UPDATE: The arrival of a new character signals a possible shift in season three.
It’s an old and uninteresting complaint: black characters on TV — and horror movies — get killed or written off too early. Clearly, that is what’s been happening on The Walking Dead with T-Dog. (For a good rant, head to Clutch).
I’m going to try to push the debate further, past “isn’t it a shame characters of color get short shrift.” The truth is the T-Dog Problem signals broader problems with The Walking Dead and some other prominent dramas. It’s a symptom of an ailment the writers might actually care to remedy, beyond appeasing black viewers.
First, the basics. Earlier this season T-Dog told Dale he was concerned about being black and a weak link in the group. This was an insightful moment from the writers, foregrounding the idea that being different after the apocalypse might be a problem — after all, in times of stress, people stick to their own — and an interesting meta-commentary on the fragility of being a black character on TV — T-Dog was a great candidate for a quick kill. Then T-Dog disappeared. I literally forgot all about him until last week, when he had one line that was almost comically interrupted. This week T-Dog was similarly marginal, leading Vulture‘s recapper to state: “By this point, the casual dismissal of one of two minority characters…on this show is feeling extremely suspect. The only thing saving it from being full on offensive is that the same treatment is being given to Hershel’s entire white family.”
The problem isn’t only about a tired debate over representation.
The real problem with T-Dog’s absence is it undermines the point of the whole show. Let me explain.
Viewers might forget that early in the series one of the hardest decisions the group had to make was whether to keep on Daryl’s racist brother (basically, in a nutshell). The overall narrative suggested that even a skilled manly man wasn’t worth having in a zombie apocalypse if he couldn’t get on with a diverse group of people. Good ol’ American values of equality triumphed even with bloodthirsty demons at the door. Walking Dead has always been about re-constructing the nation from scratch. The writers made us root for these people, in doing so we were rooting for America.
Since then, the cast of underwritten characters have become increasingly unlikable. The focus on the Shane-Rick-Lori love triangle, and the stagnant nature of every character — Rick is moral, Shane is evil, Lori is worried, Andrea is unhappy, Dale is self-righteous, Carol is sad — made all these white people seem self-interested and petty. Rick is a good guy but too caught up in family and friend politics. It’s hard to root for people so caught up with themselves and so uninvolved with each other.
The Rick, Lori and Shane story hobbled the show’s underlying point: this was about good people in difficult circumstances trying to rebuild society and find a moral code in a world without laws (that’s what the whole Carol-abused-wife thing was about too). Last week the show came back to this theme. But the group’s reluctance to stop Randall’s death made them seem short-sighted, mean and petty. Why should we care about their journey? At issue is whether they were still decent, whether they still cared about people who were different and outside their personal struggles.
Or whether they cared about each other! This is the point: the show’s limited perspective and singular focus on the nuclear family — underscored this week with what happened to Shane — has eclipsed the large cast. We don’t get multiple perspectives, or different characters interacting — what about Hershel’s family? Or Carol? What do they do? What are they thinking? T-Dog is only the most egregious and visible example because he’s the only black guy.
T-Dog’s invisibility is an extreme example of how the show has failed to include multiple perspectives, or to indicate any sense of mutual caring or consideration from the show’s characters. Other great shows about society — Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, The Wire — did this well. They utilized a large and diverse cast to make a case about morality, humanity and its institutionalization.
The “big question” of Walking Dead is whether decency and civilization can survive without institutions. When Dale last week implored the group to save Randall last week, he was making the case for decency and compassion. This is (idealized) America! We don’t kill “others”! The writers killed Dale to force the group to get back on message. Yet they need to expand the scope of the show to its characters.
By giving more time to Glenn, T-Dog and the rest, the writers will find more heart and purpose. Because we are supposed to like these characters — Walking Dead is a moral show, not an antihero-driven soap like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos.
While I’m at it, there are a lot of shows that could benefit from this, not the least of which is Falling Skies, which started out diverse and quickly became a show about white guys and the women who love them. (Seriously, the black characters just kept disappearing!).
I checked out of Terra Nova when it seemed clear the “outsiders,” led by the terrific Christine Adams, had “gone native” in the cheapest way.
True Blood still has Lafayette, but, again, underwriting and mishandling Tara, now possibly dead, only made Sookie appear immature and too focused on her silly love triangle. What is True Blood, you know, about any more? Whatever it is, Sookie is at the heart, and she is best when with Tara, which I guess the writers finally remembered in the last episode by putting her in danger.
There could be other examples and counterexamples, but my larger point is that all these ambitious and expensive dramas purport to be about something ambitious (usually, America, capital “A”), which is why they are expensive. But it’s hard to be ambitious when you narrowly focus a sprawling cast on the concerns of a few (almost always white) characters. You have to show multiple perspectives and treat every character with respect. If you don’t, you risk sinking into the narrative sinkhole that trapped The Walking Dead, where the characters appear flat, uninteresting and unsympathetic to the concerns of others and each other. Doing that intentionally might actually make Walking Dead interesting, but clearly that’s not the point.
All this might be premature. Glen Mazzara promises more T-Dog. For the show’s sake, I hope he’s right.