This analysis contains spoilers!
When a friend first introduced me to The Walking Dead, I was hooked from the first episode – nay, the first five minutes. Its abrupt 28 Days Later-style beginning leant mystery to the zombie apocalypse ordeal, as gun-slinging cop Rick sought to fill in the gaps of how the world turned to shit, and find his family.
There’s a tremendous amount of agency and conflict in the early seasons, fuelled by human drama and complicated relationships. The awkward love triangle between Rick, his grieving wife Lori and his best friend and romantic usurper, Shane – the head-scratching hick – carried the show for the first two years.
That glorious first season gave our intrepid survivors something to do, besides staying alive; namely, seek out possibilities of a cure, or find a military base to hole up in. But when those elements were dropped with the destruction of the research bunker, events began to lose their pace and urgency.
Many people who stopped watching the show did so during its downbeat second season, that one with the barn. For me, the conflict between Rick and Shane was enough to keep me interested, but that, too, was brought to an end by the end of season 2.
By the third season, the band of survivors become the passive victims of the world, reacting to events and struggling merely to stay alive. They go from one stronghold to the next, hoping to start a new life behind high walls: the imperfect prison falls, the Governor’s community is rotten, the people of Terminus are cannibals, the soft Alexandria residents are soon overrun.
But it’s always the same: Hope – Death – Escape.
One plot element, introduced in season 4, offered a glimpse of adventure: some of the characters meet Eugene Porter, who claims he knows how to stop the Walkers and has convinced the world’s toughest gingernut Abraham and his Latino girlfriend Rosita to escort him to Washington to save the world.
Ah, finally – a quest! A goal! Something to get the characters’ teeth into!
And where does it lead? Absolutely fucking nowhere. Eugene admits in season 5 he made it all up to elevate his worth and make his companions risk their lives to keep him safe.
So much for agency.
You know what? I can’t fault the acting in the show, nor the unrivalled special effects, the impressive production value and the writers’ attempts at developing convincing character arcs.
But I do take umbrage with the story’s lack of direction. The latest peril comes in the form of yet another community of undesirables, led by yet another psychotic, albeit charismatic, white male. Just like the Governor, the bad guy is unmistakably bad, executing his enemies willy-nilly and demanding the severed head of a rival.
Whoopy-fucking-do. We’ve seen it before.
The story needs direction, a goal that’s more than just negotiating trade deals with other communities, or striking back against violent marauders. The long-running theme of characters becoming the violence they previously sought to protect themselves from came to a head at the end of season 5, when Rick kills one of the Alexandrians in the middle of a town meeting. We get it. He’s changed. Now they shoot first, ask three questions later.
In common with the group, the story is drifting, unnavigable and rambling towards its own demise. And the finale of Season 6 was the biggest slug to the gut yet – more so, even, than the pretend death of Glenn.
Our newest despot, Negan, captures a selection of our beloved protagonists and lines them up, bound and at gun point. After a yawn-inducing 20-minute monologue, the writers subjected us to a fatal rendition of eeny-meeny-miney-moe, and the subsequent random murder.
The cliffhanger? We don’t know who gets killed! Oh no!
But how much care can you give to such an inane, random event? It has no reason, no foreshadowing, no worth. It was cheap.
At least when random zombies strike, there’s drama attached to who is killed. Here, all drama is lost but for the victims of fandom:
“I hope my favourite character doesn’t die!”
“Please don’t let it be Michonne!”
“Not Glenn! It can’t be Glenn! They did this to me once already!”
For the first time, the viewer’s opinion took centre stage, taking precedence over the characters’ agency. In that moment, like some infuriating Samuel Beckett play, we were front and centre, all our thoughts focused upon our enforced ignorance, and our meaningless preferences.
That’s not storytelling. It’s gratuitous fan baiting. And it’s cheap.
So with the lack of direction the storyline contains, and this woeful attempt at vacuous suspense, I’ve lost my fervour for a show I hitherto loved.