Completely frustrated with its refusal to make any meaningful progress, Chase Branch gives up on The Walking Dead.
Major spoilers for “The Grove” ahead. Also, spoilers for season one of Game of Thrones. And some spoilers for the novel of Of Mice and Men, too, if you haven’t read it. Geez. Get ready to talk some character deaths, okay?
As weird as it sounds to put into words, I think that the artistic statement that best defines my generation’s relationship with popular culture was made by Perry Farrell: nothing’s shocking. We’re living in a new golden age of television brought on, in part, by the rise of premium cable channels with fewer restrictions on sex, violence, and other mature subject matter. It seems like you can expect three or four major character deaths on popular tv shows every season. Violence is up. Gore is up. Swearing is up. Sex is up. Now, I don’t think this is indicative of any big societal morality collapse; honestly, I think TV is better than it’s ever been. The current generation of writers and showrunners are able to produce deeper, fully realized shows with a full palate of colors at their disposal. But, with absolute certainty, the game has changed. We’ve seen it all now. I can’t remember the last time something on TV shocked me. That’s not to say that I’m not ever surprised. Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect, but I haven’t been taken aback in a long time. Like I said, nothing’s shocking.
Unfortunately, no one’s bothered to tell that to The Walking Dead. AMC’s Sunday night zombie-fest is basking in the attention it’s garnering for another unexpected character death, but I just can’t bring myself to care. I find myself ready to give up on the show instead.
This week’s episode, “The Grove,” threw viewers a curveball when 12-14 (the show doesn’t give an exact answer) year-old Lizzie Samuels brutally murdered her younger sister, Mika. Lizzie has had a hard time understanding the nature of the walkers during her time on the show. She’s convinced that the walkers aren’t bad or trying to hurt anyone. She tries to play with one that’s trying to eat her in the yard before Carol puts it down, and she was apparently the person who was feeding the walkers mice back at the prison. Lizzie kills her sister to show that the walkers aren’t bad. She purposely leaves Mika’s brain intact so that she will reanimate, and she doesn’t expect that anything will be different than it was before. Realizing that Lizzie can’t be trusted and just isn’t made for this world, Carol walks Lizzie to the titular grove and, in a moment ripped right from the pages of Of Mice and Men, shoots Lizzie in the back of the head while softly telling her to look at the flowers.
The problem is that The Walking Dead has done nothing to deserve this moment. Neither Lizzie nor Mika were even on this show a year ago. It seems like the pair were created just to exist for this exact moment. You can almost hear the writers working it out: “What if we had a little girl murder her sister? Wouldn’t that be nuts? And then one of the characters could kill her, too! What about Carol? She’s kind of motherly. That’s the angle we need!” Further complicating things is the fact that the scenario makes absolutely no logical sense. Why are three preteen girls (one of whom is an infant, an INFANT!) left alone during a zombie apocalypse? Both girls had already proven to be mediocre shots earlier in the episode. They certainly couldn’t have been expected to defend themselves if walkers had ambled by. It’s the kind of convenience that’s indicative of contrived writing. The same episode previously showed us that Carol and Tyrese were perfectly capable of hearing the girls’ screams when they saved them from an unexpected walker onslaught. Was a 12 year-old such a stealthy assassin that her sister couldn’t even call for help before she was stabbed to death? It’s not likely. Mika’s murder isn’t just completely unearned – it’s completely nonsensical.
The reason that these moments sometimes work is not their shock value. It’s that we’re emotionally invested in the characters and we’re surprised when they’re ripped away from us. Take Game of Thrones. The show spends its entire first season convincing us that Ned Stark is the main character. He’s a father and a husband. He might be the only honest man in the entire king’s court, and any viewer can see that he’s the only man who should be on the throne, but he won’t claim it for his own. In the end he’s unexpectedly beheaded when he gets played by an assortment of craftier characters. If viewers are shattered, it’s not because Ned’s death is shocking (deaths happen all the time in this backstabbing world), but because it’s heartbreaking. The Seven Kingdoms are splintered in an unnecessary battle for the throne, and our protagonist family suddenly doesn’t have its head (pun intended). We’re grieving with the rest of the Starks.
But the The Walking Dead hasn’t given us a reason to care about Lizzie and Mika. We’ve barely had any time to get invested at all – not that it would matter. The whole event is representative of one of The Walking Dead’s largest problems: no character development. The show’s characters don’t really exist except to move the plot along, and when the show does attempt to provide emotional context for its characters, the attempts are usually so ham-fisted and inept that I wish they hadn’t tried at all. But that needn’t have doomed the show by itself. See, it could have ignored this angle completely and been fine. Had The Walking Dead simply contented itself with being an adrenaline-fueled wild ride through the zombie apocalypse, it could survive with no problems. Sometimes I just want some throwaway fun before I have to worry about going back to work on Monday. Archer does great in this territory. So does It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But I guess The Walking Dead got tired of being the Nickelback of TV shows – commercially beloved, but not critically respected – that it went in search of an Emmy nomination that is NEVER coming. Instead, the show is mired in an in-between territory that isn’t giving anyone what they want.
When this half-season started I was already close to giving up on the show, but I decided to stick around for the sake of having a program to write up for Fellowship of the Screen, and hoping, against my better judgment, that it would get better. And, honestly, I was largely rewarded. I’ve raved about how good the episodes I’ve recapped this season were. The show’s writers have made great strides to actually give me a reason to care about characters, and Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, and Larry Gillard, Jr have all given excellent performances, too. But “The Grove” erased all of that good will. The Walking Dead revealed its true intentions with an episode intended to evoke exactly the reaction it did. Entertainment Weekly, MTV, and The Huffington Post are all running articles asking if the show went “too far” with the child murders, and the show seems to be reveling in it. Creator Robert Kirkman warned people that the episode would get people talking, and AMC’s follow-up show Talking Dead had Chris Hardwick teary-eyed and discussing the episode’s events in hushed tones. AMC wants to inflame the “controversy.” Getting the fans talking only helps to stir up interest in the show. Here’s the sad reality: the network would rather The Walking Dead be momentarily “shocking” than be good.
Many of my friends have already ditched the show, and now I find myself joining them. Cosmos is running on Sunday nights now, and Game of Thrones will be back soon. True Detective should be back next year. [Editor’s Note: and Mad Men! And Veep! And maybe ‘Turn’ will be good! And…] There’s just too many good Sunday shows on for me to waste any more time on The Walking Dead. I only had one more episode to write up this season, but Rachel Gibson-Shepherd is taking it over for me. It’s time to move on. Like with any ex, I may check in on The Walking Dead from time to time if I’ve got a lazy, rainy Saturday and there are episodes I haven’t seen on Netflix, but the days of me watching the show religiously on Sunday nights are over. I probably held on a half season too long. The midseason finale should have tipped me off to what the show has become. The title said it all: “Too Far Gone.”