[Opinion] - Where The Walking Dead Went Wrong

The Walking Dead appeared a couple years ago to much fan fair, and high ratings. Between the first two seasons, much was made of the highly public reduction in budget, and departure of series creator Frank Darabont. During the mid season break, the internet was abuzz with suggestions on how the series could improve itself. And now that it's done, everyone is tickled by new cast additions. All of this is par for the course, with any successful show. What is doesn't do is distract from the fact that AMC's The Walking Dead just isn't that good.

The remainder of this article contains spoilers for the entire series to this point. If you have not watched season 2, especially the final three episodes, do not read this. Go and have a look at that Joss Whedon interview I posted last week. It's good. Everyone else, hit the jump.

As I watched the final batch of episodes of season 2, LOST kept coming to mind. On the surface the shows aren't similar, but the nagging in my brain remained. It was only in the closing moments of episode 11 that it came to me: The Walking Dead wants to be LOST. They want to use this small group of isolated people to examine the human condition, while also leading the viewer on an exciting adventure. In the beginning, before it completely lost it's shit, LOST was successful at this. The Walking Dead isn't big enough to fill it's own britches.

Let's look at the two seasons we've had so far, broken into three groups of about six episodes. The first season introduced the characters, the environment, and the situation. It was lean, but riveting. It was about survival. The first half of the season was about getting the characters in place, solidifying their roles in the group. The second half was about introducing the first challenge to the group, having them forced out of their safe haven and on the road to the CDC. The final episode was basically an information dump that didn't relate to the rest of the season, other than driving home the point that there was no help coming, and that these characters were on their own.

When interviewed before the first season, Darabont said,
"The pilot I originally wrote I wound up slitting [sic] into two episodes, just to slow the narrative down and dig into the characters more deeply, so it’s not just plot-driven, event-driven stuff. You really want to drag these characters into the equation."
This idea obviously became ingrained on the writing staff, because as soon as the second season landed, it immediately suffered from decompression. The writers obviously knew where they wanted to start, and where hey wanted to end up, but couldn't figure on how to fill in the sizable gap in between. The biggest complaint about the first half of season 2 was pacing, which is true, but that is down to the writing. They wanted to start with Sophia running off, and wanted to end with Sophia as a zombie. But they had no idea of how to make the bits in between interesting. What we got, then, was five episodes of the group looking for Sophia. Sure, along the way, we were introduced to Hershel and the farm, Carl got shot, Lori got pregnant, Shane turned to the Dark Side, and the barn was full of walkers. But none of them came together in an organic way. Worse yet, every time they introduced a new plot point, it immediately began to suffer om decompression as well.

The back half didn't fair much better. The death of Sophia lingered, again for too long. Then an unseen human threat was introduced, resulting in the group taking in an injured prisoner, whom they then spent the majority of episodes having to worry over. Once again, the writers clearly knew where they wanted to start, and end, but had no clear path between the two. They resolved that issue, only to reintroduce the hoard (they use herd on the show as the collective noun for zombies, but hoard is just so much better), from all the way back in the first episode of the season, after many viewers had forgotten about it, in an incredibly contrived, reverse deus ex way.

Oh, the contrived situations. It's said of good writing that the plot happens to the characters, not that the characters do things to make the plot. This is not the case with Walking Dead. The characters are constantly doing things that don't make sense as a way to generate drama, that ultimately have very little baring on the plot. Lori's car accident is a prime example. She takes a car to go collect her husband, despite that she's alone and if Rick couldn't get himself back, which is the only thing he has been shown to do effectively over the course of the program, what chance would she have. She immediately gets in a car accident, is attacked by Walkers, and found by Shane. This would have been an excellent opportunity to introduce some real drama to the show. Have the accident cause some harm to the baby, or have Lori exhibiting signs of a concussion, maybe some minor memory loss. What does happen? Nothing. She gets a scrape, and then she and Shane, and Rick get to yell at one another.

