Please welcome back guest author Anton for Outside Your Comfort Zone Week! A hearty thanks for his good efforts and really great report on the attempt!
Can you reanimate your interest after abandoning something? Is new fandom sparked by second chances? When I was challenged to get out of my comfort zone by Can’t Talk, the obvious choice was to try something new. Instead I decided to revisit a series I had previously given up on. I would take on the ratings monster of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Production value and special effects for The Walking Dead (TWD) were great, and the cast of actors were masters at portraying subtle emotions via facial ticks and gazes. The premise and vision of the show was also on solid ground–AMC was looking to beef up its lineup as Breaking Bad was making waves and drawing viewers to the station. TWD was dealt a great hand of cards.
I watched the first two seasons of TWD when they released on disc, and I couldn’t help but feel greatly disappointed. For all the great and fortunate things handed to the production of TWD, they completely squandered it on horrendously inept writing.
My biggest beef with the series was inconsistency. I’m ok with conflict and antagonistic characters, it’s certainly an avenue to drama. The writers behind TWD just seemed to load conflict into the series by nonsensical means, namely the erratic Lori character. Lori’s function as an unfaithful wife was bound to create tension eventually, but things became increasingly tedious as Lori would antagonize Rick at every turn apparently just for the sake of it. It was like when the writers wanted someone to be the voice of dissent, they just defaulted to Lori, regardless of whether it logically fit her character. In one episode, Lori would be upset with Rick for going on dangerous foraging missions, exposing him and his chances of fathering her child to undue risk. In the very next episode, Lori would be angry at Rick because he held back and didn’t take action and put himself on the front line of a defense effort against zombie ‘biters’. Her character was a constant source of frustration and irrational antagonism that mired the series in bickering and contrived drama. Characters would make obviously bad judgment calls, or the writers would put them into fabricated danger. If you think your well water is poisoned or there’s something down there, you don’t lower someone into the proverbial jaws of the beast. You might as well bungee jump down there for greater dramatic effect.
The pacing of the show was also ridiculous. I was prepared to witness a dialogue-based show, and even deal with the expected troubles of a micro democracy surrounded by anarchy. Although TWD never reached X-Files levels of filler episodes, many shows had incredibly uninteresting plots that would linger like the smell of death on clothing. How long did they spend looking for Sophia?
By the end of the second season, I was done. Shane was one of the few interesting people on the show. He had a consistent character with obvious flaws, serving as foil to the ponderous, conflicted, and indecisive Rick. With the death of Shane, and a cast of increasingly annoying characters idling around, the show was exhausting to sit through.
With my second attempt at The Walking Dead, I decided to come at it with no expectations or preconceived ideas. It had been years since my viewing of season two, and my irritation at various characters had been forgotten. Ok TWD, clean slate, here we go…
It appears as though The Walking Dead has shambled in the right direction by the opener for season 3, but many of the problems have evolved into different beasts. Taking a macro look at TWD, the show has a recurring theme of metamorphosis. The audience is witness to a disease that changes how humanity deals with death, and how the living cope with an imposed state of anarchy and constant danger.
Rick Grimes is still conflicted despite his speech about dictatorship in season 2, and he mopes about every difficult decision. The ‘how heavy this crown’ motif isn’t particularly tiring, but Rick becomes a little more interesting as he shows serious signs of PTSD after the death of Lori. Rick tends to be a man of little charisma, but solid morals. His choices affect the group, he wears responsibility reluctantly and with admitted hit-and-miss effectiveness.
Lori’s reprehensible nature from earlier seasons was noticeably muted in season 3. It seemed as though she was reduced to a vessel for the promise of new life on the show with the eventual birth of a baby. Her few scenes with Rick were just echoes of old drama that had been played to death. In the end, Lori is reduced to a literary device to add to Rick’s self-loathing and brooding nature.
Andrea is up to her old tricks in season 3. Her character is incredibly naive, and full of confidence over skills she never actually demonstrates competently. Her impulsive nature leads her again and again into peril. It’s a character flaw that plays out several times as Andrea tries to play bishop to a king, and realizes she has been a pawn all along. The frustrating part about Andrea is that she never learns from any of her mistakes. She shows hints of leadership potential and the ability to rally the people of Woodbury to positive causes. However, the writers seem unable or unwilling to lead Andrea into an empowered role. Instead, Andrea’s naivete proves fatal as she predictably tries to do too much with too little, and ends up as a damsel in distress for someone else to save.
