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The Walking Dead: Merritt Wever Gets to the Point

Talking to Alexandria's doctor about her big episode

Liam Mathews

[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of AMC's The Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]

Pour out a can of orange soda for poor Dr. Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever), who in a stunning moment in "Twice as Far" took an arrow through her eye while delivering a motivational speech to Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) in Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead. Denise's death was a surprise in the context of the episode, as she was progressing as a character in a way that TV characters don't usually do in the moments before they die. And her death will have longer-term ramifications because it leaves Alexandria without a doctor (again) and her girlfriend Tara (Alanna Masterson) alone, the surviving half of a relationship snuffed out before it could reach its full potential.

In "Twice as Far," Denise enlisted Daryl and Rosita to accompany (or less charitably, babysit) her on a medical supply run. Daryl and Rosita didn't want to go, but Denise was insistent that she was going, and Daryl and Rosita agreed because they knew sheltered, timid Denise would be killed if she didn't have tough people protecting her. Daryl was resentful, and ignored her worthwhile suggestions, while Rosita was skeptical of Denise's attempts to bond. When they got to the pharmacy they had been seeking, Denise found a disgusting, desiccated walker in a cast that in her last living moments had murdered her child and written "HUSH HUSH HUSH" on the walls in blood. It left Denise shook up, and feeling like she truly was still not ready to deal with the world outside Alexandria's walls. Daryl and Rosita felt bad, and they each allowed her to get a little bit closer after they left the pharmacy. As they were returning to their truck, Denise spotted a cooler trapped in a car with a walker. Daryl and Rosita said she should leave it, but she didn't listen and opened the door. The heat-baked walker pounced and got her on the ground, and Daryl and Rosita almost had to jump in and save her, but she managed to get on top and stab the walker in the head for her first kill.

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The cooler had just a few cans of soda inside, and Daryl and Rosita were angry that she risked her life for something so stupid. But it wasn't stupid to Denise, because orange soda is Tara's favorite (remember?), and she was going to give her a gift. She launched into a speech about why she specifically wanted Daryl and Rosita to come with her, because they could teach her how to be brave and strong, and she could help them overcome their own psychological fears using what she knows about human behavior. She says she could have gone with Tara on her supply run and told her she loved her, but she didn't because she was afraid.

"That's what's stupid," she says. "Not coming out here, not facing my sh--, and it makes me sick that you guys aren't even trying. Because you're strong and smart and you're both really good people, and if you don't wake-"

She's interrupted by an arrow through the back of her head. She gets out "up, and face your" before she dies. So now Denise is another important person Daryl's lost, and the fact that it comes at the hands of Dwight, who he didn't kill when he had the chance before, could push him even closer to a breaking point. But at least Denise won't reanimate, and she got a proper funeral.

TVGuide.com talked to Merritt Wever about saying goodbye to The Walking Dead.

This was sad. I felt bad.
Aw, I feel bad for Tara.

When did you find out that Denise was going to die and how did you feel when you found out how it was going to happen?
I knew going into the job that she as a character was only going to be around for a season. I assumed that meant she would die, because that's how most people make their way off the show, but I didn't know how it would happen until [executive producer] Scott [Gimple] called like a week before I got the script and talked me through it. He'll do that sometimes, kinda give you the emotional arc and the bullet points of the plot. He'll let you know how it's going to happen.

Like for particularly traumatic deaths like this?
Well, in a way, I didn't know I was dying. It happens so fast that Denise doesn't have to process any of it. It's the people left alive who have to deal with the fallout.

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The pacing of this episode was really strong, I thought. Denise's character arc felt totally unexpected, like she was on the verge of having a breakthrough as a character...
Yeah, I know. She finally accomplished something, killing the walker and getting that soda. Don't laugh, this soda was a big deal for Tara. It was a taste of home!

Do you think if she hadn't died, she would have been ready to really be a survivor?
That's what I would have hoped for her. She certainly wasn't getting the job done earlier in the episode. I'm sure she wasn't quite ready, really, to go out. I don't think she had any arms training or anything like that. She just wanted to be a part of it so bad and she wanted to be brave and courageous and overcome her fears. She didn't want to get stuck in old patterns of behavior, like dropping out of med school because of panic attacks to not really participating before Rick and his crew came to Alexandria with other people kind of staying in and reading and staying apart from the world and just kind of scared of everything. I think getting forced into the position of being the new doctor and then taking a chance on being in a relationship fortified her somewhat. And then I think she's a little disappointed in herself that she didn't go with Tara when she asked her to go on a run with her and didn't say that she loved her back. She's trying to be proactive and be somebody that Tara deserves.

Have you heard anything from fans about Denise's sexuality or Denise and Tara's relationship, and also growing as a character who struggles with anxiety, which is something a lot of people can relate to, and sort of overcoming that?
An aspect of this job that freaked me out was how big of a show it is. The audience is not only large but devoted and intensely invested. I made a conscious decision not to go online looking for things since my part on the show started airing. Not seeing how people are responding. I feel like that is a recipe for disaster, because even if I found something positive said about the character there would be 10 things said that were negative. It just feels like wading into that corner of the internet is a little dangerous. So I don't know how the character has been received. You mentioned her sexuality or her being with Tara, and it's not like anybody who I've talked to has even mentioned that. It frankly feels a little dated and old-fashioned to think of it being a big deal. I hadn't thought about the anxiety angle. That's interesting. Because, yeah, panic attacks suck.

Hopefully Denise could be a good cultural example of somebody with anxiety.
Well, at least she died in a moment where she felt like she had conquered a couple of her fears. I think that it's got to be a victory, even if she only got to enjoy it for a second.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.