Cosmic Channel Changer
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead, in many ways, is a victim of expectation.
The TV series does have its weaknesses, for certain. Season One in particular, outside of a few
gleaming moments, dragged, which is a feat considering it was only six episodes long. That said,
Season One tends to be forgiven for its faults. Season Two meanwhile, in every conversation
I've ever seen discussing it, is consistently criticized for its slow pacing and lack of action. When
your story takes place in the zombie apocalypse, viewers expect a bit of regular violence. It
makes me think they don't know very much about the content on which the zombie subgenre
George Romero's Dead films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead
primarily), were not fast-paced. Rather, they tended to follow a structure of bookending where-in
the beginning and end are action heavy, with the middle being slower and more character
focused. This isn't something exclusive to old zombie films either. More recent zombie flicks
tend to do the same. 28 Days Later starts and ends with gruesome violence, but the middle
portion of the film is quiet to the point of being peaceful. Even comedic entries in the genre like
Zombieland give the viewer long center portions that are focused on giving us downtime to get
to know and love the cast.
Season Two of The Walking Dead works essentially the same way. The opening episodes are
conflict heavy, pitting the cast directly against the titular dead. Likewise, the series finale is a
bombastic all-out brawl between the desperate survivors and a zombie horde overrunning their
home. People loved these action parts. The last two episodes of Season Two received a ton of
praise from fans and critics alike. Where many viewers had issues was with the long middle
section that made up the bulk of the season, claiming it to be too dull.
To be sure, Season Two is a slow burn. It moves along deliberately, taking its time as it expands
on the characters and the conflicts driving the show, the primary one being the rivalry between
protagonist Rick and his best friend Shane. In Season One we open to Rick waking from a coma.
While he was unconscious his best friend Shane helped Rick's wife Lori and son Carl escape the
spreading zombie outbreak. In the process, Lori and Shane, under an assumption that Rick is
dead, start a romantic relationship that is promptly cut short when Rick returns and they realize
he is, in fact, alive.
Shane does seem bothered by the loss of this relationship, but initially seems to accept it. As
Season Two proceeds, however, we can see him becoming more and more resentful of Rick's
presence, especially as Rick begins taking on the leadership role that Shane previously held and
starts making decisions that Shane finds untenable.
Rick is a much softer touch than Shane and less willing to take the often violent steps that are
arguably necessary for the group's survival. After a gun battle with another more predatory
group for instance, Rick takes one of their men as a prisoner. After interrogating him, Rick and
company debate about what to do with him. Letting him go poses a risk to their safety but the
group, and Rick especially, squirm at the thought of executing him in cold blood. Rick
eventually wants to let him go, a move that adds up to weakness in Shane's eyes.
Things become more dangerous when it's revealed that Lori's pregnant. In all likelihood the
baby is Shane's. In an instant his view of Rick is shifted back firmly from friend to rival. If he is
to be with the woman he loves and a father to his own child, Rick has to be removed. The two
men struggle with this issue for some time. Rick continues to try and make peace between them
but Shane becomes gradually more aggressive until he finally tries to lure Rick away from the
group and kill him. Rick, finally embracing the violent part he'd been rejecting, fights back and
stabs Shane to death.
It's one of the high moments dramatically of the entire show, and it stands entirely on the
foundation of the relationship we see develop over the course of Season Two. The slow
movement of events gives us a chance to see Rick and Shane interact with each other during all
the varying stages of their relationship. We get to see them when they're still friends with a
history and chemistry. We can see how Shane truly does care about Rick and Lori and acts as a
second father figure to their son Carl.
More importantly, we get to see both characters wrestle with being at odds and how this leads to
the eventual breakdown of their friendship until all that's left is the cold determination that one
of them must die if the other is to live. It's tragic stuff that would not work nearly as well if it
weren't given the time to mature naturally.
Case in point. While I love The Walking Dead comic books, the comic series really does kill
Shane off too quickly. Granted, it also plays Shane's deaths for a much different story beat than
the show does, but it wastes a lot of the potential that the show explores. In the comic Rick
becomes the leader almost by default. He was a police officer in the old world so they put him in
a position of authority. Rick in the show has to grow into being an effective leader. His murder
of Shane is a clear moment of transition where he drops the pretenses of the old and embraces
the morals of necessity that governs their new lives.
One of the principal complaints I saw a lot of when it comes to Season Two is about the search
for Sophia. In the early part of the season a young girl goes missing. The group spends the better
part of the next four episodes searching the nearby woods for her. Many viewers hated this,
claiming the plot had stalled and that the show was going nowhere.
What they failed to see was that this subplot, and Season Two overall, were less about actual
story and all about character development. Sophia's disappearance was a method of splitting the
characters up morally. We see them at different stages of the survivor mentality. Rick doesn't
want to let go and urges the group to keep searching while Shane presses them to give up for the
sake of safety. The actual goal they're arguing about isn't what's important, it's the arguments
that surround it and the feelings that emerge from its resolution.
If The Walking Dead weren't a zombie show, many viewers would have had no problem with
this sort of character development. The perpetually acclaimed Mad Men, which runs on the same
cable network as The Walking Dead, is based almost primarily on this form of story telling and
it's a critical darling. Granted, Mad Men is often also better written than The Walking Dead, but
it has nothing to do with focus and pace.
I can't help but think the issue is the patience of the audience. People have no issue watching
Don Draper destroy his marriage over the course of three seasons. When the show is tagged as a
horror program however, people expect blood, they expect violence and they don't expect to
wait for it.
Season Three in contrast to Season Two has been markedly fast-paced, something many would
point to as an improvement. It had been excellent; have no doubts on that mark. That said, how
effective do people think the action would be were it not for the character building of Season
Two? It might be visceral and exciting, but at the end of the day there would be no reason to
care. The fact that I, and millions of viewers, do worry about the main cast week-to-week is a
testament to the fact that Season Two was not a long-winded waste of time.
Read more by Stewart Shearer