By Jay Hunter – Straight out the gate, I feel I need to state I didn’t dislike this weeks episode of The Walking Dead. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. But it wasn’t the show that we all used to love. Dramatic tension and bite-sized character arcs have been replaced with poorly executed grand narratives and ridiculous set-pieces. Instead of figuring out how to get a zombie out of a well or finding a gas canister, we are now preoccupied with a world – strangely – filled with humans, waging war upon one another.
Unlike a lot of critics, I’ve always been quite fond of The Walking Dead, even if I despise the way it treats it’s more enthusiastic fans. But it’s never been a truly brilliant show. If it ever got close to that statue, it was post-Governor when the show became short stories and arcs set throughout the zombie campaign. In saying that, The Walking Dead’s hardcore fanbase, could simply shrug off criticism by using it’s mammoth ratings as a shield. That is, until season seven’s brutal and divisive premiere, when people tuned out. The coveted 18-49 demographic left in droves as ratings fell by 40 percent.
After leaving fans hanging for seven months, millions of people tuned in to see who’s brains would be left hanging on warlord Negan’s bat. Billed as an endurance test, the sheer brutality on screen was – for some people – akin to the sadistic Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. In a huge miscalculation however, The Walking Dead focused on the antagonist’s glee instead of the pain of the antagonists – like Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead revelled in Negan as the star of the show, stretching over the episodes runtime, the whole episode was executed similar to that of a male power-trip. We lingered on the erotic – brutality as Lucile – Negan’s phallic baseball bat – was shoved in our faces. For nearly forty minutes we focused on low-angled shorts staring up at Negan as he paraded around a group of terrified hostages.
Many people have described The Walking Dead as a ‘bad relationship series’ and the premiere was the epitome of that statement. A show that treats you like dirt for weeks, leading you on and teasing you with good, only to finally deliver it just as you’re about to drop it. Before backing up and repeating the process again.
Which leads me to the midseason premiere. For the first time in it’s unwavering punishment of it’s audience, The Walking Dead relented and gave in to fan pressure. In an uncharacteristically wooden episode, Rick and co managed to traverse the universes ‘treacherous’ landscape, in order to visit a multitude of different communities and convince them to fight in one – comparatively – fast paced episode.
After spending half a season deciding whether or not it was a smart movie to rebel against Negan’s iron fist, our ragtag hero’s visit the Kingdom, asking for King Ezekiel’s aid. Naturally, the leader is hesitant about going to war and risking the welfare of his people. Daryl responds – likely because the writers need him to sound like a tough badass every now and then – “You call yourself a damn king! You sure as hell don’t act like one!”. A ridiculous response to a man who doesn’t want to impulsively rush off to help a dilapidated clan of outsiders wage war on the Saviours.
Clearly The Walking Dead is now a show that has lost any sense of nuance. Consider the scene that surprisingly turns out to be the weeks most fascinating. Rick and friends discover a blocked-off road on a recon mission. The barricade, they discover also doubles up as an explosive trap laid by the Saviors. In need of weapons and explosives, they carefully dismantle it, as a gigantic herd of zombies hurdles toward them.
When it transpires that the group are slowly moving the vehicle’s – just so they can put them back again – the sequence feels like a metaphor for the few seasons. However, we slowly build upon that plot, by adding layers to the scene. First they need to move the cars without alerting the saviours, then they need the bombs without them exploding, then the walkers are getting close, then they need to escape. A clear goal, with escalating pressure. Simple storytelling.
It’s also a segway into an over the top action sequence. Upon fortuitous inspection, Rick and Michonne drive two cars in tandem, with a tensile cable linked between. Dissecting the heard in an explosion of blood and gore. A brilliant set-piece – but one – that betrays all the gritty realism we’ve become accustomed to over the course of it’s seven year runtime.
Upon their return back to Alexandria, Rick and a handful of others go out to find Gabriel and his plot-device. This leads to the group being surrounded yet again by another community. For a world that was so sparsely populated a few years ago, the human race sure have repopulated fast.
Who knows who they are, odds will be they won’t like Rick either. But it’s okay, in a few more episodes they’ll find a safe haven once again – at least for a while.