o. Carl Grimes is a goner. What comes next? According to Andrew Lincoln, who plays the Grimes patriarch, Rick, on The Walking Dead,“from this episode onwards, that shit got real.”
The actor told Entertainment Weekly that the decision to kill off Carl shocked him; as he recalled, when Scott Gimple broke the news to him over the phone, Lincoln went so silent that the show-runner “said three times, ‘Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?’ I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.”
“I never saw it coming because I always thought that the kid would be the future, and that was the whole point of this—that I was going to hand over the revolver and let him walk off into the distance, you know?” Lincoln continued. “So it was incredibly shocking. Everybody was reeling from it and continue to reel from it. I mean, you can’t write a character like Rick Grimes—whose engines are his wife and his son—and you take away the wife and you’re left with the son. And then, of course, there’s Judith, but then you take away the other engine that fuels him, that got him off his deathbed in the first-ever episode, and you take that away.”
As horrific as the news was, it’s hard to imagine that it came as a shock for many fans. Carl might be one of only five original characters left in The Walking Dead, but deaths like this have become the show’s bread and butter—and they’re almost always tied to premieres and finales. What’s more, the nature of his death has become painfully commonplace. Like Glenn, who often came close to death countless times before his actual death, Carl has seen his fair share of peril. And killing children has never been off limits; Sophia was revealed to be dead in Season 2 after a long search found her zombified in Hershel’s barn. Still, after so many seasons, Carl’s death will certainly come as a blow—and lest any fans be holding out hope for a miracle cure, Gimple said on Talking Dead that there’s really no hope for recovery.
“That is a bite on his side,” the show-runner said Sunday night. “The bite is going to play out as we’ve seen bites play out, and it’s very important to Carl’s story and the entire story what happens in the next episode. So I’m just focused on the fact that Carl right now is alive and he has some business to attend to.” Gimple later added that, indeed, the bite “is a one-way ticket. But I’d like to think that the things we see in the next episode are so important to his life and the other characters’ lives.”
Lincoln also confirmed to E.W. that the death will have a profound effect on Rick. Carl’s coming of age during the zombie apocalypse has served as a central anchor for the comic series in a way that never quite translated on the TV series—and yes, in the comics, the character is still alive. During the latter half of the season, Lincoln said his character became “very challenging” to play: “He’s in the middle of a war and he’s lost the reason he went to war,” Lincoln told E.W. “It’s a big deal, so to try to thread that needle was very challenging and exciting. There were many days that the show felt very dangerous again, and that was an unexpected sort of offshoot from what was a very, very dark and shocking revelation.”
In truth, that’s what these high-profile deaths are always meant to do: dispel the notion among viewers that some characters have “plot armor.” In Carl’s case, there was also a real-life factor that could have motivated the death: Chandler Riggs, the actor who plays Carl, is starting college. Still, whether Carl’s death was the show’s decision or Rigss’s, it plays into a pattern that has long plagued The Walking Dead:as much as it wants to be a character-driven drama, it tends to kill its characters off in predictable and frustratingly protracted ways.
Glenn Rhee, who died during last season’s premiere, remains the most egregious example of The Walking Dead’s manipulative use of death. The character’s potential demise was widely discussed, as it matched a story beat in the comic—but Scott Gimple insisted that the series would be doing a “hard left” from the comics. What he meant, in fact, was that two people would die during the incident that resulted in Glenn’s death—an outcome many fans predicted, and one that left plenty of critics outraged. The show-runner’s somewhat misleading remarks also came shortly after a fake-out incident involving Glenn—a scene shot to look as though Glenn had died when in fact he had managed to escape a massive horde of zombies by crawling under a dumpster. It took several episodes for fans to find out what had really happened to Glenn, and when the reveal finally aired, it was widely derided. That gimmick was bad enough on its own—but coupled with Glenn’s eventual death, it especially drew ire.
And Glenn was just the most recent character to suffer such a fate. Just over a year earlier, there was Beth Greene, who died in Season 5. Although she survived a suicide attempt in Season 2, Beth’s character was largely on the back burner until Season 4, when she became close with Daryl on the road. Then came her kidnapping in Season 5. Half the season was spent attempting to save her from capture at Grady Memorial Hospital; then, during the midseason finale, when the group finally managed to rescue her, she died at the last minute. There was also Andrea, who was isolated from the group and given a strange romance with the evil Governor, only to redeem herself through death. Even Sophia’s death, after so many weeks of searching, followed a similar pattern.
Time and time again, The Walking Dead has proven that despite its deeper aspirations, it only knows how to create profound character development through deaths that are almost always conveniently timed to occur during premieres and finales. That’s part of why the show’s additional reaches for depth—such as its ongoing struggle to present Eugene as a complex, fascinating character—often fall flat.
Carl’s death also confirms another thing about the series that diehards already knew: the TV series will have a different ending from the comics. That was a decision made by Robert Kirkman and company to ensure that the show would not run into the same spoiler problems Game of Thrones did when it eclipsed its source material. But at this point, it carries another implication, too: the Walking Dead comics readers enjoy and the Walking Dead TV series have two very different outlooks. The comics might be, in part, a story about a boy coming of age in the zombie apocalypse, but the TV series can no longer claim such a bent. What’s left for this show now? Is Judith, whose mother died giving birth to her and whose now-dead brother named her, next? Was there no other way to write Carl off the show? Could he not have disappeared, leaving some sliver of hope that he could have survived? What future is Rick left to fight for? That’s likely what future episodes will explore, but I’m not sure the series itself actually cares about the answer.