The writing was on the wall as recently as last week, and as early as 2013 for fans of the Walking Dead comic books: the death of an Alexandrian, one of the two men responsible for saving Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of Team Family from their time on the open road back in season five.
That man: Eric Raleigh, played by Jordan Woods-Robinson. After sustaining a gunshot wound in battle against the Saviors toward the end of “The Damned,” Eric finally succumbed to his injuries in the latest installment of the series, “Monsters.” In the comics, Eric dies with no warning at all, shot in the head in the thick of the gunfight, right in front of his longtime boyfriend Aaron. For its version of the violent tragedy, the Walking Dead TV series afforded Eric and Ross Marquand’s Aaron an extended moment by a quiet tree, far enough away from the battle for one last goodbye, even if those firmly final words went unspoken.
Following the firefight with the Saviors, Aaron returns to the tree where he left Eric, only to find that his boyfriend is gone. When he looks out into the distance, Aaron watches as a zombified Eric wanders off into the forest, too far away and too close to other walkers for Aaron to put the reanimated Eric down for good.
As one of the kindest characters on The Walking Dead, presently and otherwise, it’s troubling to think that Aaron could very easily slip into a downward spiral of darkness in light of Eric’s death. But for his part, Ross Marquand says Aaron will respond to losing the love of his life in a way that’s true to the spirit of both courageous men. Read on for Marquand’s thoughts on saying goodbye to Eric, filming his final scenes with Jordan Woods-Robinson (a member of the legendary Blue Man Group, among his many achievements) and more.
Was this a difficult episode for you? It must have been emotionally exhausting.
It was. Jordan and I were really cognizant of the importance of this relationship, not only in the storyline but also to the LGBTQ community. We wanted to do it justice. We wanted to give fans a proper sendoff to this beloved character, and also tell this story properly. There were a lot of back-and-forth phone calls between us to try to get the right tone down. I love that we found moments of levity throughout his death scene. You don’t expect that. It’s not a typical way of dealing with death. There’s an acceptance Eric has as he’s dying. It’s a really beautiful moment between the two of them.
Entering the season, if you’re a fan of the comics, you’re most likely expecting Eric to die in “All-Out War.” Were you aware it was coming up? And on a general note, what’s your stance when it comes to reading the comics and knowing what’s in store for Aaron?
I used to read the comics, up until the part where Glenn (Steven Yeun) got killed. That’s where I stopped. As a fan of the show for years, and as a fan of the comic once I got the part, I realized I was learning too much about what was going to happen in the storyline. For me as an actor, it was important to preserve some of the surprises that were coming and not speculate as to where the story’s going. I think it’s really important to go into each script as fresh as you possibly can. If you have preconceived notions of where the characters and the storyline might go, it might affect how you play the character in the present time. As you know, we’ve seen several times throughout the show’s history where the comics lay out the foundation for how the show’s going to go, and then the show goes another way completely.
Was Eric’s death a shock to you and Jordan, then?
I had heard it was coming, only because you go to enough conventions and meet enough people, and you eventually hear, “You know Eric dies, right?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t want to know about that!” But in the comics, Eric just gets shot in the head. [Showrunner Scott M. Gimple] really insisted on giving him an important hero’s death because Eric had never been one to be a pacifist. In fact, I would say him and Aaron were probably the sole line of defense for Alexandria before Rick and the gang showed up. They were fighters. Eric’s big problem with fighting the Saviors last season was that he thought the odds were stacked totally against us and there’s no way we could win. I think a lot of fans saw that as cowardice. I think the opposite is true. I think Eric’s always been a great fighter. That was evidenced in last week’s episode. He went on this Rambo killing spree and took out 10 Saviors in a row, at a crucial point in the battle where it looked like they could get the upper hand on us, and he saved the day. I love that it was a heroic and meaningful death, as opposed to just getting shot in the head like in the comics.
What do you remember about playing the final scene between Aaron and Eric, away from the fight?
I loved that. It’s obviously a bittersweet moment for the characters, but also for us as actors. Jordan is a lovely guy. I’ve really enjoyed working with him over the last two years. We’ve become friends. I’ve hung out with his family. It was a moment of realization as we were doing the sequence: “Can we get one more take? Can we get one more take?” Hoping we could extend that really beautiful scene as long as we could. But you only get so many on the show, because we have to shoot everything in eight days, and we were trying to tell the most authentic and grounded story we possibly could before his time was up. To be honest, I didn’t have to push it too hard when he was walking away as a zombie at the end. I let it go. It was a mixture of being in the character as Aaron, but also saying goodbye to my friend who I won’t see as much now because he’s not on the show.