The farm sister is another excellent example, whose name I honestly can't remember because except for a couple of the primaries, this show hasn't given me a reason to care enough about these characters to remember their names. After the barn shoot out, she collapses into a catatonic state, possibly because of shock. She remains like this, giving the other farm girl and Hershel something to worry about for a couple episodes (it also introduces Hershel's alcoholism and gets Rick into town to encounter the first batch of unseen human enemies). She walks up, and we get an episodes where everyone talks about the pros and cons of suicide, after which the sister cuts herself, realizes it hurts, and everyone is better again. Really, it's the last it's mentioned, like no one has ever tried to kill themselves again after failing the first time. What it does result in, is all the female cast members yelling at one another.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the Walking Dead, and the reason I have found it, this season more than last, nearly unbearable to watch. The endless repetition of the same plot points. Characters having the same conversations over and over. The number of times Lori and Rick have an argument about Carl, or safety, or Shane, or all three. The number of times the Asian kid and the farm girl don't talk about their feelings. The number of times Dale tries to convince people that Shane is bad news. The fatherhood of Lori's baby. It is excruciating. If characters are going to talk, something needs to come out of the conversation. There needs to be growth in the relationship between these characters, if only on a single point. Walking Dead is stagnant, which might be a clever metaphor (the world is dead, so are the characters) but I think it's just lazy. It's soap opera stupidity, and it does nothing to advance the show. Everyone just keeps spinning their wheels (see how I basically said the same thing over and over there. Kind of annoying, wasn't it?).

So, what an they do in season 3 to improve things? In short, a lot. This show badly needs a rehaul, and they can use the few things they have done well as the grit to start making the show the pearl it was supposed to be back in season 1.

First, kill more characters. Killing Dale and Shane was brilliant. I applaud any show that is willing to kill major characters for the sake of the narrative, especially if the character was well liked (Dale, though I wonder how much Darabont's departure had to do with with Jeffrey DeMunn's leaving too. DeMunn has appeared in all of Darabont's work to this point, and I wouldn't be surprised if his name becomes attached to L.A. Noir over at HBO). But this herd needs thinning. I've already mentioned the show's issue with not making the characters memorable. Easy fix, have them get bit. Focus the focus of the show on characters we do care about. Now that Shane is gone, and Rick has lost his mind, more closely examine how the one steady rock in the group is starting to fall apart. Now that Dale is gone, make Andrea the voice of reason. Or, now that Shane is gone, make her the dissenting voice. Work those two characters off one another, like the Jack/Locke dynamic on LOST. Get rid of the grieving mother, the cross bow guy and the black guy, who didn't have a line of dialogue in the second half until the final episode, and I was honestly surprised when he survived.

Two, pick a side, we're at war. Either the show is a character study of the human condition, set against a backdrop of untold horror, which serves as a metaphor for the small horrors that can occur in any society, or it's a gratuitous grindhouse blood bath horror show with one dimensional characters and great FX. Thus far, it is the latter, wishing it were the former. This needs to change. The budget restrictions have forced the show to do less and less full on mayhem, but when it does do it, it's practically pornographic. What they haven't done is make fully developed characters that are able to support the show between the moments of sheer terror.

The final twenty minutes of the last episode were completely unnecessary. Rick gives the same speech twice within that time, Lori gets to be a bitch, Hershel and Rick repeat the same lines over and over, though once they were cowering behind a truck, so I guess that's different, and what could have been a great cliffhanger for several characters gets resolved in favour of two reveals that mean nothing to any viewers who haven't read the books (which I haven't, and immediately went on line to find out why I should be excited about the Sith Lord in the woods and the prison in the distance. I shouldn't have had to do that, TV show. Divorce yourself from your origins, or risk alienating the viewers).

