HEROISM

‘The Walking Dead’s’ Merritt Wever on #BuryYourGays and Denise’s Last Victory

The Emmy-winning actress opens up about Denise’s shocking episode and what it means for the future of the show. [Warning: Major Spoilers]

03.21.16 2:00 AM ET

Though it ends with death, confusion and the apocalypse equivalent of a text message break up (what the hell, Carol?), Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Twice as Far,” starts out as a redemption story for two self-doubting underdogs: Eugene and Denise, who finally confront their fears and fight to survive—at least, until one of them doesn’t.

The green-fletched arrow that pierced Denise through the back of her skull straight through to her eye was a horrifically unexpected blow. Not only because the love-struck psychologist turned reluctant doctor was in the middle of a rousing motivational speech about regret and missed opportunities, but also because, as far as comic book readers knew, that arrow from Daryl’s old crossbow once killed someone else. (Spoilers ahead for Walking Dead Issue 98.) What this morbid switcheroo from Abraham to Denise means for the show’s other imminent, iconic murder at the hands of the Saviors’ leader Negan is unclear.

Denise’s story, meanwhile, is left unfinished. Shortly before her death—made all the more stomach-turning by those few words she slurs after impact—Denise had expressed regret at being too afraid to go with her girlfriend Tara on a two week-long hunt for supplies. She regretted never telling Tara “I love you” in return. And, despite her repeated screw-ups, she had just begun to build confidence in herself as a doctor and valuable member of the Alexandrian community.

Still, Merritt Wever, the Emmy-winner who plays Denise (best known for her work on Nurse Jackie and her charmingly brief 2013 Emmys acceptance speech: “Thanks so much. I gotta go. Bye.”), says there is a silver lining in Denise’s final moments: that soda she finally found for Tara.

“It’s a big win when she finds soda for Tara. I think she wants to feel respected by Rosita and Daryl for it,” Wever says. “And they don’t. And she’s tired of trying and trying to prove herself.”

Denise’s final words are angry, berating her companions for not taking more chances. But the way Wever sees it, there’s triumph in Denise’s final moments too, a feeling that the bookworm who had to drop out of med school due to chronic panic attacks, the one who was forced into the role of doctor and hated the pressure, finally felt accomplished. “She gets to experience feeling like she did it,” Wever says. “Like, she got it. She was brave. She was rewarded by getting her girlfriend’s soda and she got to experience feeling capable—even if it was only for 30 seconds.”

The Daily Beast talked to Wever about Denise’s premature demise, why she won’t be watching the show anymore, and whether Denise's death feeds into TV's pernicious "Bury Your Gays" trope, an issue raised again recently after a lesbian character on the CW's The 100 was suddenly killed off.

Denise’s death is so brutal and comes completely out of the blue. Did you know going in that this was in the cards for her?

I knew it was coming. [Laughs.] I knew that Scott only wanted [Denise] for one season so I knew that [my time on the show] would be coming to an end. And most likely that end would be, I assumed, a death, ‘cause of the nature of the show. Then I found out how it was gonna go down maybe a couple of weeks before we shot it.

Were you surprised that they’d chosen Denise to replace Abraham in this famous death from the comics?

Yeah, I didn’t know about all that until people told me. I’m so naive—I didn’t even realize that Denise is in the comic book and that they followed the books and brought the characters in like that. So I didn’t know that I was playing someone who wasn’t just on the show until I was in hair and makeup and they showed me a picture of her.

Did you go back and read anything about her?

I didn’t because it hadn’t seemed like Scott [Gimple, The Walking Dead executive producer and showrunner] thought that was the way to go. I got the impression that they weren’t going to be following it to a T, so I had a feeling it might not be as useful as showing up and just working with the script and seeing what happens. But I didn’t know that my character would be wearing glasses. That was a challenge. I don’t wear them, so they took a lot of getting used to.

Glasses are really weird to get used to at first.

Yeah, at first. I felt like a horse that was trying to buck off its mouth gear or something. [Laughs.]

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Had you been a fan of the show before you were cast?

I had never seen the show, but I had been told by people I respected that they thought I would like it. So then when I got the job I bum-rushed all the episodes and binge-watched them so that by the time I showed up on set, I had just seen all these characters die and all these people through their emotional stuff.

You emerged a traumatized husk of a person.

