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Tag Archives: Rick Grimes
For a while, it felt like The Walking Dead had found a nice, consistent rhythm in its storytelling. Since about Season 4, each season would include a handful of episodes that featured everyone in the cast, but most would be smaller, more standalone affairs that focused on a narrower subset of characters. These episodes would tell individual stories and focus on small facets of bigger events that deepen our understanding of the personalities and problems at play. It gave the show a certain decompressed feeling that raised accusations of “boring,” but which also provided The Walking Dead with the space to flesh out its characters and make those stretches between the big set pieces feel less like wheel-spinning and more like an effort, however variable in its success, to make those grand finales matter.
But Season 8 has seemingly abandoned that tack. While not everyone has showed up in every episode thus far, each installment this season has felt like an immediate sequel to the prior one. The siege that began in the premiere continued in last week’s episode. And this week’s episode, “Monsters,” follows directly from there, depicting the same moral conflicts and the same lingering issues that Rick, Daryl, Carol, Ezekiel, Morgan, Jesus, Tara, and Aaron faced in the prior episode. We’re getting one giant story here, rather than a collection of related, but distinct plots that become part of a larger mosaic.
You are never going to fully get away from the “Is it right to kill?” question when you’re telling a zombie apocalypse story. One of the core aspects of the genre is forcing people to make life and death decisions in extreme situations. That’s part of what makes zombie movies and shows both thrilling and thought-provoking; they put the audience in the shoes of the characters and let us wonder whether we’d be saints or slayers when the rules of civilization no longer apply and mortal peril lurks around every corner.
But my god, The Walking Dead has been exploring these issues for seven-going-on-eight seasons at this point, and while it hasn’t dug into every possible permutation of them, it’s come close. There’s some benefit to putting new characters into those scenarios and having them vacillate between mercy and lethal pragmatism while trying to figure out the right way to live in this harsh environment. But you can only lean into this sort of “That’s not who we are” back-and-forth for so long on a television show before it starts to become rote.
Someday, The Walking Dead will end. Sure, with this premise, the folks in charge could theoretically cycle through cast members like Saturday Night Live and go on into eternity. But the practical reality is that, as the show begins its eighth season, it’s likely closer to its end than its beginning.
But it’s hard to imagine what that ending will look like. Comic book creator Robert Kirkman famously declared that his story could go on forever and that he had no clear ending in mind. The recent Robot Chicken special poking fun at the show envisioned a relatively normal future where society has been rebuilt and there’s a Walker Museum devoted to the struggle of the series (with a nice “historical game of telephone” vibe). Others have speculated about who might survive to the end, whether anyone will find a cure, and how a new civilization comes to fruition. Still, there’s no obvious place for this story to end, no clear way to reach a series-length measure of catharsis.
For a while now, the running line on The Walking Dead has been that the show is too bleak and too steeped in misery. The open-ended nature of the series, and thus the requirement for ever more adventures, means our heroes can never truly win. The abject state of the world has to continue. So for the plot to have any bite, people we care about have to keep dying; equilibrium can’t ever be established, and more problems and obstacles and losses have to pile up.
It’s understandable how the prospect of that continuing struggle wears on critics and viewers alike. Maybe I’m just jaded from years of post-apocalyptic fiction and other gritty works that allow me to take this sort of thing in stride. But I get it; the notion that this is simply the unending march of The Walking Dead, never to cease, with characters we like continually being picked off, could easily be too much for people.
But what I like about the show, what keeps me coming back (and, incidentally, what’s always underemphasized when this debate picks up again and again) is that The Walking Dead is also a show about what motivates people to go on in these circumstances. It’s about the emotions and connections that give the survivors something to fight for when there’s no institutions or societal expectations to force them to do it. It presents a world of outrageous freedom, one where people still choose to sacrifice and to love, where there is still joy and comfort regardless of whether the environment is hospitable to it.
The Walking Dead is a frustrating show for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that even in an episode like this — one filled to the brim with dull speechifying, blatant wheel-spinning, and lame parables — there’s one or two moments of brilliance that make it hard to just give up on this ever-mercurial series. Even when the show is stalling for time, serving up weak dialogue, or leaning into its weakest tendencies, it sprinkles in a couple of great bits that manage to rise above the rest of the flotsam.
This week, it’s the zombie cheese slicer and Rick’s smile, two dissimilar but connected moments that demonstrate what The Walking Dead is capable of when it’s not tripping over its own bad lines and plot contrivances. Such faults are out in full force in “Rock in the Road,” an episode that sees Rick and the gang at The Hilltop and The Kingdom in an effort to rally forces sufficient to take on The Saviors. The forging of that coalition is inevitable, and the arguments over whether to unite and fight or cling to the status quo have already been turned over by dozens of people dozens of times, which leaves “Rock” with only the thrilling walker-slaying sequence and a brief but clever way to convey Rick’s state of mind to recommend it.
I enjoyed the season premiere of The Walking Dead better than most. I understand the complaints that it was too bleak, too cruel, and too hopeless, but to my mind, it made sense to embrace those elements in order to establish Negan, both a character and as a threat. There have been so many ineffectual villains on this show, so many antagonists who seemed like mere speed bumps along the way toward Rick and company’s inevitable victory. TWD needed to make a big introduction to convince the audience that Negan and The Saviors were something different, something dangerous and more serious.
