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In death, the man in the rotting flesh mask has finally been revealed — and his ultimate identity effectively boils down to a throwaway line: “He’s nobody.”
The latest casualty in the Walking Dead universe is one who terrorized it for nearly two full seasons: veritable slasher monster Beta, played by fan-favorite Sons of Anarchy veteran Ryan Hurst. In “A Certain Doom,” Hurst’s Beta suffers a very specific doom in the form of a multi-layered death scene. Leading the Whisperers and a horde of zombies toward the Alexandrian survivors, Beta meets his maker at the hands of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), not to mention the hands of a few dozen walkers.
“From the beginning we knew that we wanted to have a cool, epic Beta leading the herd as this sort of split-face Alpha Beta monster,” says showrunner Angela Kang. “And we felt like, ‘Okay, who are the people that are involved in [stopping] this?’ So obviously Daryl had tangled with Beta in a major way and Negan had tangled with Beta. And we felt like, ‘Okay, well, how does that work exactly?’ It’s kind of in some ways like when you’ve got a trio, that can be tricky, but we felt like it should kind of be like one of these men alley-ooping the other. And it’s also telling us a little bit about where Daryl and Nagan have gotten to after being in pretty strong conflict not long before this.”
The “alley-oop” comes in the form of Negan luring Beta into furiously charging away from the rest of the walker herd. While he has Beta’s attention, Daryl sneaks in and stabs the man in the eyes with his knives. A kill move enough on its own, the stabbing is followed by something even more visceral: Beta falling back among the herd, getting ripped to shreds while thinking back on all the circumstances leading him to his death.
“I felt like if there was anybody that could welcome death in a very organic way to the character, it would be Beta,” says Hurst, who suggested the “silent, peaceful death” quality seen in Beta’s art-house exit. “So I pitched this idea of him being ripped and torn apart and just finally, genuinely surrendering to that. And they said, ‘Yeah, we love that. We also want to stab you in the face.'”
The face-stabbing wasn’t much to write home about for the actor. (File that sentence away in the “things that only make sense in a Walking Dead context” drawer.) It mostly required CGI and blood effects; it was the energy behind Beta’s death that spoke most to Hurst. In Beta, Hurst played one of the only celebrities ever encountered in the world of The Walking Dead. Whether driven mad by his own fame before the apocalypse or driven mad by the apocalypse itself, Beta represented the idea of a very public person reclaiming their privacy — with horrible consequences for so many in his path. Over his years on the show, Hurt’s input on the character led to Beta being a famous musician rather than a famous athlete as per Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s comics, not to mention the final way in which he died.
“I was really touched that they decided to give the character that much emotional leverage on the show,” says Hurst, talking about Beta’s very last moments. “When Alpha (Samantha Morton) died, you saw this play out, you see the bad guy get it. But it’s that they really decided that this was a character that had a real traumatic, tragic legacy going on, and the fact that they flashed back to that. The way that it felt for me was, again, one of these ideas that I love so much about the Walking Dead: the entire show, for me, one of the things that I resonate with the most, is just that you watch all of these different characters dealing with death in the form of zombies, and how their humanity, or what they consider to be the strong parts of themselves, can either evolve or devolve. For Beta, one of the things that I really tried to bring to the entire character was here was somebody who was at one end of the spectrum, was a source of joy and creativity and music and bringing light to people’s lives, and then after the apocalypse happened that he had to compartmentalize that and say, ‘These people that I was bringing joy to, I may now have to kill,’ and how to struggle with that.”
“I really wanted to bring some emotional complexity to the character,” says Hurst. “I was just showing somebody who was really, genuinely grappling with the last vestiges of their own humanity in a way that nobody else did. You see Negan become a cocky hard ass and you see Alpha become this Colonel Kurtz wackadoo. I used Daryl, a little bit, as a model, which was here’s somebody who has this really, really tough exterior, but behind it all is a very sensitive person, who, when tragedy happens, is sneaking off in the woods and smoking cigarettes and burning himself and crying. I really resonated with that. I tried to bring that to the character. The fact that they honored it and saw it… I was so grateful.”
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