Fans are not happy with TWD’s season six finale; not news. But the reaction I’ve seen to FtWD’s season two opener was flat and not-content as well. Where are the shows going awry? I think the easiest thing to point to that’s still specific enough to avoid just saying “they’re bad” is that the shades of grey have been lost in a wash of black and white.
Most Post-apocalyptic fans are looking for grey. The PA audience isn’t looking for the easy choices, the Shining Paladin of Good and the Heartless Bastard of Evil, in the genre. There are plenty of genres that hew to such obvious themes. Like good horror, a PA fan is looking for head scratchers, for questions impossible to safely answer one way or another, and for the outcomes to have murky morality. They’re usually still rooting for the protagonists to carry the day, but they want the victory to cost and weigh heavily going forward.
The kind of philosophical questions that would make the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Confucius, and half a dozen other legendary gentle hearted philosophers draw knives and go for each others’ throats. Things with no right answers, but no wrong ones either. Good PA fiction should always be able to swap the protagonist and antagonist roles — to write the story from either side — and work either way. A well done story should leave the audience able to see either side carrying the day.
That’s a lot of talk. How about some examples?
- During a plague or disease apocalypse, a town still has a stocked clinic with drugs and equipment, and a doctor to staff it. A band of survivors with sick people appear. The survivors want access to the medical care for a chance to heal and get better; the town doesn’t want risk their own people (especially their only doctor) getting sick from the plague from these strangers. Who’s right?
- A group is on the ragged edge of going out; about to starve to death, with people who are sick, and in desperate need of weapons or ammo to be more sure of fending off the next attack from alien invaders. They have time for one last scavenging run. Do they do the “good moral” thing and bring back medical gear from location A to save their dying people, food from location B to boost everyone’s general well being so they don’t pass out from starvation, or get the weapons so the strongest members have the best chance to survive the aliens? Which is the most important?
- Zombies are attacking a group holed up in a house at night, coming from nearly all sides. Our protagonist main character has time to save one of person in the group who end up needing saving or they’ll die during the attack. Does (s)he save his other child who didn’t get clear with the first one when all hell broke loose; the doctor, to keep the first child who’s injured from succumbing to the wounds; his/her spouse, out of love; or the hardy survivalist type who knows the location of a stocked bunker a couple days travel from here? And if the protagonist dies trying to save more than one of the above, the child who did get out is almost certain to die. Choose.
- A well trained and equipped group of survivors, battle tested and combat experienced with good gear, come across a large settlement that’s the exact opposite; but which has a good location with supplies and skilled members in needed areas. The settlement is about to be attacked by another combat-hardened group of less ‘moral’ survivors. If the first group defends the settlement, it’s likely about half of them will die in the fighting, and they might not even win. If they leave, the second group will slaughter most of the settlement and enslave the rest. What’s the right call?
These are the kinds of situations a lot of PA audiences are looking for. They don’t expect happy endings where everyone rides off into the sunset, gets married, saves the day and receives medals, and generally lives out their days in harmony. Like good horror punchlines, the PA audience is reading a genre that is awash with grey and lacks clear-cut delineations of right and wrong. Many of them are doing what most audiences do, envisioning themselves in the story, and that leads to the inevitable question of all good storytelling; “what would you do?”
Obvious choices are boring. Worse in Post-Apocalyptic settings, they’re unrealistic. Civilization affords us the luxury of being able to agonize and debate, of being forced only to choose how much of the entire society’s resources to devote to a problem rather than making triage decisions and picking which problems and issues will be left by the wayside to sink or swim on their own. The vast majority of PA settings involve civilization having disintegrated, and resources from supplies to people, are scarce. Good PA stories are never about “what order will we do these things” but “which things won’t get done because we (don’t have time/can’t risk it/lack the means/are too scared/some other impossible choice).”
The Walking Dead has fallen into this trap. Season six started with some good grey areas. Rick’s group was hardened to the zombie threat, able to deal with and fully cognizant of it. Alexandria’s sheltered naive innocents looked at Rick’s people as savages, but only because they hadn’t been put to the test yet. Was it right or wrong for Rick and company to push to control the town, to train and winnow the ranks of the soft to sort out the hard cases capable of surviving in the zombie apocalypse?
That was a pretty decent PA storyline. But now we’ve moved into the Saviors, who are the same megalomaniacal snorers we’ve been seeing for a while now. The Governor. Terminus. The Cops in the Hospital. The Wolves. Now The Saviors. How many times in Season Six did one of these power-hungry characters say the line “because I want it” or “what was yours is mine now” during the run? I could go count, but it was repeatedly. Over and over, that was the only motivation offered for the antagonists; because they’re just evil. There’s no grey. All of these antagonists are simply power hungry, and that’s the end of it. There’s never a good reason for why they’re control freaks; it’s just because. There’s never anything sympathetic or understandable about why they’re trying to capture or kill or eat or steal from Rick’s crew.
And that’s the big problem. As bad as the repetition of the same motive (evil because we’re just evil) is; worst is that it’s impossible for anyone except a sociopath to sympathize with the antagonists. Which makes them (the antagonists) caricatures instead of characters.
Negan was introduced as a deliciously evil guy. Fine. But coming on the heels of so many other “evil just because” characters, it might be too little too late. The device has been worn out. And the bad “cliffhanger” decision only threw fresh gas on the fire.
A better course would have been for Rick’s people, upon being filled in by Hilltop and the local situation, to weigh whether or not it was worth fighting to save the innocents or simply avoid conflict. To just leave. The most of a debate we really got prior to the final stretch of Season Six was “Hilltop can feed us, and we need the food.” Alexandria’s situation wasn’t dire, they weren’t on the verge of starving; they had time to pull some other option out and pursue it instead.
Fear the Walking Dead is going into the same trap. We got bare taste of it in the Season Two opener, with Strand explaining Rules 1, 2, and 3; that it’s his goddamn boat. That he has no interest in saving random people; but FtWD’s writers haven’t given us any hope that they’re actually going to take that character to the edge of where it’ll be interesting. The episode just brushed past the grey decision and more or less kind of said “Strand’s a bad guy.” And then the thread with Alicia was presented very coarsely. “Wow, you guys have a desalinator on your boat?” the voice on the radio said, followed by “I’ll see you soon.” And we end on another cliffhanger of “the yacht can’t outrun the guys chasing us.”
FtWD’s story doesn’t even have the trite excuse of “it’s a harsh hard world and many people have been driven to piracy and banditry by desperation” like TWD does; Los Angeles is literally still burning. The apocalypse is extremely fresh. How believable is it that a well equipped band with weapons and a radio directional finder are already out prowling around? And have already decided to risk attacking people instead of simply grabbing for loose supplies that are definitely still quite abundant since it’s only been a few weeks since things began to crumble.
Shades of grey. Good Post-Apocalyptic storycraft should present every major decision point as a shade of grey. There should rarely be an obvious right answer. The audience should always be able to divide itself into camps as to who they’re rooting for; to be able to coherently argue (and get agreement) that each side has a point in the matter at hand.
TWD had almost looked like it was starting to finally shed the very bumpy road it’d taken up to now, and everything has unraveled on the storytelling front. Is it the writers making foolish and silly decisions? Is AMC interfering and letting its uncreative executives dictate plot? Are they all just that ignorant?
I don’t know, but I think a lot of us just wish they’d figure it the hell out. We like zombies, we like the apocalypse. And it’s getting harder and harder to defend Walking Dead in either of its forms with this stuff happening.
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