Everyone knows that heading up a successful television show is a multi-headed beast of a challenge, especially in an age where the Internet audience pulls no punches when knocking a show under the bus. In the case of AMC’s The Walking Dead, that bus is surrounded by zombies. Former showrunner Glen Mazzara recently wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter where he talks about the thought process and subsequent problems that arise when deciding to kill off a show’s major characters, a narrative task The Walking Dead has never been shy about.
He frames his story around the death of Henry Blake in a March 1975 episode of M*A*S*H, one of the most out of the blue deaths in television history. While nobody is in any way comparing the quality of these two series, Mazzara has overseen quite a few surprising character oustings, both here and on the FX crime drama The Shield. Though to be fair, human deaths in The Walking Dead are usually only surprising because they come an entire season later than they should have in the first place. It’s more surprising to me that no one has sacrificed Carl yet. But those kinds of heavy decisions take a long time to consider.
“Deciding to kill off a character is never easy,” Mazzara says. “Writers rooms endlessly debate the pros and cons of each death. The first question usually is, ‘Is this going to feel like we’re just doing it to do it?’ Each writer weighs in: ‘We’re losing a great character.’ ‘We’re changing the dynamic of the show.’ ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ ‘We can’t go back.'”
Because of the open-worldness of the zombie drama, there really isn’t any specific end game on the horizon—we assume—so they don’t have the luxury of waiting until the end of the series’ run to start offing key characters. Mazzara wisely says that surprise deaths need to further the storyline, and that, “if a show kills off a major character just to add some juice to a particular episode, it’ll feel like a cheap stunt.”
But when you come right down to it, the death will be affecting the actor who plays the part much more than it will affect audiences. “Telling someone they are going to be out of work is hard,” he says. “Telling them it’s because they’ve done a good job getting people to care deeply about their character is hard to rationalize. Telling them it’s best for the show can be insulting. Trust me, those calls suck.” I can imagine the third season for the show had quite a few of those uncomfortable conversations, especially for the finale.
And even though “killing off a character is asking that actor to leave their [TV] family and start over somewhere else,” and it doesn’t always go smoothly, Mazzara says, “Nearly all actors I’ve worked with deliver their best work when they film their character’s death. Their dedication and professionalism is inspiring.”
Now that Scott M. Gimple has taken over over as showrunner for the fourth season, he’ll certainly be making some drastic changes of his own. And you can be sure the fans will let him know how he’s doing.
“A strong death scene will provoke strong emotions, one of which may be anger,” Mazzera continued. “These days, we writers get blasted with angry, hateful tweets.” Are you guys ready for season 4? Does this preview make you more excited? Just don’t die of excitement in the middle of a season. It’s harder for the showrunner to deal with.