[Editor’s note: I started writing this post shortly after the last episode of season six aired, back in April… then promptly forgot about it, until season seven started last week. In light of the outpouring of fans and critics complaining about the season’s first episode, I decided to finish up and publish.]
I’m thinking about this season’s last episode of The Walking Dead. The big season ending cliffhanger in which we’re finally introduced to Negan, and he brutally beats (likely kills) one of the central cast members, and we’re left to wonder who until next season.
My feelings on the show are pretty mixed. I definitely like TWD, overall, and moreover, I am predisposed to like it. But I increasingly find myself wondering why as the show grinds on. Mainly, I think, it comes down to the characters that I’ve grown attached to: Glenn, Daryl, Carol being my favorites. They’re played by great actors, and viewers have grown very attached to them over six seasons. But what really hooked me was the strength of the writing in the first season, and the realism of the situations that the survivors faced, and the realism of their responses to it.
There was a serious external threat represented by the zombie outbreak and the collapse of civilization, but also internal struggles as people who probably would ordinarily never cooperate or interact with each other were thrust together by circumstances and forced to cooperate for a chance at survival. Disagreements and conflicts and strained loyalties. And the choices the characters made had real, life or death consequences. People died on the show, just about every episode, and they were often characters who you cared about.
But also, there were the pragmatic, immediate matters of survival at hand. What tactics work against zombies? What about a huge number of zombies? Forgetting about zombies, how do you do basic survival when civilization has collapsed — how do you eat? Stay warm? Take care of your health and hygeine?
As the show has worn on, though, these things that made it interesting have been replaced or receeded into irrelevance. It’s taken for granted that they know how to survive. They are shown foraging, farming, and scavenging, but we never really see them starving, or shivering, or too weak to go on. They’ve gotten competent with fighting and know anti-zombie tactics so well that zombies are no longer a threat unless the show decides to make a stealth zombie come out of nowhere for a deus ex machina kill. Death spares the central cast, making it tame and predictable.
[[PUT SOMETHING HERE ABOUT HOW THE SHOW AT ONE TIME GAVE A FALSE HOPE OF FIGURING OUT WHAT WAS CAUSING THE ZOMBIE OUTBREAK AND STOPPING IT]]
For a time, the series dangled some hope of answers and a resolution. We might find out what caused the zombie apocalypse. There might even be a way to cure it. But those hopes were blown up in a memorable episode a few years ago, and since then, apart from a false hope in the form of Eugene’s story that he needed to get to Washington, D.C., there really hasn’t been any sense of direction. The cast have not been on a quest to go anywhere or accomplish anything, it’s just been an endless sequence of running into people, running into zombies, running into people, running into zombies, and most everyone they run into ends up dying before too long, but the central cast had started to take on an aura of invincibility.
Encounters with the living follow a formula: Either the other group is brutal and threatening, cannot be trusted, ever, and must therefore be destroyed; or, the other group is soft and weak, cannot be relied on, and must be exploited until their inexplicably stable pocket of civilization is overrun by either zombies or stronger people. We pick up a few new cast members who have the potential of making it with the protagonist group, but these people are all marked for death, and the idea is that we’re supposed to start to develop feelings for them before the show rips them from us, usually in some meaningless, almost accidental incident that is there mostly for its shock or horror value, which due to the contrived and predictable nature of the setup, is always diminished and weaker than intended.
Because there’s not enough time to allow for meaningful character development at the pace the writers want the show to take, we mostly don’t get any. There’s hints of possibility that go unexplored as the main plot hurtles past at highway speed. In many ways it feels like what makes it to broadcast is the “digest version” of a larger, richer story that we’ll never get to see. I guess that’s why the book is always better than the screenplay production. Yet, it’s frustrating. And if they could simply choose to take the time, you know they could make the show 10 times better than it ends up being. Essentially every character’s arc is left unfinished, or truncated. This could be the tragedy that we crave if it’s in full development only to be cut short by an untimely, horrible death. But despite the cornucopia of death that the show loves to present to us, almost none of it seems to hit us that way — the recent death of the doctor character just as she’s starting to come into her own being one notable exception, but all the more glaring due to its singularity.
Also, the central characters are so safe that the show’s writers are forced to have them make stupid decisions for no apparent reason. Carol’s most recent apparent death wish and her decision to leave the group again, for no real good reason, being the latest example of this. But we see it again and again, and it feels like it’s only an excuse to put a central character in danger, only to have the show pull its punches and spare them from harm.
Now, with the Negan kills ????? cliffhanger, the show is promising us a bloody, brutal end to one of our favorite characters. I’ve admired The Walking Dead for its willingness to kill characters, as TV shows so seldom often do. It was far more interesting to watch TWD knowing that it would not pull punches and spare a character just because they were a fan favorite. But this cliffhanger, I think, is too much for me. It’s like the show is using the spectacle of execution as entertainment. Death on the show wasn’t for entertainment, at least not for me, it was there to illustrate that TWD was a different sort of show, where, just like in real life, death doesn’t play fair, and that made me feel like characters were really in peril whenever there was danger.
I haven’t watched the first episode of Season 7 still, and after reading a lot of people’s responses to it, I’m not sure that I want to.