An Autopsy Of The Walking Dead

Much like Lost, The Walking Dead went from the pinnacle of serialised television – from binge-worthy and nuanced, to a slow dredge through monotony and questionable writing choices. Like many I was glued to these weekly instalments, but much like the fate of The Simpsons, Prison Break or Game Of Thrones there came a time when the show peaked and the quality began to waiver. Join me for a series of “flogging a dead horse” and “jumping the shark” style remarks.

TLDR : The Walking Dead was great and then it got shit. Here’s how i think it happened.

This article contains SPOILERS obviously. Use your noggin.

It’s the curse/blessing of any show that gains popularity and must continue past the first season. The world and lore must now expand, and with it comes the addition of new characters and settings. After all, the show runners can’t continue to do the thing that made the show popular in the first place – the format would get stale. But this natural progression comes with new risks and challenges.

This expansion point has always been a bit of a tightrope. There’s the concern that these new additions don’t gel as well within the established formula. Some shows can pull this off quite effortlessly (see Stranger Things) but other shows struggle to work out this new narrative dynamic.

the walking dead season 1 poster

Walking Dead Was The Goat, Now It’s A Deer…

My initial viewing of The Walking Dead ended at a very specific point. I remember it more clearly than I remember the birth of my own son or where I was when 9/11 happened. Before that fateful day, it has to be said that my enjoyment of the show was dwindling. What was once compelling and driven had given way to plot convenience, coupled with stealth zombies (which we will discuss below).

I remember the offending scene so vividly as the instance where I’d had enough – the final straw that broke the undead camels back, as it were:

A CGI deer that looked like something from a 90’s infomercial (and some people reckon the moon landings were faked in the 60’s). The offence occurred in S7E12 ‘Say Yes. In an episode that felt drastically off brand and filler, Rick and Michonne (Richonne) go on some sort of romantic couple getaway to scavenge supplies and happen upon a fun fair.

cgi deer the walking dead

That was it for me, a terminal impact from a downward spiral.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

The Walking Dead has always had a few questionable moments, even during those first few seasons when it was riding high. For the fans these gripes were largely FX-based and were the result of poor CGI or prosthetics (personally I didn’t feel this was the case and thought the show did a great job in both spheres on a modest budget). However, it was universally agreed that The Walking Dead was consistent and pushed the boundaries of the genre in modern times.

The cracks appeared very rarely during those early years. The Rick and Shane standoff, with its fiery and tense build up, Sofia emerging from the barn, the war with Woodbury and the Governor being of particular high quality-infused note.

As with any show, over time the format becomes stale, the energy dwindles, the stories become formulaic and the quality suffers. Take The Sopranos for example, after a while the formula became : Janice starts screwing a guy, he becomes a thorn in Tony’s side, Tony has to get rid of him. Rinse. Repeat. That’s a horribly over-simplified version, and probably not a fair analysis but definitely worth noting.

Standout Character Arcs

Rick specifically, has had more mental breakdowns than any other character on screen – surely that’s one for the Guiness Records people? Hardly surprising after the betrayal and death of his best friend Shane. There’s the death of his wife Lori, his almost-father figure Hershel and his son Carl. Not to mention losing most of the people in his gang at some point or another and seeing the lives of those remaining threatened on an almost daily basis. (I’ll not discuss his eventual endpoint for those that haven’t seen it) Rick Grimes is not the Rick Grimes we first meet in a hospital bed – which shows how well crafted the writing once was,

However, the show was relentless with its trolling of Glenns death for the years leading right up to the point he actually did die. It almost seemed like the writers were dipping their toes in to that morbid pool to gauge audience reaction for a full season before Negan showed up. Glenns demise was fake out after fake out with a payoff that no-one wanted. In the long run all this really did was soften the blow (pardon my pun) of his eventual death at the hands of Lucille.

The best character arc we saw goes to Carol peaking in Season 5, who went from mousy domestic abuse victim to Rambo, the one-woman army who stormed Terminus and freed the gang in a hail of gun fire and explosions. Carol had a fantastic arc up until that moment, with a few stand-alone exceptions after the fact, but it seems like they ran out of ideas and struggled to have her do anything of interest until the end of the show.