Virtually everybody dies at some point on The Walking Dead, but when they slip into walker mode, they’re typically put down. Aaron doesn’t get to put Eric down. He watches him as a walker walk away. What did you think of that storytelling choice?
I thought it was great. Eric’s been strong for him for so many years. They were together before the apocalypse began. They found strength in each other, with this really great and beautiful comedic shorthand they had between each other. Even last year, when Aaron was packing his bags to go help Rick find more supplies for the Saviors, Eric jokingly says: “So, are you leaving me?” And Aaron turns around and says: “Yeah, I’m just so damn tired of being so happy all the time!” There’s this hilarious back-and-forth with them, this banter. I love that. It’s a human moment in an otherwise very dark and cold — and at times unfeeling — story, where people don’t feel they can let their happiness and comedic side through. I loved how these two could always have levity, could always build each other up and be hopeful even in the most dire of circumstances — and in this case, as he’s dying, Eric uses the opportunity to say, “It’s fine, I signed up for this. Go back into the battle.” Essentially, “Make sure I didn’t die in vain.” He’s acquiescing to the fact that he might very well die right there. It’s beautiful. It’s a really beautiful moment.
The biggest issue for Aaron now is that he didn’t have a chance to say a really proper goodbye. Obviously they kiss and they part ways, but he didn’t have a chance to really say goodbye to his boyfriend of several years. It’s a damn shame. This man has literally just sacrificed his life for the cause. Moving forward, I think Aaron’s going to use that as not something that destroys him, but as a catalyst. This man, and all the wonderful men and women who died in this battle, or even previous like Glenn and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), they can’t have died in vain. Their deaths have to mean something. We have to take on the Saviors, full-on.
Aaron is one of the lightest characters on the show, so there’s a fear that Eric’s death could plunge him into darkness — but it sounds instead like Aaron will honor his boyfriend’s sacrifice?
I think so. There’s certainly room to be a little dark, but moving forward, Aaron’s the eternal optimist. He’s been beaten up by every community he’s ever come across on the show, including Rick. He’s been a punching bag for a lot of these communities. He still gets back on his feet and says, “It’s fine! It’s okay! I understand. I get why you’re fearful of a stranger, but I’m actually a really good guy. Let me help you. Let me help the cause.” I think it’s beautiful that this death has obviously shattered him, but he won’t let it define him. He’s going to move past it. He’s going to gain strength from his boyfriend’s death.
What can you say about Jordan as an actor, now that his time on the show is over? A Blue Man, as it turns out!
He is a Blue Man! First of all, he’s easily one of the most talented people I have ever met in my life. He’s an amazing fiddle player. He can play piano and guitar. He’s obviously this incredible clown in many respects. The Blue Men are exceptional. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of performers outside of maybe Cirque du Soleil who can tackle so many physical feats and so many technical aspects of music and dance and movement. He’s an incredibly gifted actor and an incredibly gifted artist. I already miss him like hell. It’s been several months since I’ve seen him. He’s one of the kindest, hardest working actors. His work is honest. He gives a very honest portrayal with everything he does. I miss him like crazy. It’s been a tough season without him. I wish him all the best. I think he’s going to absolutely rock whatever comes next. We miss his presence like crazy.
The first few episodes of this season have been insane on the action front, and on top of that, you’re dealing with the most emotional moment you have ever had to confront as this character. How draining was this first stretch of season eight for you?
It was draining, but it was also the opposite. I think we gained fuel from it. We got back [to start production] and Andy [Lincoln] gave this great toast at the end of wrapping episode 100, and it gave us this wonderful spirit on set. Yeah, this is going to be a tough season. We know that. We all know it’s going to be physically demanding. There are going to be lots of stunts. There’s going to be action that has to be nailed. We only have eight or nine days to nail each episode. But all of us were on board, from that very first episode. We were committed to telling this story the best way we could. I think “All-Out War” is one of the best sections of the comics, from what little I have read. It’s amazing to see it all come together. I gained both massive strength from Andy, but also from Jordan. That departure was such a beautiful and bittersweet goodbye. To your point, Eric gave him motivation. He gave him the strength to continue on. Much in the same way, Jordan did that, too. I’ve lost my wing man. I’ve lost my partner in crime. He’s been calling me and we’ve been staying in touch, and he’s been very supportive in saying, “Go get ’em.” We’re very proud of each other’s work. It’s been great.
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