Last night's midseason premiere of The Walking Dead might just have been the series' most depressing episode to date. Fan-favorite character Tyreese (Chad Coleman) was bitten by a walker early on in the hour, and the hallucinations that played out, as he slowly bled to death, were haunting, emotionally gripping, and poetic.
Tyreese's death, which came as a complete shock to fans still reeling over the loss of Beth (Emily Kinney) in the winter finale, also elicited significant chatter on social media, as some fans questioned why The Walking Dead keeps killing off African-American characters. The New York Post went as far as to accuse the show of being "too diverse."
Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd didn't shy away from tackling any questions about the show's diversity today while discussing last night's episode, telling me:
"Look, this is something in this world that we should be cognizant about, so my feeling is: Sure, let's get it out there, let's talk about it," Hurd told me. "We've killed a lot more white characters than African-American characters. 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."
Hurd wouldn't comment on any new actors coming on board, but pointed out that, "Noah is still alive and so is Seth Gilliam, playing Father Gabriel. And obviously both Sasha and Michonne. And let's not forget the character of Glenn has been on the show since the very beginning."
As for all the fans shouting "WHHHHYYYYYYY?!" at their screens last night, Hurd had this to say about why Tyreese had to go:
"[Executive producer] Scott Gimple basically said to [Chad Coleman], ‘Is there anything we haven't really touched on in Tyreese's journey?' And they truth was ,it went from A to Z. They are at a point of total and ultimate despair. And if this really would happen, you can't just spread it out and say, ‘OK, we've lost a significant character in the last episode. Let's wait.' Tyreese had embraced forgiveness and he'd embraced all of the positive qualities as opposed to despair and rage, and in a moment of pondering that, he was vulnerable. And in this world you can't let your guard down even a split second."
The moments before Tyreese's passing were especially poignant to grieving fans, hinting at the possibility of afterlife as Beth, Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and Mika (Kyla Kenedy) told him, "It's OK Tyreese. You gotta know that now: It isn't just OK. It's better now." Were they solely hallucinations? Or might there be a "better place?"
"The show doesn't have a stance on whether there's an afterlife," Hurd explains." It's character-dependent on their belief system. And I think it reflects each of our individual journeys with faith. Some characters, like Maggie, lose their religious faith and some gain much more peace in it. ‘Til the very end, Hershel maintained his belief and his gentleness. And even though he knew the end was there, he had faith that he would go on to a better place. He'd be reunited with the family that he had lost."
Hurd pointed out that Coleman handled his exit with "grace and understanding," but the letting go process is different for every actor.
"It's been hard on all of them. People on other shows will say, ‘I love being a part of this show,' but the truth was they were the ones who said ‘You gotta get me out of this thing!' You won't find that on The Walking Dead. It is very special, my 37 years in the business, I've never experienced this kind of cohesion and the warmth among all of the actors on the show, as well as the crew. And truly no one wants to go."
The Walking Dead pulled in a whopping 15.8 million viewers on Sunday night, keeping its stance as the number-one show among viewers 18-49 in all of television. Even against the Grammys.
"I have to say," Hurd told me, "we haven't had our midseason premiere up against the Grammys before, so it was remarkable, and a huge shout out to our fans. We love them. And they return it."