It’s hard to believe the Walking Dead has been going on for ten years now, but it has. I remember the excitement myself and my dad had over watching it, both he and I being fans of the zombie apocalypse genre. For years, the best we had were movies that gave you maybe 120 minutes, more or less, of zombie horror as a group struggles to survive the horde and each other. That was it, and even then, it was rare that you would ever find a zombie movie that was actually good, and had some originality to it.
Finally, we were getting a show, which meant you could take your time in exploring the apocalypse and all the strangeness that would come out of it. That made watching the show much more exciting, and the first season was indeed excellent. We could hardly wait for the next episode to come out; we had a whole week of talking about the show, its potential, its future and the next episode. It was an original show, taking the zombie concept into television, something I don’t remember anyone doing before.
But what has it become since then? The first three seasons were good, especially in comparison to the seasons that come after it. My greatest gripe as the seasons went on, was how I still didn’t have a character I was really interested in. The closest being Darrel, who at this point, has plot immunity. But even by season five, I started losing interest in him, and the entire show in general. The only reason I was watching it by this point was because my dad was still heavily invested in the show, and I like spending time with him.
Internally, however, I was growing a nagging feeling that this show was empty. Yet I couldn’t figure out why that was; the only thing I knew for certain was my disinterest for the show was in proportion to my dislike for the characters. Nevertheless, I felt like there was still something else about it that just rotted my interest in the show. I found a small revival of interest in season five, but by the end of it, the despairing feeling returned. Why was that?
What happened in season five that changed things for me? That was the season Abraham and Eugene were introduced, and they were on a mission to deliver a cure to Washington D.C. and end the apocalypse. That began to change the dynamic of the show. In fact, that’s when a dynamic was actually reintroduced to the show. But when Eugene proved to have been lying the whole time, that he had no cure and just wanted Abraham to keep him alive, that’s when it hit me on what is the blight of this show. It’s an endless tale of nihilism.
I’ve watched several Joe Rogan segments were he talked about his dislike for the Walking Dead. Many YouTube channels that talk about TV shows and movie media talked about the downfall of the Walking Dead and how the Negan reveal and his killing Glenn and Abraham in such brutal fashion and in such a cheap cliff-hanger way was the real nail in the coffin. They make a good point, and that is about when I stopped watching the show. But again, I didn’t really care about Glenn. Seeing him get a bat to the head didn’t really hit me at all, although I completely sympathize with the argument that doing that to a beloved main character was just cheap and terrible, and only further reveals that the show is hanging on by sheer shock moments and nothing more.
The Nihilism Effect
But I would contend the real sign that this show was going nowhere was actually in the first season, when the group is overrun and forced to a CDC building, where they learn from the surviving scientist that no cure exists, and he then blows himself up with everything inside the building–all the research that may help someone with more optimism is blown away. That was the real moment that this show was telling you that it put you into a room, locked the door from the outside and you’re trapped with nowhere to go.
What happens next? The gang heads for a farm in season two, which was one of the slowest seasons in the series, but it was building up to a climactic moment which was, surprise, surprise, a zombie overrun that forces the gang to run again. Season three is where they find a prison, which ironically was a great place to stay. But yet again, what happens? Things are nice for a while, the show toys with a new kind of zombie that seems to spread a feverish illness (a concept the show seems to forget about later on) but ultimately, some psycho guy and his band of raiders destroys everything and the group flees once more.
That’s essentially the Walking Dead. That’s what it’s always been. There are no resolutions, there is no real redemption–anyone who has a redeeming characteristic, if they live long enough, betray that characteristic eventually. If they don’t live long enough, what does that prove to the audience except that no matter how much you redeem, you die in the apocalypse anyway? Because that’s all this is.
Once they got into seasons five and six, it became very, very clear to me that they were making this thing up as they went. There’s no clear path to victory anywhere, because the show doesn’t intend one, and that’s why it’s dying. The Walking Dead, from the get-go, had no ultimate goal, no resolution. It had no intention of ending the apocalypse, and as a result, was running out of oxygen so fast, that it had to put itself on life support with the Abraham and Eugene debacle.
I’m aware that the comic has these two characters in it. How far the show follows the comic, I’m not aware, but if the comic was anything like the show, it only proves the comic itself was on life support. The entire story realizes it needs something to give to the audience, and not just something, but purpose. Because that’s what humans strive for, purpose. That’s the Imago Dei in us–the Imagine of God. God always acts with a purpose, and His creatures whom He made after His own image desire purpose as a result.
