A Twitter pal told me this morning that he assumed I hadn’t been posting this week because I was too broken up about you-know-who’s untimely demise on Sunday night’s show.
The truth is I wasn’t posting because I’d been barfing non-stop from the schmaltz overload. I mean, Carl and Michonne blubbering about how each was the other’s best friend? Volcano.
Two problems with the Very Special Episode in which we said farewell to the man-boy known to us as Carl and known to his dad, inexplicably, as “Coral.” One: We already had two months to process the loss. The midseason finale ended with the revelation of Carl’s fatal bite. They couldn’t even do a fake-out (thank god) in which Carl’s infected limb might conceivably be amputated in the nick of time before the infection spread. He was bit on the abdomen, after all. As such, Sunday’s interminable send-off provided closure after we’d already gotten closure, more or less. If you’re going to devote the better part of two hours to a dramatic death scene for which the audience has had ample time to prepare, you need your writing to really pop — make it either inventive, defying the usual deathbed farewell cliches, or understated to prevent a schmaltz overdose. The writing on this show usually, ah, does not pop. The least they could have done would have been to deny us the traditional tragically-heroic suicide in these circumstances; for instance, I always thought Roger’s decision in “Dawn of the Dead” to die naturally and “try” not to come back, only to fail, was a surprisingly poignant death for a zombie movie. But nah, TWD had to do things by the book.
Two: Think back to a memorable moment shared over the years between Rick and “Coral.” Not so easy, is it? I remember Rick melting down when Carl told him that his mother was dead and I remember that weird episode when Rick was passed out on the couch while Carl stood over him and emoted. But the two didn’t share many affecting moments, which meant the grief balloon never really inflated on Sunday night. The prototypical Rick/Carl scene on TWD was Rick telling Carl to stay put while he went out on some risky adventure and Carl telling him no, that he wanted to help, then doing something daring either with or without Rick’s approval. A tighter father/son bond would have packed more of an emotional wallop when Carl finally checked out.
But it goes beyond that. The key point on Sunday night was, supposedly, that everything Rick has done in the name of survival has been for Carl’s (and Judith’s) benefit. He’s super-dad, willing to kill with his bare hands and wage war on psychotic megalomaniacs like Negan if need be to protect his kids. That, allegedly, is what made Carl’s death so tragic. Rick’s reason for living was gone! But … Carl was never really Rick’s reason for living. The two kids made Rick more relatable but the essence of his character isn’t that he’s a dad who’ll do anything for his children. It’s that he’s a civilized man who’s desperate to bring civilization back from chaos. That’s the power of the sheriff’s hat that Carl passed on to Judith. Rick’s always been a lawman at heart and his moral dilemmas almost always involve him struggling with how much force to use in the name of imposing order on his new society. He’s forever being tempted to Shane-like ruthlessness in dealing with his enemies and forever checking himself lest he become the sort of monster he’s trying to protect civilization from. Carl really had nothing to do with that. In fact, Rick would be a more interesting character if he *didn’t* have kids since it would force the audience to consider why one might be so dedicated to preserving a peaceful domestic society without a biological investment in it. What makes Rick, the sheriff turned “nice” gang leader, tick?
But you never had to answer that question on the show, because there was always a lazy (wrong) answer: He has kids.
It would have been fascinating if the writers had developed a personality clash between Rick and Carl, with Carl straying towards a more Shane-like (or even Negan-like) approach to the new world he lives in. How would Rick have reacted if his boy had decided that unapologetic ruthlessness and warlordism was a moral necessity or even a virtue in making his environment safe? What would the sheriff have done if his only son had gone rogue? The show flirted with a storyline like that when Carol killed Lizzie in season four, but Lizzie was a character of no import and was dangerously disturbed, not calculating and self-interested. Imagine something like the Carol/Lizzie story arc with Rick and Carl. What’s more likely to command Rick’s loyalty, his son or the law and order of the mini-society he’s created? That would have been a wrenching dilemma for Papa Grimes, one which he would have ultimately but very reluctantly resolved in favor of society. It would have established the true nature of his character, as all good father/son stories do. Instead, though, the writers chose to make Carl a chip off the old block, a kid with enough humanity left in him to gamble on a lonely survivor like Sadiq instead of killing him on sight. The younger boy from the Kingdom who killed the Savior with a sharpened pole while Morgan deliberated was, I assume, written to be a counterpoint to that: Whereas some kids understandably lose their humanity growing up in a world like TWD’s, Carl never did. That made him an unusually good kid. But also an uninteresting one.
Exit question: What was achieved with the umpteenth iteration of “Morgan and Carol are unstoppable bad-ass ninjas who can take down any superior force with stealth and cunning”? We’ve known this for about five seasons, right?