Walking Dead: Why Storytelling Takes Time

With the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Swear,” fans are starting to get restless.

I’ve had a fortunate background with The Walking Dead. I only started watching just before Season Five, so I was able to binge watch the series up until that point. This meant that if the show dragged for a couple of episodes, I didn’t have to wait long to get to the “solid episodes.” But you notice something when you watch the series all at once; it’s clearer to see that the “slow episodes” are actually building something. Something of value. We all experience the highs of The Walking Dead and those moments aren’t because Rick is stuck in tank and we’re not sure how he’s going to out, it’s because there are themes and ideas the show is trying to convey while simultaneously getting you to care about its characters and where they are going.

And slow as Season Seven may be (so far), I think it’s helpful to look back at previous seasons to remember that the season has a destination in mind and we’re going to be delighted somewhere along the path to that end point.

Season 2

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Season Two of The Walking Dead revolves around four main events: Sophia goes missing, Carl gets shot, the group takes refuge on Hershel’s farm, and the group captures a young man named Randall who comes from a violent, rival group. These are the events that largely push the characters to action and debate.

Because Season Two is a struggle of morality. More specifically, it is a struggle between two camps of ideals: Rick’s and Shane’s. Rick is still an optimist, pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He respects other people’s beliefs, he reasons with people, and he doesn’t want to kill people even when those people pose a threat to him and those around him. Shane, on the other hand, is purely a survivalist. He will do anything to ensure his own survival and the survival of the people he cares about. But he also applies his belief system selfishly and is volatile and unpredictable.

The season follows Rick and Shane arguing because their debates not only decide the moral stance of group, but also help the audience to try and determine their own line of right and wrong on the show. Each debate between Rick and Shane furthers the discussion. Rick wants the group to look for Sophia? Shane thinks it’s a waste of time. Rick debates endlessly over whether or not to kill Randall? Shane desperately wants to kill Randall because of the threat Randall represents.

As the season progresses, things happen that seem to push the debate in Shane’s direction. Dale, the strongest voice of morality in the group is brutally and fatally wounded by a walker. At his funeral, Rick says that they will honour Dale by living as Dale would have wanted, by setting aside their differences and working together. But then Rick is forced to kill Shane.

As the season ends, Rick admits to the group that the guy at the CDC told him that everyone is infected and that, when they die, they will rise as a walker. He also admits that he killed Shane, then tells the group that if they are going to stay with him that he will not run the group like a democracy, but a dictator.

The whole point of the season is to drive Rick and the group to this point of hopelessness and ruin. Along the way we got to see a lot of great scenes, like the one where they discover Sophia:

The reason this scene works so well is that so much of the show has been invested in it. For some of the characters, saving Sophia is a way of saving themselves. Daryl doesn’t think he’s as good as Rick or Shane and nearly dies trying to find Sophia. Also, as long as Sophia is alive, Carl’s childhood is alive too because they are childhood friends. The scene also is an awakening for Hershel, because before this happens he really believes that these people are just sick and the world can get better. And, of course, this scene represents a focal point for the disagreement between Rick and Shane about Sophia.

While you may think that the episodes where Otis and Shane make run for medical supplies at the high school, Daryl and Andrea search for Sophia and debate the point of staying alive, Glenn and Maggie have sex, Daryl tells Carol about the Cherokee Rose, Daryl hallucinates about Merle while looking for Sophia, Rick and Hershel negotiate how their people should work together, Lori and Shane argue about Rick, and Rick and Lori debate whether or not to have a baby, are less interesting than the barn scene, each episode serves a purpose. All these moments are progressing toward the larger themes of the season, or are setting up important plotlines for later. When Daryl gives Carol his little speech about the Cherokee Rose, we are as hopeful as he is about finding Sophia.

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It’s a Cherokee rose. The story is that when American soldiers were moving Indians off their land on the trail of tears the Cherokee mothers were grieving and crying so much ’cause they were losing their little ones along the way from exposure and disease and starvation. A lot of them just disappeared. So the elders, they, uh, said a prayer. Asked for a sign to uplift the mothers’ spirits, give them strength and hope. The next day, this rose started to grow right where the mothers’ tears fell.
I’m not fool enough to think there’s any flowers blooming for my brother. But I believe this one bloomed for your little girl.

And when Lori and Shane are debating Rick’s choices as leader, they are simply echoing the moral debate that already exists between Rick and Shane and giving it more dimension.

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Shane: Can’t keep going out there, not after this.
Lori: You’d quit now? Daryl just risked his life to bring back the first hard evidence we’ve had.
Shane: That is one way to look at it. The way I see it, Daryl almost died today for a doll.
Lori: Yeah, I know how you see it.
Shane: I’m not out to be a hard case. Just being realistic. He’s just got to start making the tough calls. You know I’m right.
Lori: I may not agree with all of his choices, but I respect him. I know yours and mine and your way isn’t harder. It’s the easiest thing in the world to cut our losses and to not help. You keep telling yourself you’re making the tough calls. You’re really just trying …
Shane: The only thing I care about now in this world is you and Carl. So I apologize if I appear to be insensitive to the needs of others, but you see I’ll do whatever it takes to keep the two of you safe.
Lori: Even abandoning a lost child? Really?
Shane: Yeah.
Lori: My son and I are not your problem anymore, or your excuse.

