‘The Walking Dead’ Is Treating Us Like We’re Mindless Zombies [Op-Ed]

SPOILER WARNING: This commentary includes significant spoilers from last night’s The Walking Dead episode “Killer Within.”

COMMENTARY | In November of 2011, I read a commentary piece on The Walking Dead by Rob W. Hart of LitReactor, and was puzzled by what I found. Despite boasting wonderful acting, compelling characters, a great premise, the highest ratings in cable TV history, and unanimous critical acclaim, Hart found The Walking Dead to be illogical, contrived, shallow, and meaningless.

I laughed off the commentary. After all, Hart was clearly the minority in his opinion, though I was nervously afraid that maybe he saw something I was incapable of seeing – I feared that he may be right about The Walking Dead. As of last night’s episode, “Killer Within,” I finally saw for myself what he was talking about.

The Walking Dead really isn’t as good as I thought it was.

It all started for me somewhere in season two. The first season moved along sharply and tightly with no criticism whatsoever from my corner, and I expected some drop in momentum after producers dropped developer Frank Darabont and his writing team from the project.

The Walking Dead did change, but week-to-week throughout the first half of the second season, I didn’t seem to mind since all of the characters were progressing pretty much how they ought to have, and new characters like Hershel and Maggie were introduced seamlessly into the narrative.

Then, the climax of “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the episode when Shane discovers the walkers in the barn and engages in a loud, pointed survival debate with Rick and the others, completely floored me. Sophia’s emergence from the barn as a walker blew my mind. As a fan of the comics, I expected the character to survive (she is still alive there, and we are much farther along), and the revelation that she had been turned – that she had been inside the barn the whole time they had been out looking for her, hoping she had survived – was a stroke of genius.

It hit all of the right emotional points. Carol finally lost everything she holds dear, becoming a hopelessly tragic and broken woman. Daryl’s own emerging faith was challenged. The look on Shane’s face – he knew he was right. But it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to be right about when the little girl you’ve all been looking for trudges out of the barn hissing through sunken cheeks.

The show had nowhere to go but up, and I anxiously waited months for the conclusion of The Walking Dead‘s season two. It came back on in February and went straight downhill. I just didn’t realize it until last night’s “Killer Within.”

First sign of danger: Dale Horvath’s death in “Judge, Jury, Executioner.” Don’t get me wrong, I have no trouble with the killing off of crucial and beloved characters. One of my favorite characters in the FX show Sons of Anarchy was brutally murdered this season, and while I regret the loss, I understood the purpose and meaning of his death moving forward.

Dale’s death was not that. It didn’t have much emotional impact beyond basic shock value, and after his moralizing argument halfway through the episode, his death was so predictable it subverted the meaning of his exit. In the comics, Dale is a much longer-running character, and more useful than the show’s “moral grandpa.” The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman told The Hollywood Reporter at the time that “It’s going to be such a monumental death that it’s going to affect things a great deal moving forward,” and that Dale’s death was “worth losing” future story arcs from the comics.

Fair enough. I trusted Kirkman and moved along, though others were less forgiving. At the time, XFinity’s TV Blog said that Dale’s death “points out how stupid most of the characters on this show really are.” It was a truth that I would soon discover myself.

Other things bothered me too, like how quickly the show’s characters were able to wrap up interesting societal questions, concerns, and conflicts with a quick, arbitrary conversation. Hershel’s entire post-zombie apocalypse philosophy and faith system was destroyed with the barn purge, but that’s nothing an afternoon of drinking can’t fix, right? Poof! Hershel is fine once again without a single complaint. Or how about Carl’s access to firearms? It’s an interesting question given the circumstances, but once again, a quick conversation occurs and poof! Carl is approved for conceal and carry. And how about Carol? Suddenly, she’s useful, spunky and independent, after (presumably) 40-some years of being a meek, emotionally malleable ball of insecurity. It’s amazing what losing your family does for your ‘tude.

The characters weren’t solving significant problems like The Walking Dead. They were solving them like Full House: Contained to a single episode with little resistance, playing second-fiddle to the action.

Then came the season two finale of The Walking Dead, ahead of which producers claimed that anyone could die. Who died? Patricia, who we barely knew, and a guy named Jimmy, whose name I only know because I looked it up on Wikipedia just now.

The writers and producers began treating their characters as one-dimensional plot devices, only worth developing and exploring minutes before mercilessly gutting them, and this thought finally dawned on me with last night’s “Killer Within” when…

…Lori dies.

Oh, T-Dog died too, just when he was starting to get more lines and come out of “token black guy” territory, but it followed the formula I spoke to above. Lori’s death was … well … bereft of impact. It was meaningless. It was emotionally insignificant.

Nevermind that she lives longer in the books (once again, fealty to the books is not required nor expected), but her death in The Walking Dead comic series was much more abrupt and emotionally shocking. The writer’s tried for that in last night’s episode, what with Lori sacrificing herself for her baby, unresolved tensions between her and Rick, being so so proud of little Carl who made his pre-re-animated mom eat a bullet seconds later, blah blah, I get it.

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I didn’t care. And not because I don’t like the show’s wishy-washy Lori. I didn’t care because The Walking Dead has been training me not to care by treating its characters cheaply and expecting me to react with shock, or something.

There are still good things about The Walking Dead. Mr. Hart amended his list and found that the show is actually improving from his initial critique with another LitReactor column.

For one, let’s praise Andrew Lincoln for a moment. His Rick is carrying the show, and the man is a consummately talented actor. His reaction to Lori’s death was heart-rending. That’s when I cared about her death: When I saw how Rick took it. Furthermore, his forced coldness as the “dictator” of the group is playing well, and I’ll likely still follow the show just to see where he goes in his personal development.

But Rick might be The Walking Dead’s one redeeming factor right now.

If the AMC series is Robert Kirkman’s way of redeeming his lack of foresight with the comic books (he admitted that he rushed the early story lines because he feared cancellation – the book’s success was a surprise he was unprepared for) he’s either not doing a very good job, or his voice is being lost before it bleeds into the show.

I’ll still watch The Walking Dead, but with some prejudice and dramatically lowered expectations. I could end up being wrong about the whole thing, and I’ll accept it if I am, but if last night’s episode was supposed to prime audiences for a stellar season, the writers undermined their own goal by playing to stock and trope, and the episode was only carefully saved in execution by a stellar performance by Andrew Lincoln.

I’m holding my breath for meaning, emotional significance, and depth to creep back into the show.

Forgive me for wishing that The Walking Dead didn’t treat its viewers like they were mindless zombies.