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October 29, 2013

The Walking Dead: So What Happens Next?

Looks like we’ve made it to Season 4, haven’t we?

How courteous of The Walking Dead to not only return before the Halloween weekend, but to show up way early.  That’s what you call dedication…either that, or AMC just wanted a clear programming block for a bunch of horror movies, and didn’t want to waste time recapping TWD episodes on the most terrifying weekend of the year.  Or maybe they just wanted ratings. Who’s to say, really?

Whatever the reason, the show is back and in full swing, bringing with it a slew of fans along for the ride.  Rick, Daryl, Carl, and all the rest are getting in on the zombie-slaying action all over again, ready to do whatever it takes to survive against the undead hordes.  And this season’s primed and ready to deliver on what we’ve all been waiting for -- along with no shortage of busted-up brain-munchers.

There’s just one little problem.  It might already be too late.


Oh man, I love the Dodge Roll.  Hope it makes a comeback in Kingdom Hearts III.  As a corollary, I hope Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t suck.

I should back up and say that -- as I’ve mentioned in previous TWD posts -- I jumped in somewhere around the halfway point of Season 2.  Sophia had just met with a nasty fate, the gang was still on a farm, and there were a lot of spin-our-wheels arguments.  And then the season finale happened, and then there were a bunch of zombies attacking, because that’s a surefire way to convince everyone that something important happened in that season.

I kid (mostly); for whatever reason, I stuck with the show and got to know its characters.  So when Season 3 rolled around, I was ready for more, and ready for the show to go onward and upward.  And in a lot of ways, it did.  Characters became more defined (mostly), struggles were set in motion, and if you ask me, the introduction of The Governor and Woodbury did wonders for the overall story.  There’s no denying that the show has its ups and downs, but when it’s up, it’s up.

But a funny thing happened not too long ago.  See, I was thinking about doing a post on TWD shortly after the Season 3 finale -- you know, a sort of retrospective, or a “here we are now, so what next” bit of brainstorming.  Did it get better, did it get worse, etc.  But I spent some time thinking about the finale, and the stuff that transpired in it.  The main event, of course, is the fact that Andrea died.  There were other major points, sure -- Woodbury’s end, The Governor’s full-on exodus, the end of zombie Milton, Rick completing his season-long arc by accepting others into his world (quite literally, since he takes stragglers into the prison), Ghost Lori taking a hike -- but Andrea dying?  She was one of the core members of the group!   She was a vocal presence for ages, especially in Season 3!  She shot Daryl that one time!

But as I thought about it, I realized something.  Something that, in the grand scheme of things, can’t be good.

I didn’t give a shit about Andrea. I never did.  And when I realize in hindsight that I didn’t care about a pivotal character in a major story arc, let alone her entire presence in the show, it’s a pretty big signal that something has gone wrong.  And it’s only getting worse.

Like a lot of people -- would-be writing heroes or otherwise -- I’m convinced that one of the most important parts of any story is its cast of characters.  They’re certainly a major focal point for an audience; after all, when was the last time you talked to a buddy and he said “Well, my favorite theme in the show is ____________”?  Chances are they’re going to start by naming their favorite character.  That’s where I’d start, at least.  My favorite character in How I Met Your Mother is Lily.  My favorite character in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Picard.  My favorite character in The Walking Dead is _______________.

And now you start to see my problem, I hope.  In spite of all the episodes I’ve seen -- virtually all of them since I started watching the show -- I still can’t name my favorite.  There’s absolutely no way that can be a good thing, but here I am.  Fuzzy on the decision, with the most I can come up with being a deflating “ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”

That’s just the start of it, though.  I’m fuzzy on the characters, but the more I think about things, the more I realize that I’m fuzzy about a lot of details.  I feel like I’ve got most of the key points of the story so far down, but for some reason I’ve been having a hard time remembering a lot of the particulars I want to remember.  Subtleties and nuances that make me want to come back for more every week, and settle in for the inevitable fifth season.  I’m convinced that Season 3 was better than Season 2, but I can’t shake the feeling that it hasn’t gotten over a lot of its problems.  And even now the same could be said of Season 4, early as it may be.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that I’m watching TWD, but I’m not watching the show I want it to be.  I’m not watching the show it could be, but the show as it is.  And with each passing week and each passing episode, I’m starting to suspect that It’s in danger of stagnating.  It’s got no reason to get better, because it’s already succeeding.  Any given week will bring in some ten million viewers, so clearly they’re in no danger of losing popularity.  They’ve got the vote, whether you like it or not.

