Season 5, a bounce-back season for The Walking Dead, ends this Sunday with a 90-minute finale. The Walking Dead has had its ups and downs but really hit its stride this season, finally becoming the thrilling and complex show all of us who read the comics hoped it would be.
But there is still one holdover from those earlier, weaker seasons that remains, even as the characters and their stories have improved: creator Robert Kirkman’s dedication to “T-Dogging” every black male character on the show.
The Walking Dead has never had a diversity problem, like other genre shows, and in the last two seasons there has been an explosion of African-American characters—enough to make Deadline squirm—leading some of the show’s black fanbase to debate whether or not The Walking Dead qualifies as a “black show.”
But underneath all this, there has always been a “T-Dogging” problem, starting with the show’s original lone African-American character. The horribly named, conspicuously pointless character Theodore “T-Dog” Douglas (played by Irone Singleton) was basically the Tim Meadows of The Walking Dead.
T-Dog never had a storyline, his background was never really explored, and he didn’t have a love interest, major kill or anything of substance throughout his run on the show. Somewhere in the backs of the writers’ minds, they must have been aware of this, so T-Dog was given depth, substance and even a shining moment on the show—just before he dies.
T-Dog’s curse was that the minute he was no longer a shuffling stereotype, his services were no longer needed. This has also become the curse of nearly every African-American male character who has appeared on The Walking Dead since T-Dog’s death. Cases in point:
Bob Stookey, played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., was an alcoholic who almost got everybody killed, was pushed around by closet racist/white-trash hero Daryl Dixon, and then, right after he pulled himself together, fell in love and started dropping bits of Buddhist wisdom. He gets stealth-bitten by a walker and chopped up by cannibals.
Noah, played by former child star Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), was annoying and mealymouthed, kept essentially as a slave in a hospital and “hobbled” just like one. And yet, after contributing nothing to the group for several episodes, he suddenly learns how to shoot like a marksman, expresses an interest in architecture and starts keeping a journal—all of which happens during the same episode in which he is gruesomely eaten alive by zombies, prompting an endless number of “Everybody Ate Chris” memes.
Tyreese (played by Chad Coleman), the most disappointing because he had the most promise, was initially introduced as the competent leader of a group of survivors. The writers had to work hard to steadily strip him of any agency or competence by having him cry like a fool over a nonconsummated relationship with a fellow survivor and get beaten up by a much smaller Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln; turning him into a glorified babysitter, caring for the infant of the man who beat him up; and then having him essentially give up and die with his newfound mantra of not wanting to kill anyone, ever, for any reason.
So far the only black male characters still alive on the show are a squirrelly pastor who has lost his mind and Morgan, who is somewhere following the group’s footsteps, hopefully never to join the group, since it will probably mean the end of that fascinating, complex character.
Compare this with the roles of Shane (badass betrayer who manages to get laid multiple times during the apocalypse), Daryl (minor character who becomes an endlessly epic zombie-apocalypse version of Hawkeye), Carol (a meek, battered wife turned badass) and surly tween Carl Grimes, who won’t stay in the house, constantly gets people killed but is largely untouchable. Carl even gets to have a character arc in which he progressively becomes more complex and competent without becoming zombie bait.
But this isn’t just a Walking Dead problem.