It’s hard to say exactly who was killed in The Walking Dead’s season six finale. The show runners purposefully made it an ambiguous ending, giving fans ample time to argue and debate about who’s head just had a violent encounter with villainous Negan and his trusty bat Lucille. And out of the 11 main characters that could have been taken out, what would it mean for the show moving forward?
Since the first episode, Rick Grimes has had one specific thing to fight for – his family. He’s had three love interests, an infant daughter, and a host of village people by his side, but above all of that, he has always had his son Carl. For a show that’s prided itself on spontaneous deaths and emotional blows, Rick has always been able to protect his son, even as he gets shot in the face. But The Walking Dead can’t coast off killing side-characters forever, hence Negan’s bloody arrival. If someone has to be dead, there’s one death that will crush Rick more than anything, changing the feel and dynamic of all the characters. And that’s the death of Carl.
If we’re being honest, Carl’s gotten away with a lot. He was shot back in season 2, bringing the gang to the barn, and in this past season he’s lost an eye. Both elements are taken from the comics, and it’s not that his survival is totally unbelievable. But it is two instances of him defying the odds and staying alive. Being a main character, especially the son of the show’s protagonist, gives him some understandable immunity from the death that’s stricken a lot of characters. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility – we’ve seen leads die before, including deaths of younger people like Beth, Sophia, and the two Samuels Sisters.
Those latter three also provide evidence as to what hits hardest about the show – the death, and how no one is immune, not even children. As gut-wrenching as many of the deaths on The Walking Dead have been, the death of a child is almost always going to have more gravity to it. Carl has grown up a lot over the course of the show, but he is still very much a kid. While the gang has lost many adults in war or walker herds, losing a boy to a bat-swinging maniac is its own kettle of fish. Think back to the death of Sophia in season two – she wasn’t stabbed, shot, or skewered. She ran away, and she was found as a zombie. It was a surreal moment of hopelessness, that their search was pointless, and that none of them could really be counted as safe. Imagine if they had to watch Carl died, while tied up and helpless. It would be horrifying. Maybe not “good” in the way of something fun to watch, but good narrative format and emotion.
And then there’s how the death would effect Rick. While The Walking Dead has embraced more of an ensemble cast since its beginning, the show is still centered around Rick, leading a group of survivors. One of Rick’s primary goals has been to protect his family, which is now limited to Carl and Judith. While the death of any of the captured characters would be huge (aside from maybe Rosita) Rick’s grief would be taken to a whole new level. If Carl were killed, Rick wouldn’t have just failed as a leader – he would have failed as a father. He couldn’t keep Lori alive, he had to let Jessie & the whole Anderson family die to protect Carl, the person he cares about the most. It’s possible he’d let anyone die to save Carl. If Carl were dead, then that primary objective would be gone, forcing Rick to struggle with a true familial loss, and the show runners to reshape his character, which could help galvanize the show even more.
Now based off what we did see in the season six finale, it seems very likely it wasn’t Carl. As Negan began swinging, he warned that if anyone stopped him, he’d have his boys rip out Carl’s other eye and feed it to Rick. It wouldn’t make sense for him to ask them to fish out Carl’s eye from the bloody puddle of Carl that would be left from Lucille’s rampage. But if it were to be Carl, it would cause the kind of despair and gravity The Walking Dead prided itself on in the beginning, and help reground the show for what is sure to be a bloody seventh season, once we find out who the smashed head really belongs to.