So, we’re done with this ‘experiment’ of AMC’s. All six episodes are in our hands now, and next week we move into season 6 of TWD. What have we learned?
The writers and producers of FtWD move very slowly. That much is true. This last episode was quite good, and it’s a shame they all can’t be thus. Now, I want to be clear; I am not saying this episode was good because we got lots of zombies, or lots of zombie action, or lots of zombie killing, or lots of general action shots involving guns or whatever. This episode was good because we got actual movement. This episode was the one I think most people thought they were going to be getting a whole series of when FtWD was first announced. What we saw in this episode was a small group of people dealing with the fall of civilization. What fun the audience could’ve had if all six episodes has been the same.
Travis grew up. He abandoned all the “going to get him and those he loves killed” traits and embraced survival. Now, I absolutely get ‘character arcs’ and ‘character growth.’ But the show didn’t just establish Travis’ base position of “going to die”; they beat that dead horse until it was unrecognizable paste in the road. Over and over and over through the first five episodes, it was explained and reexplained and thoroughly established how Travis hates violence, hates guns, doesn’t favor killing zombies, wants to obey authority, all of it. It went far past set up and well into “okay, bored now.”
This episode finally gave us the payoff. Travis didn’t go full Tallahassee, but he shifted strongly in that direction, and started doing the things that need to happen if he and his are going to live. Taking on zombies, dealing with humans who are threats, even understanding the concept of a mercy killing. That last one is a staple of zombie fiction; the need to ‘spare’ a loved one the horror of turning into a zombie after being bitten. Travis played his part and killed his ex-wife, the mother of his son, so she wouldn’t have to suffer, die, and rise hungry.
Now that we’ve seen the full Travis arc, it ended well. But the beginning and middle were quite tiresome. Extremely so. Rewatching will not be any more enjoyable now that we know how it ends. It will still be annoying and retreaded and overly drawn out.
Daniel Salazar is a good contrast. He was introduced as a recalcitrant civilian. Then he was revealed to be a fierce protector of his family. That then shifted to a determined to pay whatever cost is required to be that protector. And finally left in a place where he and the other characters know, firmly, he will do anything to keep his people alive. Daniel’s arc was not tiresome to watch. I’ve been saying it all along, he’s a survivor. Some online comments I’ve seen overnight have people speculating that he’s the kind of character who turns into The Governor. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but I sort of see that point of such comments. I would simply rebut that just because a guy wants to live, and is willing to do whatever’s necessary to those who are directly standing in the way of that survival, doesn’t mean he’s going to take the next step into “and I’ll fatally and sadistically fuck over anyone who doesn’t let me be in charge” like The Governor did (several times).
Along the way of Daniel’s arc (which, from the audience perspective, is more of a gradual reveal), he was interesting. He didn’t have a series of “you must be kidding me moments” as he hit the waypoints along his journey. He didn’t induce things being thrown at the screen. His decisions made sense, were relatable, and were the sorts that a lot of zombie fiction lovers envision themselves making. His were heroic decisions, made for reasons that very obviously had to do with surviving. Travis’ tended to be the kinds that cause breathing people to stop breathing. It would have been much more tolerable for the audience if Travis had been a background character. And if his “no, I won’t kill the zombie; no, I won’t plot against the soldiers; no, I won’t disobey authority” moments had been buried amid a show that more actively involved the audience in the crumbling of civilization.
Strand, the smooth talking man with a plan, seems to have divided opinion in the audience. I’m on the side that likes him. Others see him in the same light that they cast Daniel in; that both will throw everyone in the group to the zombies in a heartbeat. I don’t know about that. I hope not, because it seems to me to be throwing away one (or two) extremely interesting characters if that happens. And, by throwing away, I mean ruining Strand and/or Daniel. Both are interesting because they’re the tell-it-like-it-is guys. They don’t wishy-washy around the hard truths; they keep their eyes open and are prepared to live. Turning either or both of them ‘evil’ by having them transform into slave masters or piratical overlords is just a waste. An absolute waste.
I have a moment in one of my books where a character, while the group is debating how to distract a group of zombies, wishes they had a group of kindergarteners. The other characters are shocked, but the one with the idea just points out a group of children running around like kids do would be a great way to distract a zombie horde. The other characters are still absolutely shocked, and refuse to countenance it (even if they had the kids on hand). I mention this because having characters around that can shock, that can be the asshole and say things that are brutally true, are useful. They’re fun. They serve a role in a story; especially zombie and apocalyptic stories. Dark humor is absolutely at home in such settings. The joke doesn’t even begin to remotely work in a contemporary romance, even in a global intrigue thriller; but when people are being eaten and survivors are scrambling to survive, such comedy does have a place.
Strand and Daniel are characters like that. They’re the ones that, when our main character heroes come across another group of ex-survivors that are being eaten by zombies, can just shrug and say “better them than us” and get the audience’s agreement. The ones that will choose to steal medicine from other groups to keep main characters alive; which the audience will always approve of (keeping beloved main characters alive versus letting them die just because it’s “not fair” to steal from background characters we don’t know). The ones who will cut through the wishy-washy bullshit that annoys hard-core zombie fans; the stuff that has us throwing things at screens because we want them to not make stupid decisions that lead to characters dying.
I like Strand, a lot. In only two episodes he has become my favorite FtWD character by far. I definitely want him to stick around. It would be a massive shame if the show kills him off or drives him out next season. Let us have a full set of episodes of Strand being the man with the plan, who never sugar coats or tap dances around the truth. Let us enjoy him being the guy who tells it like it is, without the “must protect my daughter” overtones that are going to inevitably shadow everything Daniel does. There’s tons of fun to be had in letting Strand be Strand, and I’m looking forward (hoping desperately) we get a lot of it next year.
