The Walking Dead 'Coda' Review: Was Killing Off [SPOILER] Necessary or Manipulative?
Major spoilers for the midseason finale ahead!
Last nights midseason finale of The Walking Dead was a strange beast. It was essentially punctuated equilibrium, with a few gut-punch moments sporadically punctuating entire acts of stagnation. The pacing was off, and for most of the episode it didn't feel at all like a midseason finale. Of course, all of that was pretty much forgotten when Beth, who had just started to become a real force to be reckoned with on the show, was unceremoniously killed off. I'm completely heartbroken, of course, but aside from that, did it make sense from a writing perspective, or was it a cheap attempt at shocking the viewers? Let's perversely examine the pros and cons of my favorite character being shot in the head:
-The actual death was well-done, and appropriately shocking. I knew Beth was going to die when Carol wasn't really a part of the proceedings, but seeing Beth shot in the head in a ten-second exchange still floored me. That's how onscreen deaths should feel, especially on this kind of show. No prolonged goodbye, no time to get any closure, they're here and then they're gone. That's how it would be in real life ("real life" in a zombie apocalypse, but whatever).
-There is definitely an argument that Beth's death makes more sense thematically than Carol's would have. The show has gone to great lengths to tell the viewers that Beth is the one who doesn't survive. She's sweet, kind, and morally pure, which has no place in such a harsh, Hobbesian world. Just as there's no place for art in a zombie apocalypse, there's no place for a nice blonde girl who sings songs about summer and friendship. While Carol has adapted to the kill-or-be-killed philosophy and developed a cruel streak to match the cruelty of a post-apocalyptic world, Beth was the epitome of a person holding onto their humanity, which this show does not look kindly on.
-Many, including Emily Kinney, have said that Beth's death felt too abrupt, particularly since the writers never got a chance to fully explore the relationship (and especially a romance) between her and Daryl. I'm a huge Beth and Daryl shipper, and I thought their standalone episode was one of the best of the series, so I'd love to agree, but I don't, at least not on those grounds. This is not the kind of show that should cater to shippers, and for all the reasons stated above, it probably makes more sense that Beth and Daryl would never get a chance to fall in love. Just as Beth is too pure a person to survive in this world, the relationship between her and Daryl was too idealistic to see a happy ending. Last night, when speaking about Beth's death, Norman Reedus said Beth "embodied purity and honesty in Daryl's world," and I think he's exactly right. His relationship with Beth, whether it ever would have turned romantic or not, represented Daryl's desperate desire to rediscover his own kindness and vulnerability. On that level, it's fittingly tragic that she would be killed before they could really be reunited. They were never going to end up in a sweet, happy relationship where she plays the piano and sings to him every night, because it wouldn't fit the character or the show in general.
-Several aspects of the writing made Beth's death feel manipulative. First, the obvious, that Beth's character development had become more significant and complex in recent episodes, which is a classic strategy for making a death hit harder. But using the word "classic," rather than cliched or easy, is probably being overly generous. Every genre show uses that tactic, and it's a little tired.
-Maggie found out that Beth was alive, and then got to the hospital just in time to see Daryl carrying out her corpse. This would have been an extremely affecting moment, and not necessarily a manipulative one, if Maggie hadn't been acting like she forgot she had a sister all season. Robert Kirkman tried to justify Maggie seemingly giving up on Beth with the typical argument that she doesn't have time to mourn or look for Beth when they're fighting for their lives, but there have been many calm periods during this season in which Maggie could have at least talked about Beth. Instead, they reminded us that Maggie loves her sister just so we could see Lauren Cohan cry over her dead body.
-I realize that Carol was in bad shape physically, but they had absolutely no reason to have her get captured by Slabtown if she wasn't going to join the fight. All the fans rightly expected Carol to kick some ass during the final showdown, but it turns out that they only had her in the hospital in order to make it a little more surprising that it was Beth who got killed. It served no other purpose aside from manipulating the viewers.
-I said that this death could make sense thematically because Beth was unfit for this world, but the recent character development clearly showed her adapting. Her character arc was fascinating precisely because she was struggling to become tougher and able to protect others while still holding onto her humanity and compassion. Adding insult to injury, she was shown to be continuing that trend in last night's episode most of all. She demonstrated once again that she was willing to kill when it was necessary, this time even more directly than when she killed Gorman, and most significantly, she said, "I don't cry anymore." This steeliness was always in her, as we saw in her reaction to her boyfriend being killed by walkers last season, but it was finally starting to manifest itself in more interesting ways.
She was not only becoming grittier, but demonstrating her unusual levels of perception. Even her last words, "I get it now," showed that she was very much adapting to the world as it was. Statements like "You keep telling yourself you have to do whatever it takes, just until this is all over. But it isn't over. This is it. This is who you are and what this place is until the end," showed that she profoundly understood the situation they were in, and was able to call others out for their transgressions and deep-seated hypocrisies. Killing Beth now, when there was so much more room for interesting character development, gives the impression that The Walking Dead doesn't value character development in itself, but just uses it as a tool to make deaths more shocking.
-It might be a tribute to her character that she was killed just as she was really showing signs of becoming hard. If she's the paragon of kindness and innocence on the show, then this could be seen as a mercy killing; she was killed off before she could become a callous and cruel person like Dawn. This interpretation is reinforced by Dawn's insistence that she was "just like Beth" when she was young. Beth can afford to be idealistic now, but if she had continued on this survivalist kick, she might have lost the ability to show compassion, just as many other characters have. One could argue that this is why she was killed in such a way that she wouldn't come back as a walker; it might seem brutal, but someone who died trying to save Noah would never want to be reanimated into something that eats people.
I can see the justifications for killing Beth, but mostly it just seems gratuitous. Killing Beth at this juncture just serves to cheapen the great character development that came before it. It's similar to the Terminus storyline, in which they brought in cannibals for the sake of the shock value of seeing them bleed people into a trough and eat Bob's leg, only to kill them off within a couple of episodes, before they could explore the characters or their thematic significance in any real way. The Walking Dead tends to straddle the line between a typical "genre" show and a well-written drama that just happens to take place in a zombie apocalypse. I'm usually the one insisting that it is predominantly the latter, but last night it let me down in a big way.
-It was nice to see Michonne use her sword as always, but that whole detour at the church felt unnecessary to include in this episode.
-Seeing Emily Kinney start to cry on The Talking Dead killed me. That's all.
-Rick's characterization is much improved this season. Killing Bob 2.0 wasn't necessary, and I'm interested to see where this character arc takes him, especially since he directly quoted Gareth with that "You can't go back, Bob" business. Although, knowing this show, the fact that I'm interested in his character development probably means they'll kill him off in the midseason premiere.
-Morgan is coming back soon, and Robert Kirkman promised on The Talking Dead last night that the next half of the season will see "possibly the biggest shake-up the show has ever gone through."
-Sorry, Glenn, you're probably next.
See you in 2015! I promise to be less bitter by then.