*Note – at time of writing the show was in its mid season break. Now that I’m returning to the post the same season has finished and I’ve added a bonus paragraph!
Greeting, Glancers! It was inevitable, wasn’t it? My love of horror, apocalypse scenarios, TV, zombies – of course I was going to watch The Walking Dead, and of course I was going to love it. And of course I was going to include it in the Sh*t I Watch series. It should be noted though that I have not yet read the comics, though I hope to some day once they are cheap or someone gives me more money or an apocalypse comes and I can wander in to Forbidden Planet and take them free of charge. That’s what we all really want to see and dream about when we watch a show like this – the complete freedom to go and do as we please, no job, no responsibility, no future, our only care being how to survive.
I won’t get into why this sort of thing is so cherished by people suffice to say that it has always been something I’ve fantasized about from an early age; all the usual questions – which weapon to use, where to live, how to travel, who to trust, what sort of person you should be – a lone warrior wading through the wasteland and killing zombies as you go, a trader who moves between settlements passing on information and supplies, part of an elite military or rescue group, hoard yourself with your family and only sneak outside when absolutely necessary, a peacemaker and builder who tries to bring society back from the brink? The possibilities are both endless and endlessly cliched, but it’s so easy to lose yourself in daydreams.
For my part, I don’t think the perfect zombie or apocalypse show has been made, though I love so many movies, books, and games which base themselves around similar ideas. I Am Legend and The Stand are my two favourite books of all time; Romero’s Dead trilogy are among my most loved movies of all time; since as far back as I can remember, the stories I have been most drawn to have involved some sort of survival against the odds, either a journey back to civilization, or the survival against its breakdown – all going back to when I first read The Odyssey in Primary School, along with all the other assorted heroic journey myths. I bought The Zombie Survival Guide the first day it was released, having had it pre-ordered for months. I wrote a draft script for my own TV series based around a zombie apocalypse years before The Walking Dead was developed. If I’m ever walking alone (which is most days) my thoughts invariably drift to questions like ‘how would I escape if I was surrounded in this street’ and ‘what would be the best way to travel to and from the city from here’. I have gone so far as printing out detailed Google Maps of the places I’ve lived and covered them in coloured lines to signify borders and barricades to build,filling them with notes on where the best place to live would be and how to divide survivors into teams to move from house to house, building to building, street to street taking out corpses and barricading the area to make it as safe as possible. In short, I am not right. What’s cool (and disturbing) though is how many people are the same. If friendly conversation in a group somehow turns to this topic, there is always, always at least one other person who is similarly intrigued by the whole thing and has spent hours obsessively pondering. Hopefully all this has set the scene for why, even though I sometimes scream at the TV for how boring and repetitive The Walking Dead can be, I wholehearted love it and forgive its flaws.
If you somehow don’t know, The Walking Dead follows a group (or groups) of survivors in a world where society has collapsed due to a zombie outbreak. In grand zombie tradition the reasons for the outbreak are never explained and our lead character, Rick, missed most of the initial carnage. Waking in a hospital days after the world has essentially ended, a la The Day Of The Triffids, 28 Days Later, The Stand, etc etc, Rick seems to be the last person alive surrounded by flesh eating ‘Walkers’. Over time we find out that plenty of people have survived, including Rick’s family, friends, and other assorted goodies and baddies. Each series sees new characters introduced, old characters slaughtered, and plenty of human drama offset by scares, action, and horrific and delicious violence. Where The Walking Dead scores more highly over other recent shows that I watch is that it makes me care about the characters – I love some, I despise others, and the ones I am ambivalent about usually don’t last more than a few episodes. The characters feel real and you can understand the actions 0f even the most crazed or most evil, though there have been plenty of moments where you are confident that a certain character would never behave in a certain way based on what we have previously been shown. There isn’t a lot of humour, and in recent seasons the atmosphere has become almost unrelentingly bleak and tense as beloved characters are killed off with or without warning, and every glimmer of hope is swallowed whole.
There’s a valid argument that this show and other fiction like it fails to take into account that most humans are essentially good, want to survive, and understand instinctively that to survive we need to live in packs and work together towards a common goal. Too often in this sort of show are there people only looking out for themselves and who will terrorize and murder everyone in sight if they don’t bend the knee or simply get in their way. Whether or not this would happen in reality is hard to say – history has shown that we’ve only got to where we are today by forming societies and ensuring that those things which harm the group are punished, those things which prevent us from losing our humanity are cast out. But of course, the most interesting characters are always the outcasts, rebels, and misfits and there wouldn’t be much drama if we focused solely on rebuilding and avoiding the dead – we’re only happy when we’re filled with dread or grief. In The Walking Dead there are moments which show how our main characters wrestle with the notion of humanity, frequently turning into animals themselves to survive or get what they want. Several have come close to ‘stepping over the edge’ and therefore losing their humanity. The problem may be that each series there is a bad guy or bad element for dramatic purposes who rarely crosses the line into humanity – we know they are evil from the moment we see them and that there is no hope for them. To the show’s credit, it recognizes this fact and does its damnedest to try to make these bad guys more human, but as a smart audience we understand that the twain cannot meet, and that TV demands our characters to remain stalwart and true against the baddies.
