‘The Walking Dead’: A Study In Dithering Nihilism

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Credit: AMC

I am not alone when I say that I hate it when people tell me about their dreams. The inherent meaning in dreams can only be experienced by the viewer because the scenes of nonsense carry an innate meaning even they cannot convey. It’s not the nonsense, however, that’s so completely annoying about these conversations but the dithering nature of story the dreamer is trying to tell. Well remembered, actually interesting dreams shouldn’t take longer than five minutes to tell under normal circumstances. I find myself in these situations thinking, “Is there a point and could you kindly find it?”

Endgame: that’s what we are talking about. Every well told story has a purpose and an ending. The purpose is the deeper message the story is trying to convey. Often this is a moral lesson or an attempt to convey the importance of a particular social norm. The ending simply provides some sense of closure, something often lacking in our own lives. While the end may not put what I call the “big period” at the end of the story and leave room for the viewer/reader to imagine a more complete ending, the primary event of the story is wrapped up.

So I say to the creators and writers of The Walking Dead, “Is there a point, and can you kindly find it?”

TWD drew many, many devoted fans and built a very stable fan community over the years. The show itself would likely be able to continue indefinitely, according to the current head of AMC. However, horror only works when it’s given in small bites. When pain is brief, and we know the end is coming, much like a tattoo, it is cathartic. When that pain becomes endless it no longer functions on a psychologically satisfying level, it becomes torture, even for the sadist. Even serial killers eventually kill their victim.

Professional critics and bloggers alike have aired their complaints, including The Walking Dead Quitters Club via The Verge stating that they are finally, actually, quitting. Melissa Leon of the Daily Beast articles captures the general sentiment perfectly: “‘The Walking Dead’ Just Isn’t Fun Anymore“. I’m not looking to run up to Kirkman or Gimple’s door screaming “Burn the witch!”, but to expand on how we all got here, coldly bludgeoned bodies and all.

While many complain about the complaining behind the TWD fan community with such clever retorts as “Just stop watching it then!” and “What did you expect? It’s called The Walking Dead.”, there is something to be said about such a diverse group of fans who have invested so much time in a show that has decidedly lost its purpose. Yes, can we all just stop watching? Of course, and after the events on the Season 7 premiere, I’m sure that will be the case for more than a few people (although certainly not enough to put a dent in the viewership).

The Walking Dead has always been a violent show, and violence is not what the audience is complaining about. The show has not been about zombies for quite awhile, but zombies are always in the background. Any of the characters can die, usually tragically, at any moment. Except for Rick. And Carl. And Normal Reedus’ Daryl*, with whom sales for “Daryl’s Wife” t-shirts and crossbow handled coffee mugs would plummet, as would AMC’s stock. Remember, “If Daryl Dies, We Riot”. Now available in stores.

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See: Awkward Product Placement.

When TWD began, there was a clear purpose in the show and we believed there was an end. The outward purpose seemed to be to establish a safe place for our shows heroes while they held on to their humanity. As in many modern zombie fiction, humanity is maintained through action, not biology alone. The earliest villain, Shane, was a complex character who we never really hated, unlike the stock cannibals and monologue-laden Bond villains of recent seasons. Thus the show shifted from “Humanity is a moral choice” to “Man is the real monster”, a far easier and contrite concept.

In the beginning the cast was interested in why the outbreak was happening at all, but once they discovered, “We’re all infected”, it was as though they couldn’t care less. There is something to be said about coping, however after Mike Bribiglia’s departure from the cast, no one seemed to even ponder why the zombies were there in the first place. This is completely contrary to human nature. If this is humanity then why did we ever invent myths and legends, let alone develop science?

The only focal drive in recent seasons has been to obtain revenge against those that the main cast has accidentally or foolishly entered into the territory of. It’s interesting the first time, and damn exhausting after that, especially when these pursuits of revenge are always rewarded with more unnecessary pain. Get Rick a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo immediately!

It has become clear as the seasons pass, and became crystal last Sunday, that there was never a real endgame. While we continue to dig deeper and deeper for the meaning in played out, poorly used old testament references, we must accept the obvious: TWD is being developed by the equivalent of someone who read Blood Meridian too many times in college and never quite understood the point nor has the creative chops to mimic the plot, and is now just ripping off The Road. This is a person, or people, who watched Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and became a flesh and blood representation of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

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Too bad the writers can’t take a clue from No Country for Old Men

We have moved from a drama back into the horror genre, with well-developed characters depending on the solid drama and development that hasn’t been in the show for at least three seasons. What we are left with are one-dimensional portrayals, under utilizing a skilled cast, and letting Greg Nicotero (who also directed the premiere) run rampant with special effects, like MADTV’s Stuart yelling, “Look what I can do!” Yes, the effects are very nice but at this point it’s like paying to go to a hip Vegas buffet with themed décor and no actual food being served.

