THE WALKING DEAD’s “How’s It Gotta Be” Says Goodbye to Childhood

Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk. We’re serious—this is a big one.

Carl Grimes is going to die.

It’s a fact we’re all going to have to live with after season eight’s midseason finale, “How It’s Gotta Be,” revealed that Carl was bitten in the ribs while saving Siddiq back in episode six. This isn’t some Glenn-sliding-under-the-dumpster style fake-out, either. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actor Chandler Riggs confirmed that once a character is bit, that’s it: “Yes, Carl is going to die,” he says. “There’s no way he can get back from that. His story is definitely coming to an end.” In the context of the real world, it makes sense for Riggs to depart now. He’s been acting on the show since he was 11, and he tweeted last November that he just got accepted into Auburn University. Riggs and Andrew Lincoln were the only characters left who were series regulars starting from the pilot episode, so his departure marks a chance for him to finally do something different.

From a story perspective though, it’s a difficult pill to swallow—the driving force behind every single one of Rick’s decisions will now be gone. It’s hard not to see the terrible irony of this: Carl was hated for so many seasons that it wasn’t uncommon to hear people talk about how they wished he’d get killed. Early on, Carl topped nearly every “worst character” list. His actions put the other characters in jeopardy so often that the phrase “goddammit, Carl” reached near meme status. He was a child, sure, who made understandably childish decisions, yet it was easy to get frustrated by him. Now, years later, with Carl developing into a compassionate, well-rounded young man and potential leader, we’re getting our wish.

This will undoubtedly devastate Rick, and it’s hard to tell where he — and the show itself — will go from here. Killing off Carl marks the biggest departure from the source material to date. We haven’t yet seen Rick form the kind of bond with Judith as he has with Carl, and seeing Carl killed off makes him just one of many kids we’ve already seen die on the show. Back in season two, The Walking Dead shocked many by actually killing off a child character with Sophia. Now, that very idea has sadly become all too common.

By strict standards, Carl isn’t a child anymore, but “How It’s Gotta Be” is an episode that is very much concerned with exploring the significance of children, their relationship to their parents, and what they mean to society in general. Children are often how we gauge the health of a society; in a functioning society, the children are well cared for. When the children are suffering or otherwise absent it often becomes the source of dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games, The Road, and Children of Men. The Walking Dead functions under the same ideas, and we see that especially in this episode. Children are brought up and shown numerous times by both sides as a way to appeal to reason; the fact that they’re put in danger is meant to denote a breakdown of these communities, and it calls into question if Rick’s vision of the future is any more beneficial than Negan’s.

When Gavin rolls up on the Kingdom, he warns the Kingdomers to give up Ezekiel before things get ugly because “there’s goddamn kids here. They don’t need to see this shit.” When Gavin later confronts Ezekiel, he harkens back to when the young Benjamin was shot, saying, “We had a good thing going. I felt bad about the kid too. I didn’t want that.” When Carl climbs up the parapet to speak to Negan at the gates of Alexandria, Negan mocks him—he’s a “big boy now”—but then appears perturbed that Carl offers to sacrifice himself for Alexandria. (You will perhaps remember that in “The Big Scary U,” Negan hinted to Gabriel that he used to work with kids.) Carl tries to appeal to Negan by mentioning there’s kids in Alexandria; Negan responds simply that there’s kids at the Sanctuary too, and questions what happened to the baby Gracie. “None of this shit’s fair…hell you know that. You had to kill your own mom,” Negan says to Carl. Even later, after Negan breaks in and finds Rick, the first thing he says is “You know your kid volunteered to die? What kind of boy you raise?” Negan even hints that he would be a better father than Rick would.

The episode is not lacking in imagery surrounding children either. We watch a scene where Michonne kisses Judith on the forehead. Enid and Aaron bond in the car on the way to Oceanside, with Aaron acting as a paternal figure to Enid, asking her if she knows how to drive. Later Enid accidentally shoots Natania and we watch Cyndie, who is likely around Enid’s age, weep over her grandmother’s body. We’re reminded yet again this episode that Maggie is pregnant, and the weight of directly dealing with Negan falls on her. Finally we watch as Rick returns to Alexandria and enters the sewers where everyone is hiding; the first thing he sees, center frame, is Judith illuminated by light spilling in. And then we see Carl, crumpled in the corner, exhausted and dying.

These are all kids in danger, kids in mourning, who are expected to be adults before they’re fully ready. All of this significance of children, of putting the hopes of rebuilding society on them, makes it all the more devastating to find out at the end of it that Carl isn’t going to make it. Everything Rick was building towards — everything he saw as Carl’s future — will mean nothing without his son there.

Where will the show go from here? Sound off in the comments!

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