There’s weight to these kinds of discussions. They show us that the key argument doesn’t just exist between Shane and Rick, but it filters down into the rest of the group. That their scenes are part of a larger theme for the season.

 

Season 4

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Season Four of The Walking Dead is about family. This season sees Rick’s group splinter off into smaller groups only to be reunited at the end (even if they are trapped in a train car). Yet even when the group breaks apart, each smaller subset party follows the theme of family.

When the season begins we see Rick has given up his gun and his leadership role and is trying to be a farmer. The prison has provided enough protection for them that Rick’s group thinks they can literally put roots in the ground in order to sustain themselves. And yet, this farming is precisely what leads the flu that nearly destroys their community, as it originates with a sick pig.

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The group survives the flu, only to discover that The Governor has also survived. We see flashbacks of The Governor, as his men abandon him, as he burns Woodbury, and as he gives up on almost everything except moving forward until he is found by a family living in an apartment. The Governor reluctantly accepts their food and assistance while doing them some favours as well. He intends to leave them but can’t help but take a shining to the little girl, Meghan (who likely reminds him of his own daughter) and Lilly, her mother. Lilly tells The Governor that she knows he lost his own family, and invites The Governor to join theirs.

Later, when The Governor takes over another group, he manages to convince this group to come with him to take over Rick’s prison. Rick, still trying to protect his newly established home pleads with the rival group:

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“I’ve fought him before and after, we took in his old friends. They’ve become leaders in what we have here. Now, you put down your weapons, walk through those gates, and you’re one of us. We let go of all of it, and nobody dies. Everyone who’s alive right now. Everyone who’s made it this far. We’ve all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive, but we can still come back. We’re not too far gone.”

And then The Governor kills Hershel. The prison falls and the group splits up. Even in their own individual groups, though, the theme of family continues. Michonne tries to give up the group entirely and tries to go back to being a loner with two mouthless, armless walkers trailing her, but decides to go back and find Carl and Rick. Daryl and Beth bond and Daryl suggests to Beth that they wait for the owner of the house they’re staying in to return, and ask that owner to stay there permanently. Carol, Lizzie, and Mika try to live in a house together. Glenn and Maggie relentlessly pursue each other from their own individuals groups until they are reunited.

It’s because these things took time that this scene matters the way it does:

As does this one in the beginning of Season Five:

There’s weight to the time we spend with these people. To the work they put in trying to establish family whether they are all together or not.

 

Season 7

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Season Seven isn’t over so I can’t definitively tell you what it’s about yet, but I recognize some of the groundwork the show is laying.

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Consider where the group has just come from. At the end of Season Six, every single road they tried to take was blocked by The Saviors — Rick’s group was trapped. Then they were rounded up, tied, and two of them were beaten to death with a bat as a warning. Rick’s group (and the audience) have been shown very clearly that they are outmatched and they have been emotionally and spiritually crushed. This is the most overwhelming opponent Rick and his group has ever faced and in order to properly tell the story of how Rick’s group will overcome The Saviors, it will take time. Just as it took time to work towards the discovery of Sophia in Season Two, or the reunion of Glenn and Maggie in Season Four.

And it looks like the show is establishing a lot of groups that are either currently or were formerly under The Savior’s control. It’s possible that these groups will join forces with Rick’s to fight against The Saviors, and when they do, it will be better to have spent time getting to know these various groups and caring about them before they’re just random bodies that are slaughtered in a big battle.

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Another important thing they established in the most recent episode, “Swear,” is a reminder that no matter how bad things seem, that people can still work together. Cyndie comes from a group that managed to escape The Saviors and has been trained to kill strangers on sight. Despite this, Cyndie helps Tara escape. And when Tara leaves, she keeps the secret of Cyndie’s colony even though she doesn’t have to. It’s a moment that reminds us that two groups of people that have been subjugated by Negan can still work together; it represents a turning point for that possibility in the character’s mentalities and the audiences as well.

Does it need an entire episode with Tara? Maybe it does. We need to breathe with this new community. We need to understand who they are and that they desperately protect what little they have so that if they do join up with Rick’s group against The Saviors, we understand precisely how difficult that decision was and its cost.

Storytelling demands a process. It demands we spend time with characters and experience their struggles, so that when they do finally overcome them, we share in their triumph. We have to believe Rick’s group is as helpless as Rick currently does. We have to worry and as Carl and Jesus head toward The Saviors in the back of a truck. And we have to see Tara decide to keep Cyndie’s secret so that we can begin to believe there is hope in cooperation; that there is hope for this group of people we’ve sat on the edge of our seat for, that we’ve cheered for, and cried for. Because they are a group of people we’ve spent so much time with that we feel like we’re right there with them. That they’re our friends too.

And that’s good storytelling.

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