As I have noted before, there is a danger in dissecting a television narrative that is still in the process of unfurling. Initially it was my intention to write about how queerness functions within The Walking Dead’s (television) universe after the season finale. However, Monday night an exchange occurred on Twitter that made me think this is a more pressing conversation. In response to the Vanity Fair article that made reference to Denise’s death being about everything but her, Michael Cudlitz, who plays Abraham, tweeted the following:
Cudlitz is absolutely correct that the show deserves far more credit than it is given for its commitment to depicting interracial relationships and I’m endlessly surprised that more isn’t made of the fact that the biggest show in the country has one of the most diverse casts, not just in terms of race but also in terms of age and gender. But the suggestion that the way the show handles its queer relationships is on par with how it handles its interracial ones is, unfortunately, a tone-deaf sentiment.
While the show has had no qualms showcasing overt sexuality between its heterosexual couples-Lori/Shane, Maggie/Glenn, Andrea/The Governor and Rick/Michonne instantly spring to mind- the show’s gay and lesbian couples are left with chaste kisses. But while the lack of intimate partner sexuality for the show’s queer characters is frustrating, it isn’t nearly as concerning as the way the characters themselves, independent of their romantic relationships, function within the narrative.
Most of the conversation taking place around Denise’s death appears to be considering it as part of a much larger, troubling television trend of shows killing off their lesbian characters. [i] That the show remixes the comic storylines is not inherently problematic and, in fact, has led to some of its more iconic moments. Without this approach to storytelling, we wouldn’t have Carol’s epic evolution or Rick and Michonne’s romantic pairing. Knowing that the show often takes liberties with its source material, I am reluctant to categorize Denise’s death, which belonged to Abraham in the comics, as being part of the larger troubling television phenomenon. Yes, the Bury Your Gays trope is antiquated and worthy of analysis for both its prevalence and its implications.[ii]
But my concerns are more directly focused on The Walking Dead’s television universe and how queer identity is consistently used to advance the narratives of the heterosexual characters. Each of the show’s queer characters-Tara, Aaron, Eric, and Denise-only morph beyond stock characters when viewed through their interactions with the show’s heterosexual characters. (Note: While Jesus identifies as gay in the comics, no mention of his sexuality has been made thus far on the series.)
As the show’s longest reigning out character, Tara has only occasionally been given screen time to shine. Easily the most developed of all the LGBT characters, Tara still functions as very much a background player. Her relationship with Alisha is verbally confirmed by other characters but visually the relationship is only implied via the two holding hands and sharing a bedroll. We don’t actually learn anything about Tara through this relationship and her identity stems more from being Meghan’s aunt and Lilly’s sister.
Her breakdown during The Governor’s orchestrated carnage is suggested visually but the true depth of her guilt only becomes clear in her interactions with Glenn. His forgiveness of her past affiliation with The Governor is depicted more as character strength of Glenn’s than it is a moment of true absolution for Tara. The audience understands that she has regrets but is only given license to forgive her when Glenn does.
Similarly, it is her relationship with Eugene that showcases just how far Tara has come in understanding how to survive this new world. She continually challenges him and, in doing so, displays a previously unseen fighting acumen. The two forge a bond until Tara is hurt, thus propelling Eugene from ineffectual burden to hero. That it takes a lesbian character being harmed for a male character to become heroic is issue enough but when coupled with Tara’s almost immediate return to the background, it becomes even more problematic.
Certainly, her character-defining relationships with both Glenn and Eugene could point more to a problem of paternalism than to latent homophobia, but only if you ignore the impact of her relationship with Denise. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the relationship was described (Denise telling Daryl that Tara was home in bed) far more than it was shown (the kiss on the porch). Arguably, the real life pregnancy of Alanna Masterson (who plays Tara) has some bearing on the lack of Tara/Denise scenes but then again, this is a show that had no difficulty working around Sonequa Martin-Green’s (Sasha) pregnancy.
