The now morally ambiguous Rick Grimes destroyed a few humans on last night’s The Walking Dead. There was the prisoner whose skull he butterflied, the prisoner he left to the walkers, and Lori, his “wife,” who he gave the coldest shoulder this side of a walker’s cold, dead shoulder. In total, these actions made all the zombie business seem like it was — as in Carol’s case — just for practice. It showed that human life still holds much more weight than walker un-life. So, sure, The Walking Dead has arguably strung together its best two-episode streak (three, if you include last season’s finale) of the series by ramping up the zombie headshots, but it won’t work over the long run of a series. Simply, the very popular show about zombies needs to tone down the whole zombie thing.
The Walking Dead is a zombie TV show, but it’s not just a zombie TV show. (How many times can we say “zombie”? Read on to find out.) Or at least it can’t be if it ever wants to transcend its genre trappings. The first two seasons, in part, attempted to ask the question: What would humans, most of whom have almost no survival skills whatsoever, do when forced to live out a zombie apocalypse? Apparently, the answer was “talk a lot.” Last season’s finale and this season’s first two episodes have been action-packed — showrunner Glen Mazzara’s way of addressing the complaints of both fans and critics. (Or maybe he just had the same complaints.) It’s questionable, however, if this pace can or should continue. Can we really watch an entire season of zombie-killing? Probably not. These characters need to live and (believe it or not) talk.
There’s an obvious counterpoint: Why diminish the few things the show is doing well (action scenes, mood, gore, and zombie-killing) in order to focus again on what the show has traditionally done poorly (dialogue, character development)? It’s a fair question, especially considering the loud groans whenever two characters have tried to have an extended conversation. However, arguably despite all the talking in the first two seasons, there wasn’t much significant character development. Everyone acted as mouthpieces for the writers’ musings on humanity. (It’s like if Mad Men constantly had Don and Peggie discuss how their advertising agency reflects the generational shift of American culture in the sixties.) This a group of people that hasn’t had one good idea — why would we want to hear their armchair philosophies? Instead, the characters need to hang out and bullshit and flirt; they still need to develop but in relationship to each other.
Yes, flirt. Carol’s “That’s pretty romantic. Wanna screw around?” line was the single most natural bit of dialogue in the show’s two-plus seasons. (Add in the usually stoic Daryl acting like a nervous 15-year-old whose never kissed a girl, and come on!) Some complained that their relationship seems forced. And love stories are famously grumbled about in genre entertainment, but who said anything about love? We just need some characters that love rubbing their bits together. Or really anything that would lead us to believe that these characters have any reason to want each other to live. (Maybe Hershel and T. Dog can start playing chess?) It would help us to like these characters if they liked each other first. With affection comes stakes, something the show is dangerously low on. We’ve kicked off this season with some major action. So now its time to scale the walker business back significantly — to the degree Friday Night Lights had football games, for example — so that some episodes might have fifteen minutes of zombies being stabbed in the eyeholes and some would have no zombies whatsoever. Then give us a reason to care about these people, and when something does happen, it will resonate. That’s how you build true tension. (Though, could the show’s incredible ratings indicate that … audiences really do want episode after episode of zombie-killing? We sure hope not.)
It appears next week’s episode will walk us through the timeline of a completely different cast of folks, the show’s first chance in a while to establish new faces. Zombies are frightening and gross, but they don’t offer much in the serialized-drama department. We’re as hungry for some complex human characters as the walkers are for simple human meat.