This Walking Dead article contains spoilers.
It was when Rick smiled.
That’s when I became hopeful The Walking Dead season 7 could turn things around.
7A was a brutal, boring first half of the season by almost any metric. The show lost 5 million viewers after the premiere and never recovered. The first half of the season was disorganized, slow-moving, and tedious. Fan support was down, reviews were scathing or indifferent. I mean look at this:
Then we get our merciful midseason breather and The Walking Dead went away for two months to figure its shit out. When it came back, it seemed markedly better. Characters were almost all together again for the first time in a long time.
In episode 9, “Rock in the Road,” the show decided to stop playing its most loathsome game “Hide the Daryl” and the shaggy-haired weirdo was allowed to attend a Hilltop meeting of the minds with all his friends. The Alexandrians got the opportunity to kill a whole horde of walkers creatively, with two cars and a wire. Then the end of the episode came and the gang was surrounded by steampunk trash people and Rick smiled.
That smile was the best moment of the entire season to me because it doesn’t make much sense. Smiling is a very inappropriate reaction to being surrounded a group of hostile individuals holding guns who both look and smell like garbage. But that’s what I liked about it.
Maybe Rick was smiling because he got his mojo back and was supremely confident in his recruiting abilities. These new hostiles represented hope that Rick could now get the numbers to defeat the Saviors. Or maybe he was smiling because he couldn’t help but appreciate how strange his life was. One day you’re tucking little Carl into bed in your home in Georgia and the next you’re disheveled, unshowered, and surrounded by people with stupid haircuts in a post-apocalyptic garbage dump.
Whatever the reason he smiled, it was so welcome. The Walking Dead is a dark show that has much to say about the dismal nature of humanity. “We are the walking dead, yada, yada, whatever and all that.” But at its best, it should also be fun.
There’s a moment that reflects this in the newest issue of The Walking Dead comic. I will speak about it as vaguely as possible to avoid any spoilers, but skip the next paragraph anyway if you don’t want the slightest bit of spoilers.
Two characters are participating in an incredibly life or death activity. They are in the presence of enough zombies to present an existential threat to not only their own lives but their entire community’s and everything they’ve worked so hard to build. Still, as they’re working to divert the horde of zombies to a safer location, they can’t help but remark to each other, “Hey, this is kind of fun.” This is a terrifying situation but at least they feel useful. At least they can do something about it. At least they’ve lived this long and proven so much about their character, skills, and humanity to themselves and others.
When Rick smiled, that’s what I thought of. Just one episode into the new half-season, the show seemed to understand something that I had always wanted it to understand and acknowledge: this is supposed to be fun.
The Waling Dead did get that. A later episode literally took place in an amusement park, as Rick and Michonne dispatched zombies Zombieland-style. The Walking Dead fixed itself and got better. Just not better enough.
Season 7B was a marked improvement, but it didn’t change the fact that season 7 itself was a bad season.
One of the problems was the season’s big bad: Negan. The Negan of the Robert Kirkman universe is a tool – not just in behavior and the author’s use of him. Negan was introduced because Kirkman needed someone to die in issue #100. Enter this stock, potty-mouthed guy with a barbed-wire baseball bat. Kirkman has since said that he never anticipated keeping Negan around. His initial ending was supposed to be just a few issues after he was introduced. But then Kirkman kept on thinking of new and exciting uses for his interesting villain. The tool of Negan kept on working so the writer kept him around. This makes his character arc improvisational, which keeps it fun.
The Negan of the TV show, however, isn’t allowed any such improvisation. He’s walking down the same tracks as his comic counterpart even when it doesn’t make sense for him to do so. Negan isn’t allowed to grow or change or improvise because the comic book Negan already did that and its this Negan’s job to dutifully follow that Negan’s path. Hell, they wouldn’t even let Jeffrey Dean Morgan keep his beard.
This has created a bland villain whose ideology and motivations the show can’t quite nail down. Not even in a fun, unexpected way but rather an inconsistent and frustrating one. Negan as a villain in the Walking Dead season 7 is every henchman in this SNL Peter Pan skit.
Still, the show could have survived a bad antagonist. It’s done it before. The real problem with season 7 was much larger, and in hindsight, we were kind of foolish to think it ever could have been overcome.
The structure of season 7 was set up in such a way that it was impossible for a good season of TV to be produced by it. I don’t want to dwell on comparisons to the comic but it’s necessary in this case.* The portion of the comic that season 7 covers is from about three volumes made up of 18 issues. That may seem like a lot (particularly when the entirety of season two was just a couple of issues), but in reality that’s an amount of story that takes a reader about an hour or so to read.
*Plus I recently just read them all for the first time and basically compare EVERYTHING to the comic these days. Ughhh taking out the trash? The Walking Dead comic is better.
Season 7 takes that hour or so of reading and stretches it to about 13-14 hours of TV watching. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the TV writers felt less beholden to the comic. Instead, they want to make sure every last bit of the comic is translated to a full season. And in that translation there is far, far, far too much white space that needs to be filled with garbage people, both metaphorical and literal.
That’s what doomed season 7: time management. To some extent, writing a TV show is all about time management. The network is nice enough to give you a season order, let you know how many episodes you’re getting, and then it’s the writers and producers jobs to figure out how much time those episodes should cover.
The people behind The Walking Dead are good at their jobs. The writers can write, the actors can act, and Greg Nicotero can create the coolest zombies in the business.* It was just one critical wrong decision that made it almost impossible for them to create an entertaining season of television.
*Seriously, regardless of how you feel about The Walking Dead, never forget how remarkable the makeup and CG work is in creating some of the most amazing monsters TV has ever seen.
Blame AMC and its greed if you want for forcing a 16-episode season upon the writing staff rather than 12 or 13 episodes. Still, when you know you have 16 episodes you have to plan accordingly, and The Walking Dead didn’t.
Television shows are fragile ecosystems. You can have all the necessary factors in place to create a worthwhile show, but if one timing or structural aspect in the planning stages goes wrong, you’re pretty screwed. That’s what we witnessed this season. There was simply not enough story to cover the episode order. And in that vacuum of story we got inane bullshit that we didn’t need. The finale gave Sasha the send off she deserved but not enough to make me forget what the rest of the season did to her.
Go back and watch ANY scene that includes Sasha and/or Rosita and tell me if the dialogue is even necessary. Both characters’ lines could have been replaced with angry garbling noises and the essence of their scenes would have remained the same.
But I digress. This is about forgiveness. When Rick smiled, I was happy. There was joy back in the show. And that joy did remain for the final eight episodes, including a somewhat cathartic finale. Still, in season 8 there needs to be major structural changes. Whether that means planning story more meticulously or simply throwing the comics to the wind and embracing the improvisational nightmarish fun of the zombie apocalypse is up to Gimple and the writers.