Killing off a main character used to be a surefire way to get headlines. That’s no longer as true.
Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 4 through 10 is “The New Frontier,” the second episode of the third season of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead.
If a major TV drama kills off one of its most important characters, and the online TV discussion sphere doesn’t seem to notice, does it make a sound?
That’s a question I’ve been pondering all week in the wake of Fear the Walking Dead’s two-hour season premiere — technically the first two episodes of season three stitched together — which killed off one of the show’s main characters but seems to have barely caused a ripple in the places that drive so much of the chatter surrounding TV nowadays.
Oh, sure, the series’ showrunner, Dave Erickson, made the rounds to explain the call, and there were the usual shocked recaps and other reactions. But even two years ago, a storytelling choice like this would have prompted hushed, surprised reactions and a string of think pieces that talked around the big death while still trying to touch on how it affected television (as I am doing in this intro). As a point of comparison, even those who don’t like The Walking Dead buzzed about its comparatively shocking choice to kill off the protagonist’s wife four episodes into its own third season.
But here we are. It’s a week on from the Fear premiere, and there’s almost nothing. That says a lot about how much TV there is, how much favor the Walking Dead franchise as a whole has lost in just the last year, and how much less shocking TV deaths are in 2017 than they were a few years ago. But to unpack all of it, I’m going to have to tell you who died.
With this latest death, Fear the Walking Dead has kinda-sorta ditched its original premise
When Fear the Walking Dead premiered in 2015, it was sold as having two main differences from its parent series. First, it would begin shortly before the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse, where The Walking Dead began after the zombies had taken over the Earth. And second and most importantly, it would be, at its heart, a family drama about the complicated dynamics of trying to blend two families together, with zombies as the backdrop.
To be clear, the series struggled to realize the second ambition. But I always admired the way it put first and foremost the struggles of Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) as they worked to turn their two separate families into one.
Madison’s husband passed away before the series began. Her son, Nick (Frank Dillane), was a heroin addict, and her daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), was the sort of perfectionist who suggests someone trying desperately to hold themselves together. Travis, meanwhile, had to navigate co-parenting his son with his ex-wife. When the dead arose, these difficulties only became more fraught. The two families went on the run together, accumulating a few other characters along the way — notably the smooth-talking Strand (Colman Domingo) — but the core of the series was always the Clark-Manawa family unit.
The best stretch of episodes probably came over the first two-thirds of the series’ second season, when the characters escaped to Mexico on a boat, only to find that things weren’t any better south of the border. This was basically just The Walking Dead at sea, to be sure. But the ocean-bound setting, the slowly deteriorating family dynamics, and the generally strong ensemble cast made up for a lot.
Yet the longer the show went on, the more the Clark-Manawa family became… just the Clark family. Travis’s ex died at the end of season one, after a zombie bite, and his son perished near the end of season two, after leaving his dad to hang out with some American tourists turned murderous end-of-the-world opportunists. (This arc might have been interesting had it not felt like such a blatant attempt to give a previously bland character something to play.)
As season three began, then, Travis was the only Manawa left, while all three Clarks were still alive. And then, in the opening moments of episode two, Travis escaped a hairy situation with some of the other characters onboard a helicopter, only for someone on the ground to open fire on said helicopter. A stray bullet hit Travis, and he realized he would die and, thus, reanimate as a zombie. He took a last, long look at Alicia, then pitched himself out of the helicopter and to the ground below, where he presumably splattered. (The show did the courtesy of not showing us exactly what happened, but made sure to note that he had fallen from too great a height to survive.)
The sequence was so jarring and unexpected that when watching it for the first time, my initial thought was, “Geez. Cliff Curtis must have really wanted off of this show.” And given the actor’s recent casting in the Avatar sequels, maybe he did. (Erickson claims in the interview linked above that the plan this season was always to kill off Travis, but some versions of the story would have had him survive deeper into said season.)
Curtis is a great actor, and he and Dickens had an easy, lived-in chemistry. But there were moments, particularly in the second half of season two, when the actor seemed slightly disengaged from the material and when it became all the more clear that the show never had as firm a grasp on the Manawas as it did on the Clarks. That’s too bad.
But the fact remains: Killing your second lead in the teaser of your new season’s second episode is a pretty bold storytelling choice, no matter the reasons for having to make it. And yet how many articles have you read about Fear doing this? This one?
TV deaths are less of a big deal right now than at any point in the medium’s history
In 2016, Vox’s own Caroline Framke and myself collaborated on a project to calculate the number of significant characters to have died on TV in the 2015-16 season. We found, above all, that TV’s body count was ridiculously high, and we embarked on the project in the wake of a bunch of high-profile, controversial character deaths on a variety of major scripted dramas (notably The 100 and Sleepy Hollow).
TV’s death fever was, at the time, nothing new. Spurred on by Game of Thrones and, yes, The Walking Dead, killing off a character in a shot of sudden brutality was a good way to get people talking and goose a go-nowhere storyline. Indeed, the number of deaths had only been building throughout the 2010s, and it seemed as if it showed no signs of stopping.
Yet the 2016-17 TV season was less death-friendly on the whole. TV Line’s calculation of major deaths in May sweeps — a.k.a., season finale season — went down from the previous year for the first time since the site started calculating such things. And though TV was still killing off characters, few of them seemed to cause much discussion, outside of a handful of notable exceptions.
There are numerous reasons for this waning interest in the topic, but I might lay the blame most directly at the foot of Fear’s parent series.
When The Walking Dead killed off two long-running characters at the hands of the villainous Negan back in October, it was greeted not with critical praise or even audience intrigue. It was, instead, greeted with a sort of weariness: Not this shit again. Indeed, the show had spent all of summer 2016 teasing the question, “Who’s going to die?” and seemed to have forgotten that the answer would only be compelling if the audience cared.
It seemed to crystallize an argument I’d seen more and more TV fans making of late: Too many TV deaths didn’t have any resonance and were, instead, cheap stunts designed to get attention in a world of ever more viewing options, since a death was usually guaranteed to get you some attention on social media and pop culture sites. And yet that may no longer be as foolproof a plan as it once was, if the death of Travis is any indication.
Plus, the entire Walking Dead franchise as a whole has seemed, in the last year and a half, to have lost some of its cultural primacy. The ratings for the seventh season of the parent series were well off its sixth season ratings, and while Fear has always enjoyed solid viewership, it’s never come close to the level of the original show. There are only so many ways to do a zombie storyline, and the franchise may have finally stopped flirting with overkill and stepped right over the line.
A well-done TV death is still going to be like nothing else in the medium. It can have resonance and prompt earned wellsprings of emotion. But too many TV deaths in recent years have felt cheap and unearned, random acts designed to jolt the story forward. That has its place, especially on a horror show like either Walking Dead series, but push that button too often and you risk becoming a dead show walking.
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