What I don’t like is the boat. Or yacht, to be specific. That is a horrible idea for a zombie story. As a survival mechanism, it’s not bad. Zombies don’t swim; at least, traditionally, they don’t. And I’m more or less sure TWD universe zombies have been established to not swim. So a boat, surrounded by water, is iron-clad safety from external zombies. You still have to worry about someone aboard dying and rising, but that’s another problem. And that’s why I hate the boat.
Never give the audience what they want; only what they need. A zombie story about super survivors who always make the right decision, who never do anything that doesn’t pay off in great safety, is boring. Anyone of us envisioning ourselves as survivors in a zombie apocalypse wants to make these kinds of decisions, and they’d be good ones. But as audience members, we don’t actually want the characters to be safe. We need the characters, the story, to be interesting. Having our heroes shelter safe on a boat is a bad story move because it leads to nothing happening.
The best case for them hanging out on the boat is little ‘problem of the week’ episodes where they venture ashore to look for food, or supplies (medicine or gas mostly, since maximum boat safety dramatically reduces the need for weapons). We get the episode where they look for a load of food out of a supermarket, the one where they look for water treatment stuff (bleach, or desalinator equipment, etc..), the one where they look for a pharmacy because a member of the group has a (non-zombie) infection or illness or whatever. We get the episode where they meet other groups who want to join them on the boat, and the characters agonize over if there’s room, how they can’t fit everyone aboard, and so on.
It will go stale. Quicker than you might be assuming. Trust me. And I have zero faith that the team who has given us a pretty limp season 1 of FtWD can pull off an interesting or entertaining set of episodes if they center around the boat. The single worst hated season of The Walking Dead is season two, where the characters sheltered safe on the farm. Everyone hates that season. I’ve hardly encountered any fans who talk lovingly or longingly about how they want more seasons like season 2. Putting FtWD on the boat next year is a setup for disaster.
Plus, a motor yacht isn’t the best apocalypse vessel anyway. Gas for such large ships is needed by the truckload, not the gallon. None of our characters are diesel mechanics, or mariners. A sailboat would require much more skill to sail, but need only the supplies the people do to stay alive to keep operating; not also gas and oil and spare parts. At best it adds another couple of ‘problem of the week’ episodes where they look for and figure out a way to bring back massive amounts of diesel fuel, or oil, or a spare part shop or whatever; but we’re still left with the boring story problem.
Joss Whedon is who I credit with “never give the audience what they want, only what they need.” He’s so incredibly right, about this as well as most other things he has to say about storytelling. The audience wants our survivor characters to be safe. What the audience needs is for the characters (and the story they’re telling) to be interesting. Safe is boring. Dangerous is exciting. Dealing with other groups, scrabbling for a good holdout, traveling across the desert or through an infested town or dodging zombie hordes; these things are interesting. Entertaining. Amusing. The kinds of things that keep us tuning back in.
“Oh, they’re still okay on the boat. Cool.” That’s how people stop watching. Safety in real life is the ‘smart’ move, but it’s also the boring one. Storytellers have to embrace need, not want. Never give the audience what they want. Never.
Unfortunately, based on what Dave Erickson said on Talking Fear, it looks like we are definitely going to get “survivors at sea” next year. I want to be wrong; I want them to prove they can give us a full season of great storytelling on the boat. But I have almost no faith based on the bad storytelling decisions they made in season 1. Talking Fear was also annoying for other reasons. Robert Kirkman made a statement about how “watching civilization crumble in Los Angeles will be interesting.” I agree Robert; except we didn’t see it crumble. We didn’t even hear about it on the in-universe radio or internet or word-of-mouth. The whole “civilization crumbling” issue was utterly skipped. You guys were happy to talk it up as a selling point, but when it came time to deliver, not a crumb in sight.
Another thing I noticed on Talking Fear is how, and it was a repeated theme, the concept of “the audience knows how bad things get, and that colors their reaction” kept being brought up. Over and over. Hardwick carried water for that creed. Erickson brought it up. They brought Tobias’ actor in to spout it.
Here’s my reaction: it’s a point. But it’s a lazy way to try and hand wave problems with the show away. You know your audience already knows these things. It is your job as creators to deal with that. We didn’t get any moments in this first season where the character have the “what the hell is going on” conversation. That would be one way to handle it. That’s actually most of how I would suggest handling it. There’s lots of story juice in scenes like that, as opposed to long scenes of the characters staring moodily at the wall, or out the window, or at each other silently. It’s a creator copout to whine about “the audience already knows what zombies mean” when we didn’t get any explanation scenes about the characters figuring out zombies, or reacting to zombies, or discussing how they should handle zombies. No moments where “that’s not a person anymore” or “if you want to live you have to do whatever it takes to not get bitten or you become one of them”, etc…
And I agree it can be tough to work those scenes out. There’s a balance between boring the audience and delivering the exposition you need to move your story along. The middle zone there was missed entirely – wasn’t even attempted – and could’ve gone a long way to ease audience complaints. Rather than us having to put up with Travis being silly all season, we could’ve gotten to join him in his journey as he figures out zombies are bad. The joining would have taken place in the discussions we didn’t get, where the characters spend all that time they had on their hands figuring shit the fuck out. Or, at least, trying to figure out. But figuring or trying to figure, either would’ve been better than what we got.
The Walking Dead has been an up and down ride. Fear the Walking Dead is obviously going to have the same ups and downs. Some seasons will be good, others not so much. Some will be flat out bad. Here’s hoping, first of all, that Season 6 of TWD is good. Second, that the FtWD folks figure out the problems and errors present in their first season, and address them. Because it’s bad to treat your fans like this. We love zombie stories. Work with us!
Next week, TWD returns. Until then, eat more brains!