Resolution is the Beginning
This is ultimately why every good show that goes out with a wimper dies like this, because they forget a key element that makes a story good. That is a resolution, an end. All good stories need to have some form of “And they lived happily ever after; the end”. The more I mature as a writer and aspiring author, the more I am convinced that to write a good story, you need to know how it ends, and what you want the audience to know by the end, and what you want your main characters to look like by the end before you even begin it.
The resolution gives purpose to a story, and hence drives the plot in a particular direction. This is how God does it in Scripture, and this is how every good story that has ever been made operates, how every good piece of music operates–it is made in such that when you reach the end, you say, “Wow! What an end to a magnificent piece of music!” And in the Bible, after God’s great story (which is true, by the way) is completed you say, “What an amazing story!” and why? Because what an incredible ending, and what it teaches us about God is worthy of infinite praise and honor.
Without this, a story is left to wander aimlessly, and be subject to all sorts of inconsistency and sheer messiness. A few days ago, I found some old forms of my current novel I’m writing, and wow what a mess those were. Setting aside the horrific grammar and simplistic literary style, I look back now and realize why I kept running into so many slow points, where I didn’t know what to do, and why the infamous writer’s block happened so much. It’s because I had no resolution, and it’s because I didn’t have this, I didn’t have a lesson for my main characters, a message for my audience, nothing the main character wanted nor needed, and hence a boring story.
Thus I have to make up some random shock moment that comes out of nowhere, has no explanation for why it’s in the story to attack my characters and push them in a direction. As a result, I end up implementing a random event that was never actually intended, and sends my characters off into a direction I never intended to go. The next thing I know, I’m four chapters in, off into left field and nowhere near even a minuscule of an idea where I wanted to go originally.
Once the gospel became central to my life, and once I learned how God has saved me from the coming wrath, how in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I am rebirthed into life anew, I wanted to tell that story to people in the way I knew how: storytelling. That’s how I want to share the message of the gospel. And so what is my ultimate resolution for my stories? The glory of God. I want my audience to receive the message that God is sovereign, that His purposes come to pass, not man’s, and His kingdom is forever. That ultimate purpose drives my storytelling; it allows me to create characters that come to know this as they grow in the story, and it allows me to create dynamic moments in the story that exist, not in random to spin the wheel of a dying story, but to pivot the characters into the next phase of achieving that goal.
You need resolution, you need an end game for the story–and that is, by the way, why Endgame worked. The Russo brothers had been planning this ending since the beginning. Now it may be said that the exact ending they came to wasn’t the same all along. Surely, some pieces of the ending were unknown as the decade of the MCU was unraveling, but nevertheless, they had an end game, and that’s what drove all those movies; it was that culminating resolution moment we find in Endgame, and that’s why that was one of the best endings ever in the history of cinema.
The Weakness of TV Shows
This points to one of the major problems TV shows have. Don’t get me wrong, I think that TV shows are exploding in popularity; people are beginning to realize a major advantage shows have over movies (and that’s why major actors are transitioning into them more and more). With a TV show, you have much more room and time to develop characters, whereas with movies, very often you have only about two hours to do it. Movies and shows are like songs: What’s the general makeup of a song today? Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse (verse), bridge, end-verse. But take that basic and frankly way over-done framework and throw it out the window and you can make some incredible music.
TV shows have done that to movies. Movies have a framework restriction in what they can do within their time span. TV shows, while not unlimited, don’t have that kind of restriction, and are free to do much more. Nevertheless, while TV shows have this great advantage, it comes at the price of a massive weakness that too many shows end up falling for, and that is the same death that the Walking Dead is walking right now. It is a slow and painful death–it is the death of not knowing when to quit. You see, with no explicit end date comes the problem of driving through a fog, a fog so thick, you run off a cliff before you even know it.
TV shows need to know when to end. Once again, I was listening to Joe Rogan talk to a guy (initially about the Walking Dead) about why shows shouldn’t last longer than six seasons. They both made, I think, simplistic cases for a show not lasting longer than six seasons, both missed the real reason why shows end up going downhill after that. With some exceptions, if you can’t tell a story within six seasons, you’ve probably lost the story. That’s really it. Once again, it goes back to resolution. Without a resolution tying everything together in the end, the whole thing scatters into a mess.
But what happens is TV shows that become major success get lost in the success, and as a result, try to run the thing as long as possible, racking in ratings, money and more money. That’s what’s happened to the Walking Dead, and it’s what happens to virtually every TV show in history that has and is and will die a slow and painful death, rather than ending on a high note, like Breaking Bad did.
What it Could Have Been
I don’t want to close this out with simply bashing the Walking Dead. Let’s try and be better than the simple whinny critic who just likes to ruin people’s day because his own life is depressing. What would I have done if I was in charge of the Walking Dead show? If it were me who was given the task of making a zombie apocalypse show, how would I go about it?
