I’m going to take a break from politics this week to address something that must be addressed about the hit show, The Walking Dead. The show on AMC is based on the comic by Robert Kirkman yet only loosely follows the original plot. SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE SHOW AND COMIC will follow below.
The series first tackled the issue of race in the second episode, painting a redneck character as blatantly racist and thus being dealt swift justice by the show’s protagonist, Rick. Hooray for people overcoming prejudice in the apocalypse, unfortunately the writers and producers haven’t come nearly as far. In the opening of the second season we first started to glimpse that the show was unable to unshackle itself from traditional stereotypes. The female characters provided all the source of conflict, being panicked, incompetent, stubborn, and leading some to label the show as sexist. For instance, one of the first scenes of the second season involves the group encountering a zombie horde. Andrea, at first oblivious to the danger, immediately starts panicking and only barely manages to fend off an attacking zombie, Carol begins exhibiting signs of hysteria and must be physically restrained, and Carol’s daughter Sophia runs off for no reason twice. The first half of the second season was based entirely around Sophia’s disappearance and the drama between Lori, Rick, and Shane with Lori’s most notable contributions being her patented “deer-in-the-headlights” look and her inability to drive a car. However perhaps I am being too harsh, for all the sexist fall-traps of the second season, by the third, the female characters have become strong and capable. Furthermore, we are introduced to Michonne who is pitched as a badass zombie-slayer that completely reverses any instilled notion about gender and the ability to dispatch zombies.
However, the appearance of Michonne carries with it the realization that the writers and producers can’t handle black characters. ”Showrunner” Glenn Mazzara has already made it abundantly clear in interviews that he has no appreciation for the show’s source material and is more concerned about marketing the show to a mass audience. Given this consideration perhaps the writers are merely reflecting a deeper consciousness about race that prevails in society rather than their own personal projections. Nonetheless, this third season has been the most problematic in terms of race and like the sexism, would not necessarily be racist in itself, yet when compared to the comic, production and character decisions become much clearer and quite frankly, much more racist. Let’s start with T-Dog.
First, the name T-Dog is already problematic, having already successfully been mocked for its connotation in the 2005 film Waiting… where a young wigger called Theodore insists on being called “T-Dog, yo.” Then there’s the whole T-Dog/Tyrese controversy. Tyrese was a character from the comics whom Rick’s group meets early on in the series. He’s a big black guy that quickly becomes Rick’s good friend and essentially (and perhaps more literally) his right-hand, if not the group’s leader altogether. Tyrese has a relationship with Carol and his daughter is also in an interracial relationship yet both are absent from the show. Tyrese is the one who goes on a zombie-killing rampage out of rage instead of Rick and plays the foil to Rick’s poor leadership at times. In other words, Tyrese is a huge character in the comics.
Meanwhile, the show has insisted that T-Dog is a completely different character, yet the fact that Tyrese is absent, T-Dog is there, and both their names start with “T” is enough to raise some eyebrows. In some sense Tyrese’s spot is also filled by Shane and Daryl, both appearing in the show when they are absent in the comics. So there’s the first decision, a positive black character is replaced by either meek T-Dog with hardly any dialogue or two white characters. When T-Dog inevitably passed, there were two main threads of comments on his character, one that you knew it was coming because T-Dog had an unusually large amount of dialogue that episode, and two, that as soon as he was killed, he was immediately replaced by another black character. This has led to speculation that the “T” actually stood for “Token.”
And then there’s Michonne, a character far too big to exclude, yet quite possibly the biggest letdown of the entire series. On last night’s Talking Dead, AMC’s never-negative self-review, black actress Yvette Nicole Brown compared Michonne to the Terminator, calculating and deadly, yet this is perhaps the most forgiving interpretation out there. In the show Michonne is always angry, confrontational, and paranoid. She is a killing machine no doubt, but her humanity is non-existent. Even her implied friendship with Andrea never gets past the implied part. Every discussion they have together Michonne is cold and stubborn, which might be a side effect from a zombie apocalypse, but a horrible trait when dealing with other survivors. She lacks any sort of cunning or saavy, or any ability to hide her feelings. Instead Michonne becomes the stereotype of a Zulu warrior – brutal, aggressive, and distrustful of others, certainly good traits for surviving zombies, but also pretty racist, especially compared to her character in the comics. Michonne enters the comics as a lone survivor approaching the prison where all of Rick’s group is, including Andrea. She came there for refuge, preferring to be in a community then left alone on the outside – the exact opposite of the show.
Once inside the prison they take her weapon but she doesn’t seem to mind and treats everyone in a fairly congenial way (especially Tyrese), again the opposite reaction from the show. As the story continues we learn that Michonne used to be a lawyer and will often hallucinate and talk to her dead boyfriend, something she and Rick bond over. Later we even see Michonne feign interest at a dinner party, at least for a little while. The Michonne of the show exhibits none of these traits and therefore her character comes off as racist. Perhaps over time she will become more coy and trustful, but then we still encounter the racist narrative of the civilizing of the African savage and so at this point her character is too far gone to be saved from racial undertones.
Commercially successful shows must be based on familiar archetypes in society and therefore I don’t blame the show’s creators fully. There is a serious problem with black characters in shows diverging from more positive portrayals in the source material. Game of Thrones and Harry Potter both changed the race of characters out of convenience. Shows not based on earlier works have a much harder time being labeled racist because they create their own characters. Even if all the black characters in an original series have negative traits you could still explain it away as there being plenty of bad blacks in the world, the same way there are many bad whites and simply chalk it up as a coincidence of personalities that makes the show work. Even while that is stretching to apologize for some shows, it takes an even farther leap to justify the choices surrounding the black characters in The Walking Dead. When you take from source material you are forced to make very conscious decisions about the characters and the show’s creators were completely unable to provide any distance from the formulaic black character types.