Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Watching Dread

[Word of warning upfront, I’m going heavy spoiler after the jump.]

Years ago a great little comic book, The Walking Dead, was launched almost completely under the radar and ended up becoming one of the bigger surprise hits in comics. There were a number of things that made its level of success such a surprise. It was a non-superhero title launched by Image, it was in black and white, and it was a zombie horror title. I’d say most people gave it no chance when it first launched, but the truth is most people didn’t even know it launched until after the buzz over how good it really was started up in full.

The comic continued on for years, gaining greater accolades and a larger following while managing to keep its storytelling quality fairly high. It also showed a for the large part no holds barred attitude with regards to how it treated the fate of its characters. Other than a very core few, death was always a possibility for a favorite character, and even then we saw death finally touch one of the characters everyone believed to be a part of that core group of untouchables. But being an untouchable when it came to the Reaper didn’t mean you had it easy. Characters who managed to survive the long haul were physically, emotionally, and mentally destroyed at one point or another with some never fully recovering to be the same again.

Then the news broke that The Walking Dead was shambling its way to AMC, and the show’s creative pedigree had the fans salivating. Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd were attached with Darabont being very hands on with the pilot episode. Maybe even bigger news to the comic book community and the book’s fans, Robert Kirkman, the man behind the comic, was onboard as creative control and was even going to write an episode here and there. As crazed as some already were over waiting for the first episode, fans of zombies and fans of the comic went insane with anticipation once the trailer for the pilot was released. Outside of a few naysayers, everyone was sure this was going to be one of the greatest television events ever for horror fans.

The pilot delivered in spades, but for some the entirety of the first season itself was an extremely mixed bag. Some complaints, such as new characters or storylines not found in the comic series, were arguably irrelevant when addressing the overall quality while others, the seemingly unfocused nature of some of the latter half of the season, may have had more merit. Either way, the unceremonious ousting of Darabont ensured that some change was coming with the show’s second season while the very vocal split in fan reaction set the precedent of what we would see season after season when it came to split fan reactions after each season’s finale.

The naysayers were very vocal and very noticeable throughout each season. However, as noisy as they could be, they seemed to be the cranky, loud minority. Ratings climbed, buzz built, and the show became one of AMC’s Crown Jewels while a lot of the criticisms of the show over the years came across to some as wildly off the mark. People would complain that there weren’t enough zombies and/or that there was too much about making the threat other humans. It was after all, they’d tell you, a ZOMBIE horror show.

Well, yes and no. It’s a show about people surviving in a world that’s fallen to a zombie apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean it’s strictly a zombie horror. It’s survival horror in a zombie world. Yes, you have to have zombies in order to do that, and they certainly do have a lot every season, but you have other things in a post civilized society to fear when trying to survive. You’re going to face the elements, disease, your ability vs your inability to hunt and forage, and the various insects and animals that will make your life hell. But, on top of that, your biggest threat is going to be the threat mankind has always faced, and that’s the tribe on the other side of the river who isn’t as keen on living in peace with you and your tribe as you wish they were. In the weeks, months, and years after the zombie apocalypse brings about the collapse of society, the biggest threat would be the other human beings. It’s great to see the zombies, and we actually very often do, but the most dangerous thing in the world is going to be the thinking human beings who want what you’ve got, and the show reflects that in its storytelling.

I also have to laugh when the same people complaining that the show has been too much about the drama between the characters and/or too much about the human threat are the same to negatively compare it to and then praise Romero’s original three zombie films. It makes me wonder if those people ever actually watched those three films. In the total runtime of those three films, there’s a huge amount of time spent on human interaction drama and in portraying the other human beings you’ll encounter as just as big of a threat to your survival than the zombies if not in fact a bigger one.

Other complaints that various naysayers have promoted as pure fact and signs the show was ready to decline were merely personal perspective. The show dragged and was a slow slog that was hard to get through, the show didn’t have enough gore, the wrong characters died, the storylines in the show didn’t follow the comic enough, the storylines in the show followed too close to the comic, etc., etc., etc. Sure, they may have been valid and true reasons for the person who was complaining, but they weren’t universally held positions by the fandom following the show or even by the majority of that fandom.

But there is one complaint that’s been popping up in a lot of places this season, and it’s a complaint that has a level of legitimacy to it that might be enough to really do some damage. It’s also a complaint that just went through the roof in how many fans are voicing it. Basically, the showrunners have lost the ability to tell the difference between building a plot up and leaving the audience on the hook in gleeful desperation to see what’s coming next versus leading the audience on before screwing them over with a swerve reveal or swerve cliffhanger.

This brings us to this season’s finale.

There was a lot of good stuff in this season at the start. It kicked off with a bang and it played around with both the dangers of the zombies and the dangers of the hostile humans in a fairly equal parts. We also- in both small clues on the screen and in big news releases on the web -were told that Negan was coming. Fans of the book lost their minds. Negan was a threat like the Governor, but times one hundred. He was animalistically insane, but terrifyingly brilliant. He was also brutal and dangerous, and he made his debut in the comics by killing one of its most loved characters.