Firstly, I would recognize that I played the Walking Dead games that followed Clementine’s story, which I loved. Analyzing that, and why I loved those games as opposed to the show, I would ask, what makes these two different? It’s the same universe, same essential worldview really, so what’s different? It’s Clementine. She’s different. This is a little girl raised in a zombie apocalypse, who you’re tasked with keeping alive in the first season, and in the second season, after she has to do the unthinkable, and kill her surrogate dad because he turned, you play Clementine.
The games have, in other words, drawn the audience in to care about her. We wanted to see her story continue. In the end, Clementine dies, and that’s why I didn’t like the end. She just becomes like her surrogate dad, turned to a zombie and dies. That’s the only way they could have ended her story, like they promised. There are no happy endings here. I wanted Clementine to be able to ride off into the sunset and be safe. In fact, while she had to grow up faster than a kid should ever have to, I still wanted her to be a kid, to have a mom and dad. But you don’t get that in the world of the Walking Dead.
My first task, therefore, is to change that. There is a happy ending, and my worldview demands this. I don’t believe in unhappy endings. Hence, the concept of a cure becomes the catalyst of resolution, that then drives the plot. A story without a plot is a cheeseburger without the cheese or the meat paddy. Once I have that established, I can move on to ask how I’m going to get to that resolution, and this leads to creating characters that will fulfill that very task.
Fixing the Background
So far, we haven’t really contradicted how the Walking Dead started. In fact, as I said before, I liked how it began. There is only one major difference I would make, and that is more formidable and dangerous “walkers”. I’d have to change their name (and the name of the show, probably) because they wouldn’t be walkers. They would be faster, more like rabid, thoughtless hunters if anything.
The reason is simple: Think about it for a moment, you see a walker walk towards you from about thirty feet away and it wants to eat your brains. It’s going to take well over a minute for that thing to reach you. By the time it does, you’ll have already known what to do. You can run, it cannot. Now take that back to the beginning, when a functioning government was still around. Long-range communications, internet, instant intelligence on what’s happening everywhere; a military still in full operation, with the capacity to respond to a threat five-hundred miles away in the matter of an hour, and you’re telling me these dumb, decaying corpses overran the entire world in less than a year?
Sorry, I ain’t buying it. And you might say that they are sneaky, they overwhelm and ambush people. First off, how can they get to the point of “overwhelming” if they can’t move fast? Unless a quarter of the population died instantly and came back as walkers, this is impossible. Secondly, how can they ambush? They constantly make screeching noises, and are in no way attempting to be sneaky. How in the world could one sneak up on you? In fact the dumb gets so bad, that by the last few seasons we are in, the walkers are not even really a problem anymore. They’re more of a nuisance.
Clearly then, the idea of walkers is completely absurd; we need more formidable foes to make this work, and we therefore have hordes that can move much faster, and are not so much dead as they are infected. Maybe a little bit of both. Nevertheless, this still does not convince me that the government would be completely overrun. What would likely happen is that the overrun parts become so desperate, that cities are bombed to contain the outbreak, the resources of the government are overrun that it cannot sustain control over the United States. What the government does, therefore, is withdraws.
My personal belief is that to withdraw to, say, the Northeast is impossible. The density of the cities out there is too great, so it’s hard to imagine containing them. The Midwest is too great a stretch of land to control sufficiently with the major restrictions the government now has to work with, including military logistics. The Pacific is a viable balance, therefore, and perhaps even Texas. Both regions have the coast, many rivers, and sizable cities that are not so confined so as to contain the spread of the disease, while having fields to farm for food and things like that.
Setting up a Major Plot Twist
So I would pick one of these two major regions where the United States government retreats to. Remember, it’s not decimated, but it’s crippled. So what the government does is fortifies the cities with walls and precautions, deeming the salvaged cities “Safe zones”. The same for Texas. What happens to everything else, then? The Midwest becomes essentially no man’s land, where if you’re caught out there, you’re on your own to face the infected, as well as the anarchy that reigns.
It’s in one of those abandoned zones to the no man’s land that Rick and his group find themselves. So you would have the first two and maybe three seasons of them struggling to survive. At this point, Rick and the gang are sure there is no government out there, no one’s coming to help them, and they’re on their own. This convinces the audience of the same thing, and sets up a major plot twist later on.
By the end of, say season three, they have established a home base that is working. It’s not only working, but they’re expanding, and are making peace with other groups, and trading, building a civilization. All is well as we come into season four, except perhaps for some individuals causing trouble, wanting to expand more militarily for fear of not-so-nice groups that are still out there.
