In Need of Brains: Notes on AMC’s "The Walking Dead"
By Calum MarshNovember 5, 2013
RICK GRIMES, the hero of AMC’s The Walking Dead, cannot resist a good debate. Indeed, he gravitates to them helplessly, dragging fellow survivors into the orbit of his well-honed rhetoric and retort. He seizes every opportunity for deliberation, no matter how grave or trivial the subject: his group’s next course of action, who ought to participate in a supply run, whether a captured foe should be freed or murdered, what sorts of vegetables will be grown in a garden. All find him impassioned, parrying the inevitable riposte, eyes narrowed and index finger jabbing the air for emphasis. Occasionally the series conspires to throw a zombie or two his way. Rick dispatches these threats capably and then gets right on back to arguing.
Now, I appreciate that in a post-apocalyptic scenario, even questions of apparent insignificance take on a certain moral weight — as the show has been more than willing to demonstrate, even a quick stroll down to the corner store may prove calamitous for those inclined to heedlessly take it. That debate would rarely subside in such a world seems plausible, even if the incessant chatter takes an inevitable toll on those forced to endure it. But I think it’s safe to assume, too, that the writers of The Walking Dead have been inspired at least in part by a televisual precedent. Many of the most esteemed TV shows of the last decade-plus, from HBO’s The Wire to AMC’s Breaking Bad, are acclaimed for the nuance and sophistication of their moral quandaries, for the complexity of their questions and the ambiguity of their answers. In these shows, decisions have consequences — often messy, always intriguing.
One of Breaking Bad’s best qualities, particularly in its early seasons, was how meticulously it plotted the implications of its every action: every late-night excursion required an excuse, every accidental corpse necessitated disposal. The appeal lay not so much in the decisions as in seeing how those decisions might play out over time. You can often see The Walking Dead straining to conceive of drama in these terms, accumulating trauma and parceling out effects, remembering every so often to mention dead characters and catastrophic events. These attempts largely founder. Some time toward the third season, the widower Carol refers in passing to the husband she lost at the beginning of season one, and I expect my reaction was common: Oh right, him. This isn’t because The Walking Dead is especially complicated, or even because, compared to its contemporaries, its cast is unmanageably large. It’s simply because The Walking Dead doesn’t care — not about internal logic, not about emotional or psychological coherence, not about its own ongoing history. And not at all about consequences.
The central miscalculation here, one of which the show’s writers seem at least dimly aware, is that short-term satisfaction matters more than long-term care — perhaps a shrewd choice, as ratings are concerned, but a poor one artistically. Rick may spend the majority of his time engaged in debate over the direction his group ought to be travelling or the destination toward which they ought to be headed, but the focus of the show is always on the act of deciding rather than the decision. The decision is irrelevant: the machinations of the plot are governed by the seemingly arbitrary whims of its creators, who summarily whisk their characters from one audience-boosting spectacle to the next with little regard for dramatic integrity or meaning. With a show like Breaking Bad you get the impression that the events are unfolding organically, each action following the last as if it could only be that way. The Walking Dead has no sense of direction whatsoever: characters act without any real motivation, action defers to the superficial jolt of surprise, and in general things seem to happen spontaneously.
This, of course, has been a problem with the series from the beginning — the group’s return to a dead-infested city to rescue Merle in the third episode, literally moments after Rick is reunited with his wife and child, was a particular strain on its dramatic credibility — but it became even more pronounced across the first half of the show’s second season, when Rick and his dwindling band of survivors take refuge on a remote farm and spend a half-dozen episodes doing more or less nothing. The pretense for their rural sojourn is the accidental shooting of Rick’s son, Carl, by a farmhand out hunting for deer. It’s a turn of events entirely typical of the show’s lazy writing: a sudden intrusion on behalf of fate, appearing without warning out of the ether, ushering in a new dilemma and introducing a quick fix of shock into our systems. And, again, the event has no permanent consequences: Carl is brought to the farmhouse — what luck that its patriarch happens to be a doctor — and, after a few requisite items are scrounged together by the group, the winsome child makes a full recovery. You might think that a shot through the stomach would be an experience of some significance to a child, even one growing up in a zombified world. But no: once he’s up and walking, Carl never again so much as mentions his nearly fatal wound.
