Last week, The Walking Dead delivered its sharpest episode yet and then showrunner Frank Darabont reportedly fired all his staff writers. Though these recaps have harped on the show’s atrocious dialogue in every episode except last week’s, let’s not dance on any graves: It’s hard to understand the internal mechanics of a show unless you’re there, and there’s no telling if this will improve the show next season (or if those zombie writers will spring back to life). Still, after this finale, it’s clear that the series needs to shake something up, because, yet again, it took a terrific, compelling, original-for-TV premise that could be so good — and sunk it with tired old clichés.
The first flashback—Shane freaking out over Rick’s body while zombies and humans get slaughtered in the hospital hallway—is intense, and it complicates our understanding of Shane’s decision to tell Lori that Rick was dead. Maybe he didn’t lie—maybe he was confused. Or maybe Rick died and was reanimated as a kinder, gentler zombie, some sort of slowly-germinating zombie. Who knows? Either way, the crew makes it inside the CDC and meets up with the scientist Jenner, who might know, after looking at their blood. And he’s freaking out. Rick, who is supposed to be a tight-lipped sort of guy, is freaking too, drunkenly rambling about how traumatic it was to never tell his family that he was scared, because he “just kept it in, kept us moving…” (When, in fact, after meeting his family, he abandoned them to go save a redneck kook and retrieve some ammo and guns in Atlanta.) They drink, shower, and Shane nearly rapes Lori, in the show’s latest example of sexual violence.
And we get the zombie plague explanation at the eleventh hour, which most zombie stories deliver in the first act. Did it work for you? The several-minute lecture seemed weirdly placed in the finale and overlong because it didn’t reveal anything we hadn’t already assumed. (That there’s a mysterious zombie thing that’s “microbial, viral, parasitic, fungal” or the “wrath of god”?) And why was it that brain-scan on the Star Trek flight deck looked so IMAX and futuristic? The crew discovers that, yes, civilization is ruined—even the smart French scientists who seemed to be onto something have disappeared. Communication is dead; the grid is gone. What was that Jessie Eisenberg said in Zombieland? “Do you know what is the best thing about Zombieland? No more Facebook status updates.” Only, this is dead-serious.
The real reveal of this finale — that whisper from Jenner and possibly the mystery of Rick’s missing heartbeat — is wrapped up in a fact from the graphic novels which may have been tweaked and, therefore, delivered no payoff here. Does everyone have the zombie contagion in their blood? Just Rick? Or is the secret something else? We’ll see.
Oh, then Jenner—sympathetic, loving husband, kind to children—decides he’s going to mercy-kill everyone, little kids included, because he’s stubbornly convinced that a quick, premature cremation is best for everyone. And a Big Honking Digital Clock (Jack Bauer must be so jealous) counts down the seconds. Why did the finale for such a supposedly groundbreaking show have to end with the most overused cliché in tv history? Why is there a count-down clock in the finale, and why is the final shot a chintzy, cheap CGI explosion? A lack of imagination. They wanted to go out with a bang—so they made it go bang! Why does the plot twist require so much exposition? The show has to explain away its own laziness.
For some reason, Darabont and company have always felt that a zombie apocalypse is not enough, so they lard on extra action-movie devices to raise the stakes sky-high. The thirty-minutes-til-the-place-blows device was arbitrary. But the ticking, red, 1980’s digital clock (in a lab of 31st century neuron modeling) was utterly MacGruber. Why would this sophisticated system not have a failsafe or override? Why would Jenner tell everyone to conserve electricity if he wanted everyone to die anyway? This is zombie logic. It works in a schlocky zombie movie, but not in a television drama with so much somber seriousness. It’s made worse by the terrible pacing of the revelation that subject TS-19 is Jenner’s wife — the audience understands this so long before Rick that the final minutes fizzle.
Viewers were promised something uncompromisingly grim like the graphic novels—in which central characters die suddenly and with no warning—but essentially all of the main characters have survived on this show. The few who did die (poor birthday girl Amy), we barely knew. Moreover, to be perfectly crass, why couldn’t the ever-more-irritating Dale just sacrifice himself for the greater good? (And why does Dale make the full-court press on blonde Andrea, but everyone’s just like: Oh, let the black chick die if she wants, there’s no time to argue?) Seriously, it could have been provocative and more true to the original comics if Dale and Andrea had really died in some utterly bleak suicide pact or after deciding to escape too late. Instead, Dale and Andrea made it out of the building, just in time, and, per action-movie-cliché, in front of a fake fireball. (Really, the CGI was on the level of a made-for-SyFy film.) You also get to see Rick leaping away from a fireball after the grenade blast, in the cheeziest of cheese, before the second giant fireball somehow doesn’t decimate their truck.
In six episodes, The Walking Dead hasn’t so much had an arc as it’s been videogame-style episodic: Travel from point A to point B, while avoiding zombies and delivering lots of overwrought dialogue about how bad it all is. (If you like this show, by the way, you will love the videogame Left 4 Dead 2.) Even though the series has had about seven hours to unfurl, since episode two this show hasn’t so much wrapped up any single arc as it has barely introduced characters and scattered options for next season: Morgan and his son, Merle and Darryl, Shane and Rick, Rick and Lori, and, now, Dale and Andrea. We started in the country, then spent a bit of time in Atlanta, then made it to camp, then on the road, then a single day in the CDC. Nothing made much of an impact. The show’s been consumed with a lot of plot machinery that has been contrived to create action suspense but it hasn’t really moved the story itself anywhere in particular.
This show is enormously popular. Sometimes shows and films are enormously popular because they’re excellent and innovative. And sometimes they’re popular just because they boast a terrific premise and such rich source material that even a basic level of competence can make them work. This show seems to be operating on the latter principle, so far, but there have been flashes of promise (such as the fifth episode). Here’s hoping that next season, with a bigger budget and hopefully better writers, AMC delivers the kind of show it’s capable of producing.