This causes tension in the group that will eventually break, but in the midst of all of this, the group runs into and captures two mystery characters, one an adult, the other a kid, and are suspect of being spies or scouts for bandits. The adult tries to play off the idea that both are just a parent and child trying to survive, and beg to be let go to never return. The part of the survivors that wants to expand militarily believe these mysterious characters are spies for other bandits, and they try to gain support to go on offense, while Rick struggles to get information out of the mystery characters that they won’t give up.
The adult mystery character tries to pressure Rick into letting them go, urging him that if he doesn’t there will be “extraordinary consequences” to follow, but Rick doesn’t know he can trust the character, especially when this character shows they know how to shoot and fight. Eventually, the part of the group that believes both the adult and kid should be executed attempts to kill the kid, causing the adult to snap and take one of Rick’s close friends hostage and demanding his cooperation in recovering the kid.
At that point, you realize these are no normal traveling parent and child trying to survive, but that this mystery character knows what they’re doing and is cornered. Ultimately, Rick learns from the mystery character that he or she is an agent for the US government still functioning in the safe zones, and they have the cure to the infection. That cure is the kid that the other side is about to execute. This leaves Rick and the gang with a crucial choice to make, whether to trust this mystery character or not.
Rick trusts them, saves the kid at the cost of the stability of their homestead but now with a new purpose in mind. What you do here is you introduce a major plot twist in the middle of the show that re-energizes it and now sends it in a direction for resolution. Rick and the team now have a purpose for setting off with this mystery character, which is to get this kid who is an immune, across no man’s land, and to one of the safe zones alive, but in secret.
Multidimensional Apocalypse for Plot Progression
Why must it be secret? That’s a question you can explore in the lore that develops in the story. One of the things The Walking Dead suffers immensely from (that contributes to its repetitiveness) is its one-dimensional functionality. Is there anyone out there who’s motivated by more than just being a jerky, selfish survivor, or a kind and giving survivor? Is there anyone out there who’s not just fixated on surviving, but perhaps more?
Where are the religious crazies who see this as the apocalypse of the Bible, for example? Surely you can create a dynamic where one group sees themselves as the chosen era, and see their conflict with the outside world as a holy war. And they therefore see an immune as someone either greatly threatening to their cause, or the catalyst to their cause. Or a rogue mad scientist who believes he can save the world by a ruthless, scentistic ideology? How about a group who flourishes on the trade in these times, driven by corporate greed? Trade involving guns, humans, and whatever they can get their hands on? The ones who are the cartels of the apocalypse? What if they realize the valuable price there is in finding an immune and selling them to the highest bidder?
What you could do with all of these multidimensional relationships to the dynamic of the story is explore the imbalance found in many of these ideas, such as religious zealotry, scientific utilitarianism, and greedy corporatism selling humanity for a profit. You could do that with this, if you put your mind to it, and make it more than a zombie apocalypse.
You see, what makes a good story? If I can try and summarize it with an example and a single paragraph, I remember watching the movie Warrior, about two brothers in an MMA tournament. When I saw the trailers, I thought it was another Rocky knock-off. Granted, it used the concept of underdog fighting in the ring, but that was a catalyst to the real message of the story. That is to say, the entire concept of MMA fighting became a backdrop to tell an important message. That’s the key to making original stories. Take a basic concept, like fantasy, but use the concept to convey a deeper message. If you simply make fantasy for the sake of fantasy, or a military movie for the sake of military-style shootouts, or a spy thriller for the sake of the spy world, you make something at best decent, but forgettable. In the same way here, take the genre of a zombie apocalypse to tell a deeper story through it.
The Tragedy of the Walking Dead
There’s all these concepts you can explore that would become severe obstacles to the main characters in their struggle to find a cure, and you can top off all the antagonists with government corruption. What if someone in the government itself wants the immune for their own power-grabbing purposes, adding yet another plot twist to the story? I mean, so much you could have done if you didn’t restrict yourself to the basic meandering of the zombie apocalypse.
And in the midst of all of this, great character development, meaningful sacrifice, love and companionship could have flourished. There could have been a purpose to the choices the characters made, and real consequences that threatened the salvation of the world. All of that potential was wasted in the Walking Dead, whose greatest concept was also its greatest weakness.
The real problem of the Walking Dead, I think, boils down to this: It was a show that gave itself all the tools to explore the zombie apocalypse in a way a movie could not do, but it never actually got out of the mindset of a movie scenario limitation to actually do that, and hence, the show really was only as good as one season. After the CDC research facility was blown to bits at the end of season one, the only thing left was endless nihilism.