For the moment, TWD still has my vote too. But I’m SERIOUSLY starting to lose my patience.

I’ll be the first to admit that even with The Governor MIA, Season 4 starts off with promise for a simple reason: things are actually peaceful for once.  People are working together.  People are talking things out over things that actually matter -- day-to-day events and challenges instead of the same argument over and over.  People are actually smiling, and telling jokes (Michonne especially; it’s like she found a personality between seasons).  You have no idea how much that means to me, even if it’s just a personal preference.  What creators need to understand is that without light -- without the occasional bits of levity and cheer -- there can be no darkness.  When everything is moody and oppressive and grim, nothing is moody or oppressive or grim.  I would have figured that people would have figured that out by now, but here we are again.  But at the outset, it seems like TWD has finally figured that out.  Now things are looking up, because…because…

Wait a minute.  Didn’t they pull this trick at the start of Season 3?

Yeah.  Yeah, they did.  They had some arguments, but then they found the prison and tried settling in a bit (after an uncharacteristically-large action setpiece) and once they did they started acting happy and smiling and singing songs.  It was great.  And then it all went to shit when T-Dog Lori T-Dog died, and Rick went kind of nuts but not totally nuts, and Carl became an unfeeling killing machine, and suddenly the prison might as well have been Herschel’s farm all over again…

They totally did this already.  It’s a bait-and-switch.  They act like everything is looking up, but then they yank it away from the cast and send them straight back into the same rut they’ve always been in.  Somebody has to make a tough and cruel decision.  That guy can’t be trusted, but this guy can, but that guy over there can’t.  The world as they once knew it is gone, so it’s time to get tough.  Zombies are still a threat, even though they’re almost a joke at this point.  (Given that the season opened with zombies falling through a roof and dying in the process, I’m hoping that we’ve reached a point in the show where they stop pretending like the zombies are a threat.  Otherwise, I hope the show's masterminds look up the meaning of the word "tension" one day.)

I’m starting to suspect that TWD is running out of tricks.  Its central premise and its promise are enough to garner viewers, but for those that are/have been on the fence -- or for those like me -- then the bare-bones strategies of the show might not be enough anymore.  I liked parts of Season 3 because it shook up the formula in an interesting way (The Governor/Woodbury), and gave the show a focus I’d had yet to see until that point.  But with both of those elements decidedly missing, I want to see something new and different applied all over again.  At a glance, it looks like the threat of a virus -- some kind of “super-flu” -- is going to give us that shake-up, but even if there’s a new threat I don’t think that alone is going to be enough.  Especially if it ends up petering out; if this thing really is as deadly as it’s made out to be, then it’s going to kill everyone, not just the mauve shirts.  

But let’s get back to the characters, because I strongly suspect that they’re the show’s central problem.  Not too long ago, my brother asked a pretty perceptive question about Hershel: “Is that all Hershel does?  Just be wise and give advice?”  And my answer was pretty much an agreement.  That was all Hershel could be, because that’s what the plot needed him to be.  He’s Rick’s confidant, a supporter who makes sure that the ex-Ricktator doesn’t slip too much…or at least not as much as he did in Season 3.  Beyond that, what is there to say about him?  He’s a devoted (if stern) father?  Well, that’s obviously going to be the case, plus he’s not the only father kicking around at the moment.  He’s got a religious streak?  Okay, but how deeply does that affect his character and his actions, if not just giving him an excuse to break out a bible every now and then?  He’s…uh…good at doing doctor stuff, I guess?  Well, so am I when I play Trauma Team.

Going down the line, plenty of characters in this show present dilemmas of actually being characters.  For the life of me, I can’t peg any deeper attributes to Maggie than A) is tough, B) loves Glenn, and C) nearly got attacked by The Governor and his cohorts, because I guess that’s just what happens to women in a story like this.  Beth is motherly and her stoicism is starting to crack, I guess, but until she started taking care of Judith I’m having a hell of a time remembering what she contributed to the story.  Glenn has gotten tougher, I think, and…other stuff.  Daryl is nice, and also badass and therefore popular.  Carl has lost his innocence.  Rick continues to make tough decisions, and struggles internally (and externally) over them.  It’s only a matter of time before someone slots into the role of T-Dog 2.0.  Yes, that includes Tyreese; he might have (improbably) fought his way out of a zombie mosh pit, but I refuse to believe the clock isn’t ticking on him.   

