How The Walking Dead suddenly got good again

, | TV reviews

The dirty little secret about hate-watching is that you’re not just doing it because you hate a show. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not the main part. If you simply hated the show, you would stop watching. But what none of us will admit, and what drives all of us who hate-watch, is the secret hope that the show will get good again. That it will show some sign, even a glimmer, of what made us watch it in the first place. We call it hate-watching so we don’t feel dumb for watching a show that’s no longer good. But really, there’s no such thing as hate-watching. There is only hope-watching.

And sometimes it pays off.

I’ve hate-watched Walking Dead for the majority of its nearly nine seasons. For the last several seasons, if something happened that I sort of like, or even didn’t mind so much, I would only admit it grudgingly. But the last two episodes — episodes 6 and 7 of season 9 — have redeemed all the hate-watching. How have they done this? What happened? What makes these last two episodes better?


1) Separated characters

One of the most effective formulas in storytelling is to make the audience care about characters who care about each other…and to then separate those characters from each other. TV sometimes does this as a way to stagger the shooting schedules among actors, especially when the actors cost a lot of money, which is the case for Walking Dead’s cast. Separating the characters with the storyline also separates their shooting schedules and saves money. But the time jump between episode 5 and 6 has let Walking Dead neatly divide its cast into three separate communities, and it has established their separation more explicitly. The Kingdom, Hilltop, and Alexandria have each claimed their various cast members, and although there’s going to be plenty of crossover, it has established that this is the format of the new society. Aaron and Jesus have to meet secretly for training sessions. Michonne doesn’t know that Maggie has gone AWOL. Carol needs to send Henry out of The Kingdom if he wants to apprentice as a blacksmith. Henry hasn’t seen Enid in a long time. Daryl is outside all of this. We like these characters, they like each other for the most part, and they all belong together. But the separations are now part of the new society they’ve created, and the show has made it clear that each of these is its own community.


2) Competing sympathies

Another effective formula in storytelling is to create conflict and then create sympathy for both sides. After years of the Governor, then Negan, Walking Dead has mostly been doing black hat/white hat instead of meaningful character development or dramatic tension. But the last two episodes are textbook examples that the best dramatic tension is conflict in which you have sympathy for both sides.

On a smaller scale, this is Tara and Jesus arguing about how to manage Hilltop in Maggie’s absence. Or Carol asking Daryl to take Henry under his wing when Daryl would rather continue living like a hermit. No one is right or wrong. But on a larger and much more effective scale, the dramatic tension comes from Michonne’s uncertainty about the new survivors. A few things play into why this works so well. Michonne is so much better as her own character with her own opinions and priorities, without having her thrown into an unconvincing relationship with Rick (the only cast member who had any chemistry with Andrew Lincoln is Norman Reedus). As the leader of Alexandria, hardened and fierce, of course she should be suspicious of outsiders who lie to her. As a mother — it sounded so right to hear her refer to Judith as her daughter — of course she needs to be overly cautious. And there’s no denying that Danai Gurira has a new sense of heft after Black Panther.

But then there are these survivors, who are laid bare to us as protagonists. We know they’re not hiding a secret agenda. We know they’re ultimately trustworthy because the show lets us spend time with them privately. As a group, they’re written well and cast even better. They even understand, as a group, Michonne’s reluctance. And within the group, they disagree on how to react to Michonne. Magna could have simply been the flinty tough girl. But with the Bernie reveal, she’s even more sympathetic. And even though Kumiko is their leader, Luke is their common sense. His monologue about Neanderthals, which Dan Vogel concludes with a small but meaningful gesture when he touches Danai Gurira’s arm, should be the credo for any post-apocalypse.


3) Dread

Because I like these new characters so much, the last two episodes of Walking Dead have offered something the series hasn’t offered in years: dread. I know that some of these folks will probably die, and I care enough that I don’t want them to die. That’s part of what made the zombie fight in the parking lot so thrilling. Was one of them going to die? Was this their time? Will it be now or will it be later? This sense of dread isn’t just fundamental to zombie mythology; it’s fundamental to horror as a genre. And it’s been missing from Walking Dead for so long because any notable death was either fake, a publicity stunt, or a casting decision.

By the way, I hate to say this because I love what Vogel is doing with his character, but I bet Luke will be the first to go.

4) Plot twists?

How is it that Rosita heard talking while she was hiding from the herd? Is it really happening? Or is it in her head? Has she somehow gone crazy? For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily mind the idea of talking zombies. If Dan O’Bannon is going to let his zombies ask for “brains” in Return of the Living Dead, let the zombies get chatty in The Walking Dead. Also, what or who did Connie see off in the trees? And how did Rosita get separated from Eugene? And where is Eugene, the show’s supposedly most lovable character, all the more lovable now that he’s ditched that mullet? This episode closed with an expedition setting out to find him. That’s the best Walking Dead cliffhanger in years.

