[Fair warning: This is long, and kinda rant-y. Also, The Walking Dead spoilers for seasons 1, 2 and 3 ahead, thought that might be moot at this point when season 5 just premiered…]
I’m probably the last zombie fanatic on the entire planet to discover The Walking Dead. I’ve heard a lot of noise about this show, mostly about how it’s something new and exciting, and is something like the Game of Thrones of us zombie people. I kept putting it off for various reasons, but now it’s on German Netflix, so I thought, what the hell, might as well finally give it a shot. I’ve pretty much run out of shows to follow anyway.
I have purposely avoided ‘spoilers’ before watching; I didn’t even read reviews on Amazon, as I usually do. So all I’ve heard about the show was praise, either from the few media outlets I caught mentioning it or from friends of mine who love the show. So I binge-watched the first two seasons in three days to see what the fuzz was all about.
My own reaction was… uh… how to put it… confused. Yep, that’s pretty much what this show does to me – it confuses the hell out of me, on so many levels. Mostly, though, because still I like it, for some reason. It’s like Supernatural all over again. I like the idea, and the general vibe of the show, but so, so many things make me angry about both of those shows that I just want to scream at the TV sometimes. I still started with S3, but with much less enthusiasm than I had when I watched the pilot.
For SPN, it’s the ridiculously convoluted plotlines since season 3, the metric shit-ton of ultra macho angst in every other episode, and the fact that it’s a total sausage fest and treats its few women in an infuriating way. For TWD, it’s the ridiculously uninspired plotlines (though that might be due to the source material; haven’t gotten that far into the comic yet), the forced drama in every single episode, the total lack of character development (unless you count Rick going from Nice Guy to sociopath in the span of three episodes), and here, too, the fact that most female characters are tropes instead of characters. Most male characters, too, but the show at least attempts to give most of them something more.
Those things in combination with the generally good idea and overall quality of the show (writing notwithstanding) make for a show that managed to hook me and still makes me fume quietly over at least half of each episode.
Let’s dissect this from the top.
I. Plot and structure
I’ve said the plot of TWD is uninspired. Allow me to elaborate. Zombies have been used for ages as a vehicle to tell stories about humans, about civilisation versus animal instincts, about individuality versus crowd mentality, just plain survival and whatever else anyone could think of. They are great for that. An enemy that’s not human but somehow still is, that reminds us about the fact that, under the right circumstances, we all can be monsters, and then can be used to explore just how extreme those circumstances would have to be for any given individual.
TWD tries that, and fails miserably. Part of the reason why might be the short lifespan of each season. Six episodes in the first, thirteen in the second. Yet they crammed so damn much into those seasons: The apocalypse itself, naturally; Rick waking up and coming to terms with the new world; Lori apparently moving on; Lori and Rick getting reunited and the resulting tension between not-really-moving-on Lori, Rick and Shane; Carol’s abusive asshole of a husband; the group deciding to move on and splitting up because of conflicting goals; the ‘maybe there’s hope – there is no hope’ CDC plot; Shane slowly turning into a sociopath; Fort Benning; Carl getting shot; Hershel’s farm; Sophia getting lost; searching for Sophia; tension between the groups of survivors; Andrea maybe-or-not killing herself; the walkers in Hershel’s barn; Lori’s baby and the ‘Who’s the daddy?’ plot; the group being allowed to stay at the farm just to get yanked out of their perceived secure ‘paradise’; Rick killing Shane; Rick assuming Shane’s role as the designated sociopath and all-around asshole. And then repeating some of those plotlines again: The Govenor as the nice-guy-who’s-actually-a-total-dick; his keeping his zombie daughter locked up because “maybe she’s still in there”; the safe-place-that-isn’t-so-safe-after-all. Plus all the ‘little’ things, like someone dying all the time for really dumb reasons, people getting in trouble for really dumb reasons, and people arguing for really dumb reasons.
And that’s just the first two-and-a-half seasons. Really? Believe it or not, there is a limit to what you can cram into a single season (especially one that’s shorter than average) without it looking like you’re trying too hard. At some point, it’s getting tedious, then ridiculous, and then flat-out hilarious. In this case, hilarious began with Lori’s stupid car crash. I don’t even… what? How would anyone manage to crash their car on a deserted road like that? Out of sheer stupidity, that’s how. Lori crashes the car by not looking at the road for almost ten seconds and hitting the only lone walker on the whole damn road. This accident should not have happened, especially since it does nothing for the plot, at all. Lori wants to go after Rick (an ex-cop) and Glenn (the guy who, according to the show, is the best at traipsing through walker-infested cities undetected), who went after Hershel, who went to get wasted after his walker-wife was killed. She has no reason to go after them other than manufactured drama. Not to mention that she’s a) pregnant and b) has a son to protect, too, which she frequently seems to forget.
