It feels like we’re collectively starting to not give a shit about The Walking Dead. This is evident in more than some vibe. The show has been in a steady ratings decline for the past few seasons. And it’s easy to see why, as it’s hard to muster any kind of emotion stronger than a vague “Ehhh?” while watching it. Still, it’s too early to declare the series officially over, since its ratings are still damn good for any type of TV. At the dramatic television dance, The Walking Dead remains the drunk prom queen.
Various factors — stagnant characters, rehashed storylines, a cast too large and too indistinguishable from one another to care about, and character deaths which lack any sort of impact other than letting you know what a certain actor’s organs might look like — have all combined to make a once-mighty show feel like a weekly slog. Its bleakness, which started as its most refreshing aspect, has become a seemingly pointless exercise in testing the audience’s patience. For a show that went toe-to-toe with Game Of Thrones in a brawl for pop culture dominance for a handful of years, it’s starting to feel like Walking Dead is dazed and wobbly-kneed after Game Of Thrones roundhouse-kicked it in its decomposing chin.
How did The Walking Dead start to feel so stale, while Game Of Thrones found ways to keep its momentum going despite having its own stumbles? The answer is in how The Walking Dead chose to use its source material.
After reading nothing but mainstream superhero comic books as a kid, I went through a drought which ran from middle school through most of high school. I consider that period my own personal geek Dark Ages. I’d felt trapped in a cycle of superhero “event” stories. And even breaking that pattern involved still reading superhero comics, ones that had a tiny bit of depth and usually involved the storyline “What if the Justice League was, like, suuuuuper fuckin’ old?
Discovering The Walking Dead was my Enlightenment. Reading it felt like watching a prestige cable drama that had been infused with B-movie horror aesthetics. I watched it as it evolved from a little black-and-white zombie comic into a juggernaut franchise centered around a show that has its own talk show right after it airs, during which we get to hear who Marilyn Manson and the dog from Air Bud think will die next. From the start, I knew it would make for a fun TV show. And it did. For a few seasons.
As the series went on, I worried about how closely it was sticking to the comics. Loyalty to the source material is the Utopian dream unreasonable comic book fans want out of a screen adaptation. There’s probably some screaming idiot in a forum buried deep in the ass of IMDb to this day complaining about how Hawkeye doesn’t wear his mask from the comics that makes him look like Barney the Dinosaur exploded all over Wolverine. The last two words spoken before the whole Earth erupts in nuclear fire will be “ACTUALLY, Watchmen-.”
Comic book adaptations work best when the source material isn’t treated like Holy Scripture, when the comics are treated like a free set of ideas which filmmakers can mix and match to best fit their needs. The Walking Dead may be a case of a comic adaptation being too faithful to its source. It’s translated nearly all of the comic book’s strengths (unflinching depictions of humanity at its worst, powerful displays of raw human vulnerabilities, the occasional tiny drops of optimism that dangle in front of the survivors like carrots), and its weaknesses, with the prime one being a refusal to end the story.
Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman has said for years that he knows how the comic book ends; it’s just a matter of building toward that end. I have no doubt that’s true. It’s inconceivable to have been working on something for nearly 15 years and not have figured out where it’s going by now. But even as a fan who holds the comic near and dear, I’m starting to tap my foot and look at my watch. Even in the comics, this impressive feat of longform storytelling is starting to hit a narrative plateau. The show is hitting that same wall, but faster.
Comic books have to walk a delicate line between character development and arrested development. Batman may never reach a point where he decides to retire from punching the mentally ill so he can play 18 holes every day. That’s not necessarily because that’s who he is, it’s because there’s too much money to be made from keeping him exactly the same. When a new creative team takes over a book, Batman resets to relative zero, with only a few narrative threads carried over that have become part of the new status quo. Batman is still Batman, but now a Robin is dead until he finds a new Robin, and then- look out! Dead Robin is alive! And pissed! Rinse and repeat for 10,000 years. Comic book characters are often locked into their own version of Groundhog Day, and the only thing that changes are the little boys they hang out with. No, wait …
The Walking Dead comics found success in keeping its characters mostly the same (assuming they’re alive for long enough to experience change) while allowing them to evolve just enough to keep narrative momentum flowing into the next story arc. When The Walking Dead began, Rick was a reluctant leader whom people followed because they assumed that a guy with a sheriff’s badge would know what to do. Now he’s George Washington — the battle-hardened general who has to figure out how to lead a nascent society that’s been ravaged by death. His growth was earned over 14 years and nearly 200 issues.
