The Walking Dead Season 7A: What happened, and what’s going on… and what went wrong?

It’s fair to say that the front-half of The Walking Dead’s seventh season has attracted a lukewarm response from audiences and critics alike, despite the arrival of Negan, everyone’s favourite trash-talking, bat-wielding sociopath.

So what went wrong? I’d contend that The Walking Dead’s biggest enemy has been the audience’s expectations. Never before has a show or a movie taken such a continuous, long-form look at the nuts and bolts of a zombie apocalypse. A zombie movie has a definite arc: there’s an outbreak, society collapses, the survivors endure horror and heartache, a plan is hatched or a quest undertaken, and slowly and painfully the survivors learn to adapt. The movie then ends on a note either of hope or nihilism. The zombies never linger long enough to lose their terror, certainly never long enough to become a manageable nuisance.

The Walking Dead has entered its ‘manageable nuisance’ stage, and many viewers now find themselves struggling to reconcile the show’s new direction with their expectations of it being a man-against-monster zombie survivalist saga. Nobody can talk such viewers out of their apathy or active dislike; however, it’s worth pointing out that if the show had simply continued to place its zombies front-and-centre – if the story hadn’t expanded to incorporate new challenges, obstacles and threats – we would have become as desensitised to the undead as the show’s characters have by this point in the narrative. The Walking Dead had to end or evolve, and if you’re willing to accept its evolution, then you have to cut it a certain degree of slack during its transition.

I only started reading the Walking Dead comics after the show’s sixth season finale. I very quickly gorged myself on them, catching up and then overtaking the TV show. By the time Lucille had crashed down on the heads of her flesh-and-blood victims, I was already in a post-Negan, Whisperer-infested world. I’d also decided that the quintessential Negan could only be the brutish, black-and-white, fuck-fuckity-fuck-stick version from the comic books (you can read my article about that here). It’s fair to say that Jeffrey Dean Morgan had something of an uphill struggle against my expectations. As did the entirety of the seventh season itself.

While the show doesn’t follow an identical trajectory to its source material – and has different characters and different versions of existing characters to boot – I already knew the main thrust of the narrative, meaning that when certain scenarios began to unfold on screen, I had a fair idea of what would happen next, and in some cases who would die. I wonder if these two related things – how much I’d enjoyed comic book Negan, and my knowledge of the main story beats to come – robbed me of my objectivity and sense of surprise, which in turn left me pre-disposed to view the show comparatively and analytically, instead of through the gut and the adrenal gland (which of course is the manner in which The Walking Dead is best enjoyed).

That being said – and while it’s obviously impossible for me to un-read the comic books and watch those first eight episodes again through untainted eyes – I do believe something has been severely off-kilter with season seven so far; problems that run deeper than the show’s new direction, and my foreknowledge of the source material. I can’t remember ever enjoying a fresh batch of episodes less. Sure, The Walking Dead has always had slower episodes, and weaker episodes, and filler episodes, but these are usually buoyed by a mix of competent, good and occasionally great episodes either side. Not so this season. All of the episodes thus far have felt lukewarm and lacklustre, and somehow lacking thrust and cohesion. Many of the big dramatic beats, especially the deaths in the premiere and Rick and Negan’s jolly RV trip, were handled clumsily and gratuitously. The show has never felt so coldly nihilistic, and that’s saying something in a series threaded through with so much death, destruction and misery.

I understand that in order for the coming war to mean something, and for the inevitable victory to provide us with a visceral dose of catharsis, our heroes must first be trampled deeper into the dirt than they’ve ever been trampled before. We have to fear for them, we have to feel their sense of pain, impotence and outrage. We have to be introduced to and start to care about all of the potential allies that are going to be thrown together in the back half of the season, and have a fair idea of the mechanics of the enemy camp, and the tenuous fear-soaked peace that keeps the Saviours in power. I understand the chess pieces have to be moved into place, and the pace slackened to prepare for the fireworks. But still… meh. At first I thought the problem was Negan. But I’ve come to realise that the real problem is Rick.

