I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
After spending an intoxicating hour with the cast at New York Comic Con 2013, I started in on The Walking Dead. My marathon stalled after a few episodes, but kicked back in in earnest when my internet friends, whose opinions I trust implicitly, were all a-flail over Season 4. I ignored complaints that the show’s pace was steadily unsteady and that story decisions often felt arbitrary. Y’all know I have serious TV FOMO. Nothing was going to stop me from catching up and getting in on the feels.
Honestly, I’ve enjoyed the ride. Yeah, the Governor-centric episodes were a slog, but they were just a blip in a binge. I sat back and watched characters make decisions that seemed good only for getting themselves or their friends killed, but I also watched Daryl find the family he thought he’d always be denied and Carol lose everything but her inner survivor and Glenn and Maggie latch on to each other out of a necessity that grew into the deepest commitment. The Walking Dead isn’t Mad Men. It’s not Breaking Bad. It suffers, frankly, from being so universally adored. But there are good things here.
When previously referenced internet friends rally around a thing, it’s usually because that thing has struck a deep emotional chord. That chord for The Walking Dead? Beth Greene. Until the group was forced to flee the prison and Daryl ended up on the road with Hershel’s youngest daughter, I didn’t even realize that so many people I knew watched it. Even Kim had told me I could pass on the series if I felt like it – and you know she doesn’t let me off the hook when the viewing is necessary. (WATCH LOST SAGE. –Kim) While I tried to catch up, I wondered and actually fretted over how I’d feel about Beth in season 4. (You people put so much pressure on me, you don’t even know.) She was just sort of there, among everyone. Meanwhile, Daryl and Carol’s unlikely friendship was being developed and acted so beautifully. She saw him, guys. When no one else did.
And then “Still” and “Alone” happened, and I got it. I got it hard. Season four had its gaping plot holes, obviously, lest you begin to forget which show we’re talking about. Are there really no follow-up questions for Eugene and Abraham? Does Maggie even remember that she has a sister? But the choice to get Daryl and Beth off by themselves seemed pointed and deliberate for a show that’s usually anything but. The beauty of their private time is that Beth didn’t say to herself, “Ah, yes. I will take this wounded man and fix him with my youthful beauty and hope.” Beth was just doin’ Beth. And that alone inspired Daryl. She thought her singing annoyed him and she went ahead and sang anyway.
Beth: I’m gonna leave a thank-you note.
Beth: For when they come back. If they come back. Even if they’re not coming back, I still want to say thanks.
Daryl: Maybe you don’t have to leave that. Maybe we stick around here for a while. They come back, we’ll just make it work. They may be nuts, but maybe it’ll be all right.
Beth: So you do think there are still good people around. What changed your mind?
Daryl: You know.
Beth: Don’t ‘mmm-mmm.’ What changed your mind? …..Oh.
Maybe I’m naïve or far too optimistic, but I thought that this series was about how people adapt to survive. I thought it was about how people band together to survive and how lives can be rewritten in a world that’s nothing like what it was. Beth’s development gave me faith that this reading was correct. She had made it – she survived through the prison, even if its just because the show forgot to kill her off. When the zombie apocalypse comes, most of us will be Beth Greene, soothing babies and searching up and down for one slug of peach schnapps. There aren’t many Michonnes waiting to be unleashed, I’m fairly sure. Beth was a sheltered teenage girl, beloved and protected by her family, who made it through the end of the world by sheer will. And it meant so much to me and the rest of the fandom that grew up around Beth that her specific brand of strength could be recognized.
To clarify: nobody is advocating that Beth should be placed in a Snow White-style glass coffin and kept safely out of harm’s way. (Whatever you think of her “Disney-eyes,” Beth is no helpless princess.) Did it hurt when she was taken? Like hell. But it was an exciting story decision and not just for the fire it lit under the ass of a raw and emotional Daryl. We would get to see Beth face an enemy (we assumed) completely on her own. And she was ready. While everyone else on the show fell apart emotionally and endangered each other with rash (often stupid) judgement calls, Beth stayed practical. She held onto her hope. She’d momentarily lost her will to live back at the farm. Once she had it back, she gripped it tight. Beth fought her way back from the edge of her own depression (while there was arguably nothing left to live for: BAMF.) – what’s a few walkers in comparison?
