In the fourth midseason finale of Fear the Walking Dead, showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss made a bold — and to some, unforgivable — choice to kill off the series’ nominal lead, Madison Clark, played by Kim Dickens. The decision did not sit well with some longtime fans of the series (the Fear the Walking Dead subreddit was apoplectic). Much of the ire over the last two weeks has been directed at Scott Gimple, the chief content officer of The Walking Dead and, to many, the architect of both this turn and the death of Carl on The Walking Dead. (Gimple is gaining a Joss Whedon-like reputation where it concerns killing off beloved characters.)
Nevertheless, for a myriad of reasons, I believe the decision to kill off Madison Clark made sense for Fear the Walking Dead — both from a storytelling and character standpoint, and for being an important step in progressing the series ahead.
At the outset, however, I should clarify that I think Kim Dickens is a brilliant actress who has had remarkable turns in shows like Deadwood and Treme. She is not only one of the best actors on TV, but one of my favorite actors, period. She was the reason I was most excited about The Walking Dead spin-off when it was announced. Unfortunately, as she was for several seasons on Sons of Anarchy, her talents were often wasted on Fear the Walking Dead. Over the course of the first three seasons, the writers basically assassinated her character, much as they had destroyed another once stellar character in Andrea on The Walking Dead, with a series of poor choices (most of which veered from the source material).
Through no fault of Dickens’ own, most fans of the series turned against her character by the end of season three. In fact, there was no shortage of articles last year suggesting Madison was the worst character on the series, and that the best way to creatively reboot the show would be to kill her off. Fans grew weary with the poor choices made by Madison, as well as the fact that the writers couldn’t seem to decide if she should be the show’s hero or its villain. Here’s how Vanity Fair’s Laura Bradley put it: “After two full seasons, the Clark matriarch remains largely an empty shell — a woman clearly forged in the mold of Rick Grimes, with the terrible decision-making skills and fierce protective streak to match, but not much else.”
Interestingly, Reddit — where so much of the animosity toward the showrunners for killing Madison off originates — felt quite differently about Madison last season. Here are the top results for 2017 on Reddit for “Madison” and “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Going into the fourth season of Fear the Walking Dead, Chambliss and Goldberg were tasked with resurrecting a series that had lost over 70 percent of its viewers since the pilot episode, and they probably saw killing off arguably the fans’ least favorite character as a necessary first step. When they sat down to crack season four, they were confronted with headlines like those above. Over the course of three seasons, both fans and critics had completely turned against Madison, so they likely thought the best way to start fresh as new showrunners was to write her out of the series.
What’s remarkable, however, is that Chambliss and Goldberg were able to completely rehabilitate that character in the fourth season. Had she died at the end of the third season, her death might have been met with a shrug from fans, but in the fourth season, Madison Clark had finally achieved the potential of that character. She didn’t always make the best decisions (she probably should have heeded Naomi’s warning to leave Dell Diamond), but she finally achieved a measure of adoration since, while her character remained fiercely protective of her children, she also finally began to give Nick and Alicia room to breathe and evolve as characters. Madison’s final act of redemption, of course, was the very death that so upset fans. She sacrificed herself to save her kids. That’s the sort of character redemption that can engender hostility from fans for killing her off.
Of course, this brand of revisionism is popular among hardcore fans of The Walking Dead. Even Carl Grimes was disliked among many in The Walking Dead fandom right up until he was killed off, and many of those same fans called Carl’s death the worst thing to ever happen to the series. Fans don’t like when The Walking Dead sticks too closely to the source material, but they hate it if it diverges too much. The Walking Dead fandom, of course, is passionate, and they often treat characters like family members: It’s OK for them to hate those characters, but it’s not OK for the writers to kill them off.
It’s fair to ask, however, if Chambliss and Goldberg could rehabilitate what was a stagnant character, why not keep her on? That’s where the story may have also dictated her departure. When Frank Dillane decided to leave the show and Nick was killed off, Madison’s character arc had run its course. Her character on the show has always been the fiercely protective mother bear who would do anything to protect her children, but Nick died, and had Madison lived to see it, it would have broken that character. In a series striving for a more hopeful future, a broken Madison would have been a drag on the storyline. In some ways, the decision to kill off Madison also mirrors Andrew Lincoln’s decision to leave The Walking Dead after the death of Carl — there just wasn’t much motivation for him to continue.
It is unfortunate, however, that Kim Dickens was forced off a show that she obviously didn’t want to leave. That, however, is par for the course in The Walking Dead universe. Up until this season, after Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan asked off the parent series, I only recall two other actors who were able to dictate their fates. Melissa McBride (who plays Carol) managed to talk producers out of killing off her character in season three, while Jeffrey DeMunn was able to ask to be killed off in that same season (he later changed his mind, but his death by that point had already been written into the series). Meanwhile, Fear the Walking Dead killed off its co-lead, Travis, in the third season, and the actor who played him, Cliff Curtis, wasn’t happy about that, either.
While the loss of Madison Clark on Fear the Walking Dead may have been good for a show aiming for a reboot and almost total turnover in its cast as it looks to gain back some of its ratings losses, the loss of Kim Dickens is a major blow offscreen. She was, as Alycia Debnam-Carey noted on Talking Dead, a huge inspiration and a role model to her. Any other show, however, would be insanely lucky to have Dickens, both as a person and for her acting abilities. Hopefully, she can land a series that is as worthy of her talents as Treme and Deadwood, because Dickens deserves better than how her character was written in the first three seasons of Fear.
In the meantime, it seems as though Jenna Elfman’s Naomi will fill the role of mother bear. In Naomi, Goldberg and Chambliss have an opportunity to start from scratch with a similar character archetype. Knowing fans of The Walking Dead universe, however, she will probably become reviled among many, right up until the showrunners decide kill her off, too.