Not Andrew Lincoln, you understand, who has always done terrific work as Rick Grimes. But Rick the character, who suffers in comparison to his more effective comic-book counterpart. While it’s true that Comic Rick has had his lapses of judgement, spells of foolhardiness, and suffered the odd psychotic break, he’s always felt like a leader in both name and deed, fully deserving of the title and capable of handling the weight of the crown that goes with it. His ruthlessness and occasional recklessness is tempered by a strong conscience and a pragmatic outlook. I can see why his people like him, trust him, respect him and follow him.

The only real evidence that TV Rick is a great leader is the amount of times the other characters repeatedly tell each other that Rick is a great leader. To my mind, he only has two stock responses to most managerial and logistical problems: cry face, or full psycho. Case in point, Comic Rick only swallows down Negan’s brutality in order to lull him into a false sense of security. Even as Lucille swings down atop Glen’s skull, Rick is formulating a plan to take that mad, cackling bastard down, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against him, because that’s who Rick is, and that’s what he does. He’s strong and capable, even in his darkest and most testing moments.

Game of Thrones may be able to juggle the narrative demands of an entire world and its multifarious clans and characters, offering up a smorgasbord of delicious little interlocking short stories that served together are greater than the sum of their parts, but The Walking Dead – while definitely an ensemble show – really needs Rick as its focus, its point-of-view, its through-line. The lack of Rick – and especially the lack of a strong Rick more in-line with the comic book incarnation of the character – has been to the show’s detriment.

Unless of course this Ricklessness is part of a deliberate strategy. I’m thinking more and more that perhaps the ground is being prepared for a shocking shake-up that will serve as the biggest break from the source material imaginable: the death of Rick Grimes. One thing season seven has done particularly well is to promote the strength and resilience of the show’s female characters, especially Maggie, who is an obvious and believable contender for the top spot should Rick ever take a long, one-way walk into Walkersville. It’s worth steeling yourself for such an eventuality. For once in the show’s history, the possibility of Rixit doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

I sincerely hope that, whatever lies in Rick’s immediate future, the Walking Dead will return with a barnstorming, seat-of-the-pants, solid smattering of tense and exciting episodes, to exorcise the malaise of this season’s opening half, and perhaps even grant it a retrospective pardon. The first eight episodes may not have rocked my world or inspired much in the way of hope or enthusiasm, but there was still plenty to enjoy: Carol (she’s my ‘if x dies, we riot’ character); the introduction of King Ezekiel and his pet tiger; the effective and over-due fleshing out of peripheral characters like Rosita, Father Gabriel and Tara; Daryl’s stay at Dick Dastardly’s Dog-food Motel; and the mid-season finale, which was actually very good, and finally convinced me that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was the right man for the role of Negan; he really owned the character in ‘Hearts Still Beating’, seemed to swagger straight onto Alexandria’s twee suburban streets from the pages of the comic book. I’m sorry I doubted you, Jeffrey. Perhaps you just needed a shave.

One thing I didn’t enjoy – and which I gather had fans howling into their hankies – was the emotionally manipulative reunion of our band of heroes at the episode’s climax. Those few minutes of silent smiles, nods, tears, hugs and raised eyebrows, all set to uplifting music, felt a bit too on-the-nose, like a cross between a music video and an episode of a soap opera. I couldn’t help but remember a funny video I watched on YouTube a few years ago, where the musical score was removed from the scene at the end of Return of the Jedi, as the heroes are receiving their medals. It just looked ridiculous, and made me laugh like a loon.

I’m under no illusions about The Walking Dead. It’s a compulsive show, incredibly popular and lucrative, but it isn’t, and never will be in my opinion, a truly classic show; certainly not when stacked against worthy behemoths like The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. That’s not to say that it hasn’t produced thrilling narratives, or produced some truly great episodes: the pilot, 18 Miles Out, Better Angels, Seed, Clear, Internment, Too Far Gone, After, The Grove, No Sanctuary, Consumed, What’s Happened and What’s Going On, JSS and Here’s Not Here, to name the stand-outs.

Lest you imagine I’m launching an attack, it goes without saying that I’m very fond of The Walking Dead, else I wouldn’t expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about it. And while the show may never be uttered in the same breath as the true classics of TV’s first and second Golden Ages, it’s shown itself more than capable of greatness in seasons gone bye (sic). And I sincerely hope that it’s able to reclaim some of its past vigour.

So come on, showrunners, Let’s do it.

