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The Walking Dead Step Up

January 3, 2012

Prior to the mid-season finale, I’d seen a lot of bellyaching from fans about the direction of The Walking Dead this season. Too much talking, they said, not enough walking. The search for Sophia was dragging on and appeared to be going nowhere, they said. Why would a bunch of smart people so committed to survival drag out a search for a girl who was almost certainly a goner, they wanted to know. Now, it’s easy to imagine series creators Robert Kirkman and Frank Darabont reading all the fanboy bitching and moaning with grim smirks, knowing that very, very few of them had any idea how expertly they’d hidden the ball.

When I wrote last year about the show, I thought the show was a good if flawed iteration of the zombie mythos. While it was certainly the best interpretation of the subject matter to come to television, deep down I thought the writing didn’t measure up to the best television had to offer. After spending a lot of time recently with Breaking Bad and seeing what great televised drama really looks like, I felt my anticipation of the second season of The Walking Dead waning. As thin as the show was at times in the first season with only six episodes of material, I feared it couldn’t possibly stretch for a full thirteen without snapping. On top of that, when Darabont fired the whole writing staff after the first season and committed to using freelancers, I thought it couldn’t possibly improve the already significant problems with stilted, unnatural dialogue and questionable character development. So when the first episode aired, I waited a little while before watching it, simply afraid to look.

I was wrong. And chances are, fanboy, you were wrong too.

Darabont’s move looks in retrospect to have been exactly correct. It’s hard not to see it now as putting stronger, more experienced hands in charge in recognition of the limitations of the original staff, Kirkman included. In the first season, I couldn’t help noticing that the dialogue and overacting was worst in the episodes Kirkman wrote himself, but now, with more experienced screenwriters in charge, everything feels tighter and more focused. His formidable skill at writing comics didn’t translate to television, and it’s no sin to recognize it and step back graciously. Not to slight Kirkman’s vision – far from it – but what works in the comics does not necessarily work on screen, a lesson Hollywood has yet to teach itself after countless big-budget superhero duds. Now, the characters come to life in a way they simply didn’t in the first season, and here’s a lesson to action-craving fanboys everywhere: constant action impedes character development. It might be fun to watch tension-filled sequences where the characters overcome odds against way too many walkers, but too much of a good thing leaves you with characters about whom you know little more than you did when you started. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a genre work cannot expect to be taken seriously when it aims only to measure up well against other works in the genre. It is exactly why horror movies are so rarely good when considered as movies. AMC produces some of the best drama on television, and it’s not hard to imagine the network wanting more out of The Walking Dead than a whiz-bang zombie soap opera. If that’s what AMC asked for, The Walking Dead has stepped up its game in an attempt to deliver. The show still isn’t Breaking Bad, but it’s done a much better job at balancing character development and action, sacrificing some of the latter in favor of the former. It’s paying off; Shane and Glenn in particular feel much more fully realized, and even Daryl Dixon seems like a human being with actual feelings instead of a pencil sketch of a hillbilly. Some fans gripe about an excess of talking, to which I’ll say: go read the comic. You’ll see the same thing. Like it or not, this is Kirkman’s vision, a world in which real people have to survive unimaginable horror. This show wants to be more Breaking Bad and less, say, Dead Snow, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

The big reveal of the mid-season finale – which I won’t spoil if you still have the episode sitting unwatched on your DVR (what’s wrong with you?! do it now!) – is to date the best moment the show has yet offered. It haunts the viewer, leaves you sitting dumbfounded at the implications. It makes you look back over everything that’s gone by this season, marveling at the construction that led to that moment. You can practically see the bonds between these characters changing forever as the scene plays out. It leaves you thinking about those changes, wondering what we’ll see as the characters deal with the grief and recriminations from what went down at Herschel’s farm.

If the show continues going down this path, it might lose some viewers, namely the kind who wanted an action-packed gore-fest, but those people are missing the larger point. There are plenty of action-packed gore-fests out there already, but there are too few genre works aiming higher than their station. At heart, that’s what Kirkman has always been trying to do with The Walking Dead, in the comics and again on screen, and he deserves to be commended for it. Science fiction writer Norman Spinrad once wrote that for his genre to finally be taken seriously, its writers can’t just aim to match Asimov and Clarke, they have to aim for Shakespeare. The Walking Dead crew appears to be aiming to match the best TV has to offer, and while they still have plenty of work to do to get there, this season is so far a giant step in the right direction.

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