5) Minutiae

A fascinating aspect of post-apocalypses is the survival procedural. How do people live? How do they eat? Where do they sleep? How are their day-to-day lives different from ours? The more specific the details, the better. Walking Dead has abandoned this for long stretches of time. You could watch an entire episode and it’s just people hanging out in a small town having interpersonal conflict. One of the rare instances of good writing was Michonne asking Rick to look for toothpaste when he goes out on a scavenging run. That sort of thing shouldn’t stand out. That sort of thing should be standard operating procedure.

But the last two episodes have been peppered with these kinds of procedural details. Cooking a snake for dinner, asking for more room in the garden for medicinal herbs, a kid deciding what profession he wants to apprentice, haircuts, transporting supplies, setting up a transmitter to reach out to other survivors, the community leader presented with a list of the community’s concerns. Speaking of which, one of my favorite bits of writing was Tara’s matter-of-fact assertion that “you find a kazoo, you give it to a kid.” These are the specifics of day-to-day life in a post-apocalypse and no episode of Walking Dead should be without them.


6) Just when you thought Daryl couldn’t get any cooler

Every cool character is made twice as cool if he gets a dog. How is it that Walking Dead has gone on so long without someone having a cool dog? I mean, yeah, the tiger was great, but he was no substitute for a dog. It’s also worth noting that Daryl has a boat. At this point, the crossbow is just gravy.

7) Location, location, location

One issue I’ve had with Walking Dead over the course if its nine seasons is how it spends its budget. The cast has obviously gotten more expensive as the show has gotten more successful, and that’s how it should be. They are among the people who richly deserve the spoils of its success. The zombie make-up and effects have always been solid and the occasional horde scenes have been suitably epic, for the most part. These are examples of how you can see the money on the screen. But the sets and shooting locations have been consistently cheap. How many scenes have taken place on some two-lane stretch of rural Georgia road with leaves scattered on it to make it look post-apocalyptic? Why are patches of interstate or abandoned cities and towns so rarely a part of the scenery? How come we almost never get a sense of the layout of the communities?

But the last two episodes have featured admiring shots of the new sets for Alexandria with its windmill and Hilltop with its farmland. I don’t normally care for drone shots. Most of the time, drones are pointlessly showy. “Look at me, I can show you stuff from way up here and I don’t even need a crane,” they shout. But the three drone shots in tonight’s episode were all well deserved, especially the two of Hilltop’s fortifications and the crops growing out front. Now that’s how you build and show off a set! The third drone shot was to establish the location as Michonne and the new survivors ran out into a ruined parking lot for an exciting zombie fight. The Walking Dead, like most quickly shot TV shows, doesn’t take the time to create a sense of space. But it’s taken that time in these last two episodes.

8) An exciting zombie fight

Speaking of which, how cool was that? A lesser show — or, say, an earlier episode of Walking Dead — would have introduced Connie and Kelly as the chicks with slingshots. Because your character in a zombie apocalypse is usually what weapon you equip. Instead we meet them as a deaf woman and her companion. We see them interact with each other and other characters. It’s only later that we learn, by the way, they headshot zombies using those serious slingshots with wrist stocks. It’s the same with Yumiko, the leader of the new survivors. She was kept in the show’s back pocket when we met the new survivors, because she was unconscious from her injury. When she wakes up, she sets up the payoff for the scene with Bernie. And, by the way, she uses a bow. Not just to headshot the zombies, by the way. But to topple sheds onto them. She’s obviously put a lot of points into archery.

As a professional zombie aficionado, there are very few things I haven’t seen with zombies. But tonight’s episode showed me something simple, effective, and entirely new. The way Luke opened two car doors to hold back zombies. What a perfect idea! How come no one has ever done that before?

9) Back to the fundamentals

Walking Dead’s zombies have never been rules-based. That’s hard to do in ongoing episodic TV anyway, with multiple writers across multiple seasons. But Walking Dead has ignored, forgotten, or clumsily rewritten the fundamental facts about zombie mythology (see the video embedded below). One of the facts it’s long ignored is that zombies are us. Because zombies are infectious, we’re all vulnerable. The people we know are vulnerable. Zombies are eventually and ultimately us and the people we know. The moment in Night of the Living Dead when a zombie drags Barbara out into the horde is an iconic part of zombie mythology for a reason: the zombie was her brother. Later a child will kill her own mother. Zombies are us, and Walking Dead has never been better than the moment Sophie emerges from the barn as a shocking expression of that truism. So it was nice to see a set-up and payoff with Bernie. This is the sort of thing that makes zombie mythology unique, and I am delighted to see Walking Dead bringing it back into play as a meaningful part of the story and character development.

10) Rickless

And just to round out the list to an even ten, it is such a relief to see an episode without Andrew Lincoln. He came to embody everything wrong with the show, standing front and center as a constant reminder. I even cringed to hear Daryl talking about Rick’s missing body. Can we please just pretend that character played by that actor was never a part of the show?

Two episodes aren’t enough to indicate a trend. They could still be a fluke. But if this is the direction the show is going, if this is an indication of the quality of storytelling we can expect, The Walking Dead is back.