Those who watch
The Walking Dead knew that something big was coming. Midseason finales have, in general, become fodder for cliffhangers and plot developments that sometimes even upstage season finales, and with The Walking Dead, that typically means the death of a major character. Last year, we got the beheading of Hershel, Beth’s father, and in Season 2, the midseason finale revealed that Sophia – Carol’s daughter, the search for whom drove much of the show’s plot to that point – was indeed dead and turned. Season 3 breaks the mold with the introduction of Tyreese and Sasha, but we still get the death of Oscar, a former inmate who had joined Rick’s group and shown that he was actually trustworthy. (Season 1 wasn’t long enough to have a midseason finale.) All this to say that going into the midseason finale of Season 5, nobody was expecting everyone to walk away.
Which is one of the reasons why everyone should’ve walked away. The fact that everyone was expecting a major death due to the pattern established by previous seasons (plus the revelation by Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd that it would be a “heartbreaking” episode) is a big signal that the show has become too predictable. Rather than maintaining the suspense of “someone could (but might not) die at any time,”
The Walking Dead has become more of a “we know someone’s gonna die, just tell us who it is already” sort of show. One of the best things the writers could have done, in my opinion, would have been to not kill anybody (except walkers). But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Given the buildup of Beth’s character in a couple episodes last season and a couple more this season, anyone who didn’t predict she would kick it when the showdown came — and we’ve seen the showdown building up to the midseason finale for several episodes now — hasn’t really been paying attention. (Also, Beth alludes to her probable death in a late Season 4 episode just before she is taken by the then-mysterious “ambulance.”) This is another reason why nobody, but especially Beth, should have died. The writers have, over second half of Season 4 and the first half of Season 5, given Beth an opportunity to shine. However, it feels like the only reason the writers allowed Beth’s character to grow at all was so that they could kill her off. It wasn’t to give her any sort of independent voice or to explore the depths of her psyche. Given that the episode aired right after Thanksgiving, the most apt analogy I can think of is that the writers and producers fattened Beth up for the feast.
Throughout Seasons 2, 3 and the first half of Season 4, Beth was mainly a prop character. In Season 2, she was a whimpering, suicidal wreck who almost redshirts herself when she runs to her undead mother. In Season 3 and early Season 4, she manages to overcome her grief, but remains mostly backdrop, suitable as a target of Carl’s affections (and Axel’s lust), a nurse for Hershel, and a babysitter for Rick – but not much else. She is a notably, and frustratingly, frail female amidst a cast of stronger women, including (but not limited to) Lori, Andrea, Mischonne, Carol, Sasha, and Maggie.
It’s not until after Beth escapes the destroyed prison with Daryl that she is allowed any sort of true expansion. Together, Daryl and Beth – who previously had not interacted much – help each other overcome grief and demons past, to the point where many fans were “shipping” them (i.e., hoping for a full-fledged romantic relationship), because apparently it’s impossible for two people of the opposite sex to undergo a traumatic experience and develop caring feelings for each other without also screwing. After about two-and-a-half episodes of Beth and Daryl bonding, Beth is taken by some unknown people driving a black car with a white cross on the window.
We don’t find out until a few eps into Season 5 that Beth was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. There, she was “cared for” by a group of (former) police officers and an adequate, but not exactly first-rate, doctor who had created a tenuous but survivable environment in the upper floors of the hospital. In this environment, Beth’s character really begins to take its own shape. She befriends Noah, a young man who had also been kidnapped/rescued by the Grady Group, and even manages to convince the doctor that his triage system might be a little flawed. She fends off an attempted rape by Officer Gorman using a walker – the dead Joan, who apparently had committed suicide due to being repeatedly raped herself as part of the “compromise” that kept the hospital running – as self-defense. In a brilliant moment of quick-wittedness, Beth then tells Dawn (the chief policeperson/hospital administrator) that Joan and Gorman are looking for her. Using the distraction to their benefit, Beth and Noah attempt to escape the hospital; unfortunately, Beth is caught, but Noah gets away and later runs into Daryl and Carol, ultimately soliciting their help in going back to rescue Beth.
