man without a role in the camp, and while he did clash with Shane, it was at best redundant since Rick is there, and at worst a “get off my lawn” senior moment. We’ll never get to see Dale realize this potential since the writers chose to kill him off in episode 11 of season 2 at the bumbling hands of TV Carl, whose comic counterpart would have never made such a boneheaded mistake.
This also completely robs us of Andrea and Dale’s relationship, which goes from an initial creepfest to something that’s ultimately very sweet and touching. But that’s not the only thing Shane screwed up here. Andrea, like Rick, Carl, and Dale, is a much stronger and important character in the comic. She develops into the weapons expert and the group comes to rely on her eagle eye and long-range marksmanship skills. Andrea is the savior of the group on several occasions, and it’s all the more impressive when you keep in mind her entire character arc and how she started-off so meekly. But the TV show already has a weapons expert: Shane Freakin’ Walsh! So what do they do with Andrea? They take one of the few strong female characters from the comic and make her into the klutz who shoots Darryl in the head. It makes me wonder if the show will be able to develop any female characters with agency, as that will be very important moving forward with new characters slated to appear later in the series.
The final victim of Shane’s interference is the plot, itself. For almost the entirety of the first half of season two, the survivors searched through the woods for Carol’s adolescent daughter Sophia. It is, in a word, stagnant. There was a serious lack of decisive leadership because of the Shane/Rick dynamic, and so we just kept going out into the woods, week after week, wandering around aimlessly. It’s a classic case of too many chefs, not enough cooks.
So why was Shane kept around for so long? I would love to say that it was because the writers were so enamored with the acting prowess that Bernthal displayed in his scenes, and admittedly he is a phenomenal actor, but I have a sinking suspicion that it’s more closely correlated with the fact that Bernthal was the only character on the show routinely shown sans shirt.
As a writer, I find an object lesson in all of this. It’s not easy to kill-off strong characters, either beloved ones or the ones we love to hate. But Shane Walsh’s mere presence held down the development of four other major characters and halted the momentum of the greater plot. The costs just didn’t outweigh the benefits of keeping him around, especially since the best components of his character could have and should have been assumed by other characters who ultimately wind-up more interesting and important to the story. It makes me wonder if I have a Shane in my own work that is hampering plot and character development. After seeing the disastrous consequences of harboring a Shane, I plan to investigate the matter extensively.
All things considered, I am hopeful for the future of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It has already been picked-up for a third season, and two of the most important characters in the series have yet to be introduced. Those two moments will be crucial in guiding the future of the show, and I hold out hope that if they are handled competently, they will more than cover up the blemishes from the first two seasons. That, and killing Shane Walsh.
P.S. To further address the criticism that I’m just that guy saying “The book was sooo much better,” while I am highly critical of the show, I don’t merely dismiss it because it’s different. For example, I think that the best part of the show is a character that isn’t even featured in the comic. Norman Reedus’ Darryl Dixon has the perfect mix of survival skills and demeanor to steal nearly every scene that he’s in. In fact, Reedus’ Dixon is so beloved that comic creator Robert Kirkman has said he plans to introduce Darryl Dixon into the comic book. I’m not sure how unprecedented that sort of reverse cross-over is in the world of media, but it strikes me as something that’s both novel and well-deserved.