Good Endings and Bad Deaths – on The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale and writing in general

[Hey, guys – meant to edit this earlier, but this is just to say… I no longer believe all of this. In part because of the very things I’m talking about here, which I frankly find unbelievable. Possibly just in the denial phase, but come February, well, we’ll see if there’s actually another writerly analysis post to write. Because I think there might be, and that might be really cool for a number of reasons.

Scott Gimple would still be an asshole.

Carry on.]

Okay.

This is going to be sort of a weird hybrid dinosaur-unicorn of a post – except way less cool than such a thing would ever be – wherein I’m half sobbing tantrumy 14-year-old and half Author Who Has Opinions About Writing. I’ll try to make it more the latter than the former but no promises.

Massive, massive spoilers to follow.

bethgreenpost

If you watched the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead – ironically entitled “Coda” (just fuck you Scott Gimple just fuck you you fucking asshole) – you know what happened and you know why everyone is mad: Beth Greene died. More, Beth died in a manner that the majority of viewers and critics alike seem to regard as unforgivably poorly written and handled, and if you’ll permit me, I’d like to talk about why and what it means. Because it strikes me as a master class in how not to kill off a major character.

Note that I’m not saying “a master class in not killing off major characters at all”. I’m talking about how. How is the problem, and it’s how that deserves the majority of our attention.

I need to say at this point: I loved Beth. I loved her so much. I loved her because she was what the show needed so badly: she was a single bright spot, someone who looked naive and sheltered but proved herself strong again and again, someone Daryl called “tough” and said “saved herself.” Because she did. She came back from depression and suicide, defiantly decided to live in the face of hopelessness, sang in the dark, refused to give up after everything rational should have told her that her entire family was dead, didn’t back down in the face of Daryl Dixon’s drunken, stupid, abusive rage, and found beauty and meaning in the world when no one else could. I know several people who have struggled with depression and suicide for whom she became a role model. Someone on TV that reflected not who they were but who they wanted and were determined to be.

And she was one of those precious unicorns: a woman on a major speculative TV show who seemed poised to be a genuinely strong character – flawed, complex, beautiful, powerful, interesting.

And Scott Gimple killed her.

He has since insisted it wasn’t done for shock value. I can’t see any way in which that’s true.

So let’s talk about what went wrong.

I could say a lot of things about how badly this went down. About the misdirection and the fan-baiting. About how little sense it makes to put a character’s name in the opening credits only to kill her half a season in after three episodes, two of which she only appeared in part. About how manipulative it was, especially since this was apparently planned since season 4. About how poorly Emily Kinney appears to have been treated, told she was going to die on the same day the script went out and given no real explanation regarding why. About how genuinely upset and even hurt the rest of the cast appears to be. About how bad the episode itself was: awkwardly, boringly paced for forty minutes only to explode in a baffling, clumsily written scene in the last ten, wherein very little actually made much sense unless you tilt your head and squint.

I could talk about how ridiculous it is, regardless of her motivations, for Beth to stab an armed woman who had drawn her gun with a tiny pair of scissors in a completely non-lethal location. I could talk about how out of character it is for someone who we’ve seen become so strong and clever to do something so utterly suicidal, and potentially lethally dangerous for her friends. I could talk about how problematic it is to kill off yet another woman on yet another TV show primarily for the sake of its effect on all the surviving characters, foremost among them being Daryl, which makes this feel way more like fridging than I’m comfortable with.

But I want to talk about death here, and its meaning, and how pointless this felt.

One of the primary defenses of this kind of thing – I see it every time – is that this kind of story is about the brutality of life and death, about how no one is safe, about how much survival means and costs because anyone can die at any time. That it’s about realism, and to that end people we love are going to die in ugly ways. I’m sympathetic to that point of view. To a degree, I’m right there with it. Guys, I kill a lot of people in my stories. A lot. Of. People.

The problem is that this isn’t real. It’s fiction. It’s a story, and it’s being written. By writers. Who are making decisions, not taking dictation. They make choices about who to hurt and who to kill (and let’s face it: not just anyone dies; certain people are almost always safe), and those choices have logic behind them, or they should. When that logic fails, there are narrative consequences. And when that logic is coming from a problematic context – because every piece of writing ever done exists in the context of culture, which means it exists in the context of politics – there are consequences for that as well.

It’s a general convention that everything in a story should be there to do a job, and it’s a convention for a reason. Randomness doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying narrative. It doesn’t make for a particularly interesting narrative. Even things that appear random should be there to do something, and the logic according to which these things exist should be robust enough to support them. It’s a common problem in novels for characters to act without clear motivation, or for those motivations to be inconsistent. It’s a common problem for events to occur that should carry tremendous narrative weight but fail to do so because their foundations are not strong enough. At best you have something that’s just sort of weird and inexplicable. At worst you have something infuriating, and that’s when you lose your audience.

I think we’ve all had that ragequit throw-the-book-across-the-room moment.

Brutality and death in a narrative like The Walking Dead‘s are vitally important. They should totally be there. They are, in fact, a core mechanic – one of the primary means by which the audience navigates the world and makes sense of what goes on inside it. It’s the method by which things move from point A to B to C. For The Walking Dead to work, people have to suffer, and they have to die.

Which is why it is absolutely necessary that those deaths have meaning, and that the narrative support that meaning. If that’s what there is, if that’s what you’re using as a means to move the story forward, it needs to be meaningful in order for that movement to resonate. Killing a major character in a stupid, pointless way is the one cardinal sin in this kind of writing, the one thing you can’t gloss over or excuse.

