It is easy to love the great shows (Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad). It is just as easy to denounce the poor shows (most of NBC’s drama line-up or Fox’s just-released-but-soon-to-be cancelled fare). It’s the in-between shows, the constantly flawed but potentially great, that are the most difficult to assess. You want to quit them when their flaws keep showing up but then they give you moments of joy or of tragedy or of terror that you’re left with no choice but to keep watching.
The Walking Dead fits comfortably in this group.
It’s not that The Walking Dead is a bad show. It’s not. But it does a lot of bad things. A lot. Many of them have been discussed elsewhere. So let me just touch on a few things that bugged me this year:
The “Every woman must be Lady Macbeth” rule: This is a side effect of how little character development we got this year. But think back throughout the season: we had Lori scheming with Rick to kill Shane, Andrea trying to convince Shane to leave the group behind and even Carol trying to turn Darryl over to the dark side (or something). I get that people will have difficulties facing every decision made by the group, but is this really the best way to depict the female characters of the group – by passing the role of the scheming bitch around?
The round and round and round we go debates: I get it. Making a decision like taking Randall’s life is difficult. You don’t want to kill an innocent man for no good reason. But how about the reason that he tried to kill you? That he and his buddies had no qualms over ending your lives back at the bar? I get that tough choices are tough, but at some point shit or get off the pot. The Walking Dead spent too many episodes debating too many questions only to follow that up with no single resolution.
- Should we stay for Sophia or should we go?
- Should we kill Randall or let him go?
- Should we stay at Herschel’s farm – under Herschel’s law – or forge ahead?
The hinting at threats that never happen: Randall’s little posse is supposed to be a small faction of a group of about 30 men who could be a threat to our group of survivors and to Herschel’s farm. We spent three episodes debating and pondering what Randall’s presence meant to the group but we never saw neither hide nor hair from his buddies. (I’m guessing they’ll turn up in Season 3). So for all intents and purposes Randall was an internal concern – like Shane, like Herschel’s demands, like the search for Sophia – instead of being an external concern.
The season finale showed us how the zombies ended up at Herschel’s doorstep – chasing that mythical helicopter from Season 1. How about if, instead, they had been brought on by the recklessness of Randall’s group, desperate to find their friend whom they had last seen taken by some tough men (Rick, Glenn and Herschel) who had just killed three of their friends? What if they had just been a group of a dozen or so that were fleeing some greater monster out in the distance – a despot of some kind? You still get the fiery end to Herschel’s farm, but you get dramatic closure to Randall’s story as well as portent to what’s coming next.
The lack of concern for survival: For a show that’s supposed to be talking about survival and about the human condition in the worst of situations, there was very little of either. How many people did we see getting into cars and driving around? Lori with her late night drive…Rick and Shane driving 18 miles out to then only turn back…Herschel going to town for a drink….Was it any wonder that they all ran out of gas at season’s end? I get that Herschel’s farm must be some kind of magical food and gas supplier but a simple tip of the hat to the constant search for supplies would have been nice. At least they had plenty of water to continue to do the washing. Right, Lori?
And look, I understand and accept that this season was going to be difficult given the wholesale changes to the creative staff before the show began – firing Frank Darabont and the entire writing staff and bringing in Ben Mazzara and new writers meant that there was an acclimatization period. There had to be. But so many tires spun that went nowhere. So many chances to show how difficult this new life in this world was turning out to be. Instead of that we spent a lot of our time on existential debates (like the constitutional rights of a man who was trying his darndest to kill you in a post-apocalyptic world). So much of this season felt wasted.
But if you’re thinking that I’m just down on this show, let me refresh your memory about some of the great moments we saw this year:
- The Zombie horde through the car cemetery in “What Lies Ahead”
- Shane and Otis’ quest for medicine in “Save the Last One”
- Glenn vs the Well Zombie in “Chupacabra”
- The Barn Zombie Massacre in “Pretty Much Dead Already”
- The bar standoff in “Nebraska” (Honestly, the tensest scene in the entire season and it had zero zombies).
- The shootout in “Triggerfinger”
- Rick vs Shane vs Zombies in “18 Miles Out”
- The death of Herschel’s farm in “Beside the Dying Fire”
Notice that all these moments are moments of action. People are doing something: they’re fighting or their hiding or their sizing up their situation. That’s what The Walking Dead can do that other shows cannot. They can put their characters in precarious moments that don’t exist in our world and see what happens. They can test the reaction of people to the world falling apart and display that to us, who live in a world that still exists.
The debates and the questions can and should remain, but they have to be presented in ways that push the story and the characters forward. And that’s what I think was the biggest crime of this season: we’ve spent 13 hours with these people and, as far as I can tell, the only changes we’ve seen are Rick has become a hardass dictator, Shane and Dale are dead and Carl is becoming a psychopath. Meanwhile Lori is still a raging, entitled bitch. Carol is still in the background. T-Dog is black.
For this show to continue it has to engender a sense of constant tension. We should always be on edge for these characters and their lives. Go back and watch the first 2-3 seasons of Battlestar Galactica and you’ll get a sense of how it can be done. You’re talking about good people trying to survive in a world where the rules are gone, the remnants of humanity fight for survival and the dead come back to life to feast on the living.
This should be the most awesome show on TV.