the walking dead recap denise dies
Courtesy of AMC

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” Season 6, Episode 14, titled “Twice as Far.” This post also contains spoilers for “The 100” Season 3, Episode 7, titled “Thirteen.”

Another one bites the dust. It’s been a while since the show has fallen back on the familiar format of spending an episode getting to know an underdeveloped character only to kill them off in the final third (RIP Noah and Bob, we hardly knew ye), but Denise’s demise seemed fairly well telegraphed from the moment the mousy doctor asked Daryl to accompany her on a supply run specifically so he could prevent her from dying. (There’s nothing the writers of “The Walking Dead” love more than situational irony!)

The tragedy of the senseless act was only exacerbated by the fact that moments before, Denise admitted to Daryl and Rosita that she had chickened out of telling Tara she loved her before her partner went off on a potentially deadly supply run, and therefore felt motivated to go out and make herself useful by recovering medicine in order to prove that she could handle her s–t. Clearly, that backfired pretty spectacularly.

The “problem” (if one can call it that) with “The Walking Dead” having one of the most diverse casts on TV, is that inevitably, it provides more opportunities for minorities to become casualties. After Season 5 killed three black male regulars in fairly quick succession (colorblind casting or not, that was a disturbing optic that could’ve easily been avoided) along with a female series regular in Beth, the grim reaper has swung its attention to a succession of women, since the show has recently dispatched Deanna, Jessie and now Denise, who also happened to be a lesbian. The show may not have punished her for her sexuality, but in killing her, the series still took away a rare TV character who identified as lesbian and was involved in a seemingly functional relationship with another woman.

With the proliferation of straight white dudes currently on the show (most notably Eugene and Abraham, who have felt increasingly expendable all season), it still chafes when the show opts to kill off underrepresented demographics. Lesbians and bisexual women are having a particularly rough time on TV of late, since The CW’s own post-apocalyptic drama, “The 100,” recently incensed its fanbase by killing off one half of a lesbian couple following a shortlived moment of happiness and sexual fulfillment between the pair. (Ironically, the character in question, Lexa, was played by “Fear the Walking Dead’s” Alycia Debnam-Carey, who had to leave “The 100” because of her obligations to “The Walking Dead’s” sister show.)

As my colleague Mo Ryan pointed out after “The 100” episode aired, “Lexa’s death following right on the heels of her sleeping with Clarke … does stray dangerously close to the pop-culture trope of lesbians on TV frequently dying, especially if they’ve had some kind of personal epiphany or moment of happiness. For some viewers, Lexa’s death at that moment did indeed cross the line and became another instance of that trope playing itself out, and for many, it hurt all the more because the show had held itself out as a beacon of positive LGBTQ representation.”

Denise, too, was literally in the midst of a personal epiphany when she was shot through the eye with Daryl’s crossbow bolt, and to add insult to injury, Dwight then admitted he wasn’t even aiming for Denise, but instead at Daryl in revenge for their previous encounter, making her death seem even more incidental and yet another example of a woman dying to serve as an emotional catalyst for a male character, rather than in service of her own story.

While no character should be untouchable because of race, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic, pop culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and positive representations of minorities that manage to buck stereotypes and harmful tropes are still depressingly few and far between. (Don’t believe that this is an issue? Here’s a list of 145 dead lesbian and bisexual female characters on TV, including the often excessively cruel ways they’ve been killed.)

Do I think “The 100” or “The Walking Dead” are homophobic or sexist? No. Perhaps the writers felt like Denise had outlived her usefulness to the plot (or perhaps she was too useful, given that Alexandria will certainly need a doctor once Negan comes calling), but I would argue that there’s far more narrative value in exploring a realistic lesbian relationship in a zombie apocalypse than tossing another dead homosexual character onto TV’s growing pile, especially given that the show has completely sidelined Aaron and his boyfriend Eric this season. (New character Jesus is also gay, but this show isn’t a nightclub that needs a “one in, one out” rule. There’s no maximum capacity for diverse characters, even if “TWD” sometimes seems to believe otherwise.)

This is as much a criticism of “The Walking Dead’s” gargantuan cast — which makes it impossible to service all of its main characters on a weekly basis, let alone its supporting roster (which is why we probably got more character development for Rosita this week than we’ve had in all the episodes since she joined the cast) — as it is of the storytelling tropes that mainstream media often falls back on without stopping to consider the consequences.

