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.
T-Dogging—the act of taking a black character, making that character a critical part of the group, and then killing him or her the minute the character proves his or her mettle—is actually part of a much larger trend of the last 10 years, in which writers, looking to subvert old racist tropes (like the “magical Negro” or “black guy dies first”), have created a new one that has the same mortality rate.
In T-Dogging, the black character is still a thinly developed shade who dies as motivation for the white hero, but this time the African-American character is, often at the last minute, given some kind of character development or new skill before he or she is offed. It’s upsetting because it seems so unnecessary. Why make a black character weak and then suddenly compelling if you’re only going to dump the character as a cheap trick? Yet this is rapidly become a new staple in genre fiction.
Here are some other T-Dogging victims (spoilers ahead):
Dualla (Kandyse McClure), from Battlestar Galactica, who initially gets the thankless job of answering the phone in space as the ship’s communications officer, never gets the same depth as Starbuck or interesting storylines like Boomer. She doesn’t even get an epic death. She finally starts to get airtime to discuss her faith and then shoots herself in the head because she’s depressed about the barren earth.
Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), from the 2012 film Chronicle, is probably the most heartbreaking. He was the best character in Chronicle, with the least development. He’s the most popular kid in school and the most athletic, and he figures out how to fly first and how best to harness the superpowers his group obtains. Then, instead of being the hero in the final fight with the bad guy, he gets killed beforehand after showing what an awesome and understanding friend he is.
Darwin (Edi Gathegi), from the 2011 film X-Men: First Class, gets the least amount of screen time or convincing to join the team. The first scene in which he starts to talk about himself and share his powers, he gets killed (the only mutant to die in the movie), despite possessing the power to adapt to any situation.
Rue (Amandla Stenberg), an adorable child who only exists in The Hunger Games’ first book and first film to die as motivation for Katniss Everdeen, was a black stand-in for Katniss’ still very alive younger sister, who was initially picked to duke it out in this game of millennial Murderball.
Garris (Brian White) is literally added to the Strike Team as a minority hire on the problematic (but brilliant) FX show The Shield. After hanging in the background all season, once he finally figures out the shadiness of the squad, he gets knocked into a coma by his crooked, racist partner’s wife. He is essentially dead for the rest of the show and only wakes up in enough time to forgive everybody for everything for no reason.
Alby (Aml Ameen) of 2014’s The Maze Runner is the first character (according to lore) ever to enter the dystopian glade and survive an entire month on his own. Because of his intelligence and resourcefulness, he becomes the leader in the glade and then dies in the glade because too-good Alby has to go, via plot-induced stupidity, if the white hero is ever going to get to be leader.
In some ways, T-Dogging is a sign of progress. You can’t have a black character suffer some lousy, unnecessary, sacrificial death if you don’t have black characters to begin with, and given the “there can be only one” tokenism of most 1980s and ’90s genre films, that’s progress.
On the other hand, it’s an annoying sign of the slow progress within the industry as a whole. The fact that each of these characters is given depth, passion and a purpose right before they die just shows that writers and producers are capable of writing interesting people of color who can drive storylines. They just choose not to in favor of the same-old straight, white male heroes who dominate just about every show that’s ever been done.
Nevertheless, I can still hold out hope. Maybe the pastor will actually survive the season finale and continue to be a quisling weasel for the next season. But given the history of The Walking Dead, it’s more likely that Morgan will come back and fall in love with Michonne, only to be killed by smoke inhalation while making cookies with Carol. I guess we’ll know come Sunday.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.