Contrast Andrea with Michonne, the stoic and brutally effective warrior woman, and you have a recipe for success right? With the introduction of Michonne, TWD has another chance to raise a woman into an empowered role. Michonne is clearly skilled with her signature katana sword, but is laughably inept at dealing with people. Hints of a back story are sprinkled around like bread crumbs in season 3 and 4, but ultimately there’s little to show for a character that gets a fair bit of screen time. In comparison, we learn and see more into the layers of fan-favorite Daryl’s character in the same space of time. Michonne is respected for her skills, but she has absolutely no charisma to carry the air of mystery into the realm of viewer interest like Daryl does.
Carol is the closest I’ve seen TWD come to having a strong female role that actually evolves. In season three she has moved beyond the wife defined by her abusive husband. Her strength comes from a compassion for everyone, including a respectful conversational style with even the show’s most detestable villains. However, her character is also unevenly portrayed. Although Carol rankles over being anyone’s “mother,” she does display a stubborn sense of duty to educate and empower children with life skills in the new world. As a woman who votes and weighs in on group decisions in the council setting, she quizzically casts that process aside to teach children knife-wielding skills and actively tries to hide her view of necessity from the other parents. When Carl discovers her covert teachings, she asks Carl to not tell her father or any other adults. When Carl says “I’m not going to lie to my father.” Carol laughably responds with “I’m not asking you to lie, I’m asking you to say nothing.” It seems incredibly nonsensical for a character with Carol’s standing in the survivor group to dodge responsibility and try to patronize Carl with the distinction between a lie and a lie of omission. Just as Carol is starting to bloom as a voice for an alternate ideology, Rick exiles her. Although Rick’s decision makes sense, Carol’s execution of her sense of duty runs in the face of someone who commands and demands respect on the survivor council. It appears as if the writers wanted to delay ideological schism, or just flat out didn’t want to deal with that angle at all.
Season 3 introduces The Governor as an antagonist, leading the town of Woodbury. I won’t compare The Governor directly to his portrayal in TWD graphic novels, but ultimately this character is a farce. Early in his development, The Governor is portrayed as a leader with great visions and plans, and perhaps a penchant for heavy-handed preemptive strikes against any nearby survivors like the National Guard roadblock. Viewers are teased with the notion that The Governor is sadistic and hides a great deal of ugly truths from his followers. In the end, any complexity to his character is derailed when his motivation switches to pure revenge. As The Governor is slowly revealed in his true form, it seems as though the writers were headed in a much more layered direction and then lazily went with the typical deranged madman who might as well have his headquarters in a volcano.
The Achilles’ heel of TWD is that although the theme of metamorphosis appears throughout the show, the changes and added depth of character seem limited to male characters. Rick deals with PTSD and wrestles with leadership. Daryl evolves past the teachings of his brother Merle and starts to make independent decisions, and even shows a tender side in dealings with Carol and newborn Judith. Carl is wavering on the brink of becoming a sociopath, paired with increasing demand for his experience in biter combat. This leads to difficulty in associating with other young people his own age. Hershel loses a leg, and spends a bit of time adapting to crutches. (However that theme isn’t quite fully explored. In fact, by season 4 Hershel just has a prosthetic leg that reduces his injury to an acted limp, and a sigh of relief from the SFX department.)
Women in the show seem to hold immediately flat and obvious roles, or none at all. The women in TWD often show signs of strength, but ultimately they run second fiddle to the writing behind male metamorphosis. Many female characters in TWD just don’t evolve. Their defining character traits play out and become their fatal flaws. Andrea and Carol raised my interest only to return to nonsensical pathologies, showing they simply weren’t adapting to the demands the world was placing upon them like many male characters were. Maggie is in love with Glenn, but the potential story there is serviced best by one scene where Maggie reveals to Glenn that she is not pregnant. Glenn is visibly relieved, but Maggie says “I’m glad I’m not, but we could if we wanted to.” What could have been a defining scene for their relationship just becomes another quasi-philosophical speech about the uncertain world.
Ultimately, TWD just isn’t a good show. It serves as a great vehicle for SFX fans looking to see gore and flashy zombie killing, but as a drama TWD is populated with too many flat characters that fumble their way through contrived conflict and impotent decision making. What limited character development that does occur is primarily male. TWD also doesn’t commit to the themes it touches on. With the introduction of The Governor and Woodbury, or Carol’s views on childhood education, the show had a couple of opportunities to contrast belief systems and perhaps aim at some interesting social commentary. In both instances TWD copped out and either oversimplified the comparison, or just threw the discussion from the table. Despite being a massive hit for AMC as a network, The Walking Dead is just too inept as a drama to recommend to viewers seeking meaningful narrative and character development. Aim for the head writers, and forage for another source of sustenance.