I can’t speak for what Negan is like at this point, but lets look at the ‘big bads’ we’ve had so far. We’ve had Merle – essentially a psychopath, lines blurred by the fact that he is the brother of another character, Darryl. We’ve had Shane – Rick’s best friend and the man who basically takes over looking after Rick’s family. As the series progress he feels like he is losing control and influence within the group and wants Lori (Rick’s wife) for himself, eventually resorting to cowardice and malice and murder. We’ve had The Governor, a self-placed leader of a successful community who seems like a saviour on the surface, but is ruthless underneath – there are few real attempts at blurring the lines with him until a few brief moments after the collapse of Woodbury where it seems he could be human after all, but these don’t last long. We’ve had The Claimers – roving bandits whose loose set of rules is that whoever ‘claims’ something gets to keep it – throwaway evil. We had the people from Terminus – inviting survivors to an idyllic place only to execute and eat them, again they seem nice on the surface but are killers underneath with little attempt to blur the lines. The best and most frustrating attempt to blur this line is with the Policewoman Dawn, who rules Grady Memorial hospital. She genuinely wants to build a better world, but she allows her need for control get the better of her – she believes in upholding the law, but allows her men to rape and steal and hurt, she essentially turns the hospital into a prison demanding the most useful people to stay and help. She is shown to have good intentions but is also shown to be too cold and doesn’t get the character development needed to make us question whether the things she did were for the benefit of society or not. After she is dispatched, a large group of survivors decide to continue what she planned, but supposedly without resorting to inhuman activity – I wonder if we’ll see them again.
(Update since mid-Season: Season 6 to me had a major focus on this blurring of good and evil, with Rick and the gang frequently being seen by others as being the bad guys, or recklessly dangerous to the point that us the viewers will have been hard pressed to disagree with such notions. There is not simply a sense of performing awful acts to survive, but rather that they are going out of their way to kill because there might be a threat. They have become so deluded by their own confidence that when Negan finally makes his appearance in the final moments, his group has toyed so easily with Rick’s group as to make them seem like amateurs struggling within an ever-tightening noose.)
There are plenty of other examples of more minor bad guys (again notably the Doctor at Grady who seems like a good person but is killing certain patients for his own survival) and those who are simply canon fodder. But enough talk of such things, lets talk about what we really care about – guns, swords, and gore!
We may stay for the drama, but we came for the blood. The Walking Dead raised the bar for depictions of violence on TV and has superb effects throughout thanks to genre legend Greg Nicotero and his crew of wizards. There is so much work and love put into the practical effects, the make up, and even the CG, that it is a joy for gore fiends like me. Even the most static episode will have an obligatory chunk bitten from an arm or headshot etc, but we go truly overboard with all manner of kills, injuries, and gruesome creatures on various states of rot. The sets and locations are suitably barren and reflect an America sickened and on its knees, however I am getting a little tired of the same scenery over and over – those leaf strewn roads and those same forests. I’d love a little more variety, and that’s why I’d love further spin offs showing survivors from around America, from around the world – beach zombies, mountain zombies, a last stand around Chichen Itza, tribes or roaming survivors in Africa, Australia, all keeping away from the cities – and of course why not some cities themselves – a group of scared politicians or officials holed up in suburbia, or a bunker, or in a palace or millionaire’s mansion? I haven’t watched any of the spin-off show Fear The Walking Dead yet, but I understand it takes place in another US city and deals more with the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the outbreak. All I’m saying is that there is still room for other ideas and people and places before it all becomes too saturated and silly.
While the dialogue is peppered with inspirational speeches it’s not exactly the most quote-worthy show. There is a lot of introspection and there are a lot of arguments. Nevertheless, the show is well written and packs in plenty of surprises and shocks, though it’s clear those are on the wane. There isn’t a lot of humour and there isn’t a lot of love – when there is it usually doesn’t last. The show follows in the tradition of Buffy and Game Of Thrones by placing a lot of its ability to scare the viewer into us knowing that any character can be killed off at any time. There have been some rumblings recently though that the show has lost its bite and is now too scared to kill off one of the key players – a Rick, a Darryl for example. We’ve seen several main characters apparently be killed only for them to be miraculously resurrected which has pissed off quite a few people. The show does still have a high death count, not just bad guys and zombies, but recurring cast members. If you make it through a couple of Seasons as an actor you’re bound to feel both lucky and wary that your days are numbered. We know someone from the main group died at Negan’s hands in the Season 6 finale, but we don’t know who. There are plenty of disposable characters, but we all have our favourites. My main issue at the moment is that the format does seem to be running thin – survivors find a new place to hide and live, a new human threat emerges, the threat must be overcome, usually at the expense of the place they were living and a few new characters. Rinse and repeat. I was excited by the prospect of the road trip to DC as that gave the show a different direction, a different endgame and purpose, but it fizzled out. We know the show will have to end some time, and I’m not advocating some pleasant answer where a cure is found and they all live happily ever after. I do think there needs to be an ending though, before the masses lose interest and they wrap it up in a lazy way. I’d be happy watching forever of course, guns and gore and zombies and I’ll watch. Even if it’s Zombie Nation, and that show is balls.
But I’ve rambled on long enough. I need to go check the barricades and make sure the surrounding streets are clear before it gets dark. Because they mostly come out at night. Mostly. Let us know your thoughts on The Walking Dead in the comments section – your favourite character, kill, and of course what you would do if, nay, when the zombies come.