Point is, the show can not maintain tension through anything other than forced drama and surprise zombie attacks that most of the time should not be surprising or, and that’s my favourite, shouldn’t happen at all. An example of the first kind is Rick’s arrival in Atlanta, a city with over five million people in the metropolitan area, and even if you only count the city, it’s still half a million. The walkers swarming Rick should have surprised exactly no-one, least of all Rick, the guy living in the zombie apocalypse. An example of the second variety is the attack that drives the group off the farm at the end of season 2. A heard of zombies heard a helicopter and started following it, even long after it passed, and ended up on the farm. But. In the first episode, there was a helicopter doing exactly the same thing, and the walkers didn’t give a fuck about it then. And if zombies behaved that way, the city would be empty, and huge zombie herds would be walking across the land, because they apparently don’t stop after starting in the direction of the noise. It would’ve also made killing them really easy; just do the World War Z thing, blast some AC/DC in stadiums and then nuke them when they’re full. And even if we are willing to suspend disbelief for this, there’s still the question how a relatively quiet helicopter drew so much attention; there should be ambient noise, wind, buildings crumbling, animals and whatnot being just as loud or louder, so the helicopter shouldn’t have the impact it has.
I’d totally be willing to suspend my disbelief for TWD, really. It’s just that the show fires its drama missiles at a rate that makes it way too predictable. You just know when something is going to happen because there always is something happening; it’s not a surprise anymore after the first few episodes. A good show has suspense, sure, but it allows for quieter interlude episodes, too. I need a chance to calm down, to get used to the way things are, to allow myself to believe that this time, they really are safe, that this time, they made it, before you throw another catastrophe at me. Them. Whatever. I cared about Dale’s death because I had time enough to get to like him. I didn’t care about Amy’s death because I’d seen her for about two episodes before it happened, one of which she spent whining. Sophia’s death was sad, but more because she was a child than because of me genuinely caring about her.
Overall, I feel like the writers just got lazy at some point. The first few episodes were cool, but then it just seemed like they didn’t know how to write actual human drama (I refuse to call the constant squabbling ‘genuine drama’), so they decided to go the ‘shake things up all the time’ route. They keep adrenaline levels in the viewers high with action, but can’t hold our attention with anything else, so they decided to stick to the ALL THE DRAMA! approach. And the only way they try to break up this roller coaster of zombie action is by inserting deep and meaningful (achem) dialogue on a regular basis, where characters talk about things that either have been shown already and don’t need verbal emphasis, or could have been shown better by action rather than by dialogue. It gets to the point where zombie attacks get interrupted for some conversation – one moment, there’s a walker about to eat someone, the next the same someone is waxing poetic about some stuff we could’ve waited to hear until the immediate threat of death by zombie has passed. But there’s always a convenient break in the action for discussions to happen, and that takes a lot of the threat out of for me. Because I just know those two idiots should get eaten while they argue but won’t, no matter what. It’s important storytelling, after all.
II. The characters
Oh boy. Where do I start?
Right. Main characters. I think that’s Rick and his family, with Shane and Dale being close second, and the rest are supporting characters. So far, so good. I don’t expect a specific kind of character; nice protagonists, mean protagonists, criminal protagonists, sociopathic protagonists, I can handle all of those. But the show should a) be somewhat consistent in the portrayal of its main characters and b) give me something, anything, that makes me care. TWD makes it really, really difficult to like or root for any of its main or supporting characters (with the exception of Daryl, maybe; he’s kind of a dick, but at least he’s an honest dick, and he gets a nice character arc later to make up for that).
Rick starts out okay. Confused guy trying to deal with the shithole the world has become and searching for his family, then trying to keep them alive and get them to safety. His primary antagonist, apart from the zombies, is Shane – they compete for group leadership (open, more encompassing conflict) and Lori’s affection (private, human conflict). Shane is set up as a violent, narcissistic sociopath who, in the end, has to die for the good of the group. Good, I can dig that. But then it’s a shit move to make Rick turn into the exact same person Shane was and not just letting him get away with it, but trying to make me like him that way. That is so, so weird and so, so wrong. You can’t give me an antagonist who dies for a certain ‘sin’, and then have the protagonist commit that same sin as well, but since he’s the hero, it’s okay. Shane is criticised for his violent temper, but when Rick tortures Randall, it’s okay because he’s just trying to keep the group safe. Shane tries to decide for everyone, regardless of their opinion and gets shit for it, but when Rick says, literally, that the group isn’t a democracy, it’s fine because he just wants what is best for everyone. And that’s not even touching on the inconsistencies in Rick’s character: Searching for Sophia for days even though logic says she is either dead or safely somewhere else at this point, but then dismissing Andrea as ‘dead anyway’ after the attack in the season finale. Insisting on saving Merle and later Randall, but then torturing Randall for… information, I guess? The show is rather vague about that. Before that, Rick is adamant they give Randall a fighting chance by dropping him off at some place where he’s relatively safe and can get some supplies, but when the guy mentions something about going to school with Maggie, Rick takes him back (presumably because maybe Randall isn’t so bad, then?), only to decide then that Randall will be executed because he’s a threat. Rick is doing so many 180s in the second half of season 2, I’ve just given up trying to understand it. I wish he’d just kick the bucket and let Michonne take over as the protagonist.