As the invaluable TV Tropes wiki puts it in a category called “Bury Your Gays“: “Regardless of the overall death toll of a show, the death of a gay character nevertheless has different cultural context & emotional weight, as there are unlikely to be many other gay characters in the piece of media. Killing one, two, or even a handful of straight characters to show Anyone Can Die does not remove the entirety of the representation of straight people in a piece of media, but often there is genuinely only one gay couple or character in a piece of media, or very few of any real prominence in the narrative such as a main or supporting character & not just a bit part. So when they die, gay audience members are generally left with no one else to relate to, or only the grieving partner of the dead gay. Additionally, when one can count on one hand the number of gay main characters in ALL of the media they consume, the loss of any one of those is generally more keenly felt.”

“The Walking Dead” is not immune to these criticisms just because it makes efforts to be inclusive in its casting — while it’s laudable to hire diverse actors for characters who appeared in the comics as Caucasian, or add homosexual characters who were previously heterosexual (in the comics, Denise had once dated Heath), when one dies, that choice arguably lends additional weight to their deaths, given that representation is being added only to be snatched away later.

Otherwise, the episode was generally another excuse for scene-setting, with most of the action confined to the final 15 minutes, with the denouement feeling decidedly rushed. Eugene and Abraham got a chance to bury the hatchet after Eugene’s earlier betrayal and Abraham’s explosive reaction to it, while simultaneously uncovering a means for the Alexandrians to manufacture ammunition, which will no doubt be needed in the upcoming confrontation with Negan. Eugene got to prove his usefulness (which sadly doesn’t make him any more interesting as a character, no matter how many crotches he bites) and Abraham finally made progress with Sasha, which would’ve been far more satisfying if A: he hadn’t emotionally destroyed Rosita in order to accomplish it, and B: there was an iota of chemistry between Sasha and Abraham as characters, because I still don’t buy their attraction for a second. While the parallels between Eugene’s journey and Denise’s were obvious on paper, the writing and editing of the episode made the two storylines feel disjointed – like writer Matt Negrete didn’t trust Denise’s story to hold our interest, or wanted to shoehorn in an opportunity for Eugene to stop being so worthless before the finale but wasn’t sure where to put it.

In a recurring theme this season, Daryl’s good deed in choosing to spare Dwight and his companions back in “Always Accountable” came back to bite him again this week (as if losing his bike and crossbow wasn’t insulting enough), with a newly scarred Dwight clearly back in Negan’s thrall and gunning for Alexandria. The problem with following two such morally ambiguous and well-executed episodes was that “Twice as Far” couldn’t help but feel broad and shallow in comparison, especially in its portrayal of the Saviors. Paula and her group may have been loathsome, but their actions were justifiable and their characterization was nuanced; not so with Dwight and his gang this week, who might as well have had mustaches to twirl as they menaced our group.

The most compelling aspect of “Twice as Far” was sadly in what we didn’t see — Carol’s decision to leave Alexandria after realizing that she’s unwilling to take another human life. While that decision was obviously precipitated by the events of last week’s powerful episode, “The Same Boat,” I wish we’d been able to explore it further, given that Carol — who is generally one of the most practical members of the group — made an undeniably impractical decision in choosing to leave alone. Yes, she’s proven herself to be more than capable of protecting herself on her own, but given the number of rival groups they’re currently aware of — from the Saviors to the Wolves to Hilltop and who knows how many other rivals — the decision to leave seems suicidal. Why is she unable to stay and simply refuse to kill if they’re attacked, like Morgan, given how useful her skills are? (And, for that matter, why bother manufacturing a romance with Tobin out of nowhere if the show planned to immediately discard it?)

Instead of choosing to remove herself from the temptation of killing, I’m interpreting her decision to leave as part of another, grander scheme: given Daryl, Rosita, Eugene and Abraham’s run-in with Dwight and yet another band of Saviors on the road, it seems safe for our group to assume that Negan is still alive, or that enough of his followers remain to pose a threat, and I wonder if Carol might be aiming to infiltrate the group and kill Negan from the inside. Perhaps her obsessive focus on her rosary isn’t a gesture of faith so much as a reminder of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, dying on the cross to absolve others of sin. By taking matters into her own hands, it might prevent others who struggle with killing, like Daryl, Maggie and Glenn, from having to bloody theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Carol pop up among Negan’s Saviors in the season finale — which could put her in Negan’s crosshairs, if he doesn’t turn on Maggie or Daryl to punish her. We only have two episodes to wait to find out for sure.

“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

What did you think of “Twice as Far”? Will you miss Denise? Weigh in below.

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