“I’m in a love/hate relationship with The Walking Dead!” This may sound like a typical Tumblr text post exclaiming shock or frustration at an unexpected plot development or recently deceased character, but in recent months I’ve found out it’s an increasingly accurate representation of my relationship with Cable TV’s most popular program.
With the second half of its sixth season premiering this Sunday, I’ve come to the realization that AMC’s The Walking Dead has become a meandering, formless, plotless mess that has no idea where it is going. The show seems to be content with being that way as long as it draws in more viewers than any other show in its time slot. What’s worse is that not only does the show seem to be fine with its position, but I am too, despite the obvious and glaring flaws.
The most prominent problems with The Walking Dead are not the ones people have been pointing out since the beginning, including flat and inconsistent characterization. The show’s biggest problem is ironically, what can also be considered its greatest strength: Its longevity. Since it’s based on an ongoing comic book series, it means there will always be story lines to adapt. But since the writers seem to be content with an unlimited stream of content to use, it seems like they sacrificed two things vitally important to narrative storytelling: pacing and structure.
At the midpoint of Season 6, there seems to be no overreaching goal or arc that Rick Grimes and his group of survivors are striving to achieve other than… well, surviving. That may work fine in the context of the apocalypse stricken world the show has created, but for people expecting and wanting more than just “What different way can we have Carol stab a Walker this week?” This format isn’t sustainable.
This past season is the third time the show has done a plot line involving a supposed safe haven shielded from the Walker menace, with the same outcome (spoilers: it fails). The upcoming introduction of fan-favorite villain Negan from the comics aims to be a positive ray of light, but this will be the third time the show has introduced a psychotic antagonist in charge of a group of equally crazy people, only one of which had any sort of long term impact on the status quo. And in what looks to be a repeat of one of my least favorite plot lines from the series, another character in the main cast is pregnant, so that’s a plus.
Â Repeating story beats is one thing, but not having any sense of pace is another thing entirely, something the writers of this show seem to suffer from as well. Season six was building to the penetration of the town of Alexandria by the Walkers, and it was a long, arduous buildup to boot. Of course, right when things began to get interesting, the show pulled the rug out from under us and cut to black. It wasn’t like events had reached a logical conclusion either; it was a moment that should’ve preceded a typical commercial break, not the immediate lead up to a two and a half month absence from the airwaves. In fact, the last time this show had anything resembling good pacing or a logical sense of progression with its story and characters was way back in Season 3, when they brought the survivors of the failed town of Woodbury to the Prison, and it looked like things might work out for everyone. Since then, it has just been about moving from one doomed location to the next, dodging whatever group of cannibals or warrior cults that come their way.
Yet, even after all this, The Walking Dead remains one of the only shows on television I make a priority to watch live, and I’d be damned if I missed its return this weekend. I’ve seen this show be really good and even powerful when it knows what it’s doing. There’s still no better show on TV for brutal and suspenseful action sequences. Even in this first half of Season 6, the invasion of Alexandria by the Wolves was one of the best action set pieces in a show that excels with them. And whatever flaws or underwriting the characters may have, you do grow to love them, and the chances of possibly seeing one die an unexpected death (As evidenced by this seasons turn of events for the beloved Glenn) is a shattering moment for many viewers.
But it’s still a story, and stories need to go somewhere. Just because you have an unlimited fountain of ideas doesn’t mean you should use them all. It is possible for shows to bounce back from problems like this. Lost spent the entire first half of its existence intentionally being slow, going nowhere, and setting up mysteries to go unsolved, but it eventually got its act together and wrapped everything up (mostly). The thing is, Lost did that in Season 3. The Walking Dead is halfway through Season 6, and the show runners have repeatedly said that they expect the show to go on forever, or at least as long as the comic lasts. And there is no way a show could last that long without having to build to some kind of conclusion. …or at the very least, without killing every last Zombie on the planet.