How We’d Fix The Walking Dead

Gene Page/AMC

If we’re being honest, The Walking Dead doesn’t really need our help: The show remains a ratings juggernaut (6.6 million tuned in to find out just what was inside that barn in Sunday’s midseason finale — an audience almost three times the size of the one that tunes in to the average cocktail party at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) and a cash cow for money-starved AMC. (All that extra Hyundai loot isn’t hurting, either.) But creatively, the show is stuck in quicksand more treacherous than the stuff that conveniently surrounds Hershel’s sanctimonious chicken farm. In the deeply flawed seven-hour arc that just concluded, the showrunners — including now-departed behind-the-scenes boss Frank Darabont — attempted the tricky task of simultaneously expanding the world and constraining it, putting more focus on the tortured inner lives of the still-living protagonists while limiting their movements to a single, horsey setting. This decision proved disastrous in two ways. First, the show’s cranky leads proved themselves unable to carry the increased storytelling load, collapsing like cheap card tables into an unpleasant morass of sour looks, repetitive arguments, and bullet-wasting. We’re all for character development, but the more time we spent with these people the more we wanted to see them develop into zombie chow — particularly the show’s doomy Bermuda Triangle of overheated pathos, Rick, Shane, and Lori.

Second, by planting the group in front of an unchanging, budget-saving backdrop, the showrunners robbed The Walking Dead of its central engine: fear. Hershel’s farm was as suffocatingly dull as the man himself, a miraculously safe haven in which our protagonists were free to cook endless meals, hang endless laundry, and generally do all of the things that can make life in a zombie apocalypse as innocuous and boring as life in Duluth. Those characters not naturally suited to doing nothing, like Daryl, were free to engage in an utterly futile wild girl chase — the manic, increasingly insane hunt for Sophia, a child we’d barely noticed before she’d disappeared into the woods. Forcing the characters into frustrating dead ends is one thing; turning the entire show into a frustrating dead end is quite another.

Because, make no mistake, The Walking Dead is worth rooting for. The current landscape of hour-long dramas is grim, riddled with hoary historical epics (Hell on Wheels, Boardwalk Empire) and soggy crime procedurals (The Killing) that aim for the cinematic but too often settle for the cheap and violent. The Walking Dead, at its best, is both terrifying and ambitious, a full-throated (often open-throated) celebration of genre that possesses the highest concept, the highest stakes, and the highest body count ever seen on television. There are three months before the show returns to finish off its second season — plenty of time for new showrunner Glen Mazzara to course-correct and get as far away from Hershel’s farm as possible, both literally and figuratively. With that in mind, we not-so-humbly present some suggestions on how best to bring The Walking Dead back to life.

1. Eat Lori.

This one is self-explanatory. Shrill, secretive, and perpetually furious about something or other, Lori Grimes has become the surly face of an increasingly unlikable cast. The character’s central trait seems to be inconsistency: She either loves Shane or loathes him, she’s ferociously protective of her son, Carl, except when she isn’t, and barely puts up a fight when he goes from gunshot victim to gun enthusiast in the time it takes most major-surgery patients to relearn how to walk to the bathroom. Nothing summed up her rabbity unpleasantness more than her surprise pregnancy — a lame plot to begin with, but here transformed almost immediately into yet another opportunity for a shouty philosophical debate. (And could there be a less dramatic finale to a purportedly thrilling show than watching a character pee in a cornfield?) Worse, instead of addressing her situation directly, she sent Glenn on not one but two potential suicide runs to the pharmacy, the second for a box of magical abortion pills that she choked down and then vomited up in short order.

Of course, it’s not Sarah Wayne Callies’ fault her character devolved almost instantly to a peevish cul-de-sac — and, really, the show’s inherent problem with women (that they are natural laundresses in constant need of male protection) is an ugly affliction that not even Dr. Hershel’s potent horse medicine could cure. But removing her now would do more than make the show less annoying: It would also free up our nominal hero, Rick, to be something other than dull. When The Walking Dead premiered, Rick’s panicked hunt for his wife and son gave him charisma and an invigorating spark — a spark his unlikely, near-instantaneous reunion with his family quickly extinguished. Now all he does is make bug eyes and promise to do anything to take care of Lori and Carl. But what if he were to fail? Turning Lori into dinner would allow Rick and Shane to reevaluate their own relationship and embark on new ones. The sooner Lori goes for a long walk in the woods, preferably wearing her finest bacon necklace, the better for everyone.

