It takes a special kind of woman, like 23-year-old Alycia Debnam-Carey, to forge a promising career out of humanity’s darkest fear: extinction.
As the fierce Lexa on CW’s The 100, she commanded a clan of warriors in a world ravaged by a nuclear apocalypse. And on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, whose second season premiere is next Sunday, her character Alicia is one of few to survive the early days of the zombie virus outbreak in Los Angeles.
But while Debnam-Carey takes calls from reporters to promote Fear’s second season, it’s the finale of her arc on The 100 she keeps coming back to.
Four weeks ago on the CW’s cult hit drama, Lexa, a beloved lesbian character, was killed by a stray bullet, fired by an angry servant who had meant to kill someone else. That this death came just seconds after Lexa had consummated her romance with Clarke, another clan leader, prompted outcry from fans accusing the show of giving into a TV cliché in which lesbian or bisexual characters are killed, often after experiencing a moment of enlightenment or happiness. (The trope is often called Bury Your Gays or Dead Lesbian Syndrome.)
The 100 showrunner Jason Rothenberg’s weeks-long silence on the issue, combined with the betrayal fans felt at what they perceived to be a meaningless death for one of TV’s few well-developed lesbian characters (whom Rothenberg had led fans to believe would be alive and well at season’s end), incited a kind of revolt.
The episode that aired the week after Lexa’s death was the lowest-rated in series history—rather than watch, fans got #LGBTfansdeservebetter to trend on Twitter during The 100’s time slot. Rothenberg has lost thousands of Twitter followers, while some have strategized ways of reducing the show’s intensely fan-driven presence on social media. Now, in retrospect, Rothenberg says he “would have done some things differently,” like distancing Clarke and Lexa’s sex scene from her death and not touting their relationship with misleading optimism on social media.
In an essay on the topic, TV critic Maureen Ryan put fans’ response in context, writing: “This is not a call for showrunners to pander to their audiences—far from it. It’s a reminder that every story turn and promotional effort should be thoroughly thought through. Sloppy, dismissive and tin-eared moves by a show or its personnel aren’t easy to bury or ignore these days, and fan engagement is a collaboration, not a spigot to be turned off whenever things get inconvenient.”
Debnam-Carey, for her part, says she understands fans’ call to action—though she admits their impassioned reactions to her character’s death caught her off guard.
“A social and cultural issue exposed itself with that episode,” she says. “I don’t think anyone [on the show] really quite expected that reaction. So when it did have such a strong and passionate backfire response, no one was really ready for it.
“With any sort of minority, issues of ostracization or misrepresentation are clearly rampant,” the actress continues. “It’s just so deeply rooted in our culture and there are so many levels that it trickles down from. It becomes an issue of diversity and equality and race and gender. In a parallel sense as well, there’s the issue of black characters being killed off first. I know that’s been a topic of conversation over the last couple of years. So these are huge-scale cultural and social barriers that we’ve established—and I guess now it’s time to start breaking them down.”
Though Debnam-Carey says it is “horrible to think people were obviously very truly affected by [Lexa’s death], negatively,” she’s proud of the way many fans have channeled their energies into raising $100,000 (and counting) for the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention service for LGBT youth.
“I can’t even fathom that. That’s incredible,” she says. “Just to think that it had such an impact on people. It’s kind of an honor. It became a positive thing, which is really the most important thing about it all.”
Now that she’s said goodbye to Lexa, Debnam-Carey—an amiable Australian who got her start on the showbiz docuseries Next Stop Hollywood—is eager to show off her zombie-slaying skills in the second season of Fear the Walking Dead.
Rather than post-apocalypse, her character Alicia fights to survive mid-apocalypse, just as the zombie virus has overwhelmed Los Angeles. In last year’s Season 1 finale, Alicia and her family boarded the yacht of a mysterious fellow survivor to escape the city—though as they quickly learn, being out on the ocean doesn’t mean walkers won’t follow. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome sea zombies to the screen.
Debnam-Carey’s second go-round at the apocalypse came with the perks of experience, she says. “I think I came into it knowing what to expect, which is to be quite dirty and probably wet most of the time,” she laughs. “It’s certainly a fun genre to be a part of. There’s never a dull moment.”
While Alicia, a teenager in a mixed, middle-class family who’s already had to say goodbye to one loved one, a boyfriend, is about as adept at emergency survival as the average American—“I would be dead in, like, 20 minutes”—Debnam-Carey has high hopes for turning her character into the kind of warrior seen on Fear’s sister show, The Walking Dead.
“I will say that there was a weapon that was planted in one of the [Season 2] episodes that I was given, a switchblade,” she says. “And then the next episode it was taken from her. And I was like, ‘No, you can’t take this, that’s like, her weapon now!’
“‘We weren’t establishing it as that,’” she says, play-mimicking a show writer’s voice. “And I was like, ‘No, no, it has to be.’ I was just fascinated by using it and playing with it, and all the stunt guys were teaching me tricks on how to use it. So I became attached to it very quickly and was like, Please work it into the script!... I went on YouTube and saw videos of Angelina Jolie on some talk show showing people switchblade tricks and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Especially compared to the fearsome Lexa, Alicia is a more trusting and compassionate survivor—more likely to try to rescue a stranger in a sinking boat than question his motives and leave him to die, as the family around her would prefer. But as society falls apart and the world descends into violence, that will likely change.
“I think she still has a hope that this [crisis] is fleeting and that finding connections with people is the most important thing,” Debnam-Carey says of Alicia. “Others have a different viewpoint and are starting to come to terms with the true reality of the situation. So for a while, Alicia struggles with the idea of what truly matters, whether it’s nurture and compassion or pragmatism and rationality.
“I feel like she might be poised eventually to become a bit of a warrior, but I really don’t know at this point,” she says.
She might—as long as no stray bullet crosses her path.