This bit of news got around. Suddenly we had even fans of the show who had never touched a single issue of the comic book aware of the fact that Negan was coming and that he introduced himself to the survivors by beating Glenn to death in front of them. This set everyone on edge. Then it got worse when people started suggesting that some things pointed to Daryl Dixon being the show’s sacrifice to Negan’s big bad bat. The show’s response to making fans wonder if Glenn was going to be the target or not should have been a clue to what went down in the finale. They tried to serve up a cheap swerve.

The show gave us a cliffhanger “death” for Glenn. It was contrived, it was shot in such a way that it looked ridiculous, and very few people really bought the idea that Glenn was dead. It might not have been so bad, but the next episode, rather than picking up where the last one left off, was an extended length episode about Morgan learning to become a Jedi. When we finally got back to Glenn, he was as alive as most everyone had predicted while the stunt itself had proven to be pointless “shock” attempt at jerking the viewer’s chain.

The new tensions in the story had been growing through a series of actually pretty good episodes after that though. There were a few missteps, but it was largely doing a good job of building to the appearance of the biggest threat the survivors were going to face so far in the world of the dead. But it wasn’t only the storylines that were building towards the appearance of Negan. We were seeing a lot of hype coming from the show’s creative team and the actors themselves.

Actors said the script alone made them speechless. Some said they were stunned when seeing the finale before it aired. Others talked about how the introduction of Negan was going to be the best and most brutal introduction of a charter ever seen in TV. The emotional impact of the last few minutes of the show was hyped huge. Everyone sitting at home at the start of the season finale was waiting with nerves on end to see what was going to happen and who was going to die.

What did we get? We got an extended length episode padded to the max with filler and commercials. We got a contrived emergency that sent Rick and crew out in their RV to seek help on Hilltop, and, despite this being an emergency run and not a regularly scheduled trip with a set, observable pattern and timetable, Negan’s people apparently had already gotten set up for it. We waited and waited and waited before the moment was at hand, and then we got the swerve. We got a POV shot of Negan killing the viewer and a “Tune in next time to find the answers!” type of ending.

On Talking Dead, Kirkman and crew explained that they like cliffhangers. They also explained that, duh, the whole death thing wasn’t about this season finale. No, the season finale was about seeing Rick and crew broken. That was the story arc they were building. That whole death thing is all about starting next season’s arc. They can’t reveal who died because that’s the kickoff for the next storyline.

I’m sorry, but, no.

Negan could have done everything we saw him do on screen on top of killing one or more characters on screen and we would have gotten everything Kirkman says he wanted. Negan kills a major character, a character that might mean more to Rick than some other characters, turns to a now shell-shocked and broken Rick, and tells him the ball is in his court. Negan and his men get back in their cars and on their bikes to peel out and leave Rick and crew alone in the dark with their dead friend. We still see the “Rick is Broken” arc concept and they can still start exactly where they want to in the next season, but the difference is the viewer doesn’t feel screwed when the credits roll.

And that’s the really big part of this. This last season had some good episodes, but it had several small examples and two big examples showing that the showrunner- and by extension the rest of the creative team -have forgotten what the difference is between hooking the audience with a complete story that sets up the next while still making them want to come back for more versus jerking the audience’s chain and telling them that if they want that actual sort of kind of resolution to the story build they promised, well, they need to wait weeks or months.

I've never been on the very vocal "I'm not watching anymore!" bandwagon and am still not on it now, but I honestly don't know that I want to bother tuning in next season after this and some other games they've played this season with very poor execution. I don’t mind cliffhangers and I don’t mind story arcs ending in a complete fashion on a season finale while simultaneously opening up the next arc to tease you with. Both of these can be important parts of good storytelling. But more and more of late, The Walking Dead’s creative team seems like they don’t know the difference between that and swerves used to con the viewer. When more and more viewers say they feel like that and/or that they leave an episode feeling more frustrated than they do feeling anticipation for the next episode, that’s a problem.

Oh, and it was Daryl. They kept showing us the POV, sight and hearing, of someone who seemed blurry eyed and unable to hear clearly. It slowly became clear whoever it was we were seeing these snippets from was someone in one of the Savior’s vehicles and thus indicated it was likely one of the prisoners. The effect was in line with what we saw and heard right after Daryl was shot in the previous episode. Also, the labored breathing, blurry vision, and screwed up hearing would be more in line with someone who was just shot than it would be if it belonged to one of the others captured with Daryl.

Yes, I have a “clever theory” on the matter. No, I don’t know if I’m tuning in to find out next season or just reading the updates and recaps when they hit the web. And, sadly for a once really solid show, it looks like I’m far from alone in that feeling. 

Jerry Chandler writes stuff. He’d be a writer of stuff, but somebody else already made that their title. Jerry Chandler is also working way too much overtime right now. Sleep is overrated, kind of like sanity. 

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