November 30, 2011

The Walking Dead: Mid-Season Checkup Looking Grim

On Sunday, AMC aired the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, pulling in 6.6 million viewers in the process. While the show is clearly popular, there have been worrying signs that The Walking Dead is starting to slow down and devolve into a shallow after-dark soap opera.

In this post, I check in on the mid-season finale to overview the season thus far and check for symptoms of the show's decline. Major spoilers are ahead so continue at your own risk.


This week's episode -- the last new episode of the year while the show goes on hiatus until 2012 -- saw the resolution of the group's contention over Herschel's zombie barn. The search for Sophia is also resolved at the same time when Shane -- in a scary burst of arrogance -- tears open the barn door to slaughter each and every zombie inside only to come face to face with the zombified remains of Sophia herself.

Undeniably, the scene is a gripping, powerful, and sad way to mark the mid-season climax. Unfortunately, the reveal of zombie Sophia is arguably the only truly dramatic and gut-wrenching thing to happen all season since Sophia's initial disappearance in the premiere.

The second season of The Walking Dead has put its eggs in two faulty baskets: 1.) the Search for Sophia plot device and 2.) Character Development. Both have failed to pay off. The never-ending Search for Sophia, like a plot device vampire, has sucked the life out of the show's dramatic tension as it compels characters to leave the farm, tromp about the woods, and then return week after week with no progress. It's been a tedious contrivance to say the least. The Search for Sophia also necessitated that the other characters hold up on Herschel's farm, which itself has done a lot to suck the life out of the show. The show has traded in the claustrophobic Atlanta cityscape that held zombies at every turn for a virtually zombie-less oasis. In order to keep the dead in the Walking Dead, our heroes are put into situations where they are allowed to encounter a sparse turnout of zombies each week, but they're rarely scary. There's been a serious lack of horror this season, but plenty of horrible character development to take its place.

With the downturn in zombie horror, there should at least be an upturn in good character development, but The Walking Dead has failed to advance its characters beyond thin and superficial changes. Despite the potential in the cast, the show seems to have bungled all its major attempts at drama, most notably in Lori's reaction to her pregnancy, in Shane's continued transformation into the loud angry guy, and in the ham-fisted relationship between Glenn and Maggie.

Perhaps the worst thing this season was keeping Lori a passive, reactive character rather than a proactive one because her reactions are -- let's face it -- ridiculous and hackneyed. The writers' decision to have Lori pick up morning after pills, which would not cause an abortion, in order to terminate her baby, only to have her vomit up the pills soon after, seemed a non-committal and pointless attempt to give her character some edge. Getting the pills and taking them results in nothing since she vomits them back up, but even if she hadn't vomited them up, nothing would have happened because Morning After pills are -- in reality -- not abortive. 

Meanwhile, Shane is being groomed as an unstable villain and shit disturber who confuses his egocentricism, rage, and possessiveness for pragmatic survival skills, but it's all surface-level changes. There's nothing complex about the man. He's gone from a man we could hate but still understand to a man we just want to hate. Likewise, we're supposed to accept Maggie and Glenn's budding sexual and romantic relationship, but why? What is the foundation of that relationship? It seems contrived to me.

When I stop to think about all that's been developed in the characters this season, I can sum it up far too easily. Rick can't make decisions, Shane is big and angry, Lori doesn't want a baby and then does, Andrea is depressed but shooting guns makes her feel better, Dale is secretive and judgemental, T-Dog might as well not exist, Sophia's Mom still likes vaguely abusive trailer park boys, and Glenn is horny. The only real character progress that has been made is with Daryl, who had a great solo-episode in which his complicated relationship with his racist, meth-head brother Merle is fleshed out during some hallucinations Daryl experiences after he's injured in the woods on the constant Search for Sophia.

 And now we're back to Sophia. Since so little actually came out of the Search for Sophia, the revelation of her fate makes the Search for Sophia seem even more pointless in hindsight. While the survivors were tromping around the bush and failing to advance the story, has Sophia's rotting, walking corpse been in that barn the whole time? Have Rick, Lori, Shane, Daryl, and the rest just been spinning their wheels for the past seven episodes? For the past seven weeks, several good and interesting characters like Rick have become annoying and pitiful whereas a few of the more reprehensible characters have risen to be sort of engaging. Most of the survivors have become frustrating and annoying during the Search for Sophia. I can't really say it's been worth it.

What's to come for the rest of The Walking Dead season two? I don't know, but this show needs a course correction fast! Get off the farm, get back into developing the characters with sincerity and complexity, and get back to the tension that survival in a zombie apocalypse should bring.

The way the series is continuing, The Walking Dead is getting stale and begging for a head shot.