Three, less is more. Season three has been picked up for 16 episodes. That's four more than this year, and that was about four more than this season needed. If you're going to have a long season, and you obviously don't have the writers that can support such numbers, maybe introduce more episodic stuff, to take the weight off the arc based content. Look at Breaking Bad as a prime example for a show that carries the arc material perfectly. There is rarely an episode that doesn't add something to the story. Walking Dead doesn't do that. What they might want to do is look at Justified, probably the best show on TV right now. Each season has an arc, complete with a primary villain. The show also uses episodic stories to reduce the reliance on those villains. The villains usually have a role to play in each episode, and each episode usually has a couple of stories playing at the same time. And Justified has a much smaller cast than Walking Dead. You'd think having a cast that size, they'd realize they could break things up some, and not have Rick and Shane carry all the weight.

Alternatively, having a reduced episode count limits the amount of time you have to decompress for, tightens up story arcs and gives the series a quicker feeling pace. Just look at season two again, only if they had fewer episodes to fill, and tweek the story points slightly. Start the season on the interstate, and the encounter with the hoard. This drives everyone off into the woods, in two groups, one led by Rick, the other by Shane.  While running, Carl gets shot, introducing Otis and the farm to Rick and his group. Meanwhile, Shane and his group make it to town, where they set up in one of the buildings.

From these two locations, they can run through the major plot points of the second season. Rick's group can deal with Carl and Hershel and the barn, while Shane's group can deal with Lori's pregnancy, and raids by other survivor groups, without having to pad the stories, because they are happening simultaneously and thus sharing screen time. Shane can kill the raiders, which can start him down the dark path, and seed Dale's mistrust. Meanwhile, Rick refuses to leave the farm while Carl recuperates, thus leading to the discovery that the barn is full of walkers. The Asian guy and the farm girl can have their romance. Crossbow guy can have his weird walkabout in the woods with his brother's ghost. The groups can come together again when the farm group goes to town for supplies, wherein Shane can kill Otis mistaking him for a raider.

The two biggest changes would be that Sophia gets lost during the initial interstate run, but both groups think she's with the other. When everyone meets at the farm, Shane would discover the barn and open it, the resulting attack attracting the hoard, which the viewer would remember better because it only passed six episodes ago, and unlike in the real show, there had been very little gun fire up to this point. The hoard would overtake them, during which Sophia would appear corpsified, and everyone would take off again, leaving it with the groups splintered, half the cast dead, or missing and leaving season three in a more exciting place going in. Not that this is the perfect plan, or even good at all. But it does show that in six or eight episodes you can cover the same ground without being reduced to time wasting measures.

Four, and I swear this is the last point, give it some levity. The show was never Zombieland, but in the first season there were jokes. For some people, humour is a coping mechanism, and you had characters who were able to crack a joke every once and a while. The Asian and black guys, Dale and the crossbow guy too. Hell, I think even Andrea and Lori were funny once. It's unfair to say that if the world collapsed like it has here, that everyone would lose their sense of humour; some would use it as a crutch, making jokes all the time. Humour doesn't have to equal lighthearted, it just has to break the tension, and it also serves to make characters likable.

Right now, this show has the second most unlikable cast of characters on television, with Mad Men taking first prize, in my opinion. Were I in this group, I would have left long ago, if only because I don't think I could stand to be around them everyday. I can barely stand them for 43 minutes each week. And I started out loving Rick, and Dale. Andrea was cool and the crossbow guy was kickass in a Mad Max sort of way, like the guy who was always kind of waiting for the end of the world so he could be kickass. Now, they are whiny, bitchy, horrible people that I can't sympathise with any more. I did feel something for Dale when he died, but only because that entire episode was set up to make us fall in love with him again. He showed humanity, and damned if DeMunn didn't hit it out of the park with his performance, which is something that can't be said for the rest of the cast. Lori has only two facial expressions. Carl has one. Rick speaks all... of his lines... with a kind of weird... broken pattern to them... This isn't a cast giving it their all, which probably  because the scripts aren't worth the energy.

In the end, we are left with the show they have given us, which isn't worth revisiting, and left wondering if season three will be better or worse. It could have been the so-called sophmore slump, or it could be a pattern of dimishing returns. And I honestly don't know if I care enough to tune in to find out, when the show returns in the fall.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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