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 Deadqualifies 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 ofThe 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:
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-apocalypseversion 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.
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.
This article originally appeared online at TheRoot.com.