TV doesn’t have that kind of time. Stories have to be lean and efficient. That’s why in its translation from books to TV, Game Of Thrones tossed out tons of storylines which spanned hundreds of pages. There are dozens of characters vital to the book series’ endgame who will never be introduced in the show. That’s why in its penultimate season, characters were traveling hundreds of miles by boat between scenes. The showrunners know their medium. They’re sacrificing frivolous things like the logic of travel times for the benefit of character development and story progression. R.I.P. Laws of Nautical Excursions. You will be truly missed.
We aren’t seeing characters develop on The Walking Dead as clearly, since everyone at AMC seems to think the show will outlive us all, and it’s finally becoming the kind of shambling rotting husk it warned us about. The show feels unwilling to decide where it wants to go, so it just keeps shuffling through the same story beats. Rick and the gang don’t change all that much in the face of all their adversity. The zombie apocalypse began, everybody shifted to survival mode, and they’ve stayed that way ever since. It’s plotting by way of cruise control.
The only person to get a real arc is Carol, who goes from the group’s weakest link to a badass who might be too badass for her own good. Every other character’s definition of change is just being more of what they were when we first met them. It’s especially evident in Carl, who feels stunted by the show’s painfully slow character development. Show Carl isn’t ready to follow in his dad’s footsteps. At the same point in the story, Comic Carl had seen so much shit that he had the soul of an immortal wizard.
We’re more willing to accept incremental character growth in a longform comic book story than we are on TV, where we grow to hate them the more time we spend watching their unresolved drama. Seeing a living human get stuck in neutral for nearly a decade is more infuriating than reading about it. A major source of The Walking Dead‘s problem comes from the ways TV shows have conditioned us to understand character growth. There’s the sitcom way, wherein characters are rarely allowed to carry learned lessons into the next episode. Just put the archetypes in silly new scenarios every week, and then rake in so much syndication money that your great-great-grandchildren have the choice to either buy an island or an entire borough of NYC. Then there’s the Lost / Breaking Bad way, which has a built-in shelf life, whereby characters’ lives are part of a single serialized story which requires them to change over time. Walter White was given a “Sell by” date in the first episode; it would be weird if he got to the last one and was still trying to hide a cough from apathetic high school chemistry students.
Generally, comic books are a little bit of both, and for some reason, we’re totally cool with that. The closest thing to comics that you can find on TV is professional wrestling, and the stories they tell are greased-up garbage in tights. The Walking Dead wants you to believe it’s like Lost, Breaking Bad, and Game Of Thrones, but it’s hiding a dirty little secret: It’s actually professional wrestling. It’s infinitely repeatable storylines that spin from one to the next in no clear direction because it assumes it’s always going to be on. Why be forced to evolve when you could just create the illusion of doing so by throwing new characters into the same situations? The survivors find a town, try to feel some semblance of normalcy, then — oh no! — outside primitive forces try to tear it down! Guess we got to find a new place to rebuild society from the ground up! Rinse and repeat for 10,000 years. It has no clearly defined endgame other than “survive.” And all it needs to be an episode of Monday Night RAW is an announcer shrieking, “BAH GAWD. MICHONNE! WITH A SWORD! TO THE GOVERNOR! THAT MAN HAS A FAMILY.”
The Walking Dead needs to figure out if it wants to be a TV show or a televised comic book like pro wrestling. If it chooses to be a show, it needs to take a page out of its main pop cultural adversary’s playbook. It needs to pull a Game Of Thrones and write the ending its creator isn’t ready to. That’s the only thing that can stop the onslaught of terrible “The Walking Dead is DEAD!” hot takes that the blogosphere has queued up for early December.
If it wants to be a televised comic book, then it should stop dicking around and just buy the cast tights, replace all the blood with baby oil, and make their next community a steel cage. “BAH GAWD. DARYL! FROM THE TOP OF THE LADDER! HE’S BEEN BROKEN IN HALF.“
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