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Morgan: That’s great Greg, but I think I can swing a bat. What about the lines? Nicotero: Do whatever. Think when you played the Comedian, but with no depth. Credit: AMC

Naysayers have pointed out that the show is finally moving towards the cold-hearted nature of the source material. While this alone may be true, there are several problems with using this sentiment as an apology. For starters, the comic doesn’t dither in the way the last seasons have, which provides no justification for the lack of purpose demonstrated by the writers. If this was, perhaps, to build up the audience or numb us to the oncoming ultraviolence, it was successful. Unfortunately, we can numbly watch any number of horror movies to the same effect. Any worthwhile story doesn’t have to present something entirely new, but it does have to present some unique or different. This is capitalism, after all.

Another problem with this logic is that the show, up to this point, has attempted to provide viewers with a glimmer of hope within every tragedy (as least in the beginning). Take the choice to not kill baby Judith when in the comics she is crushed to death. At least in this respect, much of us in the audience feel cheated.We were promised something very different than the writers now, suddenly, want to give us.

How a story is told varies by medium naturally. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman not only changed the superhero movie genre, but added a level of realism that allowed it to become so popular with audiences. Not surprisingly, it’s likely the most different adaptation in terms of comparison with the source material. Just because something works in print, especially in comics, does not mean it works on the small or large screen.

There are many other problems that have been pointed out, such as the murder of the sole Asian American character on the show. Yeun’s Glenn was a rarity on American television, acting as both lover and fighter, on an equal playing field with his white and black counterparts. Both men who were murdered were in relationships with women of different races. TWD has a history of allowing only two black men at a time, so watch out Father Gabriel, you’re next. Personally, I think most of this comes from a subconscious place (at worst) from the writers, but it does speak to an overall problem that much of the audience is sick of dealing with. Characters should never be created, or especially kept alive, solely because of race or identity. These deaths do, however, add to an already long list of issues, including the torture of these characters.

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Remember when this was something that happened in TWD? 

Both Maggie and Sasha have continually lost everything, more so than any other character that has stayed alive (except, maybe, for Daryl). Their families are gone, their lovers dead (two for Sasha in this case). In real life many of us feel as though the world is against us, but in fiction we can escape it. There is real justification and catharsis in fiction, because it is fiction. Revenge, especially when it’s so repetitive, is no longer cathartic. We just want the pain to stop. On top of this, as incredible as an actor as Lincoln is, showing this through his eyes diminishes the importance of these deaths for these women. Sure, they lost everything, but Rick is really upset. Unless this whole show is a fever dream, there’s no excuse.

But as the writers say, they have many more stories to tell. Perhaps the departure of yet more moral anchors, as TWD loves to kill off, especially of two men in love, signals the end of romance for the show. The writers are tired of telling love stories. Here’s some more gore. Cut to Rick shaking and walkers irresolutely wandering like animated background pieces. Romance is dead. Get over it.

One aspect that the TWD showrunners cannot be blamed for was timing. This election season has been particularly brutal, to the point of making people sick (no, really). To open only weeks before the American public heads to the polls with such a nihilistic and gratuitous display was the worst possible thing for viewers who in this moment not only wanted, but needed, a glimmer of hope. Not revenge on Negan, nor catharsis through violence. We needed mercy, not another reminder that we are powerless under a cruel hegemony. Daniel Fienburg of The Hollywood Reporter articulates this in his article better than I, along with a wonderful analogy about pizza rolls (it’s really worth the read).

Already bleeding, now we must mourn not only Abraham (who was at least given a bit of dignity) and Glenn (as well as his pregnant wife) but the loss of another safe space for our psyches. It was too much for many, although I’m sure most will return to the show like an abusive spouse. They’ve invested too much time, grown too attached even though it’s changed from the thing they once loved, and frankly, TWD always promises it’ll be different this time.

* It should be noted that the author loves both Norman Reedus and Daryl Dixon very, very much. It’s not his fault he’s just so damn charming and marketable.

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