I’ve been sick with a weird flu for days. A few people close to me have it, too. It flares up, then seems to fade away, only to return with a vengeance. You know those sand-bottom clown toys kids have? You knock them over but they always bounce back?
That’s this flu.
Speaking of relentless pain, a few thoughts on season six of The Walking Dead. A lotta people were disappointed in the recent direction of TWD. Count me among them, for the following reasons:
— Cliffhangers are like scars. One or two of them = mysterious. They’re captivating. Too many = concerning and a turn-off.
TWD is a unique narrative as far as TV shows go. It’s a zombie apocalypse. Everyone is in danger, all the time. Danger is always, literally, lurking just around the corner (we’ll discuss The Magic Zombie later). The world is fucked, and nobody gets out alive. In this sense, zombie narratives are truer to life than most.
Cliffhangers are less effective in a world like TWD than most fictions, because a cliffhanger is the razor’s edge between safety and danger. It’s Schrodinger’s box as you’re lifting the lid to see how the cat’s doing. All realities existing simultaneously, with equal likelihoods of occurring.
But in a world overrun by the undead, a world that has shown over and over that there is no safe space – not out among the “walkers” and certainly not in human communities – there is no fine line between safety and danger. There’s just meat.
Season six saw three cliffhangers: Glenn’s death/not-death, Darryl’s death/not-death, and the unknown recipient of a blow to the head from Lucille in the season finale.
While I didn’t absolutely hate the way Glenn’s non-death was explained, it was horseshit to remove Steven Yeun’s (who plays Glenn) name from the credits for three episodes, making viewers who’ve spent six seasons connecting with a character think he’d died an unexpected death – one of the positive traits of the early seasons of TWD – only to be all “There’s plenty of room beneath a dumpster for a human being to spend DAYS underneath, surrounded by a horde of flesh-eating zombies who saw him go under there who, against the logic the show’s shown for years, just up and decide to forget he’s there and walk away.”
The last two cliffhangers have caused mad angst. Partly because both relied on blood-spattered-on-the-camera effects that are straight out of Goldeneye or Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. But also because they sucked. Darryl is another major character. The second-to-last episode this year ended with Darryl having a gun pointed at him, a gunshot as all goes black (plus blood splatter), then a voice saying “You’ll be all right” or some such blather. Then, a week later, we had to wait like an hour before that even came up again.
The last cliffhanger is the most egregious – after much build-up and promise regarding Negan, the mother of all TWD villains in the comic series, the final scenes of the season were a long drawn-out who’s-gonna-get-it dragging that ended with the camera’s point of view shifting to the never-seen victim just as a barbed-wire bat comes crashing into their skull. There is blood, there is fuzziness, but there is no revelation. We’re supposed to wait six months to find out who died.
I don’t care. I won’t care six months from now who cared. You can’t keep expecting the audience to swallow whatever you throw at them. This is the danger of success. TWD is the most successful cable program ever, ratings-wise (that may not be true, but it sounds true). It’s reached the level that a Murakami novel or a Beyonce album have reached: it doesn’t actually matter if they’re any good, because they’re going to sell enough to be a commercial success. It’s nearly impossible to keep your edge once you’ve succeeded. That’s why evolution is always claiming new extinctions; it’s why Michael Jordan impressed so many people; it’s why America is destined to fall like Rome. The rise is easy. Equilibrium kills. Cliffhangers work when there are unknown elements. Zombie narratives work when characters we care about die. But TWD is so successful, it doesn’t need to kill anyone important. The show brings on new characters with regularity now, and you know they’re just cannon fodder (Sam’s death was pretty sweet, though).
When Carol or Carl or Michonne get jumped by a zombie, you know they’re not going to die. A zombie neutered of danger is meaningless. In theory, the clash between the real-world financial success of the show versus its fictional need for everyone to suffer and die is interesting. In practice, the clash is one-sided, because #money. So when we get a cliffhanger, there’s no actual danger, no drama. A zombie world with no danger and no drama is essentially just a world where the only drama is how awful people can be to one another. I can get that from the evening news.
