BY ALEX RUSSELL
AMC’s getting pretty damn good at making drama. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead are all amazing in their own way. They’re all three built around extremely strong worlds that feel realistic and fleshed out, to be sure, but only Breaking Bad and Mad Men are built around equally compelling characters. So why did twelve million people watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead? That’s six as many people as the other two, even at their high points. Is this even a bad thing?
The Walking Dead is back for what feels like the twentieth time since that perfect six episode first season. Those six episodes were beautiful; they function well on their own as a type of “miniseries” rather than as an intro to whatever the show is now. They end with a cliffhanger that isn’t irritating or forced. They have real pathos, but aren’t manipulative. The original showrunners showed that they weren’t messing around at all. No matter what you wanted, those six episodes would sate you.
It got a little maudlin after that. The struggles of the ever-changing staff behind the show started to weigh on it, and it wandered through a particularly frustrating slog of a story for a second season. The season of finding a missing girl paralleled with the search for the CDC to find the explanation for a global epidemic made the world feel too small at times, though we got to know the characters under small-scale pressure. Not all bad, at all…. just a much slower show, at this point.
Season three fixed some of the problems with a smaller world and a larger cast. Most of the best drama on TV now is about showing how personal development is more interesting than big events, but The Walking Dead hasn’t done a good job endearing their characters. It seems at times that they’re worried that if they don’t draw the lines of good and evil, of who is against who, that we won’t be able to keep it all straight. This ends in some really stark examples being drilled in so directly that it’s hard for anyone to be really complex.
The show never stopped being exciting, but it definitely didn’t leave us with a roster full of winners to root for. Now it’s back, so how’s it doing?
The return episode “The Suicide King” picks up with the “good” guys safe in their prison and the “bad” guys in shambles in Woodbury. I’d draw the lines less stark than that, but the show doesn’t care to. The world is a lot more real now that we have concrete locations that house each side, but it still is all about the events themselves.
The show still pulsates with energy. It’s action-packed, still, and it had better be. There’s tension in it that is genuine and excellent, but it’s impossible to care about people that are interchangeable by nature. The show needs to be able to kill anyone to still have some drama, and by sheer nature of that they need everyone to be expendable. The longer it goes on, the more this becomes draining without having a character for the audience to rally behind. When you can’t feel for the only child or the crippled old man, you know you’re dealing with a world that is rapidly hollowing.
It’s still appointment TV and it’s still beautifully gruesome. The whole “harsh lessons in an apocalypse” theme is alive and well, and they seem to have learned their lesson from the start of season two that they need to keep the action moving; this isn’t a show that will survive many prolonged inner demon examinations without something external driving the plot. They need to be quick and terrifying, willing to lose anyone, but also abandon the hope of making people deeper than surface level. The Walking Dead is about the viewer dealing with how they would handle the situation, not as much the struggles of the characters to process their own feelings. People have hardened to the world they live in to the point where no one has internal struggle, really. They just move through the world.
And that’s what worries me about their cliffhanger this week: Rick’s hallucinations. The weakest moment in the end of season two showed Rick struggling with figuring out what was real and what was his own psyche messing with him. This is trodden territory to establish that a character’s losing touch with themselves. Since Rick’s decisions quite literally move the action of the show, it seems to me that there must be far more active ways to show Rick’s lonely descent into madness than hallucinations he refuses to explain to his compatriots. It doesn’t bode well for his character’s arc, but the last handful of episodes have showed that there’s still lots and lots of creative meat on this show’s bones. Maybe they’re even willing to lose a main character.