Let’s make The Walking Dead great again.

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MORE ZOMBIE ARTICLES I WROTE FOR ‘DEN OF GEEK’

Syfy’s Z Nation: fun, low budget and well worth your time

How will The Walking Dead end?

When zombies attacked … Neighbours (and other shows)

And another from this website, reviewing S05E09.

 

Negan: The Walking Dead’s Saviour? Emmm…

Negan in the comic books is physically imposing and plausibly psychotic. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a fine actor, but he somehow doesn’t feel like the right man for the role. Negan needed to be part Henry Rollins, part Tony Soprano, and part Wilson Fisk. For his interpretation of Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems to be channelling Ian McShane’s mid-life crisis. I’m convinced by neither his physicality nor his charm. He spends the bulk of his time on screen slinking about in his ‘geez a gobble’ leather-jacket, cradling a barbed cock-proxy and blathering about pussies. He’s little more than a post-apocalyptic, post-watershed Del Boy; a washed-up Fonzie after a long spell in AA.

TV Negan doesn’t seem especially cunning and, crucially, he doesn’t inspire dread, tension or terror like the Governor or the crazy cannibals before him. When he raises his voice to shout, employing his weirdly over-emphasised, sub-Shatner shtick, it’s not a mercurial, megalomaniacal, homicidal demigod that’s brought to mind, but a hitherto mild-mannered deputy head teacher losing his shit at the school assembly. TV Negan is simply a smug, sleazy, cheeky asshole, who just happens to have insinuated himself into a position of supreme authority while everyone was looking the other way. Not only does he not feel like a real and credible threat, he doesn’t even feel like a real guy; just a composite of hammy panto villains, a wicked step-mother that occasionally gets to stove people’s heads in with a baseball bat.

The Saviours themselves are an odd phenomenon, too. Here’s a band of maniacs hundreds strong, spread out across a wide geographical area, with outposts and spotters and tentacles everywhere, and yet the group from Alexandria never encountered them once. Not until Rick and his crew turned up dragging death and bad-luck behind them like a plough. These days, no-one can sneak out for a piss without a man with an AK47 jumping out from the bushes and demanding half. Negan himself was introduced as a near mythical figure, always spoken of in hushed tones; a living legend that was as elusive as a smile on Michonne’s face; a man who never revealed himself, and kept to the shadows, his people even employing the old ‘I Am Spartacus’ technique to keep his identity hidden from the masses… what happened to all that? Now the gobby fucker pops round for tea about six times a week, usually without back-up. He’s an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an illuminous jacket with a GPS tracker in the top pocket. He’ll be doing a fucking book tour next.

I can’t wrap my head around the mechanics of how TV Negan managed to amass such a cowed and loyal, multifarious following of normals and nutcases alike; deeply puzzled as to why he hasn’t been assassinated. He doesn’t seem to have an especially sympathetic or trustworthy high command around him to act as his buffer, and any carroty behaviour he exhibits is rendered pretty much void by his vast preference for the stick. I get that other people’s greed and fear, and the carte blanche he gives them to unleash their ids while in his company keep them enjoying (or submitting to) Negan’s reign of terror, but that again begs the question: why hasn’t one of the innumerable violent psychopaths in his crew assassinated him?

All Negan seems to do is talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. Punctuating every other line with a triple knee-collapse, like he’s just finished a particularly tricky tap dance: ta-da! Or perhaps auditioning for a new, post-apocalyptic boy-band (sometimes I think he’s going to launch into that thing people do where they pretend to be walking down a set of stairs). And talk. And talk. And talk. And talk some more. Man, does that guy talk. Every episode in which he’s yet featured has consisted of five per cent Daryl scowling, five per cent Rick’s cry face, ten per cent Carl’s atrocious attempts at emoting, forty per cent people wandering in the forest, twenty per cent miserable people whispering in dark rooms, twenty per cent cheeky ‘I’m yer pal but I’m no really yer pal’ winsome grins, and six thousand per cent Negan talking.

In the comics, Negan’s talking is a joy to behold, principally because he’s allowed to talk as a real murderous dictator would, and not in a watered-down, neutered way to make his stylings appropriate for American network television. Negan does the ‘poopy pants’ line he utters upon first meeting Rick in the comics, too, but because he also peppers his sentences with a barrage of fucks, the discordance of the ‘poopy pants’ line renders it – and his entire subsequent speech – both scarier and funnier.

