“The Walking Dead” returned on Sunday from the mid-season break and, in the show’s well-established style, nobody is safe. Alexandria’s wall has been breached and we watched while various citizens were predictably devoured by the walking dead. This might actually be what’s most problematic about the series; despite interesting turns and high-tension moments, the show’s rhythms and repetitions are overwhelmingly obvious. Previous seasons have routinely established a pattern in which the core characters appear to find long-term safety, only to be pushed out by larger and larger herds of walkers or competing survivor groups. The countryside of Atlanta, Hershel’s Farm, the State Penitentiary, Terminus, and Alexandria have all fallen in a predictable series of missteps and misfortune. Corrupt and despotic leaders have also become a common element, from The Governor to the cannibals of Terminus to the still-mysterious (but soon-to-be-revealed) Negan.
If “The Walking Dead” has common themes of corruption, perennially unsafe shelters, and the promise of “unkillable” characters being killed, then the shocking moments become less shocking. We still care, but we see the writing on the wall. We oscillate between moments of sadness and moments of relief, but with less and less impact. In an attempt to ratchet-up the stress, the show has begun playing unfairly to our emotions. The incident with Glenn and the dumpster is our best example. It was a relief to see the show’s most loved character pull through, but it was an unnecessarily manipulative cheap shot. The story should be able to achieve these levels of emotional impact by itself, not through slights of hand.
The show still has tremendous momentum and consistently delivers strong performances, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need something to change in order to disrupt these increasingly played-out patterns. This may have already begun to happen, of course, as we consider how the early episodes of season six began to fragment the timeline. The architecture of the narrative has changed dramatically as the story has been compressed, telescoped, and as the moments of decisive action have begun to occur with greater frequency. Where in the beginning a season would take place over several weeks or months, the whole of season six has (at least thus far) taken place over only a couple of days. We also have one unique 90 minute episode that looks backwards in time, showing us how Morgan transformed after a chance encounter with a kind loner. It is truly a magnificent episode that could just as easily have been a stand-alone film.
The best “zombie” features actually focus little on the zombies themselves. Rather, the best zombie stories are preoccupied with exploring humanity. “The Walking Dead” is no different. Most of the story is about a group of people struggling to reason and fight their way through an extraordinary situation. This is a survival story, in which disparate personalities collide, pecking orders are established, and drama unfolds. Everybody in the zombie apocalypse wants the same thing: to live to see another day. But everybody has their own idea how to accomplish that goal. Others have the opportunity to seize control, become leaders, ascend the dictator’s throne, or become sacrificial and selfless. That’s what is so darn good about “The Walking Dead.” We all watch these characters, study their struggle, and we all have an idea of what it is we would do if placed in that situation.
George A. Romero’s original zombie masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” set the stage. It’s a brilliant thought experiment as we watch a half dozen strangers, marooned in a farmhouse, arguing about the best course of action. Zombies occupy less than five minutes of screen time and most of the violence is implied. The script was written like a brilliant one-act play, and the moral questions are so compelling that we barely realize there’s hardly any action driving the plot forward, just words.
“The Walking Dead” could be a compelling television show even after the last walker collapses in dry-rot and melts back into the earth; the world is still a wasteland, filled with roving bands of survivors, scavengers, and highwaymen. Civilization still has to be rebuilt, infrastructure established, townships reclaimed. If the show can find a way to break out of it’s rinse-repeat cycle, it could be around for a long time to come.