Walk on, you Walking Dead
I don’t buy it.
When it comes to the basic premise of The Walking Dead, I can’t swallow that a disease that makes people into zombies, primarily spread by biting, no less, would spread so far, so fast, and so universally as to be humanity’s “extinction event”, as Dr. Jenner said in the season finale of the show. I don’t see how it would overrun even a well-trained riot squad, let alone the U.S. Army. And for those who have read the comics, too, even if what we find out later about the zombie disease in the comics is also true in the TV series, then I still don’t buy it – how is it possible that wouldn’t be discovered very early on? It is, in effect, a big donut hole in the middle of the plot.
And I don’t care.
I am used to suspending my disbelief pretty high off the ground. I’ve been asked to go along with ridiculous things for the interest of dramatic license: there’s a chasm in the Death Star, there’s a good reason why Gandalf couldn’t just whistle up a couple of his giant eagle buddies for a ring-dropping raid on Mount Doom under cover of darkness, Ramona Flowers is worth getting smacked around by seven evil exes. If there’s something compelling about the story, or the characters, or the overall execution, you’ve got my attention until you do something to lose it. And so far, The Walking Dead is holding it.
In this case, the characters are the main draw. Rick Grimes, a Kentucky sheriff’s deputy who wakes from a coma to discover the world turned into a nightmare, sets off on a journey to find his family, and discovers them alive and well and in the care of his best friend. He knows they all thought he was dead; he doesn’t know that in the face of the end of the world, his wife and best friend turned to each other for comfort. Mix in other survivors like Andrea and Amy, a pair of sisters trying to hold on to each other after losing everything else; Dale, an older man suddenly given a reason to live in the hour of the apocalypse; Jim, whose family was literally ripped from his arms and who only escaped because the zombies were busy eating them, and you’ve got yourself an ensemble. A lesser show would focus on the skills each survivor brings and how best to use them to keep body and soul together as long as possible. But this one focuses on their qualities as human beings, how none of them know what they’re made of until they’re tested; not all of them pass.
The Walking Dead has a very high body count in the comics; we’ve only just begun to see that in the show (yes, I’m afraid so!) What sets this show apart from other examples of the genre is that with few exceptions – such as nameless extras getting chomped on in the background in an attack on the survivor camp at the end of the fourth episode – we actually care when it happens. We get a real sense of the survivors as human beings, and instead of treating their deaths as a thrill we feel them as a loss, something most horror doesn’t even attempt. It is a rare thing indeed; ambitious, character-driven survival horror.
The comic is still a work in progress; thirteen trade paperbacks collecting several dozen issues. But so far, its author, Robert Kirkman, still follows his pole star; characters first, plot second, gory thrills third. It remains to be seen if he can wrap it up in a satisfactory fashion; after several years, the story feels no closer to resolution, and it’s begun to show. Television audiences are less patient, and though the show is excellent it’s by no means flawless. Dialogue sometimes comes across as forced. The acting is sometimes a little much. The director is a little heavy-handed in spots. It’s possible that the show is just working out a few kinks before hitting its stride next season. It’s also possible these are cracks in the show’s foundation, and that it will soon turn absurd. If it does, and nothing is there to distract me from the nagging sensation that in the end, none of this makes sense, I’ll have to count myself a former fan – unlike some of my fellow self-identified geeks, I have no problem divorcing a franchise I used to like (Star Wars, seriously, get your act together, I can’t even acknowledge you in public anymore.) But until then, shamble on, good zombies, shamble on.