Wednesday 13 December 2017

The Walking Dead: Room for Improvement...

BE WARNED: the following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead up to (and including) the mid-season finale for Season 8.

Also: excuse the length of this article, but I have broken it down into segments. Bear with me.

Call this an 'open letter' or a train of thoughts written down or whatever you fancy, but suffice it to say The Walking Dead has caught some flack in the last couple of years and made some missteps. Here I address some of the bad - as well as landmark moments of good - that the show has represented on screen, with a few possible fixes. TWD is one of the best shows on television, but there is room for improvement...


The seventh season of AMC's thunderously successful zombie show caught a lot of flack. Some balked at the violence in the première episode, although to be quite honest, what were they expecting?! Having your head smashed in with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire is going to leave quite a mark. Did they forget the geysers of blood that gushed from slit throats in the season five première? Or how about the countless scenes of flesh eating, zombie slaying, bullet-spraying carnage that has been a staple of The Walking Dead since the get-go?

The main criticism of the seventh season however, was with the overall structure and pacing. All too often major characters went absent for several episodes at a time as Scott Gimple and his writers opted to focus on one contained story after another. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The first half of Season 7 sums up the issue quite well: after the Lucille-swinging première (one of the finest episodes of TWD's entire run) we are introduced to The Kingdom, Sanctuary, and then Oceanside all within five episodes – each with a procession of new characters whose names, faces, and allegiances we struggled to remember. Basically, it was too much to take in and our long-running show started to feel unfamiliar. Although, I will say that 7x02 – the introduction of The Kingdom – was a very good episode, handling Shiva and King Ezekiel perfectly (especially how Carol – and we the viewers – were clued-in to the real Ezekiel by the end of the episode).

Some folks didn't like that Team Rick were under Negan's thumb. “Just kill him already!” they screamed, which was ironic considering that if they did that then it would be the exact same case of 'rinse & repeat' that the most ardent complainers accused the show of committing, when comics readers know that All Out War is an entirely different conflict to what we've seen before with the likes of Woodbury, Terminus, or even The Claimers. To be fair to Gimple & Co, a little patience was required from the audience – drama and tension aren't derived from getting what you want immediately, after all! You don't enjoy the thrill of getting the gang back together in 7x08 without going through a period of separation and subjugation. Resolution can't come five minutes down the road, or even next week!

Let's fast forward to Season 8 and how the structural problems were being faced head-on according to Scott Gimple, Greg Nicotero, and the cast as they headed into Comic-Con 2017. Now, certainly, there have been some structural improvements compared to the seventh season: We've not gone for long periods of time without seeing certain characters generally, although, yes, Negan, Michonne, and Rosita all went missing from the screen for three or four weeks in 'viewer time' (likely because of scheduling issues and the other commitments of a popular and in-demand cast). Meanwhile, the propensity to focus too much on a single “A Story” at the expense of any “B” and “C” stories taking place with other groups in other locations has been limited in Season 8A – but they can definitely go further...

Click "READ MORE" below to continue **SPOILERS UP TO 8x08 AHEAD** ...


But one notable issue with storytelling remains – time constraints, by which I mean: stories taking place over short periods of time in the TWD universe itself. Now, it absolutely makes sense that all of 8A has taken place over roughly 48 to 72 hours because it would be entirely nonsensical for days or even weeks to pass between episodes amidst the heated beginnings of All Out War. That said, considering the 'siege of Sanctuary' plot line, could we not have had some more time pass while Negan & Co were locked up inside, thus adding credence to the bubbling frustrations of Tara and Daryl? Naturally, this would have affected other plot lines (such as that for Father Gabriel), but alternative paths could be found. However, more than half of Season 6 took place over 24 to 48 hours, and the events of Season 7 occurred over a matter of a few weeks – this explains why Maggie is only just entering her second trimester.

The problem with condensed time frames for telling a story though, is that it limits your options. A more unique example would be the show 24, which occurred in real time (one episode equalled one hour of Jack Bauer's life, with a season acting as a single day), and as such there were certain things the writers couldn't do because of the constraints of their storytelling structure. The Walking Dead isn't beholden to such a drastically strict time frame, but Gimple & Co regularly don't give themselves enough freedom to move, occasionally boxing themselves into corners. Inserting the passage of more time between episodes, and even within individual episodes, could offer up new storytelling avenues. Seeing TWD's stories told within such a tight time frame can, ironically, draw certain events out over too long a period of time. It may work well in a boxset binge viewing context, but the primary focus must be the usual week-to-week structure. It may be a matter of hours for the characters, but for the viewers it has been a matter of weeks.