Understand: I’m not complaining about brutality or abruptness, or suggesting that deaths can’t or shouldn’t seem senseless to the characters. The characters are not the audience. The characters are not perceiving their own world in terms of arcs. One of the things that I think is causing confusion but which is vastly important is that distinction between what the characters see and what the audience sees, and that distinction is what allows pain and death to carry narrative weight. Death might not make sense to them, but it cannot be senseless for us in the context of the larger story. If it is, that’s a failure of the writers for not building a strong enough foundation for their own stuff.

(It’s an additional problem that Scott Gimple seems determined to hold the line regarding Beth’s offing actually having a lot of meaning for real you guys, it totally did. No, it didn’t, and Scott Gimple is a fucking asshole.)

Beth’s death came at a very, very awkward point in her arc, at a time when she was rising. She hadn’t yet reached her apex, or begun her movement downward toward a conclusion. Anticipation for where she might go had been built by the writers themselves but very little had actually been done before it was suddenly over. That, combined with the bizarre stupidity of the way she died, is why her death fails to work in terms of narrative construction. That’s why it’s bad writing.

Look, guys, it just sucked.

There are additional problems here (oh my GOD there are so many problems what the actual fuck Gimple, how are you such a fucking asshole). One of the reasons why death on a show like The Walking Dead needs meaning is that you’re going to have to do it a lot, and if things get stupid and senseless each death has diminished impact. Each narrative move suffers for it. Suffering itself is another major point, and one of the things that frustrates and angers me most about how it was done: it comes off primarily as a way to hurt Daryl Dixon even more, a man whom the show has not stopped tormenting since he first appeared. Part of this is me being all like WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP HURTING MY BABY but another part is beginning to feel that the pain is losing its narrative significance. Characters must be hurt in order for there to be stakes, and in a story like this they need to be hurt often and badly. But there always needs to be something coming from it, some sense that somewhere along the way there will be a payoff, and on Sunday, for Daryl, that was killed along with Beth. With a single, stupid, accidental gunshot, everything he went through in order to find her felt pointless. His pain felt pointless. It felt like pain purely for the sake of pain. I thought, “Look, if you’re just going to keep doing this to him, I’m not sure I want to come along for the ride.”

That’s not good. Writers: You don’t want that.

And finally – especially when you know the writer(s) planned an outcome like this all along – it has the effect of tainting everything that built up to it. One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis is from The Great Divorce, his short take on The Divine Comedy, regarding the nature of Heaven and Hell on perception:

The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.

Lewis is talking about salvation, of course, but I think the same idea applies to the construction of a plot and the making of a story’s ending, and what it means to have a good one. A good ending doesn’t need to be happy or uplifting, and it doesn’t need to tie everything neatly together. But it does need to make some kind of sense of everything that came before. If it manages this, it works backward, refining and highlighting every strong thing that led to it. If it fails, it also works backward, but only in as much as it highlights how poorly what came before justifies the ending, and diminishes its meaning.

This is true of endings, and it’s true of deaths. Thus far, The Walking Dead’s writers have actually done a fairly good job of it. On Sunday, they failed in every important respect.

It’s terrible that it was Beth whom they failed. I am SO sad. I am so angry. I think I will be for a long time. I’ll probably come back to the show in February, but I can’t see doing so with the same investment, because I no longer trust the writers to do their jobs competently. I’ve stopped books several pages in because something convinced me that the writer fundamentally didn’t know what they were doing. I’ve quit TV shows halfway through their run, not because I didn’t like the direction in which things were going but because I lost faith in the writing. Sometimes that’s the result of a long, slow decline. And sometimes it happens in the time it takes to fire a single gunshot.

At least it’s instructive. Thanks, Gimple.

You fucking asshole.

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11 responses to “Good Endings and Bad Deaths – on The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale and writing in general

  1. I have to take a minute to stand in total ovation. As a writer, I can’t tell you how this made my night. AMEN

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s perfect.

  3. You’ve summed up everything about Beth’s sudden death that appalled (and continues to appall) me as a student of literature and storytelling. Very nicely put.

  4. Daragh O Leary

    Thank you! Praise be unto you! 🙂 THIS SUMS IT UP PERFECTLY!

  5. Well fucking said.

  6. I have no words! I applaud you! This is everything every Beth fan is feeling at this point!

  7. loved everything except the possible apology in the beginning. did u change your mind or what. well let me help you. gimple IS a asshole!

  8. #BringBethBack

  9. I didn’t think it was that bad. She learnt things could go to shit at any second, she prepared for it (with the sissors). Then when victory was snached from her grasp at that last second. The one thing her painful failed escape attempt had earned – making this latest hell worth while. To be taken away, and accepted, for the sake of spite. The fucking injustice, because of this bitch, I would have had reached for my secret sissors too. She went for the artery in her neck, she missed, she was shot instinctivley but with purpose. And Darrel never entered her head for one second during that entire transaction.

  10. I am giving you a virtual standing ovation. Either Beth’s death was the stupidest, most asinine thing this show has ever done or her fake death was the most brilliant thing the show has ever done. I hope for the latter but fear the former. February will tell the tale.

  11. Gimple has to be the biggest idiot in the world to make the same mistake that Mazzara. The scene Daryl loading the body of Beth not saddened me opposite me caused anger and disappointment with the program because they have to think that the fans are idiots to believe us all that crap and I agree with everything you said. Personally I’m not back in February for my term TWD because I crossed the line of no return.

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