Did 'Fear the Walking Dead' really just kill that character?
Warning: Full spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of “Fear the Walking Dead” follow…
I wrote a post last week about the decision that the producers of “Fear the Walking Dead” made to introduce two young, male, African American characters only to immediately “kill one off” and leave the other in the balance. It’s a horror trope that many fans of the genre are familiar with and that the parent series has been accused of employing with some regularity. Some felt that I was making much ado about nothing with my original article. Full disclosure: I’d seen the second episode and knew what was coming next. I wanted to write my initial piece to avoid spoilers, however. Also, I’d been taken aback by the choice even before I saw the second episode and realized that the trend continued.
The second episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” has now aired and we’re able to speak openly about the events. It’s now two episodes in to this spinoff series and all three male African American characters have been killed. Of course the show may make different choices down the line and – as I mention in my original piece – this is a racially diverse cast, which is wonderful and appropriate for the location. I think it’s important to talk about representation and why it matters, however. In fact, it’s our one job to analyze the language of media, think about what it’s saying, and open the door to conversation. As far as “just turning off your brain and enjoying” entertainment, there’s a time and a place for that. This isn’t it.
Take a look at Alan and I give our initial thoughts on the series in the video below:
Having said that, this is a complicated issue and there’s no one correct approach when thinking about it. However, I postulate this: We live in a culture where young African American men are victims of violent deaths – often at the hands of authorities – with, frankly, alarming regularity. I genuinely believe that the response would be different if those were white male adolescents. What does that have to do with a zombie TV show? Well, in the language of media, when certain characters are given agency – meaning they are drivers in the story and we see the world through their eyes -- it means they are of great value. Subconsciously, we understand this. When other characters are introduced as either only relevant in terms of the impact they have on that character’s journey and/or disposable, subconsciously we understand that they are of lesser value.
So when when some of the most popular forms of media deliver the message that some characters are more essential than others, it reaffirms a belief – a dangerous, toxic belief – that is already rooted in our culture’s collective subconscious. The fact that a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag is necessary at all sort of tells the whole story about that. We really should not need reminding. Now, what happens in the real world is more crucial, of course. It’s absolutely necessary to keep things in perspective. However, that doesn’t mean that we leave media unexamined, because the danger is that things can become cyclical. Particular messages are delivered via film and television, where repeatedly, specific types of characters are given preeminence, authority, complex inner lives, and autonomy, which tells us that they are more essential. More human, in essence. We then we see that idea echoed in our external reality. And vice versa. And round it goes. Again, this is obviously a far more complex issue. Far more. However, entertainment does play a role in both reflecting and reaffirming certain ingrained perceptions.
There are, in fact, characters that are deemed of greater value in this created zombie universe. In the case of “The Walking Dead” we weren’t seeing “if Tyreese dies we riot” tee-shirts, because Tyreese (who was hugely important in the comics) really only got a meaty story during the episode in which he was killed. In “Fear the Walking Dead” three male African American characters were introduced in the first two episodes, and all three have been killed. Is that something we should reflect on? I think it is.
Original story follows…
Two of the biggest questions that audiences asked themselves ahead of the debut of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” companion series “Fear the Walking Dead” were: How will it distinguish itself from its parent series? And will “Fear” learn from “The Walking Dead”’s mistakes?
The former remains to be seen, though we did speak with “Fear the Walking Dead” showrunner Dave Erickson about his long-term plans for the series. As to the latter, there are multiple interpretations of the exact nature of “The Walking Dead”’s mistakes. The audience does tend to make their thoughts on the matter known, though. Often in the form of memes.
As one example, “The Walking Dead” has come under fire in the past for what many felt was a pattern of introducing male African American characters only to either quickly dispatch them or give the character a minimal storyline until just before they were set to die on the series. For some, it seemed as if the show would only have one central male African American character at a time.
Take a look at one of the aforementioned memes capturing this sentiment below:
I was legitimately surprised when I watched the premiere episode of “Fear” and realized that they’d introduced two young, male, African American characters -- Maestro Harrell as Matt and Keith Powers as Calvin -- only to kill Calvin off by the close of the entry and leave Matt in what appears to be imminent danger.
It’s a fairly stereotypical failing of the horror genre, and one that I’d thought that the “Fear the Walking Dead” team would be sensitive to. When I sat down with Erickson, I asked him if he’d thought about the potential response from viewers.
“I would start from this place,” Erickson reflected. “The show is set in Los Angles, primarily in East LA, so we wanted to make sure that the background of our characters and the ethnicity of our characters mirrored the environment they’re living in. Really with the exception of Madison (Kim Dickens) and her kids. So, it is a tricky thing, because the reality is that if you’re going to do a show that is multiethnic and diverse, and you’re doing a zombie show, then ancillary characters are going to die.
“There have been times where there were characters that were scripted one way and then we found an actor we loved and so we cast that actor. The thing about Calvin is that Keith is such a good actor, so it’s always that thing when someone dies on the show where I would love to hold onto them because I would love to see where the character would go. I understand that it’s delicate, and I know there have been conversations about the original show. I would say this: there is nobody who is safe. I’m not thinking of anybody in particular when I say that."
“We’re going to continue to live in an urban environment for the indefinite future," the showrunner continued. "And what I don’t want to do is get into a situation where I’m casting people or writing people specifically because I’m thinking, ‘If that character dies in six episodes is it going to be…[problematic].’ I know I can’t speak for [‘The Walking Dead’ showrunner] Scott Gimple and I’m sure he’s responded to this. But we have a predominately Latino cast so I’m sure over the course of these episodes, this season, and beyond, there are going to be people of color who die, there’s going to be…Everyone is going to die. Honestly in the pilot stage I didn’t even think about it. It didn’t come up in conversation.”
I find it interesting, and in some ways fairly problematic, that the creative team didn't think about these decisions ahead of time. And that raises a few questions for discussion: Is the ethnicity of the characters something that he and the other “Fear the Walking Dead” producers should have thoughtfully considered in pre-production? Particularly in regards to the characters who will be quickly killed and therefore read as of lesser value to the story?
Now to be fair, “Fear the Walking Dead” is -- as Erickson points out -- a diverse cast and it's not yet clear who will come to the forefront as a central player. Nor can we be sure of Matt’s fate. It certainly doesn’t look good for him, though, and Calvin’s introduction and immediate death is indisputable. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as noticeable if there were a larger/more significant presence of male African American characters. Or if audiences hadn’t already been having a similar conversation about “The Walking Dead.”
I’m not sure that getting into “outrage” mode is really helpful, here. Nor is dismissing the question as “PC nonsense.” In fact, I’m sure neither is. I can’t really stop anyone if that’s what they want to do, of course. I do think this is something that warrants examination. It's almost shocking that the "Fear the Walking Dead" producers didn't consider the implications. First, because it is by-in-large the same creative team that’s behind “The Walking Dead.” Second, the deaths of young African American men in our very real world is so much at the forefront of our cultural discourse right now. Perhaps these are two entirely separate issues.
Certainly, people are going to die on a zombie series and if – as Erickson says – it’s a diverse cast, then people of color are going to die. The very last thing anyone would want is for either of those actors to lose out on the roles. Yet, it’s hard not to notice that only two young African American male characters were introduced and one is now gone. It's subtle, but in the language of media that can say, "These characters are less important than the others." So, I suppose it does feel like some thought should be put into who dies and when - even on a zombie series.
Let me us know what you think in the comments below. Are these questions that we should ask ourselves as viewers? I certainly feel they are. Should producers also put the onus on themselves to think about the message they are delivering when it comes to the treatment of certain characters as disposable -- or not -- in media.