Logic is another area where The Walking Dead has stumbled recently. A prime example is in 8x01 when Negan swans about without any cover. Now, comic fans will have known that Negan wasn't going to get popped at that moment, but considering that Team Rick had major cover (unlike in the comics where sodding everybody stood around in the open), Negan should have had some form of cover when talking with Rick. Perhaps he could have hidden behind valuable individuals like Eugene or Dwight? That would have easily swept aside any potential cries of “why didn't they just shoot Negan?!” from the insta-complaint factory that is Twitter. In practise it only served to distract from the good work being done elsewhere.

Indeed, there are various instances of logic gaps – be it an unarmoured Jeep managing to catch up to an enemy vehicle despite being riddled with .50 calibre gunfire, or Simon not capturing Maggie “the widow” in 8x08, or hardened survivors doing silly things for selfish reasons (but at least Michonne and Rosita stepped down … shame they didn't fight harder to convince Tara and Daryl, and that Rosita seemed to forgive Tara so easily a mere matter of hours later). Genre fare is always going to require an amount of belief to be suspended, but these and other blatantly sloppy moments need to be weeded out at script stage, especially when they contradict things said or seen in other episodes.


It's also no secret that the show has become unwieldy – the voluminous cast has meant that some big players have been sidelined while fan favourite supporting characters from the comics have been shafted (Heath, for example, last seen all-too-briefly in 7x06 – with nobody in Alexandria seeming to give much of a bollocks about his disappearance). The large cast of characters is also a problem in the comics. Beyond the big, recognisable, long-running characters, you often struggle to know who's who and what their history is. Every show needs red shirted cannon fodder – TWD especially, what with All Out War in full swing – but, as seen in 8x08, you can't just shove in “Neil” (the guy sitting behind Maggie, who is killed by Simon) or “Dean” (the Saviour that Maggie executes) and expect anyone watching to care much. We do need to give life and recognition to the bit parts and recurring roles, but it needs to be done right: Morgan's plot line at The Kingdom with the young guy, his little brother, and the man desperate to go to war being such an example. That meant that 7x13 was one of the most deeply rewarding – and devastating – episodes of TWD history. The writers need to find ways to utilise the supporting players to make them more useful to the main characters on the show and be more memorable to the viewers, but not just solely for the purpose of killing them off.

Speaking of the large cast, the less said about 'The Heapsters' and their sub-par Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome stylings, the better. I don't outright despise them, but I don't miss them one iota when they're not on screen because they stick out like a sore thumb. Gimple & Co would do well to regularly return to the very first episode to use it as a guide of what is and isn't suitable. Incredibly, they managed to make Shiva work on-screen (even Robert Kirkman didn't believe they'd do it), but the Heapsters feel so disjointed with their clipped lingo and nude sculpture sessions, as if parachuted in from some dodgy B-movie.


I do enjoy flashbacks, flash forwards, and 'ethereal events' – like episode 5x09 where we experienced Tyreese's demise 'from the inside', which gave us emotional heft, narrative callbacks, and something a little different for a change – but Gimple & Co need to be careful not to get too clever in the edit suite and tip over into confusion (or even pretentiousness: too many 'moody close up' montages recently).

Indeed, the 'out-of-time elements' in 8x01 didn't continue throughout the rest of Season 8's first half, so as a result they felt somewhat out-of-place. The 'dream' of 'Old Man Rick' (which featured Carl) is, to be fair, an established gimmick (remember the 'perfect day' dream in Season 7 which featured Glenn and Abraham as the whole group ate lunch outdoors in a thriving Alexandria?), but you play with fire in these instances.

They risk appearing to be merely manipulating the audience, indeed, the 'Glenn under the dumpster' plot line in Season 6 was ultimately enjoyable, but saw the show pushing its credibility with the audience to the absolute limit. Trying to outwit the comics readers with smarty pants red herrings is a dangerous game that can negatively impact on everyone's fun quite easily.


Generally the show could benefit from an injection of some new, talented blood behind-the-scenes, and frankly a reduction from 16 to 12 episodes would help dispel some inevitable filler that tends to befall most shows. That was quite evident in Season 7, but has been less evident here in Season 8A – although, again, the condensed time frame has hindered the speed at which the overall story can progress, which has evidently frustrated some viewers.

Another thing TWD could benefit from is re-thinking the model for commercials. I've read many viewer complaints about the sheer number of adverts placed within an episode, not to mention their frequency. A “ninety minute episode” really means sixty-three minutes of actual programme. It would be better to insert fewer (but longer) advert breaks, as constantly butting into a viewer's good time will only act as a pain in the arse which spoils the whole endeavour. Such self-inflicted damage is a foolish act on AMC's part – they should be bold and change how they implement commercial breaks to lessen the negative impact on viewers' enjoyment.

