When the Governor put a bullet in Axel’s head, I could almost hear Bones say it: “He’s dead, Jim.” Axel did what he had always seemed destined to do—die—and in so doing, he joined a pantheon of mostly forgotten The Walking Dead characters whose sole purpose seemed to be to remind viewers that the good guys are vulnerable.
Axel was prime redshirt material. He first appeared in the first episode of this season, but after nine episodes we only knew him a little better than ill-fated Oscar. His backstory-revealing flirtation with Carol in in “Home” was a mislead, and an effective one at that; it misled us into thinking the show would actually give a new character some substance and purpose before killing him off.
My buddy in this week’s chat, Forbes’ Erik Kain, described this as the “Lost Syndrome,” after the second season of Lost, which added a swath of new characters to the show only to promptly kill almost all of them. I get it: The Walking Dead wants to convince us that the protagonists aren’t indestructible. Superman has kryptonite because suspense isn’t suspense unless the good guys can get hurt. But The Walking Dead doesn’t have to make this point every other episode by killing off a recently added character. It’s lazy and unnecessary, and, more grievously, it wastes the time viewers have invested observing and evaluating that character.
A high school English teacher once told me that great literature lacks characters and subplots that are superfluous to its point, Moby Dick notwithstanding. While I don’t expect The Walking Dead to be Pride and Prejudice, good drama spends human capital effectively, and at times this show knows how to do that.
Take Lori’s death, for instance. Lori’s death had huge repercussions throughout the rest of the season. It calcified Carl and drove Rick mad.
Now consider Jim’s death. I know. Who the hell was Jim again?
That doesn’t mean we have to know every new guy’s origin story or that Rick should spend episodes grieving over each casualty (which he’s kind of doing anyway). Dale’s death showed that even deeply developed characters can die rather inconsequentially—but at least he had a significant part to play before his death. Conversely, the deaths of lightly developed characters can have far-reaching ramifications. Otis’ death in Season 2 led circuitously to Shane’s fall and demise, and Jacqui’s suicide at the CDC raised fascinating philosophical questions. These characters, whether in their lives or through their deaths, had some sort of significant plot-related or thematic point.
What has Axel really done since the group reluctantly brought him into the fold? Creep on Beth? Maybe it’s premature to call his death meaningless, but I don’t see any character or viewer giving him more than the same shrug they gave to any of the other doomed members of the prison gang. Just like Ana Lucia, Mr. Eko, and those poor redshirts who beamed down with Kirk and Spock, he was a plot device, not a person—and his two minutes of backstory in “Home” didn’t change that.