Here are some choice excerpts of comic-book Negan getting his swear on:

“So now I’m going to beat the holy fuck fucking fuckedy fuck out of one of you with my bat.”

“And here I am. Friendly as a fuckless fuck on a fuck free day.”

“You think I got all these little communities at my feet because I roam the countryside bashing in Asian-American skulls? That’s no fucking way to make friends. Everyone toes the line because I provide them a service. I keep them safe. We’re the saviours, not the kill your friends so you don’t fucking like us at alls.”

“I assure you, m’am, he’s dead as fuck.”

“So now our big swinging dick is going to swing harder…and faster, until we take off like a motherfucking helicopter and blow all these motherfuckers away.”

Isn’t it odd that the network and its advertisers aren’t too concerned about things like a man being literally torn apart in a set of revolving doors, or rotten corpses chasing after children, but absolutely will not tolerate the use of the word ‘fuck’? That’s the word I use when I stub my toe. I can only imagine what I’d say if a zombie tried to rip my cheek off with its stinking, contaminated teeth. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be ‘Cor blimey, guv’nor, this is a pickle and no mistake.’

I often wish that HBO had picked up ‘The Walking Dead,’ thrown a bigger budget and a more authentic cavalcade of sex, swearing and violence at the screen. More and more, I’m coming to prefer the insane inventiveness and all-round bat-shit craziness of SyFy’s Z Nation, which – while clearly ridiculous – always leaves me with a grin on my face. The arrival of Negan in The Walking Dead comics heralded an upswing in risk, excitement, tension, horror, hope and humour. I can’t say the same for the TV show, which appears to have slipped into a coma in its seventh season, awaiting a final and merciful headshot. Season six wasn’t perfect, but it at least had a smattering of excellent episodes to balance out the dreck and the crass manipulations. Season seven has Negan. That should’ve been enough. Sadly – at this stage at least – it isn’t.

Come on, Negan, Mr Poopy Pants. There’s still time for you to save the show by fulfilling your destiny as Mr Motherfucking Shitty Fuck Pants.

The Walking Dead Review: Season 5 Episode 9

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So, the Walking Dead is back from its mid-season break, and with it our appetite for gorging on the harrowing exploits of the only group of people in the world with less chance of happiness than the characters in Eastenders. It’s fair to say that The Walking Dead is a show low on hope, and high on showing what little hope there is being dashed. An average episode can often make you long for a more uplifting way to spend your recreational time, like reviewing CCTV footage of fatal road traffic accidents. 

The cancer of hope is the theme hammered home more explicitly than usual in the latest episode, What’s Happened and What’s Going On. Rick, Michonne, Glen, Tyreese and the group’s newest member Noah travel to Virginia to the gated community Noah and his family called home before the outbreak; a community that poor, naïve Noah believes will both still be intact, and safe enough to act as the group’s new home and fortress. It isn’t. And it isn’t. A combination of bad people and zombies has converted the once-safe haven into the kind of dangerous, dilapidated ghost town we’ve come to know, love and expect from the show. 

The episode’s pre-credits montage offers a haunting array of images chronicling the futility of hope in the new post-civilisation world: we see Woodbury, the Prison, a painting of a cottage – with blood seeping over it – that bears an eerie resemblance to the one in which Carol mercy-killed a kid. These are all places where hope slowly established itself only to be quickly, cruelly and brutally deposed. And yet it’s clear from the expressions on Rick’s and Glenn’s faces during their conversation early on in the episode that they allowed themselves to hope that Noah was right about his former home – that it was safe, that things would get better – despite all evidence to the contrary based on the unending disappointment and suffering they’ve endured across four and a half seasons of The Walking Dead. We’ll return to that feeling later. 

The images in the montage are interspersed with a eulogy that Father Gabriel is delivering, which we have no reason to suspect is for anyone but the recently departed Beth, especially when we see the grief-stricken reactions of Maggie and Noah. While some of the images – the prison, Woodbury – are there to contextualise the theme and set the tone of the episode, others, like the service itself, are actually flash-forwards, something that doesn’t become apparent until the episode starts moving towards its heart-breaking conclusion. The whole of the opening montage is a clever – and very artfully directed – piece of misdirection which pretty much buries the death of one major character in the grave of another. We don’t realise it at the time but what we’re watching, in essence, is a trailer for the death of Tyreese. 