Also, entirely separating The Walking Dead from Fear The Walking Dead – for the key creatives of each show to be wholly distinct entities – would stop any 'brain drain' impacting on the main show. Even a single minute of a TWD creative's time spent on the spin-off show is a minute too long.


Now, that event in episode 8x08, the impending death of Carl from a walker bite … it has struck like a lightning bolt into the audience with a wide variety of reactions (some of them quite vitriolic, seeing the choice as just a cynical stunt to boost ratings). Personally, I'm utterly divided on this issue. I understand where Gimple is going with this, considering the context of what is coming up in the remainder of All Out War, but such a bold move is exceedingly dangerous and casts a large shadow of impending ramifications (and the awkward murkiness behind the scenes, as touched upon in several articles by The Hollywood Reporter, leaves a sour taste in the mouth).

There have been major derivations from the comics before: previous show runner Glen Mazzara oversaw the very early exit of Andrea (whose character arc was … problematic), and yet Carol – who was a fairly naff (and short-lived) character in the comics – has turned out to be one of the show's biggest successes: a detailed and rich character, wonderfully played, and beloved by fans. How the death of Carl affects things moving forward remains to be seen. Frankly, I feel the comics wouldn't benefit from 'hundreds' more issues as Kirkman has said he wants, and similarly the TV show must, surely, be nearer its end than its beginning. Two more seasons (for an even ten) – fixing all the above issues – would let the show go out with a bang, rather than a whimper.


So what can AMC, show runner Scott Gimple, and everyone else involved in The Walking Dead do? Well, keep listening to the fans, enact constructive criticism, address concerns, and most importantly of all understand what the fans mean. Yes, the pacing of Season 7 was all screwed up, but simply throwing in a load of action in 8A isn't quite the right answer. By all means, we want action, but we also want to feel the whole story moving forward at a reasonable rate while still paying attention to the meat on the bones, which is what creates those pulse-pounding and heart-breaking moments we all love. Episode 4x14 (“The Grove”) directly built upon the previous thirteen in regards to Lizzie, but the foundations reached all the way back to Season 1 (and most specifically the heartbreaking events of 2x07 when Sofia emerged from the barn as a walker).

AMC, Gimple, et al would be wise not to 'pull a Warner Bros.' (see: Justice League) and make a panicked hash of moving into the show's final years. Cool heads taking legitimate, balanced criticism on board in order to deploy sensible solutions is what we need.

We don't want gimmicks (Morgan's move to the spin-off show) and we don't want to go out with a whimper. Nor do we want a Frankenstein's monster of over-correction and corporate-level second-guessing. And, for goodness sake - don't kill Rick Grimes - (as certain theories go) because losing the key theme of a father shepherding his son through the zombie apocalypse and into manhood is impactful enough! We entered the world of The Walking Dead alongside Rick Grimes, so the least we viewers should expect is to also leave the world of The Walking Dead alongside Rick Grimes.

It's easy to feel negative about something that you love if you surround yourself with negative observations that completely ignore all the good (a warped view inevitably results from clickbait articles feigning shock at ratings and the confirmation bias of opinion echo chambers). And yet, if you ignore the flash-in-the-pan attention-seeking of the pissiest of Social Media rage-aholics, you will see that season 8A has shown us things which contradict some of the above issues that I have raised: the organisation and execution of Rick's plan (8x01) was impressive, the last stand of Shiva (8x04) was glorious and shiver-inducing, and the loss of Eric (8x03, albeit troubled by the character's relative lack of screen time) was one of the most emotionally weighty send-offs, which brought back some of the humanity in losing a loved one to the walkers (see also: Amy's demise and resurrection in Season 1).

Furthermore, the Soviet-like paranoia of a potential power vacuum within the Sanctuary (8x05) offered rich themes, powerful performances, and much satisfying meat to chew on, and the return of Morales (8x02-8x03) provided enough (justified) shock, surprise, and murky ethics to fill your belly, and – as one more positive example – the troubled waters of the Rick/Daryl brotherhood continues to gift us bromance and ideological conflict. There are many more examples of things that Season 8A (and Season 7) succeeded at, and it's all-too-easy to allow issues (some big, some relatively minor) to gain disproportionate traction and miss all the great things that continue to be put on screen, but at the same time you must point out what is either not working or could use some improvement.

So there we go, just some thoughts blurted onto the digital page – and please excuse the long-winded nature of this piece, but I fancied expressing a few ideas, concerns, frustrations, positives, and hopes.

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