How to Get Away with Shocking Character Deaths (Or, how The Walking Dead messed up)
Fuck. Me. Spoilers, so many fucking spoilers, to come.
I just watched the midseason finale of How to Get Away With Murder, and I am, as the kids say, shook. It’s rare that a show manages to pull off a twist that isn’t a) visible from five miles away but also b) is satisfying and makes logical plot sense, but they did it. After their usual eight-episode build-up, the ninth episode revolved around what was promised to be the death of a major character- and they delivered, killing off Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch). For those not in the know, he is ostensibly the show’s protagonist, the character through which we entered the show- and his death (and what little we know about), was genuinely shocking, a brilliant, heart-crunching bit of television. And it got me thinking about another heavily built-up death on this season of television- yes, I’m talking about The Walking Dead– and why How to Get Away with Murder’s murder-twist worked, and why The Walking Dead’s absolutely didn’t.
I haven’t spoken about The Walking Dead’s season premiere but it was, in a word, shite. Not only were the deaths obvious and trite, they were executed in a fashion that was both overblown and underwritten, and it just didn’t offer the brilliant introduction to Negan we were promised.
I think the first and most important thing that made HTGAWM and TWD different in the way they led up to their deaths was the characters they chose to kill, and the point those characters were in in their arcs. Basically, Abraham and especially Glenn were characters who’d long distantly run out of character development rope; they were stagnant, fully developed, just sort of wandering around waiting for a death momentous enough that fans wouldn’t be pissed about their offing meaning too little (God, remember when TWD was ballsy about the characters it killed off? Me neither).
Wes, on the other hand, was still relatively mysterious (especially when you consider the fact he is the show’s protagonist)-as a main character, it felt as though there were many more routes for him to travel down. Killing him off at this point in his story is staggering, because we’re so used to character deaths being signposted by neat tie-ups and satisfying endings. HTGAWM doesn’t give a shit about your plot-armour, whereas The Walking Dead will wring every inch from their fan favourites, even when they’ve really run out of plot purpose, meaning the show has come to lean more on pandering than the authentically shocking storylines.
Outside of the show, I think it’s worth noting what we got in the lead-up to these deaths; if you’re not familiar with HTGAWM, each season revolves around a series of flash-forwards to a dramatic murder(s), culminating in the midseason finale where the full event is revealed, with the (often more dull) back half of the season dealing with the fallout. They built up to the death within the show, giving us eight weeks to speculate and theorise about the death before they revealed it, and The Walking Dead…spent four months over the summer with the entire cast and crew gurning over who was going to die. HTGAWM’s build-up was lean, tight, and in-universe; TWD gave us a long, flabby, four-month wait that just left too much time for speculation and made the actual episode feel like a welcome end to an exhausting slog (when the episode finally aired, I hopped on social media just to I could find out who sodding died already, God).
So, there we go. In the last couple of months, we’ve seen perfect example of how to pull of superb character deaths that are shocking, satisfying, and moving, as well as a masterclass in how to suck out every drop of interest, drama, and emotion out of what should have been powerful kills. I never thought I’d say this, but How to Get Away with Murder succeeded where The Walking Dead failed- and I know what show I’ll be watching when the season picks up in the summer (hint: it’s not the one with Jeffery Dean Boring).