The Problem with “The Walking Dead”

An excellent blog post written by the lovely and talented Jamilla Rowser recently made the rounds wherein she wrote about her experience “breaking up” with The Walking Dead comic book. It struck a chord with me because I’m in something of a loveless relationship with the TV show myself. The comic and I have occasional flings via trade, but I’ve committed myself to the show. Relationship metaphors aside, her blog echoed conversations I’ve been having lately about the longevity of The Walking Dead.

We miss you already, you ambiguously motivated psycho.

We miss you already, you ambiguously motivated psycho.

Zombies have been a staple of horror movies for nearly 50 years. When done well, zombies are incredibly effective “villains.” There’s a reason creative people enjoy dipping into that particular well. Like any good story, a zombie story has a very clear beginning, middle and ending. We’re introduced to the world and our main characters, we learn why we’ve got zombies this time, blood and chaos inevitably ensue, and then we get our ending. A great zombie movie is made or broken by its ending a lot of the time. Do we get a happy ending or not? How many survivors? Is the theme one of hope or despair? More so than many subgenres, a lot rides on the end of a zombie movie.

Maybe that’s the fundamental problem with The Walking Dead, be it from Image comics or AMC. The initial awe of “It’s a zombie movie that never ends” has started to wear thin. The Walking Dead isn’t a story that can sustain itself for a decade. Yes, comics and TV shows have runs that go for years, if not decades, but there’s a world of difference between Rick Grimes and Batman far beyond the cowl. The cast of The Walking Dead has a pretty narrow window for storytelling. They’re either ducking zombies or some evil dictator figure. Sure, Batman is always facing some villain, but the setting changes. The mood changes. Batman stories can deal with a wealth of themes and emotions. Zombie stories are about not getting eaten by zombies. The end. That’s not to say that there’s not opportunity for great character moments or that we’ve not seen them on TV or the printed page, nor does it mean that Batman and Captain America don’t fall victim to formulaic and predictable stories.

Just like the Governor, only somehow MORE rapey.

Just like the Governor, only somehow MORE rapey.

Batman is going to win and survive. That’s no surprise. But who is he facing? What’s the nature of the threat? Is it a straight-up action story, or is there a quiet thriller element? What are the stakes? Is he fighting for Gotham or the world? Is he fighting for himself? There are countless stories to be told with Batman, Spider-Man, Walter White or even CM Punk. Those characters and their worlds support an ongoing narrative. The world of The Walking Dead does not. The biggest surprise addition to the mythos thus far has been killer sniffles. The sniffles is not a compelling villain.

Every story needs an ending. Instead, The Walking Dead bleeds right into more of the same, over and over again. It’s no wonder that Telltale GamesThe Walking Dead is the best iteration of this story available right now. The game follows Lee Everett’s story through its logical conclusion. The upcoming sequel follows Clementine in the aftermath of the game’s ending. It’s the same world, but it’s a different lead character and therefore the stakes are completely different. Her story, too, will end, though hopefully better than Lee’s.

Sniffles

Nothing says “riveting horror drama” quite like a fever.

Fiction is subjective. The argument over whether something is “good” or not is going to vary from person to person, but there’s been a lot of negative talk about The Walking Dead from diehard fans of the show and the comic lately. Maybe the driving force behind this shift isn’t a lack of quality. Perhaps zombie stories simply don’t lend themselves to a long form narrative. If readers are subconsciously waiting for an ending that will never come, it’s easy enough to make their own endings. You can’t make a relationship work if you’re unhappy. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a clean breakup.

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Lee Rodriguez is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Panels On Pages. He is also a freelance graphic and web designer, action figure customizer, swell guy, and an awesome dad.

I'm even on Google+... Kind of.

Comments (7)

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  1. Kelly Harrass says:

    I’ve been saying this for a while. I don’t even read the book, but I can tell you the cycle every story follows.

    1. They find a new place that seems safe.
    2. It’s not safe.
    3. Shit goes down.
    4. Supporting character dies.
    5. They move on to find a new place to hang out.

    Kirkman is going to bleed every dime that he can out of this series.