Daryl: What do you want from me, girl, huh?
Beth: I want to you stop acting like you don’t give a crap about anything. Like nothing we went through matters. Like none of the people we lost meant anything to you. It’s bullshit!
Daryl: Is that what you think?
Beth: That’s what I know.
Daryl: You don’t know nothing.
Beth: I know you look at me and you just see another dead girl. I’m not Michonne. I’m not Carol. I’m not Maggie. I’ve survived and you don’t get it ’cause I’m not like you or them. But I made it, and you don’t get to treat me like crap just because you’re afraid.
It’s like the ghost of Beth Greene is speaking directly to Scott Gimple and The Walking Dead writers room here. (Way to pre-avenge your own death, bb.) But we were all fooled. It turned out that Beth was “just another dead girl” to them. She was a grenade and they were just waiting for the right moment to pull the pin. (“Right” being the most opportune time to let her death wreak havoc on their other, more important characters.)
We’re in shock too, Joe. Scott Gimple admitted that they’d been building to Beth’s death through season four. So basically, in the eyes of The Walking Dead writers, a character like this only deserves growth and screentime if the hammer is hanging over her head. “Let’s make her a fully formed person so we can squeeze as much shock and despair out of her death as we can,” they said to themselves. “Not because, you know, we’re writing an ensemble TV show and she’s a part of it.” Not that the show is known for writing consistently compelling characters. For every Daryl, there’s a couple of Father Gabriels. And every time that guy appeared during the fall finale, my timeline was flooded with caps-locked GO AWAY’s and at least one “WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS.” (That was me.)
It’s not that Beth died. It’s the way that she died, and how it cheapened her entire journey. It felt like a victory to see the importance lent to her by the extended trailer from San Diego Comic Con. I’d seen it already when I showed it to Kim on my phone that day. We held our breaths while we watched the group ready their weapons for the showdown at Terminus, and Kim would periodically demand “WHERE’S BETH?” as the rest of the two minutes played out. And then there she was. After an uber-dramatic blackout, – which suggests that the editor at least appreciates her as much as we do – the trailer cut to the petite blond in some kind of facility in a showdown with a mystery woman. We geeked out. There’d be a place for someone like Beth Greene in this new reality – one that couldn’t be filled by anyone else. She’d stayed alive this long for incredibly specific reasons – different from Rick’s, different from Carol’s – maybe that’s what would see her through this test.
Instead, Beth had to bear the brunt of the show’s pathetic efforts to create another Governor. Humanity is the true danger: fine. But Dawn and her cronies were unfocused sketches whose motivations were never clear. Even the gang down at Terminus had a rationale for luring and devouring humans. If you can make that work, surely you have the capacity to make an epic power trip feel the slightest bit plausible.
The fall finale was an inexcusable mess. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they included what they did and left out nearly all moments that fans actually wanted to see. Besides the opening scene with Rick and Officer Bob (No second chances – he’s that sort of man.) and the actual exchange, “Coda” seemed to have been outlined via dart board. And a drunken dart thrower. Who’d been blindfolded and spun around a few times. As I mentioned before, the writers failed to generate any audience interest in Father Gabriel’s ~crisis of faith~, so every second spent on him is a wasted one. And I could have done with approximately 99.9% less of Dawn’s speechifying, none of which did a thing to shed any light on that character and why she did what she did.
