How 'The Walking Dead' Stumbled in Its Storytelling This Season

This season's familiarity and pacing issues might be due to the show sticking too closely to the books — perhaps subconsciously.
Gene Page/AMC

Note: If you're not caught up with 'The Walking Dead' prior to the season finale, this column will contain spoilers.

Of all the series I watch, The Walking Dead is one of the very small number that make me want to watch instantly. It's a series I've championed for ages and one I believe is unfairly left out of awards consideration — despite being one of television's most ambitious explorations of the human condition — merely because it has zombies in it and is thus a "genre" series.

There's no reason The Walking Dead shouldn't be a regular threat in the best drama series category at the Emmys. I've believed that for a while.

And yet, here we are about to close out season five and I find myself disappointed with the direction of the series. It's less about the episodes themselves — most of them, anyway — and more about where the show appears to be headed. It got me thinking again about series based on books and how there's a real perception gap that can arise between those making the series and the portion of the audience who haven't read the source material.

That is to say: I think part of the issue at hand is that virtually everyone involved in making The Walking Dead has read the books. I could be wrong, but my guess is that no one is in a position to talk with showrunner Scott Gimple and the writers about how the series comes across to people who haven't read the books. Which is odd, because the vast majority of the millions of people watching have not read the books (also true for shows like Game of Thrones, etc.).

Why is this important? Well, whether Gimple and the writers are consciously aware of it, the characters and forward movement of the story are obviously laid out for them, and regardless of how much they tinker to make it slightly different for television, precognition is influencing their decisions. Specifically, let's talk about Alexandria.

Now, as a fan of the show who — anvil reminder — has not read the books, I avoid spoilers coming from those who have (including anything put out by THR). When I heard that the show was going to seemingly have another detour to a safe haven that turned out — shocker! — not to be a safe haven, I groaned. But then I recalled hearing, despite my trying to block it out, from fans of the books that Alexandria was a different situation entirely.

I exhaled. Because, well, the pattern was getting tedious. The group had found the prison and made it their own. But they got lured in by the charms and comforts of Woodbury. And that went badly. They got lured in by the hope of Terminus. And that went very badly. I figured they couldn't get lured a third time into a safe-haven-gone-bad scenario because that would be, well, trite and repetitive? And do viewers need to be hit over the head again about the notion of paradise?

When they got to Alexandria, I really wanted the "twist" to play out: that it was safe, that this bedraggled group of weary road warriors would by conflicted by the change — suspicious, worried, defensive. As a series-only person and critic, obviously the "idea" of Alexandria was one that seemed ripe with dramatic opportunity.

Which brings us to one of the problems in season five: Given what I/we know now, the time between Terminus and Alexandria was too short. Or, more accurately, the show has apparently decided by the way its characters are acting — motivation that seems out of nowhere and rushed — that the stay in Alexandria will be short.

Unless there's a major change in the finale, the time spent in Alexandria will be over too quickly, when to serve the dramatic heft of the story it should have lasted at minimum half a season. So many storylines were ripe for dissection — but maybe that wasn't obvious if, in the back of the heads of everyone making the show, there are different and maybe better scenarios down the road. No need to dawdle when something really cool is coming next season, or beyond. This is where knowing is a hindrance.

The group desperately needed to find a safe haven that was actually safe. They needed to marinate in tranquility and see how that distorted their survivalist nature — for more than just a couple of episodes where they talk about "getting soft" all the time. Too much telling, not enough showing.

If the group felt like they were getting soft, they could have gone hunting regularly. I have no idea how long the books lingered in Alexandria, but as a viewer and critic I would have been very interested in seeing what such a place does to battle-scarred travelers: to find safety, to reset physical and emotional clocks. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) losing his mind felt forced. All of it did. I didn't believe a minute of it.

More importantly, I didn't believe that the group would turn away from a well-guarded sanctuary stocked with food, showers, alcohol, lovely houses, etc., just because they felt jittery about the environment. Show me more of them being suspicious of Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) and her people (but first give me a well-founded reason for that suspicion). Show me this notion of "having it all" grow into something that's not satisfying to the group. Show me them actually getting soft. Show me them deciding, after a time, that despite outward appearances and some temporary luxury, that Alexandria wasn't for them — it wasn't enough.

Or have Alexandria raided by outside forces. Whatever. There's only one thing not to do in this situation: Don't rush it. Meaning, don't do it like you just did it.

Because now I'm less interested in what's down the road. Now I'm worried that it's going to eventually be what appears to be a safe haven that — shocker! — is not. My feelings of being manipulated will increase. So will my disappointment.

And moving too quickly (or not quickly enough early on, perhaps), is not the only problem The Walking Dead has created for itself. It now has the same character-bloat problem that hinders Game of Thrones. One of the things that seeps through social media and can't really be prevented is fans of the books getting excited when characters (who I don't know about but they do) are set to appear. And yet, for all of the excitement, I've only seen a real payoff (for me) with two of them: the Governor (David Morrissey) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). There was hype about Tyreese (Chad Coleman), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Rosita (Christian Serrato), but all of them except Tyreese seem underdeveloped. I want Rosita to be fleshed out; I want Abraham to continue to be fleshed out.

Having lots of characters to play with is great, but any critical frustrations I've had with Game of Thrones has revolved around the show's inability to service all of them. The same is happening on The Walking Dead, which I think partly caused issues last season when Maggie (Lauren Cohan) wasn't in enough stories and she seemed unconnected to the fate of sister Beth (Emily Kinney). Too many characters now seem like baggage or dead weight: Noah (Tyler James Williams), Tara (Alanna Masterson), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Eugene (Josh McDermitt). Is Aaron (Ross Marquand) going to be one of those?

When a series hits five seasons, it's generally lurching from lost momentum. That's not the case with The Walking Dead, probably because it's chewing through a lot of story at a good clip. In season five, however, that speed has caused it to lose some believability and sacrifice some larger storytelling options. But I think being too aware of the books — what's left to cover, what glorious twists and turns are ahead, etc. — might be damaging the pacing of the actual TV show and in turn starting to present a less satisfying story to viewers who only know what they're seeing in their living rooms and on their tablets.

If Game of Thrones is going too fast for the books, the books are making The Walking Dead lose its storytelling pace by moving too quickly for the TV version to keep up with. And that's no way for the show to stay in the conversation about great television.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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