Beth’s forced readmission (so to speak) into the Grady Group allows her a more independent role as Dawn’s ward. Beth kindles her spark of assertiveness, using both cunning and persuasion to get the medicines needed to save Carol’s life. She also begins expressing dissatisfaction and even outright contempt for Dawn and the other Grady Group members. After Beth witnesses one of the officers berating and knocking down an older attendant, Dawn tries to reason with Beth about the concessions required to create stable conditions until someone can rescue them, rationalizations that appear unconvincing even to Dawn herself. When that doesn’t work, Dawn appeals to Beth’s morality, intimating that Beth was a cop killer for her part in Officer Gorman’s death and that Beth owed her gratitude for withholding that information from the other cops. In typical bully fashion, Dawn piles on additional explanations how much Beth is indebted to her, all of which Beth cuts through without wavering. When they realize that another officer (the man Beth had seen abusing the attendant) has overheard their conversation, Dawn switches into tyrant mode and tries to make the other officer jump down the elevator shaft. A fight ensues, and after a brief moment of consideration, Beth decidedly pushes the officer to his death, saving Dawn and herself.
All of this is to show how Beth has grown from the simplistic, adolescent extra of Season 2 into a confident, complex woman in Season 5. The pause before pushing her attacker down the elevator shaft indicates that she must make a decision to compromise her morality, just as Dawn did, albeit in a different manner: It’s not a reactionary deed, but a calculated one. This is important for the scene in which Beth dies, because she makes a similarly calculated move then. At the moment when she could have walked back to Rick and the gang, abandoning Noah (at least momentarily) to Dawn’s authority, Beth instead chooses to stab Dawn in the shoulder with the surgical shears she had premeditatedly hidden in her cast. Beth’s last words before getting the back of her head blown out are, “I get it now,” both a referral to Dawn’s earlier admission of killing her predecessor because he had become too tyrannical and an accusation that Dawn had become just like him.
One problem I have with all of this is that it feels like
The Walking Dead‘s writers decided one day that they were going to pick a character they had never focused on before, make people care for her, and then kill her off just for the hell of it. The whole trajectory of Beth’s maturation feels like it was engineered to elicit a cheap emotional reaction from the audience. This is problematic, because if that’s the case, then the writers have done us all a disservice. Comparing Beth to the many characters Joss Whedon has killed, there is a huge difference. While Whedon may get a kick out of killing beloved characters, he never makes them beloved just so that he can kill them. They have a value of their own, and that is why we love them. But Beth never quite got there. She was on her way, but even with as much growth as she showed, she never truly broke out of her supporting character role. Everything that happened to her, everything the writers wrote for her, was to further someone else’s storyline. But this is “crit fic” – I don’t know this is what the writers thought or intended, I can only conjecture.
More importantly, Beth stabbing Dawn was completely out of character for her – even with the compromises and complexities that she had accumulated in the episodes leading up to it. That Beth “get[s] it now” does not mean that she has to come to the same conclusion as Dawn and attempt to kill her; in fact, it subordinates Beth’s own intelligence and morality to have her act like Dawn. By precedent, Beth grew to understand Daryl’s demons when they were traveling alone together, but she never became like him, even though she did learn from him. To have Beth stab Dawn in a predictably ineffectual way undermines all the growth she had undergone since her father’s decapitation, not to mention the more nurturing and merciful aspects of her character. This is maddening because one of the things that
The Walking Dead has done well in the past with a number of characters is to show how people can retain their humanity despite the monstrous situations they find themselves in. With Beth, the writers failed on an opportunity to deliver that same message.
However, the biggest disappoint for me is that the narrative could have been so much better had Beth simply walked away. You know what would have been even cooler? If the Grady Group had also turned around and shut the doors, leaving Dawn all alone with a drawn gun facing Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and the rest. Dawn might still have gone berserk and shot Beth, but in that instance the actions would have felt more appropriate and less like the writers were trying to pull a fast one. Or they might have completely shocked everyone by having a midseason finale that
didn’t include a major death.
Am I going to stop watching the show because of Beth’s death? No, although I will watch it with a little less enthusiasm each week – not only because I liked Beth and am sad to see her go, but because I am afraid that there will be other characters propped up for target practice just like she was. I hope I’m wrong.