Then there’s Lori. She’s either an annoying, angsty bitch, or simply a vehicle for Rick’s angst; either way, she’s a horrible character, and I was relieved when she bit the dust in the prison. She’s supposed to be a caring person and awesome mother who just happened to have banged her presumed-dead husband’s best friend for comfort, but I don’t see much evidence of either. She frequently is selfish and reckless, and she keeps losing track of Carl in critical situations, like, you know, zombie attacks. The same Carl she is supposedly so worried about, but who somehow manages to wander off and end up in danger all the time, whenever it’s needed for the plot. Beyond those supposed traits, which get mentioned a lot, but aren’t really seen on-screen, there isn’t much else about her. I know her as ‘Rick’s wife’ and that’s it. No backstory, no relationships, no nothing. I didn’t really pay attention to it, but I’m not sure TWD at the end of season 2 has passed the Bechdel test (Edit: Wait, it does, with the laundry scene in episode 2 or 3). And that’s another reason why I have a beef with TWD: In a world that has gone to hell (and then come back trying to eat your face), where the top priority is surviving for another day, the roles are distributed like a bad 1970s post-apocalypse film – the men protect and gather, and the women maintain the camp and keep an eye on the kids. This is mentioned once, the question isn’t resolved and then it’s never brought up again, in a show that is supposedly ‘not about zombies, but about what humankind becomes when the old structures disappear’. The whole misery is excellently highlighted by the various characters’ priorities in Lori’s baby situation. Maggie goes ballistic over the ‘abortion pills’, Lori frets about whether or not she even should have a baby in this world, and Rick and Shane go all macho over who’s baby it is. Gender stereotypes at their finest.
Let’s move on to Carl. I’m still not sure if I’m even supposed to like him. He’s a mini-me of Rick, sometimes, then he gets all sensitive, and then it’s suddenly ‘Let’s shoot my dad’s dead best friend!’ again. Not to mention that he should have died of stupidity ten times over by the end of season 2, but magic and plot conveniences keep saving his ass. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t have many aspects beyond ‘Rick’s and Lori’s kid’. ‘Sophia’s friend’ maybe, but that’s more the other way around. He never asks about grandparents, friends, or whatever else he could possibly care about other than shooting things with guns he shouldn’t have. He gets a little better in season 3, but barely.
That’s what irks me about the supporting cast as well. They have so little backstory in addition to what they do on-screen, they might as well have none at all. Dale is an exception, he’s got a consistent backstory that ties in with what we see of him in the show itself. Daryl is okay, too, but only gets his story told in season 2. The rest? Not so much. There’s Ed, the abuser, and his wife Carol, the abuse victim. Andrea, who is angry. Merle, who is a racist asshole. Amy, who is young and blonde. Glenn, who is the group’s doormat. T-Dog, who is… black, I guess? Seriously, he barely has any lines, and the longest dialogue so far has been with Merle about his being black and Merle’s racist bullshit. Glenn gets a little more personality after they arrive on the farm and takes up a relationship with Maggie, and in season 3, these two are actually my personal favourites. But that takes way too long to happen for my taste.
In season 3, we get Michonne, who I really dig, but gets very little backstory since she doesn’t really talk. She’s still one of the more level-headed and sensible people around, given the circumstances, and would make for a much better leader than Rick. But I suppose since she’s a woman, that won’t happen, ever. Also, she’s black, and TWD has a disturbing track record of axing its lone black character when the next one comes along. T-Dog dies for Big Tiny, Big Tiny dies for Oscar, that guy dies for Michonne, and now there are actually two more black characters, and I’m waiting for the next one to snuff it. Not a good sign.
