I’m gonna be upfront: I love zombies. Not in real life, obviously, because in an actual zombie apocalypse I’d probably be among the first to die, but in media? Hell yes. I’ve written fiction set in decaying dystopias. I wrote a paper about the allegories inherent to one of America’s favorite monster-mash antagonists - the fear of “the Other” and of infection, the twisted escapist fantasies that follow in the wake of the end of the world, the ways an apocalypse can reveal that, all along, the real danger comes from the living, not the dead. I watch Zombieland and Night of the Living Dead with fervor. I own a book called The Zen of Zombie dedicated to revealing the important life lessons that humans can learn from shambling corpses, a la the archetypical self-help book but approximately a million times better. I know my zombies, and yet I constantly find myself wondering why I still watch The Walking Dead.
When the show was first announced, I latched onto it without hesitation. I mean, come on, it’s a show about zombies tearing up Georgia sooner than you can say “bless your heart”; what’s not to like? I’ve been watching it pretty steadily since its premiere, despite the fact that there’s a point in every season where I sit there and ask myself why I still bother following this zombie soap opera garbage. Plenty of reviewers before me have noted that The Walking Dead has its flaws, from its disturbing habit of killing off all the kind-hearted black male characters (for reference, three of the four deaths within the main group this season have been black men, as if the show’s only permitted to have so many at a time) to its less sensible plot lines, especially ones that really were ripped out of a soap opera. Example: Okay, guys, I get you’re all really worked up about your love triangle and baby daddy drama, but there are zombies outside what are you doing.
But I’m here to offer a different angle, focused on a unique stroke of genius that’s simultaneously a fatal flaw. The Walking Dead is a zombie itself; the show, and the comic series it’s based on, is designed to live forever, rotting away to a skeletal shadow of itself til some brave soul puts it out of its misery.
While comic writer and TV series head honcho Robert Kirkman has said he has plans as to the comic’s ending - oh yeah, it’s still ongoing, way beyond what’s current in the show - he’s also said that ending could be years in the future. The show, for what it’s worth, can apparently be projected into as many as 12 seasons. Right now, the intrepid band of survivors is bleeding its way through season five. The showrunners are projecting more seasons than they already have, and AMC recently announced a companion series about a concurrent, separate group of survivors, because why not? The Walking Dead is the hottest show on cable and it seems prepared to endure through my natural lifespan. It’s guaranteeing AMC endless rivers of money, which sounds great for the bottom line. That’s the stroke of genius. Robert Kirkman wrote himself a carte blanche for the rest of his life, because he writes the story that never ends. But as writers and writing-enthusiasts ourselves, we have to ask: At what cost?
A story is not designed to go on forever. Beginning, middle, and end; that’s what a story needs. You can’t just keep building and building to no payoff. If you were to make a plot arc graph for The Walking Dead it wouldn’t be the usual upward slope hitting a climax and slowly descending back to earth. It’d look like a mountain range, or some kind of deranged gore-soaked roller coaster. As a longtime viewer of the show, it’s all starting to feel like a broken record spinning on ad nauseum. New characters join the group and a handful die for the finales, just like clockwork. The fluctuating group roves about the overgrown Southern farmlands, taking residence in abandoned places and naively declaring that maybe this time they’ll finally settle down for good and rebuild the world they lost. They meet other groups but quickly find out they’re psychopaths or cannibals, or both, and the new community ends up destroyed somehow. Every so often the group gets separated and, after many perilous journeys, joined together again. Then we start all over: Another town, another trust issue, another death. The only thing that changes is who’s getting ripped apart by a mob of the undead. Tonight's episode featured two still-living people being eaten with lots of lovely, graphic detail. It felt more like watching Evil Dead or Saw, and it was distinctly unpleasant. I don't need to see people's faces getting pulled off by gnarled rotting hands. I don't want to learn that, on TV, your intestines look like the inside of a cherry pie. Just stop it, Walking Dead.
I could tell you names and individual arcs of the characters, because that’s what it all has to be about. Zombie stories are never about zombies; they’re about the people fighting back and the gradual erosion of what makes them human. It’s about exploring the stark difference between “surviving” and “living.” But I couldn’t tell you the point of the story as a whole. I can’t knit all the threads together into one piece. Even worse, I can’t keep holding onto new characters who always end up expendable, while the reliable survivors never grow or change enough to impact the almighty status quo. And that is why The Walking Dead is rotten at its core. Deep down inside, it doesn’t have a soul. It’s just mindlessly perpetuating itself, feeding on ratings and advertisers’ dollars like so many tasty brains.
Yet here I am on another Sunday night angrily blogging about it while knowing I’ll keep watching anyway. You win this round, AMC.