The Walking Dead’s redemption death arc is problematic

Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 9 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC /

Anyone who has watched The Walking Dead from the beginning knows this familiar story arc and it’s a problem.

The Walking Dead has a problem when it comes to killing off major characters. It’s been a long running joke among fans that the character who becomes the moral compass of the group is marked for death. It’s happened over, and over, and over. It started with Dale, who died immediately after making impassioned pleas to the group to not kill Randall in season 2.

Then the moral compass mantle fell on T-Dog, who was the next to go when he sacrificed himself to save Carol. And then Lori, who found a nobility in death that she didn’t possess in life when she sacrificed herself to save baby Judith. And on, and on, and on. Merle, Andrea, Tyreese, Noah, Glenn, Sasha… those are just some of the characters who have embodied morality and humanism directly before their deaths.

In fact it’s happened so many times now that it’s become a trope for the show. And it’s highly problematic. Especially now, with the impending death of Carl who experienced a 180 character switch just before getting bitten.

In season 7 Carl was just as determined as Sasha and Rosita to take out as many Saviors as possible, especially Negan. He wanted justice, and vengeance, for the deaths of Glenn and Abe. He even snuck into one of The Saviors trucks at The Hilltop in order to try and kill Negan all by himself. But then in season 8 he suddenly cautioned Rick against becoming too focused on killing as All Out War was beginning. And he saved Siddiq even though Rick wanted him to ignore Siddiq and not help him.

Carl’s Out Of Character Death Arc

This redemptive death arc is now such a standard in the show that some fans started wondering early in season 8 if Carl would get killed off because of the weirdly out of character behavior he displayed in helping Siddiq. And his speech about Lori when he was bonding with Siddiq sealed his fate.

In the teasers for The Walking Dead midseason premiere it’s clear that Carl will counsel Rick to put down his gun and stop killing. He will advise Rick to return to Farmer Rick from season 4 who wouldn’t even carry a gun and didn’t want to kill. That is wildly out of character for Carl who has always been a pragmatist when it comes to killing.

When Carl killed the kid from Woodbury as he and Hershel were protecting Beth and Judith in season 3 he didn’t think twice. He eliminated a threat. And that’s been Carl’s attitude for many seasons now. To see him suddenly change from that to a philosophy of non-violence was jarring because it was so out of character for him. It didn’t seem to make sense for the character.

It seems almost as if the writers just fell back on the redemption/death arc as an afterthought, not because it was part of building a compelling story. Carl was used as a tool to get Rick into the headspace that they needed him to be in so that the story could move forward. It was a disservice to the character.

Why Moral Compass Deaths Are So Problematic

These moral compass deaths are hard for fans to watch, and no one likes having the characters they love killed off. But as fans we accept that no one is safe and can be killed off at any time. That doesn’t mean that those deaths should be handled in a lazy and manipulative way though.

Not every death has to have meaning. The Walking Dead world is brutal, and dangerous, and sometimes people die in stupid or preventable ways. Not everyone gets a hero’s death. And that’s one of the reasons why this particular trope that The Walking Dead uses over and over again is such a problem.

They try to make every main character’s death an emotionally poignant and meaningful death even when it doesn’t fit the character’s established personality. Forcing a character to undergo a humanistic epiphany just before they die feels exactly that – forced. It takes fans out of the story and out of the experience. And even though it’s meant to give each main character a finished story arc and send them out on a high note it ends up feeling cheap and gimmicky.

Fans all over social media have been voicing their displeasure at this unbalanced and tropey death for Carl using the hashtag CarlDeservedBetter and they’re right – he did. So did all the other characters who died as part of a forced redemption/death arc. Sometimes they did get it right, like the redemption arc for Merle, which was perfectly done. But more often than not using this moral compass death trope falls flat.

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Hopefully now that The Walking Dead will have a new showrunner and a new direction they will leave the redemption/death trope in the past. Shoot it in the head and put it down. The show is better than that and the characters deserve better.