In which the show spins its wheels and winds up black flagged at the last lap.
The last half of The Walking Dead‘s premiere season isn’t a total dud in the slightest, but it stumbles and falters along the way toward a truly clunky finale that shows just how uneven the show’s writing can be. Not “bad” but “uneven”, though there are definitely elements from the last couple of episodes that I’d describe as mind-numbingly stupid. At the same time, this second half of the season is where the series veers away from the source material the most, and even if the direction taken isn’t completely successful, breaking away from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel can only be a good thing. Maybe you could call that an example of trying to find the silver lining, but with the season closed out we know the characters, we know the settings, and the story has opened up several avenues for our band of survivors to follow in the wake of the finale. In other words, there’s nothing but potential up ahead for season 2 between the announced new writers and a wide open post-zombie apocalypse world for them to explore.
Potential, though, is still just potential, and if the second season is consistently excellent across the board it won’t change or erase the blunders made in episodes 4-6.
The Walking Dead‘s biggest slip-ups without a doubt occur in its character moments, which previously stood as the show’s strongest feature. Put simply, many of the second half of the season’s big pieces of character development– the moments that, I assume, were meant to stand out– don’t feel earned. In watching the rest of the series unfold, I had an unshakable sense that a sizable chunk of material found its way out of each episode and onto the cutting room floor. While this isn’t likely to be the case the show nevertheless tends to get from one point to another in so clumsy a fashion that it’s hard not to assume that there’s something missing from each episode that could have tied everything together more neatly, perhaps an entire scene or even just a line or two of dialogue. The haphazard way in which The Walking Dead‘s second half gets from point A to point B results in the perception that the writers struggled to figure out how to deviate from the source material effectively, and stalled in order to do just that. I might have liked Vatos, but if there’s a better example in recent memory of a show wasting time with purpose then I’d like to see it. (Seriously. I don’t watch that much TV, and when I do it’s often on Netflix.)
Maybe none of that would be so bad if the willful inertness stood on its own and didn’t come paired with other inconsistently treated elements. For me, a show like The Walking Dead can (in theory) overcome less-than-stellar plot development and a weak narrative on the strength of its characters. Unfortunately, the characters are handled just as lopsidedly as the story; people behave in unexpected and totally inorganic ways to generate tension (I know Shane quietly putting Rick in his crosshairs is a huge moment of contention for many), and of course there are a number of deaths that should matter but ultimately don’t. Partly this is because the people who fall victim to zombie nibbles and their own crushing sense of despair and nihilism don’t matter to us; we know them in such a superficial way that it feels like their deaths were engineered more for the purposes of streamlining the cast than eliciting emotional responses.
For example, I know I should be more mortified at Jacqui’s unthinkable decision to allow herself to be immolated in Noah Emmerich’s CDC firestorm (the literal kind, not the media kind), but I only know that she cared about Jim and missed her vibrator. Sorry, but I can’t shed any tears over that loss. Jacqui, along with Jim and Amy, are all one shade away from simply being full-fledged red shirts, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself– but it does mean that their deaths don’t make for terribly compelling and moving television. Mark my words, I’ll be more moved when Daryl shuffles off of the mortal coil.
None of this is to say that the character work in Vatos, Wildfire, and TS-19 is all bad. Andrew Lincoln continues to establish himself in each episode as a capable knight in shining armor type of hero, though he’s saddled with some unfavorable dialogue that I doubt anyone else would have fared better with. (“You’re killing us!” is easily the show’s version of, “We are the walking dead!” If you’ve read the comics, you’ll understand.) Most of all, Jeffrey DeMunn and Norman Reedus impressed me across the board with their respective performances as Dale, camp wise man and the show’s moral compass, and Daryl, the hot-tempered and headstrong badass of the survivors whose brother Merle was last seen handcuffed to a pipe on the roof of a zombie-infested building. DeMunn finds himself serving as the group’s voice of reason, a position most might view as unenviable at best and cliched at worst, and he makes the most of it and then some with a measured, warm, and incredibly engaging portrayal of a man in an extreme situation who refuses to surrender his reason or compromise his humanity. Reedus, on the other hand, maintains Daryl’s rationality but willingly relinquishes any sense of compassion as a trade-off. He’s a hothead, the kind of person who’d rather shoot first and ask questions not at all, yet he’s utterly magnetic in his callousness and his blatant disregard for the feelings of his fellow survivors.
The other area where the show continues to shine is in the zombie department. I praised KNB Efx’s and Greg Nicotero’s work on the The Walking Dead in my last post about the show, and while I might sound repetitious by making similar comments again, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s not like I have much of a choice; even the most vitriolic of the show’s detractors has to acknowledge the high quality of the studio’s efforts in creating the droves of ravenous ghouls plaguing our heroes, so for me not to would be kind of a mistake. If the substance of the show is lacking or misguided, then at least the horror aspect works– each of these zombies is uniquely unsettling and perfectly nauseating in appearance and behavior, full of gruesome detail right down to the last scrap of decayed flesh. There have been better zombie stories told in the last few years for certain, but there haven’t been many zombies that look as good as these.
I may sound like I’m damning the series with faint praise, which is fair. I like the series. I liked the last few episodes. They perform, for the most part, adequately; sometimes they shoot higher and sometimes they misfire. I would like to be able to say that across all fields, The Walking Dead exceeded my expectations of it in grand fashion– a zombie serial sounds like a golden opportunity to really invigorate the genre and break some new ground. While on the whole the program isn’t a colossal failure, it doesn’t use its medium to the best of its advantage. In part I believe this is because the writing team (who won’t be coming back for season 2) didn’t really know how to break away from the comic book and make the story their own, but at the end of the day the real problem is that they wound up writing a really stilted and rough story in dire need of polish and revision that keeps The Walking Dead firmly entrenched in the middle road. TS-19 left things in a positive place, I think, and maybe season one’s important contribution to the series will be the springboard it has provided for subsequent seasons to launch off of– as long as they take advantage of it.