2. Pick a Destination.

Defenders of The Walking Dead who are versed in the comic-book source material often claim that the show’s underlying current of direction-free hopelessness is the point; that creator Robert Kirkman was attempting to illustrate the depressing (un)reality of what happens after the credits roll in a standard-issue zombie flick; that, ultimately, there are no survivors. This is heady stuff, and well suited to the immediacy of comic books with their ability to jump forward and backward in time and abruptly shift storytelling focus from micro to macro at the touch of a pencil. But television shows are different; they move in only one direction: forward. And the characters need to move with them.

The first season was about getting to the CDC — a decision that seemed smart at the time but ended with the world’s first wine-fueled firebomb. This season has been considerably more murky: There was vague talk about getting to Fort Benning, but not much rationale for why. And a physical destination is only half of it: What is the eventual goal for our motley crew of survivors? Is it saving the world or merely finding a little corner of it in which to hide? Establishing clear objectives, in both the short and long term, will do wonders for the morale of those watching Rick for any glimpse of true leadership — including those of us at home.

3. Don’t Get Lost.

One would think that a series about a zombie-ravaged swath of rural Georgia would offer plenty of room for original characters and situations. And yet the default strategy for The Walking Dead seems to be WWJD: What Would Jack Do? The small cast of the show was already blessed with a worrying number of “trackers” — a skill that is nearly nonexistent in real life but is as prevalent on television as sassy neighbors. This season brought a raft of pointless flashbacks (Did we need to see how Carl found out about his dad getting shot? Or witness Lori and Carol’s meet-non-cute on the highway?), and the disturbingly rapid Sawyerization of Daryl — a shaggy-haired, sleeve-averse loner with a propensity for violence, one-liners, and unexpected bursts of sentimentality. By Sunday night, Shane, Rick, and Hershel were parroting the most aggravating bits of later Lost: all “my people” vs. “your people” and disagreements over survival strategy being played out via portentous, slow-motion shots of near-biblical violence. Surely there must be profound things to say about the nature of civilization and humanity without falling back on the same old good vs. evil backgammon analogies. The Walking Dead, with its willingness to show real horror and visceral extremes, could and should be better. Lost may have been blessed with a stronger cast, but the most dangerous thing lurking in its woods were polar bears — and they never tried to eat anyone.

4. Infuse Some Fresh Blood.

It seems we’ve gone as far as we can go with this ragtag group. Is anyone out there jonesing for more of the adventures of Big Hat Carl, World’s Tiniest Sheriff? Or Dale’s creepy paternalism toward Andrea? Or, for that matter, Andrea’s overnight transformation from a PTSD poster child to La Femme Nikita? Thanks to Shane, she’s gone from target practice to machete-sharpening overnight! We’re beginning to think that T-Dog’s season-long disappearing act isn’t because the writers forgot about him, but rather owing to his own realization that spending time with these people is unbearable. It’s an enormous waste that all of the hours spent cooking eggs at Hershel’s farm didn’t introduce a single new voice to the ensemble apart from Maggie, a sallow pixie farm girl who really only shared dialogue (and bodily fluids) with Glenn. The nadir may have been when Hershel’s son suddenly volunteered for handgun lessons two episodes back, having almost definitely not been there before. Suddenly, the show’s living extras were as faceless and interchangeable as the dead ones.

