With the next season of AMC’s The Walking Dead poised to start in October, I thought I’d weigh in on my opinion about this frustratingly disappointing zombie-drama. I’ll start by saying that I like zombies, and have since I saw Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (on video) in high school. I think we all have a morbid curiousity about how things end, whether individually, as a group, or as a species. We all want to know how the stories of our lives, our world, ends without having to experience it, just like we want to know the end of any other story. Horror genres are appealing because they allow us to consider it without having to experience it. They give us mental tools for thinking about about how we might compose ourselves, what actions we might choose or not choose, in situations of grave danger. While any number of calamities wait in the wings to doom the planet or the individual a way to contemplate and discuss the thoughts that come with such worries is attractive to many people, which explains the appeal of the show. Unfortunately, although it shows the prospects of promise, it doesn’t reach its potential, and it’s frustrating because it could and should be better.
First the good. Zombies are always appealing, but there was surprisingly little zombie content in Season 1. Instead, we spent a lot of time working out the relationship issues of the survivors. I almost gave up on it after Season 1 because there was so much character development that didn’t seem to go anywhere. It was like watching a porno movie without any sex. Zombie stories require a certain quantity of, well, zombies, no? Instead of zombies we got lots of relationships, but if those relationships are holding up the zombies, as they do, they’d better be pretty interesting relationships, and these were not. I began to wonder if they didn’t have a big enough budget for effects and thus had to fill their time with non-zombie material. After a strong pilot, the show just sort of floundered, leading up to a somewhat anti-climactic ending. I almost gave up at that point.
[WARNING – SPOILER CONTENT FROM HERE ON]
But, my zombie interest got the better of me and I picked up Season 2 on DVD just to give it a chance. I’m happy to say Season 2 is a major improvement. The primary reason is that there is a lot more zombie content. Good, that’s what these things are about. Also, they’ve gotten rid of some of the dead weight in terms of characters that just didn’t work. Working chronologically, losing Sophia, a 12 year old girl, was good news. What do you do with the daughter of a secondary character in a zombie story other than put her in peril? Whenever she was on screen doing something by herself it was quite clear that she was defenseless zombie bait. She was a nowhere character. I’m happy to report that Dale is gone now too. I suppose Dale was meant to be the conscience of the show, but he was mostly just tiresome, meddling about in other people’s business where he was not invited or welcome. Dale could have been an interesting character if he were made an adviser to Rick, but no one took him seriously, and he talked way too much. Seeing Dale enter a scene was a sure sign that something unimportant was about to happen.
Finally, they lost Shane. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand Shane was an interesting character. He was strong and motivated to survive, and he didn’t care what he had to do, even if it meant killing his best friend. I liked the way he was used to contrast Rick’s conscientiousness. Rick’s struggles with what it means to be a leader, husband, and father in his apocalyptic world. This is a compelling part of the story, and although it is sometimes fumbled, it was good enough to keep me from quitting altogether. The problem with Shane is the same problem the whole series struggles with though: it doesn’t know what to do with itself when the zombies are away.
The love triangle between Rick, Shane and and Rick’s wife Lori, for example, is just tedious. I found Lori’s reaction to Shane’s continuing advances irritating. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, and I stopped caring because it became evident that the writers probably didn’t know what to do with situation either. I got the same feeling watching Lost after a while, I could just tell when a plot thread wasn’t going anywhere; the characters lose their inspiration. Even an aimless character must have a story arc. But the love triangle plods, which is sad, because it detracts from Rick’s existential crisis, the only character plot line that is really strong (except for the zombies part).
Lori’s fumbling brings me to another point: all of the women in the series are disasters, with the exception of Maggie. Lori can’t make up her mind about anything important. Carol is distraught, and Andrea is depressing. There are plenty of strong, interesting, female characters in horror genres (e.g. Buffy, Lt. Ripley). Not every woman in the cast has to be a blubbering mess, and yet they all are until Maggie enters in season 2. They’re beginning to reform Andrea with her weapons training, and the endpoint of Season 2 left her in a position with high upside (the first time I’ve cared about her story at all). But the show is awash with damaged, gloomy female characters. It’s too much. This is why I have high hopes for Maggie, who is the only woman to have in the show who is not crumbling under her burdens. Her love story with Glenn has promise, and does a lot to redeem Glenn as a character.
The Walking Dead has the ingredients to make a good show. I call it a frustrating disappointment because it really doesn’t have to be one. It has promise. The episodes that are more action oriented are really good. It’s going in the right direction, but it needs to keep going. If I were writing this series I would look to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go , which eloquently asks how do we live with the knowledge of death’s imminence? Afterall, in the world of The Walking Dead, that is the question.