(WARNING! This post will contain major spoilers for the Season 7 premiere of the AMC hit The Walking Dead. If you haven’t watched it, or are intent on watching it, you may not want to read the rest of this post. I just needed to write a few thoughts, so no worries if you skip this one.
If you’re still here, enjoy!)
The Walking Dead is one of those shows that you either groan and think “oh great, more zombies”, or you find yourself into to a (likely) unhealthy level. And it’s the type of horror TV show that even someone like me – a man who dislikes horror jumpscares and does still have nightmares from time to time like a 12-year-old hiding from scary movie night – can appreciate and watch, since it’s not really a horror show… it’s a dramatic survival story in a realistic world turned upside down from a plague that spares no one, and leaves survivors to run and hide from not only monsters, but one another.
And I love it. I love the psychology of it, the interpersonal connections made from companions that take a long time to trust, but receive the full benefits of a patchwork family that will truly watch one another’s backs. It can be a beautiful experience of friendship and human appreciation interspersed with some of the best-slash-goriest effects ever put to basic cable. And I adore every moment of the drama of searching for supplies and never trusting the shelter people find for themselves.
Which is why it’s heartbreaking that not one, but two major character arcs were cut during the season seven premiere last Sunday: first Abraham, the tough-talking soldier fighting for his family unit and all that entailed, and Glenn, the heart of the group acting as both hardened survivor and compassionate human optimism. The badass asskicker and the guy who seemingly saved everyone whenever they needed it, and every time they needed it. The two guys that I would estimate the majority of fans watching appreciated highly, if not personally strived – in some way – to be.
When I watched the scenes that launched a million YouTube reaction videos, I was shocked. Watching with my girlfriend and with my hand over my mouth, I saw the incredible violence of these two characters endured… barbed-wire baseball bat swings to the top of the head, then continuous beatings until nothing even resembled a head anymore. It was disgusting and horrific, and honestly I could go the rest of my days never watching that episode again, and I’ll be better off for it. But being the story lover that I am, I started to think of why I cared so much to exclaim in my bedroom, with the lights off, hugging my lady close while we watched one of the most hated figures in modern comics utterly destroy two of TWD’s favorite characters.
And it’s because they mattered. Not in “real life”, they never “actually” existed in any physical way. But nevertheless, they mattered. Because characters matter. Just because they aren’t real doesn’t mean they don’t leave a tangible impact of the psyche or life experience of an existing human, which sounds like the sort of thing a person shouldn’t have to say, but we sometimes need to remind ourselves of.
Let me offer another, even more impactful example: while we experience many of the major life moments in his life, Luke Skywalker’s protagonist role from Star Wars has arguably touched more lives than the vast majority of major figures in Western history. His battles with his father Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker and conflicting feelings between the Light and Dark Sides of the mystical Force have caused the need in many fans to look within themselves and consciously think about how they may have felt experiencing conflicts with their own friends, family, even parental figures.
Likewise, such an impact could be said of many other figures. Superman was an isolated being surrounded by people who couldn’t possibly understand what he was experiencing; Heisenberg from Breaking Bad, desperate enough to save his family from financial and human ruin by making and selling drugs, then gradually turning a corner into becoming something even worse; John McClane from Die Hard, the cop who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but still felt it necessary to fight back as much as he was able; Charlie from The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, the high school student with a dark secret that just wanted to make friends. None of these characters have ever existed, but the fact that they can be dissected into fuller understanding – their backstories, approach to life, justified decisions and unfortunate miscalculation – all of that makes them real. It puts them into a perspective that we as those experiencing their stories can empathize with.
That makes them real.
It can even be argued that makes them MORE real, since we can see more of their world, their actions, their reactions, and even get directly inside their heads to understand the logic used going into whatever happens next. When we see the world through their eyes, they become real. Loving them, disliking them, hating them, hating what they stand for, that emotional investment only goes to make them more impactful in the “real” world, no matter if they were never born.
The deaths of Abraham and Glenn were especially impactful to me. Even though I knew they both were dead in the comics – Glenn from the fateful Lucille to the dome, Abraham dead earlier in the comics but on borrowed time when televised – I wasn’t prepared for the brutality. I always admired Glenn for doing what he did in the story… he was the savior of many in the crew many times over, including protagonist Rick and racist-until-otherwise Daryl, whom came to see him as one of the most admirable people parts of their group. Abraham was a badass and always ready, yes, but he was fiercely loyal and stepped up at a moment’s notice to do what he saw as the right thing. Facing him would be a nightmare, and fighting alongside him was a dream come true.
And as I saw the reactions to both of their bloody deaths, I knew everyone I saw in those videos knew exactly what I did. They knew how important even the fictional heroes we have can be to us. Whether crying or simply shocked, there was a strong reaction for the simple fact that they mattered.
I’ll leave it at that. Did you have a strong reaction, positive or negative, to the episode? Did you care at all, or do you have a differing opinion on fictional figures? Let everyone know in comments.
Stand tall, my friends. And a salute to Abraham and Glenn: two protagonists worth rooting for.