If I absolutely had to name my favorite character -- because someone held me at gunpoint -- then it’d probably be Carol.  She’s really started establishing her place in the show recently; she mixes a caring personality with a ruthless edge (it was her idea to have Andrea take down The Gov with a honey trap).  On one hand, she’s taking care of and teaching the new children in the prison; on the other, she’s teaching them how to use knives and kill the infected before they fully turn…which is something that really isn’t worth debating over given the context of the world, but TWD will be damned if there isn’t a topic to argue about aimlessly.  I’m more interested in Carol’s purpose in the story at large and her actions than the threat of a virus, some kind of traitor, or the “zombie kill of the week.”  Although given that Carol and the traitor are one and the same -- and the reveal didn’t have quite as much impact as I’d hoped -- I wonder if this arc of hers is going to be a one-and-done affair.

I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and claim that TWD’s cast is so flawed that the show is unwatchable.  It isn’t.  In fact, I’d like to think that I’m being too harsh on the show, or forgetting lots of important details, or just heaping hate because “hurf durf Voltech doesn’t like gritty stuff”.  But I don’t think I’m completely wrong.  In fact, I think I might be able to point out a few of the lingering problems with the show.  In theory, at least.  Feel free to disagree with me.

Here are my thoughts.

1) There is no “colorful cast” on display here.  That’s a phrase that’s seen a lot of usage, but it’s appropriately ill-fitting for what’s on display week after week in TWD.  Even with Season 4 upon us, as you can guess I’m still having a hard time picking characters out of the haze they’re content to hang around in.  They’re recognizable, but they’re blurred.  Defined, but not well enough -- or as well as I’d hope.  They’re getting there, even if it’s at a glacial pace…but then again, why should it have taken this long?  What do you do when the characters that actually are fairly colorful -- Merle chief among them -- end up getting the zombie boot?  See, this is why you don’t kill off characters all willy-nilly; each time you sacrifice your pieces, you’re making it that much easier to lose. 

2) The show is banking too heavily on its premise(s).  There are only so many ways you can play the “zombies incoming” card before it gets boring -- and the production crew knows it.  Their answer?  Throw in cards like “force a difficult decision at odds with basic human decency” and “introduce a conflict between characters focused on trust”.  Those are probably some of the only cards they have in their hand.  “Don’t trust Rick!”  “Don’t trust Shane!”  “Lori’s dumb!”  “Andrea’s dumb!”  “Michonne’s dumb!”  I would have figured by now -- especially with Dale’s death being an impetus to get along -- these characters would be a tighter unit.  But because so much focus is on the zombie “threat”, it never feels like these people get a chance to spread their wings.

3) The plot has a habit of going nowhere fast.  I’m about ready to start ignoring everything that happened on that farm, for all the impact it’s had on the prison arc (besides killing off Shane and Dale).  Thinking back, I don’t feel like anything of value was gained for the cast, with the season finale’s fight against a massive zombie horde being “proof” that things are happening and deluding the undiscerning into thinking that this is a show about killing zombies.  It should be painfully obvious by now that WITHOUT ORDER THIS IS HUMAN NATURE YOU GUYS, because for all its myriad challenges, that’s what the show keeps coming back to.  The same theme with a slightly different paint job…”slightly different” in this case being a nice shade of ruby instead of the factory-default red.     

4) There’s rarely any payoff to anything, and even less progression.  This season there was a conversation about Daryl being a detective back before the zombie outbreak, and in the same episode the crossbow-biker says that he’s tired of seeing people die.  What comes of it?  Not much.  It’s not really an insight into his character (because Season 2 already did that when he hallucinated in the woods, and Season 3 gave him a personal struggle where he split off from the group to go with his brother Merle…only to go back to Team Rick about an episode later).  It’s true that there have been glimpses at deeper characterizations -- Rick especially, for obvious reasons -- but I don’t feel like I’m being rewarded for my time investment in the show.

Whether it’s related to the characters, the plot, or the show at large, all things considered there hasn’t been nearly as much justification for me in watching the show as I’d prefer.  These circumstances aren’t nearly as engaging or profound as the writers think they are -- and it’s because of them that the show is spinning in place.  Every gain these people try to make gets negated by the presence or threat of zombies, a lack of supplies (which hasn’t stopped our cast from looking anything less than rugged), mistrust, or a combination of the three.  They’re not going anywhere physically because they’re content with bumping around on a farm or a prison, and they’re not going anywhere mentally because THERE ARE ZOMBIES OUT THERE, AND OUR WORLD IS GONE FOREVER SO WE’D BETTER NOT WORK TOGETHER UNLESS WE ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO.  They’re circling around a dead end.