Yeah. [Laughs.] Ugh. Like, how ya doing? Things were a little fresh. People had just died and I’d taken it hard—when people die, it’s like, “oh my god.” Some of the characters had been there for seasons! That was harsh. That was tough, oh my goodness.

People are going to be pretty sad about Denise too, I imagine.

Well, I wasn’t around all that much. It was a pretty comparatively short amount of time.

Just before she is killed, she does unload this really stirring speech about being stronger than you think you are—which is basically Denise’s character in a nutshell. From the beginning we watched her take on more and more, often against her will, than she ever thought she was capable of. What did that speech say to you about Denise’s parting legacy?

I think you said it pretty well. Even before the world changed and before she got trapped in Alexandria, she’d been living fearfully. She dropped out of med school because of panic attacks and was a therapist. But the way I had thought of it was she’d lived most of her life with her weight on her back foot. I think earlier in the season she says she’d spent most of her time reading in Alexandria until she had to become the doctor. And she hated it and didn’t feel like she could do it and she was forced into the position—but she did it. And kind of prevailed.

Her relationship with Tara also brought her out of her shell in that way.

I think that she had the same kind of fearful hesitation about being in a relationship with Tara. When Tara asks her to go out on a run with her, I think she regrets that she was too scared to go and regrets not saying that she loves her back. This [going on the run with Daryl and Rosita] is her attempt to kind of make up for it. I think also that she wants to feel part of the community and she wants to have a sense of camaraderie for other, stronger people. It’s a big deal for her to ask to go out at all, but I think it’s also a big deal that she asks Daryl, who reminds her of her brother and who doesn’t particularly take a liking to her. [Laughs.]

Yeah, so I think her therapist hat is on a bit in the choices she makes, and she kind of fails over and over throughout the course of the trip. She doesn’t get to do much and she doesn’t have a lot of skill in it. It overwhelms her. Seeing the car on the side of the tracks is her last chance to maybe prove something, or do something useful. It’s a big win and she finds soda for Tara. I think she wants to feel respected by Rosita and Daryl for it. And they don’t. And she’s tired of trying and trying to prove herself.

What a brutal note to end the character on.

I know what you mean! I know. But she also gets to experience feeling like she did it. Like, she got it. She was brave. She was rewarded by getting her girlfriend’s soda and she got to experience feeling capable—even if it was only for 30 seconds.

Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler and Merritt Weaver as Denise - The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Gene Page/AMC

Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler and Merritt Weaver as Denise

I have to talk about that sickening moment where the arrow goes through Denise’s head—it’s this horrible split second of confusion both for the characters and for viewers because she continues to talk for a second, which is oddly disorienting. How do you figure out how you’d sound talking with an arrow lodged through your brain?

I know, you do it and you’re like, “Am I doing it right?” “Is this how it would look?” I may have done some googling. Yeah, I just had to pretend I knew what somebody would look like. It was in the script that she keeps talking a little bit before everything kind of breaks down and she hits the ground. But at least it only lasted a second. If she’d been attacked by zombies she would have known what was happening and that would have been horrible. So at least this is a quick lights out.

True, there is that bright side. There’s also been controversy lately over the frequency with which queer female characters on TV are killed off. Another show, The 100, recently killed off a lesbian character and it’s a trope that goes back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even older shows. I was wondering how you might feel about fans worrying that Denise has now fallen victim to the same trope.

That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’d known that this was gonna happen when I signed on, but I never felt like I was somehow not being valued. This was always the plan. And I think in the comic book, I think [Denise] is with a man. I think that they specifically wanted to build a relationship for Tara. But that said, I understand if viewers watching the show really identify with the character or like seeing themselves or some part of the world that they know is real and true and valid and prevalent represented. And then to have that taken away, I definitely see how that would be disappointing in the broader scheme of things. I’m not sure that that’s what was going on here but I understand the sentiment very well and I am familiar with the [trope of] black characters or gay characters getting killed off because [they’re considered] less human or less real or less important and people aren’t gonna care as much. From my end, it didn’t feel like that’s what was happening though. But I certainly understand the concern in the wider culture.

Will you keep watching the show after this?

I have this thing where once I’ve seen how the sausage is made, I can’t watch the show. I can’t enjoy it. My time as a fan was brief but vibrant.