These are common enough complaints even among fans of The Walking Dead — flaws have become a fixture of the series, and increasingly we’ve found a need to air our grievances. So why, then, do so many of us continue to tune in week after week, season after season? I suspect we share our reasons. Films about zombies pose a simple question: if the world were overrun by the flesh-eating undead, how would people survive? The Walking Dead, being a television series about zombies, poses the same question and modifies it slightly: if the world were overrun by the flesh-eating undead, how would people survive and keep surviving? This strikes me as an essential reconfiguration. Though the zeitgeist has perhaps exhausted its interest in zombie narratives, the scope of The Walking Dead promises something we have genuinely never seen before: the apocalypse as long game, its effects seen through, unrestrained by a two-hour running time and the limitations of a three-act structure. On television the story has been liberated from its traditional strictures, freed up to imagine how a bold few might live out not their final days or final hours, but their final weeks and months, maybe even years. We want to see what comes after, and the one advantage of The Walking Dead is that, at least while the ratings remain stratospheric, there will always be more after: one more episode, one more season.
It’s surely a testament to the intensity of this appeal that, despite the best efforts of its writers, The Walking Dead has yet to entirely squander it. As the show delves into its fourth season, it continues to coast on an apparently indefatigable goodwill, blundering through its premiere as if to remind us that more of the same is still to come. I often wonder if I would prefer that The Walking Dead be worse than it is: it might be easier to stop watching if it were truly awful, or if it gradually expunged its remaining virtues and left only irritation in their wake. As it stands, The Walking Dead is just good enough that I cannot give it up for good, despite my near-constant protestations — and I imagine I’m not the only one. (It’s tempting to think of the zombies as a metaphor for those of us still watching: shuffling around mindlessly, occasionally letting out a groan.) The last time it was genuinely great, I think, were the first and second episodes of its third season, when the group of survivors came upon the prison and, having excised uninteresting characters and replaced them with a more appealing lot, a new dynamic began to settle in. Though once again plagued by dismal plotting — we’re to believe that they’ve spent the last eight months circling around a prison without stumbling upon at it even once? — these episodes at least seemed elegant and assured, tightening up the rhythm of the slack second season and doubling down on psychology.
From there, things began to fall apart, as was perhaps inevitable, beginning with an introduction to Woodbury and the Governor, which resembled nothing so much as mid-series Lost. Well, what was a begrudging fan to do? Two great episodes had irrevocably restored the faith, and the brief glimpses of inspiration that followed — Michonne’s face-off with Merle and Gargiulo in the woods, the Governor unceremoniously shooting one of his townspeople in the head after infection, the recurring bit with the hitchhiker that bookends the King County bottle episode — successfully sustained the impression that as a whole the series was still worth watching. The Walking Dead seems perversely well-suited to hiding its own flaws, to redirecting our attention momentarily to something surprising or grotesque in the hopes that diversion will be enough. It’s strangely attuned to audience response: whenever it senses our encroaching boredom, it kills off a major character or lets loose a shocking revelation. These are the tactics of a series that, for all its flaws, at least seems aware of them. I suppose that’s better than nothing.
After mainlining the third season over a day and a half on Netflix, I’ve come to realize that the most consistently appealing quality of The Walking Dead is in fact its opening titles. Whatever its structural faults as long-form drama, the series has clearly perfected the art of the pre-credits sequence, devising a few minutes of suitably intriguing material to whet the viewer’s appetite and then, effortlessly and wonderfully, cueing the first few seconds of the show’s main theme at precisely the moment it seems most exciting. They have, it’s true, gotten a bit schematic as the series has rolled on — presumably they’ve run out of ways to pan back and reveal a shuffling horde of zombies in the near distance or whatever it is — and yet it never fails to affect me. This, I think, may be the secret to why so many of us keep watching: however resignedly we tune in, half-expecting to shut it off in frustration, those first two minutes have us hooked. All we need is something vaguely portentous and a clean cut to the titles, and we’re fully engaged. What, we think, will be in store for us over the next 43 minutes? Epic battles? Extraordinary turnabouts? We always forget what’s most likely: Rick, duly exasperated, ready for another argument.
Calum Marsh is a freelance essayist and critic born in Great Britain and based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in Esquire, the Village Voice, and Sight & Sound magazine.
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