I’ll just go ahead and apologize up front, folks. Thanks to a dozen professional and personal obligations, I haven’t written anything for TVS in what seems like forever. I’m pretty sure I remember how to do this, however, what I’m trying to convey in this piece is also sort of confounding, so who really knows what’s going to happen below. I’ll be getting back into the swing of things this week, particularly on the podcast front, so consider this an opening salvo to what should be a fun end of the year.
ANYWAY, so The Walking Dead. As the title to this post suggests, The Walking Dead is a weird series. Or at least I have a really weird reaction to it. If you’ll allow me, a quick review: I loved the Dead pilot and basically laughed my way through the rest of the first season’s racial and gender stereotypes and terrible plotting. The season two premiere had its moments, but quickly devolved into an embarrassing mess of religious platitudes and sluggish character work. I wasn’t necessarily ready to give up on the series at that point, if only because I never give up on a series no matter how bad it is (hello, Dexter!), but I had given up hope that The Walking Dead would be good.
Now, after the last five episodes, my hope is kind of restored. Somehow. I think. Or I hate the series after all. See, I’m confused!
Because of my challenging schedule over the last month, I have been watching The Walking Dead at random times and therefore not really keeping up with the reviews. But after I watched the mid-season finale last night, I did take a look at a number of other critics’ thoughts and I was actually kind of shocked at how disappointed people were in the series. Obviously, not everyone has to feel the same way about every series, but this is one of those rare instances where my opinion on a series seems to be completely off-base with the critical elite.
But then I thought about it some more and I realized that I totally understood exactly where most of the frustrated critics were coming from. The Walking Dead did take five episodes to tell two episodes of story. Many of the characters still shift ideologies and allegiances from episode to episode just because the plot – which, again, has been slow-moving this season – needs them to. The writers constantly force the characters to do very stupid things, say just as stupid things and repeat those same stupidities across multiple episodes. This is a series that has a number of substantial flaws that often frustrate the hell out of me. Point taken.
However, Walking Dead has done a really good job of focusing on characters and beats that suppress the frustrating elements. I know that many people are upset that the series spent so much time on Hershel’s land and took five episodes to tell two episodes of story, but I think slowing everything down was the best approach that the series could have ever taken. Last season, the writers blew through a lot of plot without actually focusing on what those moments and propulsions meant to the characters. The trip to the CDC was compelling, but also severely rushed just so the season could end on a substantial cliffhanger. By the end of season one, I didn’t give a damn about any of the characters whatsoever and there’s no amount of zombie murder that can replace emotional connection, or heck, interest, in the living, breathing people in this story.
Thus, while I agree that the stop on Hershel’s land led to a number of repetitive conversations and drawn-out tensions (not to mention an obvious budgetary savior), the slower pace allowed (or forced) the writers to sketch out the characters. Daryl and Andrea became real people instead of broad types played by actors I liked. Glenn found romance with Lauren Cohan’s Maggie and I actually care about their interactions. Rick and Lori were forced to deal with issues that were bubbling under the surface ever since he returned from “the dead” and took hold of the group. And Shane became one of the most compelling characters on television (Jon Bernthal has been really, really good in recent weeks, y’all).
Sure, there were a number of times that Rick and Lori had the same conversation a few weeks in a row or Andrea had to talk about why she did or did not want to live anymore. But I have to admit that I would rather the series repeat character beats a few times than ignore them all together so that they can concentrate on the quest-based narratives that defined the first season so strongly. The writers still might force characters to do really idiotic things, but those dumb actions are only so egregious because the characters are actually starting to feel like people now. In the first season, I was more willing to let the dumb be the dumb, because, well, that’s The Walking Dead.
The thematic ground this season is trying to explore isn’t that advanced or impressive, but at least it is there. Challenges to the leader and his or her decision is a staple of this kind of story and yet, I find myself interested in how Rick grows to recognize the benefits of Shane’s more brutal, realist approach to survival or Lori’s grave thinking on child-rearing in the walker era. Rick is honorable, intelligent and brave, but he’s also idealistic and naïve in many ways. He’s only be part of this world for a very short time and the series needed to explore how him being thrust into a leadership role despite his inexperience would cause problems for the group and for Rick personally. Again, I’ll readily admit that the season has been a bit repetitive in exploring Rick’s issues with Lori and Shane and his leadership ability overall, but I still think it’s been valuable time well spent.
It’s interesting to me that Rick’s journey this half-season sort of mirrors the series’ journey. He awoke into a completely different and horrible world, but quickly took control of the group amid a series of thrilling, dangerous events. But because he was thrust into that role during a particularly exciting time, Rick wasn’t really able to experience the true realities of the walker era. And although his time on Hershel’s farm was often boring, frustrating and plodding, I think Rick is better off now. He’s learned about what it’s really going to take to be a leader in this world that’s still new to him and he’s had to do a difficult thing in killing zombie Sofia. But perhaps now, he’s ready to move on and face the supreme dangers that await him outside the farm.
The Walking Dead is always going to have to deal with high and wide-ranging expectations. Big fans of zombie stories are obviously and rightfully going to want more action, more gore and more thrills, and for good reason. I’d personally prefer the series to be more like it’s been this season, with the wonky character-focus and all. If the writers can figure out a way to merge the two versions of the series together, and make sure to keep improving the character stuff, The Walking Dead could actually be a really good series. I’m not sure if it gets there, but I’m certainly more optimistic now than I was at the end of the season premiere.