About half way through season 3 of AMC’s hit zombie show, The Walking Dead, I wrote a post asking whether the show was running into some serious racial problems in how they portrayed the black characters. Comparing the TV show with Kirkman’s comic, my main argument was essentially that the writers and producers made some rather questionable and outright unnecessary choices for the characters. Tyreese from the comics was replaced by either meek T-Dog or white Daryl/Shane, Michonne was re-written as a Zulu warrior, and the show seemed to have a quota for the number of black characters allowed, killing off one to immediately make room for another.
It’s now a year later and we’re nearly halfway through another season; it’s also a good time to revisit the question for several reasons. First, the racial component of the show has changed considerably. In my last post I lamented the omission of Tyreese, who has now appeared as a major character along with a bunch of other black characters, none of which appear to be red shirts. Second, we’re at a point in the season where the show has temporarily leveled off and has shifted its focus back on the governor plotline, so unlike the last post, I don’t expect the writers to completely undo one of my points in the coming episodes. Third, this blog sees a spike in traffic every Sunday because of the first post, and I’d rather not disappoint all of those coming here with some outdated nonsense. Oh, and at this point I should also mention that SPOILERS for the comic (and maybe the show) will follow.
So, was I wrong?
Hell no! At that point in the show the writers were being racially ridiculous. Even after that post, Oscar (the black character that replaced T-Dog) was immediately killed off as soon as Tyreese was introduced. However, the criticisms in the last post have become less relevant as the show has progressed, simply because of how far the show has now diverged from the comics. While the show began drastically veering away from Kirkman’s original work as early as the second episode of season 1, there were still enough parallels to make a solid comparison and really see the choices made by the show staff. Season 3 had a similar plot with the introduction of Woodbury and the governor, the prison and the prisoners, and the resultant conflict between the groups. Season 4 is thus far totally new, the plotline with the sickness, with Carol, with conflicted-farmer Rick, and with the governor are all completely new and absent from the comic so it becomes almost impossible to pick apart the small changes – the show is essentially standing alone at this point. Criticizing a show as being racist makes a lot less sense if there’s nothing to compare it to because then you might just be seeing things that aren’t there and it might say more about the accuser than about the show itself.
It’s better, but still has problems
Sure the story might be completely different at this point, but the show is still working with the same characters and comparing their traits in the show to those in the comics highlights a serious underlying problem in how they’re written. For instance, every black character has serious sociopathic character flaws:
Ok, I know he’s not in season 4…yet, but I missed him in season 3, so let’s backtrack a little. In the comics Rick meets up with him again and finds him utterly despondent and a little crazy but nowhere near to the extent in the show. In the original, Morgan recognizes Rick and is able to be reasoned with, ultimately leaving his outpost and joining a larger group. If this was a character choice in the isolation of the show it would make perfect sense, but it’s not so it just comes off as a worse characterization.
She’s come a long way from the cold, paranoid, and un-talkative character that we met last season, so that’s good, but understanding her motivations is a challenge. In the comic she has a damn good reason for hating the governor (namely, being violently raped and tortured by him), certainly enough to justify spending months on end wanting to track him down and exact revenge. In the show this makes a lot less sense, and again she’s painted as a loner whom the prison group barely sees. She’s out tracking the guy why? Not to keep the prison safe, they know that at most it’s just him and his two companions which, in zombie-world, most likely equates to dead anyway. You can say that she’s doing it because of Andrea, yet none of the other characters who were her friends seem all that passionate and their friendship did seem to go out the window once Andrea betrayed her, or vice versa.
We’ve also yet to get any backstory on her that might generate some understanding or empathy – something that happens quite early in the comics. She’s still just a rogue badass who hasn’t been humanized instead of an actual person who also has to deal with the apocalypse around her. All in all it comes off as a worse characterization.
Some of you might be asking, “Who the hell is Bob?” or “Was he even in the comics?” Well, he’s the guy with the drinking problem, and yes he’s in the comics, just not in any way you remember him. In the comics, Bob Stookey was the town drunk of Woodbury and an old army medic who was forced to patch up the governor after Michonne’s attack. After that, he’s barely seen again and plays no other role. This begs the question of why they would keep the character’s name and a couple vague traits for Lawrence Gilliard to play in the show. In other words, why introduce a black character so far removed from the source material outside of being an untrustworthy alcoholic. In the comic he even comes off as a more sympathetic character, battling addiction and depression rather than actively putting the group at risk every second. In other words, black Bob is overall a worse characterization than white Bob.
Ah, Tyreese, there’s so much to say here. In the comics, as I mentioned in the last post, Tyreese is a leader and close friend of Rick’s early on, far earlier than he’s introduced in the show. He proves himself a comfortable leader alongside Rick and plays an important role in group cohesion. In the show Tyreese is muscle and not much more – people seem fearful of him and he’s often prone to violently lashing out, first against his former friends while at Woodbury and then later at the prison against Rick. Now, this last bit also occurs in the comics yet under incredibly different circumstances. In the comics Tyreese has a daughter who gets killed by her boyfriend in a failed suicide-pact attempt. This causes Tyreese to rage temporarily and culminates in a fight with Rick. That makes sense – losing a kid would make anyone go crazy. What doesn’t make sense is his reaction in the show to Karen’s death. Sure, they were just getting to know each other, but doesn’t stuff like that happen all the time in that world? Compare that to Rick’s reaction when he lost his longtime wife – one became despondent and hallucinatory, the other just raged. Tyreese’s show character is prone to violence.
Furthermore, Tyreese in the show is fairly useless in the group. He doesn’t seem to have a role and spends about an hour killing zombies on the fences before realizing that it’s not a good job for him while also complaining about doing supply runs. He states that he doesn’t want a leadership role, yet whenever something doesn’t go his way he gets angry and petulant. So ok, maybe T-Dog wasn’t supposed to be a Tyreese replacement after-all (*cough* bullshit *cough*), but the actual Tyreese is so far removed from the original character that it comes off as even more insulting. It’s a far far worse characterization.
She’s not in the comics and comes off as a positive black character. She’s a rational leader and therefore we barely see any of her; she’ll most likely be killed off by the end of the season.
Yes, as a small nitpick, I think it’s worth noting that all the black/white interracial relationships have still either been toned down or removed. There’s no Tyreese and Carol relationship, which would make less sense in the show anyway and Tyreese’s daughter’s relationship is obviously not in the show either as she’s absent. Tyreese and Karen (an actress of mixed descent) is barely there and never progresses past a little peck. Honestly I’m not too concerned about this as the show seems to be hinting at something brewing between Michonne and either Rick or Daryl and the changes from the comic don’t come off as deliberate in any sense.
Better or worse?
Better, or at least less obvious. There were even scenes where the black characters outnumbered the white ones like when Michonne, Bob, and Tyreese join Daryl on a supply run (although to be fair Daryl was still the leader). The black characters also remain still highly problematic compared to the comic, which does raise some eyebrows. Overall though race this season really isn’t an issue unless you go looking for it. This change might come from a conscious realization of the writers given the mockery of the black quota last season and might even explain why Bob’s character changed color. If they did do it as some conscious decision then we should take that as a good thing as it forces them to reconsider their own preconceptions, and will hopefully lead to better black character development in the future. And if this was just some organic emergence where they wanted to incorporate a talented actor like Gilliard then that’s also a good thing as it means the show’s producers are not making racial calculations. However, given TV’s focus on marketing and demographics I highly doubt it’s the latter.