- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A GREAT BIG RATINGS-GRABBING DEATH!
Saying goodbye to a character you come to know and love in a TV show in never an easy thing.
It makes sense – we spend huge amounts of time with them, come to love their outlook on life and the way they express themselves, enjoy their company much as we would that of our friends (and yes hokey as it may sound, it is a form of once-removed friendship) and can’t wait to see them again when once again they grace our screens of whatever shape they may be.
It’s even more acute when the character in question, in this case Fear the Walking Dead‘s Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), is the living, beating, heart and soul of a show, the one who keeps everyone else on the straight-and-narrow, or at least tries to, the protagonist through whom we come to understand and relate to the world in which the show exists.
In the heady, brutal cut-throat milieu of modern peak TV deaths have become almost commonplace, a ratings-grabber intended to keep us watching when so many other forms of entertainment, and so many other TV shows for that matter, are competing for our ever more-fractured attention.
Killing off a character is a sure-fire, or so writers would like to think, way to make viewers sit up, splutter popcorn onto the carpet and keep watching next week, or next bingeworthy episode because who the hell knows who’s going next?
Of course, it’s less effective than it used to with viewers almost inured to the fact that a character with whom they have shared their couch lo these many episodes; this could explain then why Madison, who has been MIA for season 4 bar flashbacks, was sent off to that undead shuffling ground in the sky in “No One’s Gone”.
After all, how to grab wandering attention spans which are likely already scanning Twitter or sending off a perfectly-composed Instagram pic? Why kill off the main calling card of the show, the person through whom all the great moral conundrums of a world plunged into a post-civilisational hell have been channelled, the one person who managed to (mostly) refrain from sinking into the abyss of self-interest and rampant self-preservation.
And so it came to pass last night that Madison, who has always loudly, perhaps a little too loudly at times – OK we get it, you love your kids; yup, got it, thanks, don’t you don’t need to say it again, no, really, I’m good – proclaimed that she does what she does for the sake of her kids, made the ultimate sacrifice, leading a mass of BBQ’d zombies, of whom she is now likely one, back into the stadium she and her community of cast-offs called home, and shutting the gates so daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Nick (Frank Dillane), Victor (Colman Domingo) and Luciana (Danay García) could make their getaway from a stadium carpark.
It was heroic, Pied Piper-like in its eeriness, poetic and very much in keeping with everything we knew and loved about Madison, a school guidance counsellor who ponied up again and again, sometimes far too pragmatically but always with the intention to save not just her kids, but anyone else she came across like Laura aka Naomi aka real name June (Jenna Elfman).
To be honest, anyone watching this season must have known that her death was all but inevitable; in another age and time, when protagonists were invincible and shows lived and died on their ability to conquer any situation, Madison would have emerged Phoenix-like from the zombiefied ashes and joined the four survivors of her nascent but failed community on their escape from an idealistic experiment gone horribly wrong.
But this is 21st century TV and there is no guarantee anymore, much like the long-dead idea that you have a job for life, that a lead character will get to hang around at all, for the long-term, let along emerge triumphant to falling balloons, parades and the love & appreciation of their fellow characters.
Madison’s death, though beautifully and poetically handled, and given extra emotional oomph by the videographic revelation that she had met Althea (Maggie Grace) pre-stadium days and had her story recorded for posterity, was pretty much a foregone conclusion, a ticking of the modern TV box that was all but inscribed in stone.
That doesn’t make it any easier to handle, either for her surviving child who was only thwarted on enacting revenge against the perceived agent of her mother’s death, June, by a zen-like, gun-blocking Morgan (Lennie James) or Victor or Lucians, all of whom told their story, lit by oddly-comforting campfire glow at the end of the episode when the full import of Madison’s sacrifice was finally told.
The thing is with these kinds of deaths, and they are never easy, is how they’re handled – if you’re going to lose a mainstay of your viewing, then they’d better be given the kind of deaths longed for by Vikings and Klingon warriors and told in hymns, plays and an arrestingly-immersive Twitter thread.
Thankfully, as the episode bounced between past, present and future with the kind of chronological whiplash that would make Marty’s McFly’s DeLorean explode, Madison got the kind of sendoff that characters of her stature and emotional importance deserve.
As we witnessed her valiant search for her family, both blood and acquired, the establishment of the stadium, the gathering in of strangers and the heroic efforts of Laura aka Naomi aka June to save the life of John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) – it was close people but he lived! – and a thousand other moments big and small, Madison’s epitaph was written in words of kindness, inclusion, truth, idealism and a hope for a better future.
In this way Fear the Walking Dead has done a far better job that its parent show, The Walking Dead, in centering the future of everything good we consider noble and human into the very DNA of the show, not simply making it an occasional episodic thread but the very reason why the show exists at all.
At every point in last night’s gripping episode, Madison was lionised in a grounded, non-hagiographic way, presented as a woman at the mercy of her flaws as any of us but possessed of a willingness, in the new undead barbaric times where it was every person for themselves (or most people believe) to still give people a chance, to aim for the best even when the worst looked like the only viable option.
Her farewell lap of the apocalyptic track had everything you could ask for in that regard – it acknowledged what she had stood for, encouraged those remaining to sit with the better angels of their nature (that’s you Alicia! … and Victor and Luciana) and to follow the examples of John and Morgan and even Althea in believing that the mainstays of our humanity now could remain so long into a world seemingly shorn clear of them.
Even in her death, and it was as sad as it was empoweringly self-sacrificial, Madison was able to communicate the idea that survival is not enough, that it’s not just admirable but possible to aim for higher purposes and goals, that doing so isn’t a waste of effort and resources, and that it’s worth doing everything you can to make it happen.
Fear the Walking Dead won’t be the same without her and you could well question if it was wise pulling out such a pivotal character from the show’s long-arc narrative – time will, of course, tell if that was a wise and beneficial course of action – but at least, in our mourning, and yes that is a real thing, we can be consoled that Madison died as admirably as she lived and that if nothing else, her spirited example will serve as an inspiration to everyone else going forward.
- That’s it for season 4 of the Fear the Walking Dead for the moment! Part 2 premieres 12 August this year …