On Sun., Dec. 10, The Walking Dead’s eighth season aired its last episode of 2017. The midseason finale, “How It’s Gotta Be,” featured a tense standoff between the Saviors and Rick’s allies. And it ended with one of the series’ most horrifying moments yet: Carl revealing that he was bitten.
While the episode ended up a bit of a cliffhanger – we didn’t actually see Carl die – Chandler Riggs has confirmed that his character is a goner. It’s a huge change for The Walking Dead. And it’s one that may have struck a fatal blow on the long-running series’ ability to connect with its audience.
1. Fans have often criticized The Walking Dead for being too grim
It’s not just Carl’s death that has fans feeling blue. Since early on in its run, The Walking Dead has earned a reputation for being too dismal. Even though it’s a series set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, some fans have come to feel that TWD never offers fans, or its characters, anything to hope for.
That was especially true of Season 7, which saw the rise of Negan, Rick’s emotional meltdown, and the brutal deaths of many fan-favorite characters. For some, the persistent darkness was too much. But for those that stuck around, it seemed like Season 8 was turning a corner and offering a glimmer of hope.
2. Carl was more than just Rick’s son
Speaking of hope, let’s talk about Carl. As the Grimes men and their allies settled into life in Alexandria, The Walking Dead became a TV show that was about more than just surviving the day-to-day reality of maybe being eaten by zombies.
It started to offer a glimpse of what the future might hold. With the birth of Judith, Carl’s sister, and the elder Grimes’ child’s slow evolution into a pragmatic, strategic young man, The Walking Dead felt like it was starting to show us that the next generation of survivors could thrive.
And the series laid out that theme from the very first episode.
3. The Walking Dead started with Carl as the mission
Before Negan, before the Governor, before even Daryl Dixon and his glorious crossbow, The Walking Dead was a series about one man trying to find his family in a nightmarish world. The earliest episodes centered on Rick searching for Carl and his wife Lori. And when he finally reunited with them, his relief was truly palpable.
In the seasons since, Carl has frequently been the catalyst for Rick’s biggest moments. He’s watched his son endure a number of truly close calls, from being shot twice to having to deliver his sister and kill his mom. Keeping Carl alive has been a grounding force for Rick, one that’s reminded him what he’s fighting for.
And Carl didn’t just offer that stability to Rick.
4. He was one of the only original characters left
If you’ve been a fan of The Walking Dead long enough, you’ve probably watched at least one of your favorite characters die (#GlennDeservedBetter). Of the original crew of characters, only three currently remain that appeared in the first episode — Rick, Morgan, and Carl.
Now, Carl will be leaving, and Morgan is also shipping off to another storyline on another show. That will leave just Rick and a handful of other characters that we’ve been following since TWD’s early days.
Sure, a high mortality rate can be expected on a series like The Walking Dead. But with every long-lasting significant character’s death, the series loses a little bit more of its humanity. And fans have taken notice.
5. The backlash around Carl’s death was swift
For a long time, Carl Grimes wasn’t even a particularly popular character. As he muddled through his awkward preteen years and made some questionable decisions, fans often complained that he was one of the worst characters on the series.
But as he’s grown up, we learned to love him. So when we found out that Carl was The Walking Dead’s latest casualty, plenty of fans were less than thrilled. Even Riggs’ father took showrunner Scott Gimple to task for allegedly misleading his son about his future on the series.
The negative reaction to this shocking development isn’t great news for The Walking Dead or AMC. Ratings have been down all year, and the midseason finale’s numbers were decidedly grim. If even more fans decide not to return to watch a teenager die a miserable death, it could mean that AMC’s ratings juggernaut has finally hit a snag it can’t recover from.
It’s not just the ratings fallout that could spell doom for TWD, though.
6. This is a huge departure from the comics
There have been plenty of differences between The Walking Dead comics and AMC’s adaptation over the years. But Carl’s death marks perhaps the most significant change yet.
Carl is still alive and well in Robert Kirkman’s series. And many of his most interesting storylines from the comics have yet to play out on screen. They could shift his role to other characters. But ultimately, Carl’s loss will mean a huge change in how the story feels going forward.
And it leaves fans feeling even more uncertain about what’s coming next — which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
7. Carl dying changes everything — and not for the better
In the midseason finale, Carl told Rick they had to start thinking about more than just killing their enemies. “Finding some way forward, that’s order,” he said. “That’s something more. That’s how it’s gotta be.”
Maybe Gimple and the rest of The Walking Dead crew should have listened to him. The series has made a name for itself with its shocking deaths. But these days, even when they serve a purpose, they take a huge toll on the audience’s ability to stay invested in the show.
Carl’s impending death feels especially cruel. It’s partly his age, and partly the fact that Season 8 saw him really coming into his own and deciding what kind of a man he wanted to become. And it’s also because it feels as though it was done, once again, to shock fans — maybe even more than to actually move the story forward.
By snuffing out Carl, and thus his optimism, for the days ahead, the series is taking a huge risk. Yes, it will propel Rick, Michonne, Maggie, and the rest forward. But then what? Even if they win, they’re looking at a future without one of the key people they were fighting for.
It will be hard for The Walking Dead to shake the nihilistic aura that comes from Carl’s death. And the series may have just given many fans the biggest reason yet to give up on the series, and its perceived heartlessness, for good.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.
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