  2. D-Rock says:

    What I’ve liked about Walking Dead us that it’s NOT really about the zombies. It’s a story of how human relationships develop in a nightmare scenario. Zombies are just the backdrop. While I’m still enjoying both versions, they are notnot without fault:

    Comic – it is formulaic not just in story but in characters. We’ve seen at least three different versions is Shane at this point. But even though we see reoccurring themes, they keep getting just a bit more intense each time and how the group deals with it slips further and further into moral ambiguity. So that keeps me interested for now.

    Television – I think the rut the show fell into was spending so much time at the prison. In the comic they were there for maybe two trades? But the show turned it into two seasons. From a budget standpoint it makes sense, save money on building new sets. But from a storytelling angle, it’s too much time to stay stagnant. But with the mid-season finale forcing them to move on, I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

  3. You guys make me laugh about this. I say that in a friendly, slap-on-the-back way, not the weakly ironic salty way.

    You complained last season that nothing happened, even though every episode ended with a huge shocker. You all agreed that there was enough material to warrant 2 seasons — “if not three,” I believe Lee and Knize said, someone better than me can scan the PoPCast archives for the exact quote — at the prison. Now they’ve wrapped it in 1-½ and it’s not soon enough for you.

    No, killer sniffles isn’t compelling, what’s compelling is that you can live through the apocalypse and then die of a cold. The reason the zombie genre gets popular is that IRL conditions become so hopeless that more and more of the population comes to accept that only an apocalypse would leave any chance of the human race surviving in any meaningful way. The killer sniffles is kind of a rebuttal to that — yeah, being one of the few remaining bands of survivors is nice, but civilization does have penicillin and gas stations.

    Now they’re setting up for the little psycho girl to be a budding serial killer that Carl’s going to take upon himself to execute like he does in the books (there’s this season’s finale, by the way) leading to more moral dilemmas, and that’s got huge potential.

    I’m still in, still having fun. My recommendation for you is that you stop watching now, and when the final finale hits, binge watch it on Netflix. I think you’ll like it better that way. Lost is so much better that way. Heroes is so much better that way. Walking Dead may well be the same.

    • Jason Knize says:

      The Prison COULD have sustained 2 seasons had they not rushed to get to the Governor last season. A majority of last season should have been them settling in the prison, all of the inner turmoil with the group and prisoners, and then the group getting too comfortable in their new home. There was a LOT of great prison stuff that did not involve The Governor. This season should’ve ended with what we saw in the midseason finale.

    • Sure, the realities of getting sick in an age with no doctors is pretty scary. So is getting a crazy expensive speeding ticket. That doesn’t mean they make for thrilling television when dramatized.

  4. I guess I just didn’t see the plague as the main action, but more a replacement of the constant background threat or an amplification of it. You had to go on supply runs before, now they’re twice as urgent. You had the fence collapse issue before, now you could lose it just because there’s nobody available to help. The governor’s possible return was already a concern, now you’re in no state to fight if he does come.

    I’m not saying it’s been a half season without flaws. Why didn’t they ever run some trucks around out side the fences to lure the zombies away from the one spot they were crowding? Why haven’t they dug trenches all around the prison for Zombies to fall in so they can run out and kill them more easily so they don’t swam in the first place? Why did they have to skip the whole military supply depot aspect in the Woodbury/Prison conflict? Why didn’t they put greater emphasis on the real source of the Governor’s ire — his megalomania? Why didn’t Michonne wait until the governor turned and then cut off his jaw and arms to make him her bitch (which would have been a VAST improvement over the book) or at least cut his legs off and let him get swarmed for his sins?

    But all that aside, it wasn’t a loss of 8 episodes, and I think you highly overestimate the prison’s ability to hold viewers’ attention over the long haul in a television world. I bet you’ve read hundreds of stories about a hero coming to a town in his post-apocalyptic journey, but he doesn’t stay there, it’s a stop on the route — because nobody gives a crap about that town. In a story like this where the group — the community — is the story, it needs to stay mobile and encounter new challenges to stay relevant because cucumber farming after the apocalypse is a lot like it was before it.

    There were down moments, but for me the first half was far from a loss and I’m excited for what lies ahead.

    • Jason Knize says:

      You’re right about the “staying mobile”, but in the comic and even in the show, the prison presents itself as THE ANSWER to their problems. It’s not just Hershel’s farm. It’s the concept of permanence in a temporary world.

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