All that talky talk failed to explain why Carol went from comatose to ready-to-go in less than 30 seconds or why Dawn cared so much about taking Noah back or why Rick and Daryl would be dumb enough to bring Noah to the exchange in the first place or why Beth, who was taking out walkers left and right earlier in the season, “forgets” how to strike a deadly blow or why she’d risk her family in what could have been an ensuing blood bath just to…what? Make a “statement”? Beth’s driving trait is that she still believes there are good people out there. The hospital didn’t bleed her of that faith, not when she found Noah there, and later Carol. The moment Carol came in on a gurney, surely Beth knew that her family had come for her – that they’d never given up. So why then? Why would the very conviction that’s saved her life over and over again suddenly make Beth weak and reckless? What about Beth Greene screams “martyr”?
Speaking of Carol, we were robbed of that scene. Couldn’t we have cut 45 seconds of Gabriel’s adventures in dicklessness or Dawn’s psycho story time to allow Beth and Carol to have that moment? After the way the show’s PR team shamelessly fanned the ship war flames between the two, maybe we were owed some time with these women, to acknowledge their bond.
But Beth doesn’t matter really, and neither does Carol. This is about Daryl, you guys. He’s so sad. He’s really messed up and has been since he was a child, though I suppose the writers don’t think you truly get that yet. (That self-help book he carried around was about as subtle as a kick in the face.) Beth’s death, as we saw it, mars the whole first half of the season for me. Because it turns out that the show had been manipulating us into rooting for one or the other for weeks. It’s obvious now that only one of Daryl’s women was going to make it out of this fall alive and I resent my feelings about these characters being maneuvered by a creative team who have written us off as “shippers.” I especially resent being made to feel resentful of Daryl Dixon, because I love that man. And this isn’t his fault, even if considerable more importance has been placed on his arc than those of his lady castmates.
Manpain is what we’re all here for, right? It’s certainly why I tune in every week. I can’t get enough of it. I love how Carol and Beth (Carol to a lesser degree) are worth more to the writers as half of Caryl or Bethyl than they are on their own. And I’m really psyched that the room felt that they could generate more absorbing drama from saddling Daryl with another loss than by re-integrating a stronger, more mature Beth into the group. I knew the moment that she dropped that the only real Daryl/Beth moment we’d see this episode was him carrying her broken body. Enough out of the blond girl. She enchanted our hero and now we’re going to take him from her just to see what he does. If only she’d been less sunny and desirable. It’s almost like Beth was punished for that. In fact, it’s exactly like Beth was being punished for that. Why else would she experience a sexual assault that no other character ever knew about? What was the point of that scene, except to torture her? Nerd entitlement strikes again.
My timeline was a teeming mass of outrage and disappointment on Sunday, but my friend Shannon won the rage battle. Somehow, in the heat of our despair, she managed to sum up this glaring error in judgement perfectly:
I’ve lost characters that I love. But when this is done with respect and integrity, I will keep on coming back for more heartbreak. I am done with showrunners who confuse living, breathing characters for plot points that they are responsible for creating. I don’t want to see another female character on this show or any other be derided, maligned, abused, and finally, stripped of her agency just to make a male character feel things.
I couldn’t stomach Talking Dead on Sunday, but I have read EW’s interviews with Norman Reedus and Andy Lincoln. And it’s clear to me that both of them are struggling with this creative decision too. (Reedus: “All these little slivers of hope are being taken from this group one by one.” Lincoln: “Yeah, man. That was such a body blow. I really didn’t see it coming.”) During an earlier after-show this season, I tweeted the following: “Hardwick is chin-handsing the idea of Beth as a leader. One of us.” And Norman favorited it. Because he saw the potential, like we all did. There was so much more of Beth’s story to tell. If Beth had walked out of Grady, she would have been right there with Daryl and Carol and Rick, making calls and driving the group. It’s frustrating that Gimple and his writers couldn’t even envision that, or figure out how to tell that story. It’s a disappointing resistance to change, which proves to me that whatever growth the show saw last year was just a fluke.
So long, The Walking Dead. We’ll always have fan fic – where Beth Greene is alive and kicking ass.
Beth Greene was a light in the darkness, and you can be too. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and throw them some dollars if you can.