The dynamics of Daryll’s character didn’t change much during the run. He was always a loner but loyal (aside from a weird argument with Rick for sparing Negan). His character did show signs of breakage at specific points – the death of Sophia, the reunion and loss of his brother and the incredible psychological torture inflicted upon him by Negan and the saviours. (Easy Street. That’s all I have to say)

Maggies arc seemed to be on the swing before her character just disappeared with little explanation given. Did she just leave Hilltop to “find herself”? Only to return as a bad ass for the end of the run. Convenient.

To be perfectly honest I never trusted Father Gabriel, the character had no arc whatsoever. He went from a boring and weak clergyman who occasionally snaps, to a boring and weak clergyman who occasionally snaps, shouts and has a bad eye. Gabriel never earned the audiences trust, he didn’t perform any great feat or grand sacrifice. Ezekiel probably had half the screen time but was ultimately a better rounded character, with a history, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses.

the walking dead season 5 cast

Blow By Blow

The Walking Dead started out with the best intentions and a good pace to match. Season 1 lined up some strong core characters and showed us exactly what they were made of. It set Rick up as a decent family man who woke up in a nightmare and had to come to terms with the world around him.

Season 2 introduced the gang to an extended group and the possibility/promise of some form of normality on the farm. This season had dynamic shifts. Season 3 led us to the prison and once again the chance at a home for the survivors and a new way of life. Again, this season set the gang up to be tested and uncovered the wonderful “CORRRRAALL-dad-joke” meme format.

Aside from a particularly calamitous off-sales sequence in Episode 1, Season 4 continues to tread water and introduces Terminus. Which delivers some fantastically tense scenes which bring us to the gates of Alexandria in Season 5.

There’s an old writing trick that many shows utilise, an extension of the “put the characters up a tree and throw rocks at them” practice, that basically states “put the characters in prison”. Obviously The Walking Dead did this more literally than other shows, but there was a lot of psychological weight that could have been swung with Negan and the saviours in Season 6:

This wasn’t just another bad guy or threat, this was an all consuming evil, with the manpower and resources to beat our gang – essentially walls built around our protagonists. Instead, we got intimate character development, brooding, bonding and angst. Not to mention some weird junk people and a women-only camp (seemingly for the sake of it).

The feel of Season 7 became about administration and inventory, politics and trade. Although an admirable conquest to tell the story of civilisation rebuilding, it was built on the back of survival horror which unsurprisingly left the audience looking back to the good old days.

The sporadic appearance of herds as a factor would be the only saving grace for this season, except this vehicle became a formula – there’s a herd coming, the gang try to redirect it and it goes tits up. The same could be said for the gangs morality and the old premise is wheeled back out – “Are we Negan? Are we the baddies now?”

There was a noticeable slump around halfway through season 7 when the writing took a laboured turn. This should have been a fantastic season as all the elements were in place – the lead up to the battle of Alexandria was tedious and drawn-out at best. The battle itself was fantastic and delivered an intensity we had been missing for some time. Now, it could be argued that this initial pacing was essential to establish the group being under Negans boot and eventually challenging it. On this occasion the payoff was worth it.

Season 9 did however deliver on a fan favourite theory in the form of Rick’s fevered dreams. The old “this is all Rick’s coma dream” theory was briefly eluded to. The scenario is briefly teased/implied during Season 9 Episode 5 ‘What comes after‘. This episode picks up notably in quality and looks like it’s been pulled fresh from a comic book. Despite the addition of Sonequa Martin-Green who was a particularly flat character, with little arc and a notably strange death. She was given a particularly poignant scene which should have been a character that had more impact on Rick’s life.

I’m not gonna pass comment on boxes of munitions and explosives left wide open at the bridge construction site, during a time when rogue groups are determined to sabotage our heroes. Not at all. Rick’s departure on the chopper felt uncomfortable and disjointed, even with the addition of the Space Junk music from the Pilot episode.

There seems to be a robust and universally recognised opinion that the show quality declined significantly with the departure of Andrew Lincoln. It’s safe to say the ham-fisted addition of new characters after the bridge explosion was an indicator of this. Time has passed. This is Judith. Let’s just carry on.

walking dead comic rick grimes alexandria

The introduction of The Whisperers in Season 9 brought with it a renewed threat and something the fans could get interested in again.

