Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Cosmic Channel Changer
March 2013

The Walking Dead

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

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 was built.

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


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