How can it be possible for The Walking Dead to continue its story without Carl? Fans are upset and confused as to how a character that works symbiotically with Rick's can be axed without collapsing a fundamental premise of the show: a father motivated to protect his children. While Rick, of course, still has his adopted daughter as well as an entire adopted family now to push him forward, how will Carl's death change Rick? That question may be answered in understanding the legacy that Carl has left behind. There is also something to be said about the turning of generations and the clashing of the old and the new. Though audiences may have viewed this returning episode as a bit drawn out and despairing, there is meaning, even beauty, in Carl's death.
The Parent and the Child
Though his strength, faith, and confidence might suggest otherwise, not even Rick Grimes is immune to the dark fears of loss that often visit a parent. This fear has gripped him, often silently and sometimes in a rage, since the pilot episode. Along the way, Rick has managed to pull Carl back from some truly nightmarish scenarios, but it hasn't been until encountering Negan that Rick's fear and doubt in his ability to be the protector has reached a fever pitch. While fear, as Negan has learned and put to vigorous use, can manipulate people -- it will never inspire them. Rick learned this lesson with the losses of his friends at Negan and the Saviors' hands and with the response of love and support among his family. He continues to lose people as he fights this war, though, and the fight is getting more complicated and costly with every moment. So, what can Rick learn now from Carl's life and death to reorient himself in this battle and in his principles?
The look of stunned shock that drops over Rick's face when he sees that his son is dying is to be expected, but it may have come from a surprising place for Rick. When Rick agreed to fight the Saviors, he understood what he was exposing himself and his loved ones to. The possibility of Carl being captured or killed in the fight was a reality Rick accepted. What he did not expect was that Carl would die while deliberately not fighting, and in fact, while helping a total stranger find food and shelter. For a man with such a solid, inborn sense of justice, this cruel irony must be nothing less than devastating -- but at most, it could be a catalyst for a revolution of the mind and heart of Rick and his group.
The Life of Carl Grimes
There have been many kinds of deaths on The Walking Dead. Some of them are righteous, some brutal, some tragic. Some are all of these things. While a few of the most emotional deaths have been sudden (think back to Beth or Hershel), with Carl, he knows he is going to die. We get to see the days leading to his death through his eyes and emotions. What we find is not a child, fighting against and cursing his fate. Instead, we see someone who has grown into an adult, who takes action to put his affairs with his family in order. This maturity and strength is admirable enough, but Carl takes it further and chooses to create meaning from his death. He looks forward to a future he will never see. He spends his last moments communicating his dreams for everyone -- Negan included -- to try to ensure that his vision is realized. In these ways, Carl has reached a level of enlightenment beyond most people. Choosing to cling to dreams of peace and hope despite overwhelming adversity and choosing to have compassion for friend as well as foe, perhaps these are choices only a young person could make in a society actively at war. Maybe a part of their role during these times is to remind others to remain hopeful and to live and die according to virtue rather than fear.
At the Bottom of Everything
The unexpected and almost exalted happiness Carl finds in understanding who he has become and how he has chosen to live his life in the face of death could not be better encapsulated by a song than "At the Bottom of Everything" by Bright Eyes. Knowing first that the song was written in the wake of the September 11th attacks, a time of great fear, turmoil, and heartbreak, draws certain parallels with the current emotional climate of TWD. The song takes that kind of fear and reimagines it. It is almost a love letter to death, recognizing that it is one and the same with life. It is a playful jab at the supposed scariness of death, because, when you get down to the bottom of things, our deaths are exactly as meaningful as we make our lives. Understanding the meaning of Carl's life within the context of this song enriches the mythology of his character.
Rick, Michonne, and the rest of the family are gutted over the loss of Carl in "Honor," but if they are to learn from the example of his life, they must hold onto the joy of knowing him and the hopes he had for the future. If he has left behind a legacy, it is one of inspiration and honesty, the kind that even Negan himself is vulnerable to at times. In Carl's words, "sometimes the kid has to show the parent the way." The old world is gone, but with that loss comes the opportunity to create a new one entirely.
Other Lingering Questions
- What kind of showdown should we expect at the Hilltop? Also, what repercussions will Dwight face now that his cover is blown?
- Has Morgan gone into full clear-mode again? How is this affecting those around him, and will he come back around like last time?
- What is going on with Rick's right arm in the final shot?
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