The problem with these new characters is that we’re expected to give a shit about them when we never bonded with them. We haven’t struggled with them or even got to know them, and what we can see is that they’re not worth knowing. What are their names? The only one that stands out is the music teacher (played by the amazing Dan Fogler of Goldbergs/Fantastic Beasts fame) who is an irritation in the form of mild comic relief more than anything. The overall tone at this point flits between wacky and heavy, with A and B plots running on vastly differing vibes. As a result he tone becomes wild and swings unregulated when the Kingdom meet the Highway Men.

Season 10 showed us a new Negan, an evolved and stoic Negan but not without his dark side. Hanging out with The Whisperers just seemed like an overly drawn out ploy from the start. It was obvious he had a long game but it was too long for the audience to enjoy. Much like Eugene’s time with the Saviours, by the time the reveal came we just didn’t care.

The idea of The Whisperers overall just became tedious as the writers ran a strong idea firmly into the ground. The horde and their imminent arrival is the only thing the later part of this season had going for it. a rotting carrot dangled above the viewer and getting mouldier episode by episode. This should have been a climactic war but it went up in smoke (flaming zombies have always been overrated in my opinion and don’t have the physical longevity that pop culture affords them).

Season 11 quickly descended into schlocky horror and drawn out tension for the sake of tension and there’s a definite crisis of identity at this stage. The episodes after the Season 11 break seem to acknowledge this and begin to lean heavily on the nostalgia and past glory of the Rick era. (Not even a WWE-style wrestling match in episode 18 could pull it back)

It wasn’t totally a lost cause with the Commonwealth however, the writers did do a great job of highlighting societal hierarchy in this season without it becoming a social justice lecture. Rich vs poor, haves vs have not.

The Dead are treated like an a spot of rain on a sunny day in these later episodes. They show up occasionally to remind people to pack an umbrella.

Once again the show asks us to care about characters that haven’t earned it. They’re like friends of friends who we’re introduced to, and then expected to lend money and support emotionally. While the ones we do care about get sidelined with boring administration tasks.

Stealth Zombies

A fairly common criticism of the show is the employment of what are known as stealth zombies. As we know by definition the undead are groaning, shuffling corpses (the walking dead, if you will). Concepts of creeping and stealth are not understood by creatures with no ability to reason and whatever reason the dead are interested in eating people. We’re not entirely sure why, but that’s just what they’re into and I’m not here to kink shame.

My point is the writers of the show use the trope of “…and then a zombie appears right beside them, out of nowhere and complete with jump scare” far too vigorously for my liking. Was this expertly parodied in Shaun Of The Dead in the living room scene?? My answer would be YES.

shaun of the dead living room zombie

Zombies (not that we’re using the Z word in this franchise) are clumsy, staggering, shuffling, groaning bodies (usually with exposed wounds and bones) – that within The Walking Dead universe somehow have the ability to ninja up to the main cast and go “UGGGHHHHHHHHHH” just in time to locate a main artery and bite through it. Suspension of disbelief is part and parcel to the show, but if the action on screen does not sync up with the physics of the world created then its going to be hard to suspend.

I believe early on in the run there was discussion around the dead continuing to decay as the show progressed, and with it a certain amount of commentary around their strength. But alongside the lawns being mowed there was no tangible explanation and the viewer was left to just assume no explanation was produced let alone warranted. But we noticed. Oh, how we noticed.

Conclusion

I could be here all day listing flaws (and then some), but what The Walking Dead did well is solidify a thematic sense of dread using visceral grit. This was largely helped by the style with which it was shot. They treated the source material (for the most part) with reverence and respected the masters who had come before. The show didn’t compromise even in times when it clearly should have. The Walking Dead did exactly what it wanted, not what it thought the fans wanted. It provided a stark commentary on society and humanity, the cruelty of the living in an undead world. The locations and costumes provided an immersive backdrop and the sound design was second to none. The cast performances were strong for the most part and most importantly – believable.

The show made its bloody mark on pop culture and signalled a resurgence of interest in the genre. It made stars of its cast and even spawned other shows within the narrative world. 

The Walking Dead will always be iconic television and overall we’re better off having watched at least a few good seasons of it.

the walking dead season 11

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