Before we begin, let me warn you: there are some mild spoilers below for a number of TV shows, and a LOT of spoilers for The Walking Dead in particular. Carry on at your own risk.
Lately, I’ve expressed to a lot of people my absolute disdain for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, I expressed my absolute adoration of HBO’s Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead’s counterpart on AMC – Breaking Bad. I tried to explain WHY I hate The Walking Dead so much in comparison to those other shows, and I think I did a decent job. Still, I’ve given it a lot of further thought, and I thought I’d try to clarify, and to broaden the discussion a bit.
So let’s talk about The Walking Dead, about Game of Thrones, and about Breaking Bad. And to make things even more interesting, let’s throw in another highly influential (and controversial) show from recent years: Lost.
Why do I think Breaking Bad is the best of these shows, followed by Thrones and then Lost? And why do I think Walking Dead has become a heaping mess of dogshit?
It’s all about the planning.
From my perspective, that’s the difference between all four shows – each show’s ability to engage me, thrill me, surprise me, and please me directly correlated to the amount of planning the show’s creators put into it. I get the distinct impression that Vince Gilligan always knew more or less exactly where he was going with Breaking Bad. Sure, there were some gray areas that needed to be filled in, and he had to react to his audience and his investors to some extent. But he had a plan.
On the other hand, I think that the show runners and producers of Walking Dead have so deviated from Robert Kirkman’s original comic book (which I don’t think is that well planned itself) that it’ll take a Herculean effort to turn the mess they’ve made into anything cohesive and satisfying. I see the show petering out into oblivion as other, better shows come to the fore. All it takes is someone producing ANOTHER zombie apocalypse story (or something similar, since zombies are getting played out) which is better written and better structured. When that day comes – and I have a feeling a script is out there somewhere – it’ll be the bullet to the brainpan that puts Kirkman’s creation down for good.
In between lies Lost and Game of Thrones, and I mention them here to demonstrate how varying levels of planning contribute to a show’s ultimate success.
Anyone who’s read the books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that HBO has done a remarkable job in staying true to the books. Again, that’s a qualified statement – there ARE differences, as there are wont to be when you’re adapting page to screen – but as much as I think they can, the show’s producers are not “interpreting” Martin’s vision, but genuinely sharing it. Thank God for CGI. (On a side note, I think the new Hobbit movies, while enjoyable, are shitting on Tolkien’s quaint little book).
The problem with Thrones lies with Martin himself. I believe in my heart that he, too, has a plan – but he’s writing the series awfully slowly, and I think the scope of what he envisioned now scares the crap out of him. His “plan” is for two more books, but holy cow he’s got a lot of terrain – both figuratively and literally – to cover. And he’s running out of time.
The power of Thrones SO FAR is that there are existing books that will carry the series forward for three, maybe four more seasons. That gives Martin some time. Also, the show’s producers haven’t deviated from his existing storylines, so they’re on track and everything makes sense. Sure, that means those of us who’ve read the books weren’t that surprised by things like Eddard’s execution or the Red Wedding. But so what? It was still great television, and think about all the people who WERE surprised.
The only problem I foresee is if the show catches up with Martin. Then what? I hope to hell that doesn’t happen, but it could derail Game of Thrones, especially if they start making stuff up as they go along, the way Walking Dead seems to be doing now.
It’s been well documented that Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams, and Carlton Cuse had a plan for Lost’s early seasons. And it showed. The show was tight, fascinating, exciting, and profound. But in the end, the mythology behind the mysterious island was murky, and the plot and pacing suffered. I personally stuck with them until the end – and what an ending it was – but was it an ending the show’s creators had planned? From everything I’ve read, the answer is no. They had a plan for the beginning, and they stuck to it. But eventually they were winging it, and that showed as well.
Which brings us back again to The Walking Dead.
As of now, the comic book on which the TV show is based is up to around issue 115. It’s been around for almost 10 years. If you read the letters pages in the back of the comics (I have) as well as other things Kirkman has said about the book, you get the impression that his approach was similar to the one the Lost guys took: he had a plan that would sustain the book for quite a while, but after a point it became really, really vague. Kirkman admitted several times that he wasn’t sure what would be happening a year ahead of wherever he was then. He sort of knew what he wanted to accomplish, but he didn’t know the details.
Now this next part is just my impression, and if I’m wrong, then correct me in the comments: I believe that he had a DISTINCT plan that would carry him up to the prison, and the survivors’ experience with The Governor and Woodbury, but after that… nothing. Since that point in the comic, I think he’s been winging it.
After the prison, I stuck with him, hoping some forward movement would happen. After all, there are only so many people in the world who could become zombies, and over time wouldn’t the zombie numbers grow less? Despite the tyrannical nature of The Governor, wouldn’t other, similar pockets of humanity and civilization eventually rise up and prevail?
I can tell you that as of issue 100, there have been gleams and glints of it, but they were all quelled and destroyed by a horrifyingly bleak outlook on mankind’s capacity for compassion and peaceful coexistence. In Kirkman’s vision, the zombies are only the initial threat – tyrants, demagogues, and murderers are abundantly able to finish what the zombies started.
Kirkman has said repeatedly that no character was safe, with the possible exception of Rick Grimes. Trust me, he meant that. But what THAT means, folks, is that there IS NO POINT in investing emotionally in anyone (except Rick, whom I HAVEN’T been able to invest in because I don’t like him). It is my opinion as a writer that the most engaging literature requires you to emotionally invest in someone. Again, that’s qualified – you can have literature that contains no one worthwhile, but the best literature does.
I quit the Walking Dead comic book when one of the best characters was senselessly pulverized. Not just killed – pulverized. I won’t tell you who.