It should go without saying, but TWD is starting to piss me off.  At this stage in the game, it’s not nearly as compelling as it could be, and just barely as compelling as it needs to be.  It feels like I’m still waiting for the show that it could be one day if it wishes upon a star, watching everything until that point in the hopes that the glorious day has finally come.  It hasn’t.  There have been glimmers of more, but I can’t shake the sense that it’s coasting.  The veneer of the new season has already worn off, and unless there’s a MASSIVE shake-up this season I doubt it’ll get any better in the long run.  Individual moments may improve, sure, but when the show is still using the “give them a bit of character development, then kill them off” formula, I hope you’ll forgive me for being a little less than excited.

But you know what might help?  If the show becomes more like Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I made that offhanded mention of Picard for a reason.  Recently I’ve seen a handful of TNG episodes, and it seems like every time I’m in a position to watch one of them from start to finish, I can’t tear myself away.  I like it a lot.  A whole lot.  In fact, I’d wager a guess that everything TNG does right, TWD does wrong.  Granted I’m not well-versed enough to know everything about the show, but from what I’ve seen I can make a few claims.  Just enough to prove a point, I hope.  And it starts with this:

Okay, no it doesn’t.  I just think the trombone is hilarious.

It’s hard for me to say if there are any major story arcs in TNG, but I’d say that’s one of its strengths.  Episodes are self-contained adventures -- mysteries with their own dilemmas that need to be solved.  What ancient secret was left behind by Picard’s teacher, and what could be so important that he’d willingly risk his life for it?  What is the mysterious illness spreading throughout the Enterprise, and what nightmarish effects will it have on the crew?  What happens when the Enterprise’s circuits and computers take on a mind of their own, and decide to steer the ship on a course of its choosing? 

Those are all mysteries that drive each episode -- mysteries proposed and solved usually by episode’s end.  Characters will work together to figure out each mystery -- maybe not every character in the cast at once, but enough to give them a color beyond their uniforms -- and the ideas and questions that arise along the way are genuinely intriguing.  There’s a sense of progression towards a definite conclusion.  It’s got its premise -- to boldly go where no one has gone before -- but that’s just a corollary to the main adventure per episode, to be solved through action, diplomacy, science, investigation, or any mix of the four.

Maybe it’s the fact that episodes of TNG have defined endings and a distinct lack of story arcs that set it well above TWD.  Season 3 had The Governor conflict, but it took almost the entirety of the season to wrap that up…meaning that almost any episode that deviated from it or didn’t propel the arc toward its conclusion felt like it dragged.  Indeed, I have to wonder what the end goal is for any given TWD arc, and the series as a whole.  As it stands, I think the series could end right now, or at least in a season or two.  They’ve got the prison and can hole up in there fairly well, and can hold off the zombie threat for the most part; if they’re not going to offer anything engaging from episode to episode to drive the mystery -- to expand our appreciation and understanding of their brave new world -- then they might as well move toward a defined conclusion.  Otherwise, it’s just tripping the same flags over and over again.

That is, with the exception of one episode in Season 3.  And I get the feeling you know what I’m talking about.

Can I just ask where the hell that episode came from?  Because I want more of that.  It was easily, EASILY my favorite episode from last season -- no, my favorite episode from the show so far.  It was an episode that tells me “This.  This is what TWD is all about.”  It’s the episode that every episode of TWD should aspire toward.  It’s self-contained, but it brings with it a sense of impact that most episodes have either failed to capture or lessened because of overuse of the same two or three tricks over and over again.  It’s an episode that emphasizes how much the world has broken, and how easily it can break the people within it.  But that’s counterbalanced by -- of all things -- a few moments of good humor and humanity. 

This is what TWD needs.  Focus.  Better use of its time, and its elements.  Highs and lows.  At this point in the series’ run, it’s not enough to have a good season opener, go back to being merely okay, and then (try to) ratchet things up for the finale.  Am I being too demanding by asking for a series to deliver on its promise?  Am I being too critical by asking that a series stop being mediocre when it can and has shown that it could be something more than just a thing to watch because it’s on and other people are watching it?

I say thee, nay.

TWD, I expect you to be good from this moment on.  I’ve gotten used to you.  I know you.  And you’ve had three seasons to get into your groove.  So deliver.  Entertain me.  Be good already.  Because if you don’t, then I might not be watching you for much longer.