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Inside the gated community Rick, Glenn and Michonne move off to reconnoitre, leaving Tyreese baby-sitting a distraught Noah, who has just realised that everything and everyone he had ever known, loved or taken for granted is gone. Gripped by grief and rage, Noah runs off to his family home to see with his own eyes what has become of his mother and brothers. Tyreese follows him into the house and there, in the room once occupied by Noah’s twin brothers, he stands staring slack-jawed at photos of happier times that are stuck on the wall. While he is lost in this fugue of empathy and horror one of the reanimated brothers staggers up and sinks his teeth into the big man’s arm. 

In the scenes leading up to Tyreese’s death there are many references and allusions to childhood, both direct and indirect: Tyreese’s recollection of his father’s words about the price to be paid for becoming a citizen of the world; the very site of the attack itself, a little boy’s room; how Tyreese wedges himself under a desk like a frightened child (it reminded me of the scene in Eternal Sunshine where Jim Carrey relives his experience of being an infant).

The bulk of the episode concerns Tyreese’s battle against the infection which manifests itself through hallucinations of people from his past, both the good and the bad: the Termite he lied about killing; the two little girls who met a grizzly end in the cottage he shared with Carol; his sister’s boyfriend Bob; Beth herself, and even the Governor, who returns in the only way possible without causing a fan revolt. His dialogue with these people, his dialogue with himself, revolves around his actions and decisions since the outbreak, his commitment to forgiveness, pacifism and being a good man, and the deaths that may have followed these commitments. Ultimately, Tyreese decides that the price that must be paid to be a citizen of the world is too high – in this world at least – and allows himself to slip away towards death and some form of peace. 

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Before that happens – and before the full meaning of the pre-credits sequence becomes horribly clear – there is a thrilling sequence in which Rick and co attempt to save Tyreese by employing ‘the Hershel method’ and cutting off his infected arm. They manage to get Tyreese to the safety of the car, and speed him away, but they’re too late. During this sequence the audience is put in the same position as Rick and Glenn were in at the start of the episode: of allowing hope to seep into their hearts. I must confess that despite acknowledging the scarcity of happy endings (middles and beginnings, too) in The Walking Dead I thought, just for a moment, just for a second, that Tyreese was going to make it, and found myself doubly crushed when he didn’t. 

A sad end, then, to Tyreese, a larger-than-life, loveable character. He was an overgrown child with a heart full of huffs, tantrums, love and absolutes; a man – despite his gentle nature and pacifism – that you’d always feel safe around. It’s a shame to see him go, and even more of a shame that he never got the chance to come into his own, or fulfil the promise of the character we first met in season 3 (or indeed match the original version of Tyreese that exists in the comic books). 

Overall, What’s Happened and What’s Going On was a robust, affecting and effective 42 minutes of television. Unfortunately, the many great things about this episode – its strong and ambitious narrative structure, its haunting air of melancholy, the stand-out acting chops of Chad Coleman – are rather marred by The Walking Dead’s time-honoured over-reliance on shoddy dialogue and silly, contrived plotting that stretches credibility. Here’s a selection of the most mystifying happenings in the episode: a limping Noah being easily able to outrun Tyreese; Tyreese letting his guard down and not sweeping the whole house for threats after all he’d seen of the zombie apocalypse thus far; and Noah being rather too conveniently incapacitated on his way to fetch help from Rick. And most of Noah’s actions in this episode were either jarring or too narratively convenient, which makes me suspect either that a) the writing was a little bit shit, or b) he’s one to keep an eye on, potential-baddy-wise. 

RATING 4/5

PS: Given the way our use of IMDB usually complements our viewing, I wonder if show-makers are deliberately bringing actors back for flashbacks and dream sequences after their deaths in a bid to throw future viewers off the scent. “Oh, so The Governor makes it to season 5? Ah, Bob’s in that episode, so he obviously doesn’t die from that bite. Maybe he’s immune…”