— Speaking of getting jumped by zombies, we’ve entered the Age of the Magic Zombie. You’ve seen this guy – someone rounds a corner and suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s this loudly hissing stumblefuck of a walker right on top of them. It’s supposed to be scary. And it is…the first time it happens. The second, too, maybe. But eventually, we wonder how it is that these creatures, these mindless simple creatures, are smart enough to keep quiet while stalking their victims, then dumb enough to bust out hissing right as their attack begins.
There are active zombies, as seen in the Danny Boyle 28 Days/Weeks Later films and the remake of Day of the Dead, and there are your traditional passive zombies, as seen in the George Romero trilogy and TWD.
If TWD’s zombies are evolving, that can be an interesting development for viewers. But the weekly “Oh wow, another zombie popping out who somehow didn’t make a sound until it was just convenient enough for the character in danger to be alerted to them” hasn’t been presented in that way. It feels cheap and it feels cynical. It feels like the showrunners sometimes remember that zombies are supposed to be threatening, but instead of fixing the root causes that have stripped them of their menace, they just pick some spots in the script and force it in. It’s like being taken out on a date by someone who buys you dinner at a McDonald’s drive-thru and then has their hands in your pants before you’ve finished your McNuggets. Wine me and dine me, TWD. Put some effort into it. Make me love you. Don’t just assume I’m down for the cause.
— Inconsistency is a hallmark of real life. It works with drama, too, but you have to earn it. One thing I’ve had a real problem with TWD about over the years is how quickly characters pull a 180. And again, in an extreme world like the one TWD presents, personality schisms are inherently more acceptable. Extreme conditions yield extreme responses.
But really. Every week Rick alternates between enlightened Dudley Do-Right and Jim Jones, cult leader extraordinaire. He wants to show his son there’s still good in the world! Then he wants to slaughter a bunch of humans in their sleep because the world is shit and you can’t trust nobody! Then he’s willing to put his life on the line, along with a half-dozen others, to get pregnant Maggie to a doctor because life is precious. Then he’s trying to shoot someone he doesn’t know in the back while they’re running away, telling Morgan “I don’t take chances anymore.” Jesus Christ, Rick. Pick a tiara and stick with it, ya drama queen.
In the season finale, Morgan, who’s pledged not to kill ever again, naturally fell into conflict with Carol, who recently left the group because she doesn’t want to kill anymore. Mr. Sanctity of Life Morgan tracked Carol down to bring her back to the group, because nothing shows your respect for life more than inserting yourself into someone else’s and yanking them back to a place where there’s no way to function without getting blood on your hands.
Morgan is my favorite character because he’s seemed to be the only antidote to Rick’s chutes-and-ladders psychosis, but in the finale his obsession with Carol (another arc the writers have inserted without building or explaining, like the Rick/Michonne romance and the Sasha/Abraham romance and the Rosita/Abraham break-up) rings false, and makes what could have been a moving gesture toward permanence in a world where entropy runs rampant a childish, cheap trope. It makes sense, though. The zombies don’t follow any internal logic anymore; why would the humans?
— Rick suffers from the same fate Evander Holyfield and Michael Jordan did – no real rival. Holyfield rose to the tops of the boxing world right after Mike Tyson self-destructed. There was no Ali to his Joe Frazier; no compelling Goofus to his (media-contrived) Gallant. Jordan rose to prominence as Larry Bird’s bad back and Magic Johnson’s HIV took them off the chess board, and he retired right before the Spurs and Lakers combined to win 10 titles.
Rick hasn’t had a shadowy reflection since the Governor. There are characters who seem like worthy counters – Morgan. Michonne. Alexandria’s Deanna, before her ridiculous death. Maybe Carol. But the show always falls back on this cult-ish device whereby everyone gets lost in his pretty blue eyes* and just goes along with whatever he’s saying, whether it’s consistent, moral, or realistic. His back-and-forth nature makes a bit more sense, narratively, when you consider there’s no one for him to work against.
*(I’m rubbish with eyes; they may not be blue. You decide.)
It seems odd that no one – NO ONE – has ever stopped and said, “You know, Rick’s pretty crazy half the time. Maybe we’d be better off not letting life and death decisions for all of us rest in his hands. Maybe we should form some kind of opposing faction or something.” But this never happens, so sometimes watching TWD is like watching a dramatization of what you’d get if Jonestown had worked. I guess in that sense TWD’s a lot like Jonestown. It was working for a while, and then…not so much.