I also didn’t mind the hopelessness of that opening episode. Sure, it’s difficult to watch our heroes being broken, to see characters we know and love brutalized while the bad guys take great joy in the effort. But shows like The Walking Dead need stakes. In order for the good guys’ eventual triumph to feel earned and meaningful, the series has to make its main antagonist not only someone whose defeat doesn’t seem preordained, but also someone who’s actually worth beating. The suffering at this point of the arc will, with any luck, pay off down the line when the protagonists strike their blow against Negan and his goons.
The only problem is that the premiere already felt like a lot. It gave us a lot of blood and guts, a lot of horrible acts, and a lot of Negan preening and chewing scenery. That worked as an opening salvo for the character and as the culmination of the build his debut, which had been bubbling up since the midpoint of Season 6. But it was a great deal to take in all at once. The viewer can only stand so much of that level of cruelty and velvet-trimmed venom before it starts to overwhelm.
Most people know the bible story of when God tested Abraham. It’s one of those biblical references that just filters through the popular consciousness, even if you haven’t cracked open Genesis anytime lately. The Good Lord tells Abraham, his devoted servant, to prove his devotion by offering his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this command, building an altar, binding his son to it, and raising his knife in the air, ready to perform the grisly deed. But God stops Abraham at the last minute, explaining to him that this was all simply a test of his devotion and then providing a ram to be sacrificed instead.
I can remember hearing this story in Sunday school and how the rabbi would milk this moment a bit. Keeping second graders enthralled with bible stories isn’t necessarily easy work, but he knew how to draw out the details of the story, embellish a little at the margins, and hold the tension of moments like that one. Even if you’d heard the rabbi tell this story half-a-dozen times before, he made you believe that maybe this time it would be too late, that Abraham would act and all would be lost. He knew, in short, how to build the suspense.
One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead under showrunner Scott Gimple’s influence is that it has, more or less, eschewed the traditional narrative structure for a season of television. The storyline of the prison and The Governor seemed to be building to a finale at the end of Season 3, but then it didn’t really end until several episodes into Season 4. Afterward, the show embarked on its Wandering in the Wilderness/Terminus storyline that stretched from roughly the midpoint of Season 4 until the beginning of the Alexandria storyline in Season 5. Then that plotline, about our heroes discovering a new community and gradually integrating into it, reached its natural conclusion with this year’s mid-season premiere, where the Rick’s group and the town came together to defeat the zombies at the gates as a whole. Only then, did the current arc begin in earnest.
Which is to say that as Season 6 draws to a close, we’re not at either the end or the beginning of the Negan storyline; we’re in the middle. That’s admittedly a little strange. It’s a departure from the annual Big Bad structure that Buffy the Vampire Slayer established and many other shows adopted. And it’s even distinct from the trend started by The Wire and The Sopranos, where the real fireworks happen in the penultimate episode of a season, with the finale reserved for aftermath and reflection.
“East” is about cycles, about chain reactions, and the way that decisions big and small come back to us in one form or another. Morgan says it himself — it’s all a circle. But whether that circle is good or bad, whether you get out of it what you put into it, remains to be seen in the world of The Walking Dead.
To Morgan’s mind, that reciprocity or karma or whatever you want to call it, can be a force for good. He decides to spare The Wolf, and to Morgan, that decision not only leads to The Wolf deciding to help to save Denise (which allowed her to save Carl), but it also led to Morgan’s philosophy trickling down to Carol, making Alexandria’s most hardened warrior so uncomfortable with the act of killing that she leaves the community so that she need not risk having to hurt anyone else.
And yet Daryl faces the mirror image of that series of events and sees a very different result. He chooses to spare Dwight, and to Daryl, that makes him responsible both for Denise’s death at Dwight’s hands, and also for the message that it sent to Carol, who had to help him bury yet another innocent person in these harsh environs, and possibly served as the final straw that drove his dear friend away. Both men made the same kind of choice, but interpret the consequences of those choices very differently.
How rare is it to see people on The Walking Dead actually happy? Sure, the show gives its band of survivors the occasional moments of triumph or brief bits of levity, but how long do we ever really get to see the atmosphere around Rick and Daryl and Carl and Michonne be simple and pleasant?
It’s not often, and there’s a reason for that. Happiness and stability are nice for a while; it’s comforting for the audience to see the characters they’ve gotten to know over the years catch a break here and there. And yet too much happiness or too much stability over the long term becomes boring. Storytelling is fueled by conflict. As shows like Parks and Recreation have proven, that conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be dark or dour, but a good show needs real, meaningful obstacles for its characters to hurdle over or the entire enterprise eventually feels too slack to be truly engaging.
But it’s been such a harrowing season for The Walking Dead, and beyond that, a harrowing series from the very start, that it was incredibly refreshing to have an episode like “The Next World” where, more or less, everything was okay. After the gruesome deaths, fireworks, and bombast of “No Way Out”, this was a quieter episode that let its heroes enjoy their victory for a little while before the next great challenge (Negan?) rears its ugly head.