The show that has turned zombies into long-form story telling continues to hit fully on all cylinders. It does it by doing what a lot of casual fans seem to never fully get; the show’s not about zombies. It’s not even really about the apocalypse.
It’s about the people.
I used to see the same complaints about The Sopranos back when that was on. Some episodes would come out and complaints would surface, moaning that there’d been no whacking, no mob violence. Sopranos was never about the mob stuff; it was about Tony and his families. The mob scene was just the setting, to make otherwise ‘ordinary’ stories more interesting.
The same is true of The Walking Dead. Zombies, the end of the world . . . the show’s not about those things. They’re just the setting. What we’re tuning in for, what keeps the bulk of the audience interested, are the characters. We invest in them. We care about them. We want to know what happens next. We compare ourselves to them, wonder if we’d do as well or worse, ponder whether or not our decisions would be better or different or more effective than the ones they make.
A trope that gets bandied about a lot is ‘plot armor’. I’m as guilty of it as the next guy; both as a creator and a writer. I’ll admit, when I was reading The Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s ASOIAF series (still unfinished series, hint hint), and got to the point where they were going to behead Ned . . . true story. I really was sitting there, reading along, and I thought to myself “it should be pretty good how he gets out of this.” I really did think that to myself. Because that’s how it goes in most — nearly all — stories. A viewpoint character stays with us. As the saying goes, you don’t watch James Bond to see if he gets out of a situation; you watch to see how. As we know, Ned didn’t make it out of the situation in GoT; and shit got real.
I won’t diverge this into a Martin discussion, though there’s plenty of opportunity. But I will say that Walking Dead plays with this same trope, that of plot armor. We have characters we — as the audience — have invested in. That we’re most particularly tuning in for. That, frankly, we always want to see make it out. Regardless of how fucked up the circumstances they end up in; we still want to see something clever or interesting or last minute show up to save the day and keep them with us.
The most recent Walking Dead episode gave me another ‘Ned’ moment. Not as strong of one, not one that I went full James Bond into; but I still had the thought play through my head several times as I was watching. Glenn and Nick get trapped in an alleyway by a horde; two, actually. They had hordes on both sides of them. The camera panned around the scene with them at the fence, backs to it, looking at the sea of zombies, and I thought to myself “it should be pretty good however he gets out of this.”
Except he didn’t. I forgot what show I was watching.
It’s a mean trick, but a good one. To keep the apocalypse real, plot armor has to be handled exceedingly carefully and handed out like pure platinum. Else the storytelling loses its weight, its impact, and its value. In the apocalypse, not every situation is salvageable. Not every circumstance is survivable. That’s why we love apocalypse stories; because the stakes are different. Because “oh, I’ll just have to get another job now that my rival beat me out for the promotion” or “gee, I guess I won’t get to go to the dance with my sweetheart now that we’ve broken up” doesn’t scratch the same kind of itch that “get it right or you die, screaming, as dozens of zombies tear you apart and eat your limbs as you watch with your last seconds of life.”
I really liked Glenn. Did from the start. The moment at the end of the very first episode, where he says “Hey, dumbass” was what hooked me to watch the second. And by the end of the second, I wanted to at least finish the season unless things took a huge nosedive. And I always identified, very strongly, with several things Glenn said in that second episode. He detailed how he was better on his own, how others slowed him down and messed things up. Glenn’s logic made a certain amount of sense.
Over the seasons, with the ups and downs, Glenn had long since evolved away from ‘just a pizza delivery guy.’ He was a survivor; the only thing he added was more dots in his skillset of surviving. Same as all of “Rick’s Crew”; they’re part of the crew because they’re all hardened and tested survivors.
It’s what Michonne was telling Heath in what would have otherwise been the most impactful scene in the episode. They — the Alexandrians, who we saw repeatedly in this episode sulking and protesting that they knew what was what — don’t know. They haven’t been out there. They haven’t survived the things Rick’s crew has. That there’s a reason the crew acts and believes as it does; because they know. I’m not sure Heath fully grasped it, even after she laid it out for him. And we saw, as things continued to play out, that all the Alexandrians — except Heath — perished in the flight.
Most of the bad things that happened were the fault of the Alexandrians. Certain of them would panic, wound and incapacitate others . . . disable themselves . . . get themselves killed. Get survivors, real survivors, killed. Rick told Michonne, point blank; leave them behind if they slow you down. There was no metaphor, no reading-between-the-lines in what he said. It was stated outright.
And yet the Alexandrians who had mobility-reducing injuries were the reason Michonne and Glenn stopped. And the reason they got into a really bad set of circumstances in the little town there. And why Glenn died. Why Michonne came about as close as possible to actually dying without becoming a zombie snack. If they’d listened to Rick, Glenn would be alive. They would’ve left the wounded Alexandrians behind and not been in that town when the horde descended. They would’ve been out in more open terrain where they’d be able to maneuver, dodge, fight, and survive.
Thus far in the latter half of season five and in this one, Michonne — especially — has been looking at Rick’s decision making a little in askence. There’ve been looks, a few comments between them. Darryl’s shared it as well. I wonder, over the rest of the episodes, if Michonne will continue her mild questioning of his attitude. If she’ll still think he’s being too brutal and overly harsh.
Because, like it or not, Rick’s very usually right when it comes to surviving. He makes brutal decisions because it’s a brutal world. Right, wrong; there’s only alive and dead in the apocalypse. Except, in the apocalypse, there’s an option worse than dead. Undead.
This season is doing so many things right so far. They’re really doing a fantastic job. Here’s hoping the bar stays as high as it’s been raised. Because we’ve got five more before they break for the holidays.
ps: there’s speculation, both online and on The Talking Dead, that Glenn isn’t actually dead. Scott Gimple is feeding the rumors. I don’t know how I feel about that. I like the character, but I’d have to see some really clever writing to believe a circumstance where Glenn got out of where we last saw him. Really clever. And not “oh, the fans will love it if he lives, so poof he lives” kind of clever either. Like, when Tyreese went outside the cabin in season five and killed several walkers with his bare hands; that was funny but didn’t really rise to this level of necessary clever. Pulling something like that with this, so that Glenn survives, would be a cop out.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.