The only thing we truly uncover about Tara as a result of her relationship with Denise is that Tara has a penchant for soda pop. The fact that Tara is no where to be seen in the episode where Denise dies indicates that the show is more interested in privileging Daryl’s grief over Tara’s.
Lest you question how easily Tara is overlooked in The Walking Dead’s universe, simply take a gander back at how media outlets covered Aaron’s arrival as the show’s first gay character. While not accurate, the coverage was in a way refreshing since it illustrates that the show wanted to introduce a queer character with a certain amount of fanfare-even if they didn’t bother to give him a last name. Unfortunately, that fanfare quickly fizzled out.
When we are first introduced to Aaron, he is an affable presence whose concern for his injured boyfriend is explicit and heartfelt. Aaron and Eric’s kiss at the end of the last season created the type of social media backlash that was both surprising and expected. If you’re curious about the tenor of the conversation that took place on social media, here is a representative sample:
While the kiss suggested that the show might be ready to explore a homosexual relationship in some depth, it was not to be the case. Almost all subsequent insights gleaned about Aaron’s character came courtesy of his budding friendship with Daryl Dixon. The narrative shifted to exploring Daryl’s needs and how he was being transformed from his status as an outsider, but it did so at the expense of Aaron’s development. The things we know about Aaron-his guilt over leading the Wolves to Alexandria, his love of spaghetti-come about as a direct result of his involvement with Daryl. Remove Aaron’s interactions with Daryl from the narrative and the character ceases to be much more than a stock character. This is made abundantly clear in our last view of Aaron this season as he sits alone in a pew with no mention made of his boyfriend.
It is interesting that the gay character we know the least about may also be the one whose identity is most fully formed independent of interactions with heterosexual characters. Appearing in less than ten episodes, the audience has yet to really learn anything about Eric other than that he shares a gentle and loving relationship with Aaron. Again though, much of what we learn about the Aaron and Eric dynamic comes courtesy of things Aaron shares with Daryl.
Eric’s failure to be at Aaron’s side during Rick’s call to arms in the church creates more questions than it answers. Did Eric die after the epic battle in Alexandria-a battle he was shown to have survived-or did the show just forget about him? Or perhaps he just discovered the same cloak of invisibility as Tara.
If there is one thing that is especially frustrating about Denise’s death, it is that all the components were there to make for a truly memorable character. When we first meet the character, she is panic prone and not at all comfortable with the doctoring role in which she has been thrust. Her growth throughout the season is marked and the character herself notes that she is just starting to come into her own when tragedy strikes.
While Denise does strike up a friendship with Tara that ultimately turns romantic, far more screen time was spent establishing her relationship with Daryl. The unlikely friendship seemingly came out of nowhere and appears to be designed to highlight the guilt he feels in the wake of her death. It is her conversations with Daryl in which we really start to find out about the character and what makes her tick.
That Denise’s death is made to be about Daryl, along with the fact that Dwight’s arrow was meant for him, underscores the show’s disturbing default of sacrificing female characters to fuel the man pain of their male characters. The fact that this comes on the heels of Jessie’s death, which was told from the perspective of Rick and was about his emotional loss, exemplifies that this approach is indeed a trend of the show.
As of now, the series has not shown Tara’s reaction to Denise’s death, but we were given multiple shots indicating that the loss will have substantial impact on Daryl. And while I have no doubt that the show will eventually offer us Tara’s reaction, the fact that it is at least one episode removed from the event trivializes both Tara’s reaction and her relationship with Denise by privileging Daryl’s reaction.
The show deserves credit for introducing multiple queer characters on to the canvas but it’s what the show has done with them since that is the source of frustration for many viewers. So while I’m not quite ready to use the #BuryYourGays in conjunction with The Walking Dead, I do think the show has a long way to go in creating queer relationships as complex as its interracial relationships.
Too often, queer characters develop only in relation to straight characters and only to serve those straight characters. And sometimes, like Denise, they die to serve the development of those straight characters. That the arrow that killed Denise was (in the comics) meant for Abraham and (in the show) meant for Daryl – that they both live and she dies – seems unavoidably symbolic.