What’s most galling about this is that The Walking Dead introduced its single best character in the pilot and then never used him again. Morgan was both energetic and emotional, a tormented father with his own demons and responsibilities — not to mention his own agenda. As the purported differences between Team Winnebago have vanished — Daryl is now no less sociable than Dale — the weaknesses of the storytelling have been revealed. When, in Sunday’s finale, Glenn mentioned Portal, it was shockingly refreshing: evidence of a real human being with memories of life before the world went to hell. The Walking Dead needs to repopulate its survivors with fresh energy and new perspectives: In lieu of rednecks and cops, where are the overmatched suits, or the well-prepared geeks? Wouldn’t at least some of the opulent Buckhead mansions owned by rappers and athletes come zombie-proofed? Something — someone — needs to shake up the show’s increasingly incestuous pity party. Otherwise they’re liable to start killing each other long before the walkers get to them.

5. Reinvent the Characters.

In Sunday’s episode, Dale damned the increasingly unhinged Shane in the worst way he could: accusing him of “belonging” in the post-zombie world. This wasn’t so much an insult as it was an excellent point: Shane is a hounddogging, muscle-bound, crazy person with the marksmanship of Duke Nukem and the sexual appetite of a rabbit on Viagra. If he’s being honest with himself — and judging by his new haircut, he is — he is absolutely much happier in this consequence-free new reality where he can bone his best friend’s wife and shoot sweet-corn farmers in the face. This revelation is something to build on going into the second half of the season — but it can’t end there. There must be other survivors like Shane who are grateful for an opportunity to reinvent themselves: criminals, maybe, or unpopular nerds. Even Glenn is ripe for this sort of exploration: We know next to nothing of his former life, but we’re fairly sure it didn’t involve stealing sports cars, beating monsters to death with pickaxes, and nooners in abandoned pharmacies. If our protagonists find themselves stuck in another long-term campsite — and make no mistake, they will, if only because fixed sets save cash-strapped AMC a ton of money — let’s hope it will be run by a story-generating Looney Tune aiming to remake society in his own crazy image, or experimenting with using zombies as an alternative fuel source. Anything other than another round of moralistic hair-pulling and Scripture-quoting. Nihilism belongs in freshman yearbooks, not weekly television.

6. Own the Zombies.

Despite everything, The Walking Dead has been responsible for some of the most breathtaking images we’ve seen over the past year: the ghastly, graceful herd on the highway; the spitting, suicidal zombie hanging all alone in the forest. The show’s mastery on that side of the ball isn’t surprising — it may be the only series in history to have a makeup artist (Greg Nicotero) listed as an executive producer — nor is it unexpected that the writers would attempt to counterbalance the gore with an increased focus on humanity. After all, what makes scary movies scary are the talky bits in between the violence. A monster movie with nothing but monsters is called a video game, and not even The Walking Dead’s turgid plotting could make us want to watch someone else play a video game.

Still, for a show ostensibly about zombies it certainly seems like we’re seeing less and less of them — and when we do see them, it’s diminishing returns. Watching Shane mow down a barn full of walkers may have been cathartic for him, but it was tedious for us. Worse, the threat level of the undead seems to fluctuate wildly depending on the demands of the script: Shane and Otis were overrun during their field trip to the school, yet Shane and Andrea managed to escape a similar moldy mob in the suburbs just a few episodes later. We’ve seen zombies turn an entire horse into Laffy Taffy in a matter of seconds, and yet when Daryl was unconscious he was preyed upon by the only walker in the world who prefers chewing on a leather boot to a defenseless, fleshy neck.

Moving forward, Mazzara and his crew of writers will have to come up with even more diabolical situations, and, perhaps more crucially, they’ll also have to begin answering some questions. Are the walkers evolving? Or devolving? Can they be cured? Or at least taught some rudimentary tricks? The shocking bursts of dopamine provided by the zombie scenes are the best thing about The Walking Dead, a disparity that threatens to sink the entire series, especially as the human half of the equation crumbles. But by reframing the relationship between the zombies and the living, Mazzara & Co. just might be able to reinvigorate both sides. Despite the frustrating lows of these past seven episodes, we’re actually optimistic that he can pull it off. Because one thing The Walking Dead has taught us is that death — even creative death — is far from the end.

Filed Under: TV, AMC, Glen Mazzara, How We'D Fix It, The Walking Dead

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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