There’s plenty else for me to watch.  Maybe I should check to see if TNG is on Hulu or something.  Or maybe I’ll jump into Kamen Rider Fourze, since OOO was SO GOOD.  Or maybe I’ll just stick with TV.  Let’s see, what usually comes on Sundays at eight?



  1. I'll be the rare nay-sayer for once and disagree with you on TWD. It lacks focus but in my opinion it defines it rather than damns it. It's not popular because it is an unstoppable infection that spreads from person to person. It's popular because it makes people question what they would do in the same boat.

    The best way to understand this is to watch the ridiculous talk show that comes on after it. I haven't watched much television of late, and as such I missed out on relating to water-cooler conversations regarding them. And TWD watercooler conversations are particularly great.

    As someone that read the Graphic Novels, I love the fact that I am left guessing to what the hell is going to happen next. Who is going to take the plunge as the resident crazy that does what they have to. Look at the growth of Daryl as an example. How about Hershel? Some of them have taken serious face-heel-turns and vice-versa.

    I think it's a bit redundant to complain about things going to hell after a quiet lapse. You could be cynical and say all stories do this. You get lax, you get your ass beat. Way of the world. Either way, great read (as always).

  2. You DARE bring disagreement to my blog?! YOU MUST DIE! *shoots poorly-animated lightning bolts out of afro*

    Ahem. Well, I'll admit you've got a good point. What WOULD someone do in the same boat? Granted that's not a question I've particularly wondered deeply about (I'd like to think that if for some reason I survived longer than a week, I'd offer myself up as the world's finest grunt), but yeah, I can see others seeing TWD and asking themselves questions. Maybe that's the key point; maybe these characters offer up ideas that tickle the survivalist fancy in others. Maybe; seems like I can't find a comment thread without hundreds of complaints about how the characters all act like idiots.

    Then again, I guess it's easy to call someone stupid when you're not the one surrounded on all sides by hordes of the undead.

    "The best way to understand this is to watch the ridiculous talk show that comes on after it."

    Wait, is that actually something worth watching? Some of the commercials made it look insufferable at best, and considering that I just finished watching the episode they're about to talk about, I've never been wholly convinced that I needed to sit in and listen. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut I guess it's worth a shot one of these days. Maybe. Assuming I don't prioritize the gathering of hot dogs.

  3. So it seems TWD has the same, but more refined problems of zombie survival horror: undead everywhere, stupid distrusting characters, and stagnation. This is why the genre never appealed to me. Even when I look back at TellTale's Walking Dead game, it was only good for two characters in a short 8-10 hour period. That was - and still is - my limit.

    Then again, I always disliked zombies as monsters because they seem to be rarely used in fiction other than the apocalypse and campy survival horror with grey-hued characters. And if you stick with that formula, you better know how to write a cast worth cheering for. You better know how to bring up tension that is not exclusive to trust, low supplies, lack of weapons, or zombies incoming.

    There has to be more you can do with this concept. Hell, give us a story where scientists are working against the clock for a cure! Sure, it may play more as a drama, and maybe you have to shrink the scale of infection a bit to make it work, but it gives us something different. I Am Legend (at least the movie) attempted the "find a cure to save humanity route", but it still played like a boring, stale survival horror flick.

    Or maybe there's a lost episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where there are zombies. The tongue-in-cheek dialogue would at least keep my interest, and the characters are liked well enough for them to play the plot straight...ish... with snark.

  4. Yeah, I've been thinking the same things you have for a while. Given what happened with me and The Last of Us, I'm starting to wonder if the "zombie fiction" model is broken.

    What you suggested here, about scientists trying to find a cure? That's actually a pretty cool idea. That could go places if explored properly. So could a lot of other ideas. And there ARE lots of ideas out there already. The Dead Rising games? Pretty good, with a bit more oomph to its story than one would expect (DR2 in particular; I actually prefer Chuck Greene to Frank West.) Zombieland? Not a bad movie at all, even if it had some problems in its third act. It seems like mixing zombies and humor has worked well, and it can work again. That said, there are other aspects worth exploring in greater detail. Maybe some guy trying to write his own zombie survival guide on the fly, or something.

    But just doing the same old, same old -- sticking with the same broken model -- isn't going to work anymore. Not for me, at least. Zombies + grit + grief + adult situations =/= entertainment for a culture that's now neck-deep in zombie-stravaganzas. The sooner people -- creators and audiences alike -- learn that, the better off we'll all be.