Aaand season 3 also got us the Govenor. What. The. Hell. That guy is as cliche evil as they come, but of course, nobody but Michonne notices. How? How in the world does nobody know that, or then calmly accept it when it shows (as with the zombie fight club thing)? Is everyone at Woodbury nuts? But the show says no, those are normal people who want a normal life, but are somehow okay with this? The Govenor also isn’t a very logical character. He does everything he does for his own gain and judges people by their usefulness to him. But when he could gain some very skilled allies with the soldiers, he just nonchalantly has them killed for… what reason again? Because he wanted what they had? Which he could’ve gotten by letting them stay, plus their skills in potential fights? And then he does the same with the prison. He literally wants to kill everyone there just because. Because he doesn’t want another group so close to Woodbury. Which shouldn’t be an issue, since apparently, the way between the two locations is dangerous and requires a car to safely get from A to B. They probably wouldn’t know the other group was there. Yet he plans on killing all the people to… not move into a much more secure location? Because he can? Because he’s a dangerous and violent sociopath who somehow still manages to appear charming despite being clearly out of control and delusional? Nevermind that there’s about fifty people living at Woodbury, and even if we assume half of those can and will fight, that’s not ‘severely outnumbered and outgunned’, especially when the smaller group resides in a freaking fortress. I’m so not buying this character and this plot.
The rest of the (still) living minor characters are people I don’t really care about, mainly because a lot of them rotate very quickly, with lifespans of a few episodes tops. I already mentioned that I’m rather fond of Daryl, Glenn and Maggie, but those three aside, I couldn’t care less of any of the others died. I fact, I keep laughing when ridiculous stuff happens, like the ‘walker bomb’ when the Govenor attacks the prison, or the zombie heads in fish tanks. If that’s not intentional, it speaks tons about the writing, and it’s not compliments.
Who’s left? Well, all the people in fridges. Morgan’s wife; Amy; Hershel’s wife; Michonne’s boyfriend and child (I think); the Govenor’s daughter; Dale’s wife. Though the latter gets some semblance of a character when Dale tells about his life with her, and how she wanted to travel but couldn’t anymore before she died. And while some of those people gets fridged for a woman (Amy for Andrea, Michonne’s family for her), all of them are female with the exception of Michonne’s boyfriend.
In any case, TWD would really benefit from a few more fleshed-out, less stereotypical characters, both in leading and supporting roles. And if the protagonist has to be a psychotic dickwad, at least make his actions more consistent with the world around him and his own characterisation. He doesn’t have to be likeable, just understandable.
III. The pacing
I mentioned this before, when I said that I find it hilarious how there’s always time for talking, so long as it’s ‘relevant’ (your mileage may vary) to the plot, no matter how dire the situation is. That illustrates nicely how skewed the priorities of both the writers and the characters are. Sure, sometimes, it’s good to slow things down a bit to talk about issues, but not in the middle of being overrun by zombies. And certainly not several times per episode. It gets tedious, and if it happens in the middle of an action sequence, I get so distracted by it that I forget that I should be on the edge of my seat. There’s not logic to these interruptions, either, and so they happen and confuse me and more importantly anger me, and I skip ahead to when I see the next zombie being decapitated. I started doing this recently, but after enduring so much talking for no good reason, I have my doubts that the scenes I skip are any more important.
The same weird structure is applied to the rest of the show, too. The season typically starts out with some action, then slows down a little, and then starts jumping from ‘quiet’ to ‘hectic’, plot-wise, really frequently. If there is a single episode that’s mostly action, or mostly quiet, day-to-day life, it’s a miracle. The individual episodes don’t have a consistent tone; it’s not that I can’t handle multiple plots at once, or some jumps from someone running through the woods to someone huddling around a fire. But it happens so often, I have hardly enough time to focus on one thing before the next one gets thrown at me. Hence the ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude. I have so little time to get acquainted with the characters before my attention is required elsewhere that I don’t have time to develop ‘feelings’, if you will, of any sort. Very few characters get enough screen time for that. Of course, with a cast this large, that’s hard, but then don’t give me dramatic danger/death scenes for the minor characters and expect me to care. Because I don’t.
If the show could linger on individual scenes or situations for a wee bit longer, I’d be so, so happy. I don’t mind spending an entire episode or two watching the group clean the prison and figure out how to make it liveable; I see that anyway, just in little chunks scattered through the season. And if the ‘rebuilding society/creating a new one’ aspect is supposedly so important, it shouldn’t matter whether or not those episodes don’t have breathless chase scenes or whatever. But they do, and I suspect the only reason is ‘don’t make it too boring’. Well, if you think one of the main themes of your show is boring, then maybe you shouldn’t have made that theme a focus in the first place.
Basically, I wish the show wasn’t so erratically jumping around the playing field. Moving the pieces slowly, but consistently, to set up a big confrontation, works better in my opinion for a show that prides itself on being ‘not just about killing zombies’. Because for that, you sure are killing a lot of zombies, whether it’s necessary or not.
All in all, I’ll probably keep watching TWD, since it’s on Netflix and we have that anyway. But I probably won’t buy any DVDs or go out of my way to catch the new episodes the day they are released. It’s just not worth the effort and money, and frankly, if the quality keeps declining like this, season 3 might be the last for me. We’ll see.
Edit: Wooo, this is post #100 in this blog. Go me! I think…