Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Though there’s no way to verify the notion in a peer-reviewed study, African American men would likely have as much chance of survival as any other demographic in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse. Of course, they might fall victim to a corrupt, racist military state should one arise out of the ashes of the world as we know it. But absent outright post-apocalyptic discrimination, anyone who can run and wield a weapon has an equal chance against those who return from the dead to consume the living. Zombies don’t discriminate.
Except: On AMC’s smash hit “The Walking Dead,” whose fifth season finale aired Sunday, African African men seem over-represented among those who have bitten the dust. The show’s black male characters often exit the series abruptly, chomped by stray zombies who, it seems, could just have easily chomped someone else — someone else of a lighter complexion. And often, these black characters exeunt just as they’re graduating from a guy in the background to a fleshed-out human being with an interesting backstory.
There’s even a name for this practice among fans: “T-Dogging,” named after a black character killed off before his time in Season 3.
“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,” Jason Johnson of the Root explained. “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.”
Even worse: Sometimes, “The Walking Dead” kills a black man just as it is introducing another black man. Awkward!
“After three seasons, this weird pattern borders on the comedic cliche and show in-joke: a central Black male character can only be introduced if the show’s previous Black man is bumped off, a pattern I (and others) have dubbed the ‘One Black Man at a Time’ rule,” Jenn Fang wrote at the Nerds of Color last year.
Which is what made Sunday’s season finale of “The Walking Dead” so special. Though some expected Father Gabriel — the dastardly priest played by Seth Gilliam of “The Wire” — to get his as Morgan (Lennie James), another black character of some substance, returned from a long exile, Gabriel survived. For now.
This means that, going forward, “The Walking Dead” will have two black men in the same place at the same time. The last time this happened, the “extra” black guys ended up dead (as “Dead”-heads who remember characters such as Bob and Tyreese and Noah already know). Will Father Gabriel or Morgan end up in the belly of a zombie in the first episode of Season 6? Or, perhaps worse: Will one of them be sidelined — given little dialogue and killed at random sometime down the road?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem confined to America’s most popular basic cable series. Johnson of the Root pointed out other examples of “T-Dogging” in “Battlestar Galactica,” “X-Men: First Class” and “The Hunger Games.” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Aliens” also come to mind.
“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,” Johnson wrote.
Producers have defended the show’s history with African American men.
“We’ve killed a lot more white characters than African-American characters,” executive producer Gale Anne Hurd told EW in February. “And not only that, I think it’s important to point out that we did cast two African-American actors in roles that were not African-American. In the comic books, Bob was white. And the character of Noah was not an African-American. We just cast the best actor.”
Sure, TV has come a long way from “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” But as men of color put stereotypes behind them, it’s not enough to be confined to the chorus.
“It’s not a problem that you have one black male face at a time, but you really want to have these characters fleshed-out and multi-dimensional,” Fang said in a telephone interview. “A show about interpersonal relationships requires complex characterization.”
That characterization has mostly been devoted to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), “The Walking Dead’s” hero. Other characters, developed and not, come and go, but Rick remains at the center of the show — its Andy Griffith, its Gilligan, its Don Draper. Black men might be getting the short end of the stick not because they’re black, but because what looks like an ensemble show with many characters of color is really just a show about a white dude.
After all, nobody’s looking for a “Walking Dead” diversity quota. Still, when the show introduced a gay character a few weeks ago, it didn’t feel organic, but like a box was being checked.
“There’s a danger as if approaching this as a checklist — the tokenization of non-conventional identities,” Fang said. “… If the intention is to check down the list and cover bases, that’s the wrong way to approach an ensemble show.”
Showrunners will have plenty of time to figure out what lies ahead for the series’ surviving black men and contemplate how the identity politics will play among fans. The “Walking Dead” won’t return, rumor has it, until October — after “Fear of the Walking Dead,” a spin-off that may or may not include African Americans.