Adding to the problem inherent to the book itself is what the show’s producers are doing to the existing material. Did you know that at the point in the comic book that the show has reached, Andrea was still alive, and she was one of the book’s best characters? She wasn’t the annoying, indecisive creature Lauren Holden was required to portray. Dale was still alive, too, and he was also very likeable. Sophie, too.
You know who’s dead? Tyrese. Carol. The baby Judy. Lori. Herschel. THE GOVERNOR. Shane died early in the mix – before he became so unlikeable we WANTED to see him die. And every single one of their deaths were affecting and powerful and even meaningful.
At this point, what we’re seeing on AMC is resembling Kirkman’s already chaotic vision less and less. If the show’s producers and show runners had stuck to the script the way the Game of Thrones producers have, you would have been terrified of The Governor. You would have been shocked at what Michonne did to him. And you would have been as horrified and surprised by the end of Woodbury and the time in the prison as so many people were when the Red Wedding happened, when Charlie drowned, and when Todd visited Jessie’s ex-girlfriend and her kid.
All that opportunity for good, even great television? Gone.
Kirkman said that he wanted to change things up, to add a few surprises, but I think it’s gotten out of hand. For instance, I LIKE Daryl, and I liked Merle – he was actually a better right hand man to The Governor than Kirkman’s Sanchez was – but now I think they’ve gone too far. I think they’re spiraling out of control.
And when you let things spiral that far out of control, when you deviate from the plan too much, you lose it. The writing itself gets sloppy. You lose continuity and opportunities for solid story-telling. You have actors who become unsure about how to play their characters. I see all of this happening to The Walking Dead, and just like Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse, there’s no end in sight.
My friend Kym reminded me the other day of something that happened to me during the summer of 1983, when I was still young and (more) naive. I’ve told the story a few times with the intent of portraying for people what it was like to grow up a geek boy on a backwater farm, or as part of a run-down of my past physical injuries. The context today will be different… but, first: the story in brief.
My dad had a couple of bulls he was raising for slaughter. One - the older, larger one - was named Napoleon (the other, incidentally, had the less inspired name of Roscoe). You may recall that 1983 was the year George Lucas released The Return of the Jedi, and if you know me, you know how much that impacted my summer and my upcoming teenage years.
My dad also had this peculiar device called a “hog prod”, which was essentially a metal cylinder with a plastic grip on one end and two prongs on the other. A bunch of D batteries in the cylinder gave it its power, and the prongs gave it its purpose. All you had to do was jab the prongs into a pig, and Ned Beatty’s worst nightmares came true.
It also looked remarkably like a small light saber.
Well, one day the week after I saw Jedi, I climbed the tall fence that held Napoleon and Roscoe. I was reenacting that scene in the movie where Luke went berserk and swung at his dad again and again until he was sweaty and Vader had lost a hand. For some reason, I chose Napoleon as my avatar for Vader - I walked up to the bull without fear, said a few lines from the movie, and gave him the point of my “light saber.”
There’s a reason they call it a HOG prod and not a CATTLE prod. All I did was piss Napoleon off, and since he’d never seen Return of the Jedi, he didn’t know he was supposed to cow before me (pun intended), and help me destroy the Emperor. Nope. Instead, that fucker charged me. He caught me in my ribcage with his small but still formidable horns and tossed me a few feet backwards, flat on my back on the ground. Then he put his head/horns against the bottoms of my feet and pushed me along the ground for about 10 feet, apparently in an effort to reenact that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy drags himself under the Nazi truck. Which was bullshit (no pun actually intended here), because I’m pretty sure Napoleon hadn’t seen Raiders either.
After pushing me along, Napoleon backed off, ran around in a wide circle for another pass at me, and then stopped, confused, because I wasn’t there anymore. While he was circling back around, I’d jumped to my feet, crossed the 30 feet back to the fence, VAULTED said fence (which was seven or eight feet high), and run halfway back to my house, where my mom would access my injuries and conclude that I’d probably cracked a rib (which hurts, BTW), and maybe broken a toe (which doesn’t hurt quite as bad).
So, here’s the thing. As a young boy, I was for several months after that absolutely TERRIFIED of Napoleon. And he knew it. Whenever I went to do my farm chores near his pen, he’d come up to the fence and bellow at me. A few times, he’d rear up, and I was sure he was going to leap the fence and come chase me down. I had nightmares wherein Napoleon escaped his pen and was on the fucking porch of my house, waiting for me to come out.
Still (and here’s the context of my story for today - aren’t you LUCKY), if you asked me if I regretted prodding a bull with a hog prod, or if I regretted reenacting a fantasy story in a less than fantastical setting, I’d tell you no. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it. I’d even accept the nightmares and the broken bones - and here’s why.
1) It makes for a great story. Kym heard it when I was in grad school at NYU, and he remembered it. You’re hearing it now, almost 30 years after the fact - and I bet you chuckled. I’ve told the story quite a few times, mostly successfully. We as humans make mistakes, and it is those mistakes which make us stronger individuals and give us stories to tell. I mean, how good would Snow White’s story have been if she hadn’t eaten that apple? Jonah’s if he’d done what God told him to do in the first place? Tony Montana’s if he’d shown restraint and a lack of hubris? Hell, Walter White’s if he hadn’t felt so loyal to Jessie?
2) The nightmares gave me insight into the power and nature of nightmares, which makes me a better horror writer.
3) Regardless of how scared I was of Napoleon, I still had to do my chores. Facing him EVERY DAY after he charged me made me face my fears - heart racing and pissing myself be damned. In later years, that made me more fearless - more CAREFUL, mind you, but more fearless. It gave me the ability to do this.
4) Ultimately, we ate Napoleon. This in and of itself gave me a sense of justice and vindication. Fuck you, Napoleon - you charge at me, no matter how stupid I was being, and I WILL EAT YOU.