Warning: The follow spiel may contain some The Walking Dead spoilers.
I'll admit, I don't watch The Walking Dead. I've seen maybe an episode-and-a-half total, which is odd, because a) everybody watches The Walking Dead, duh, and b) I have over 20 volumes of the comic series sitting on a shelf downstairs. AMC's doggedly debated and dissected series is just one of those adaptations that feels a bit too close to the source material to be worthwhile. The original comics are already rendered in a relatively matter-of-fact way, and, aside from the zombies, there's nothing fantastical about them, so what's the draw of seeing a story I already know played out in “real life”? On a somewhat smaller scale due to TV budget constraints? With b-level actors who aren't as cool or sexy as the comic characters? I suppose the TV show's in color, so, uh, there's that.
I do keep up with the frothing cultural obsession over all things The Walking Dead though, and admit a certain satisfaction at knowing where the story is going to go next. Who's Negan going to kill?! I know! I know! I probably shouldn't be so smug about having read The Walking Dead considering the comics are written at about a fifth grade level, but hey, 95 percent of Walking Dead watchers refuse to crack 'em at all, so huff huff.
Even more satisfying than knowing where things are going, is watching the general public slowly, agonizingly, wake up to what The Walking Dead really is. Following the “Who's Negan going to kill?” cliffhanger, and subsequent ratings-crushing season premier, there's been a wave of disappointed head shaking and tut-tutting emanating from the Internet Take-O-Sphere. The Walking Dead is full of empty violence, manipulative plotting, and isn't really about anything, they say. No shit, I say.
First, a word about cliffhangers – cliffhangers are as much a part of The Walking Dead as the undead themselves. Literally every 22-page issue of the comic ends in a cliffhanger. Sometimes they throw in another one or two in the middle of an issue. At least half the time the cliffhanger ends up being completely meaningless. It's resolved within the first page of the next issue, or was just somebody stating something in a super-contrived way.
[Close up of Rick's face]. “Carl, you need to shoot now or we're all doomed.”
Next Issue: “Great shot Carl! Basketball is a good way to wind down after killing those walkers! Now let me recap the last 25 issues worth of storylines...”
Okay, so that hasn't literally happened (yet), but I would not be at all surprised if it did. That says something. Robert Kirkman's writing style is, basically, “draw a straight line, then dot it at regular intervals with shocking moments, violence and cliffhangers.” Is it shallow? Is it shameless? Absolutely, but it works, and anybody acting like the Negan cliffhanger was a bridge too far is lying to themselves about what they've been obsessing over for the past six years.
The Walking Dead has nothing to say about society, humanity, or anything else really. It's not leading anywhere, aside from the next cliffhanger or gory set piece. The characters are just cardboard cutouts. Rick is the hero because Rick is the hero. Carl exists to provide Rick with some sort of human motivation. Every other character is expendable in the end.
The Walking Dead isn't really a drama in the traditional sense. It's the NFL. It's Dancing With the Stars. Or, more aptly, it's WWE Monday Night Raw. It's an artificial, emotionally manipulative machine designed to continue running forever.
For those who don't follow pro grappling, here's how it works. WWE keeps their circus humming with a steady stream of new spandex-clad warriors, each of which is given a “character” that can be summed up in two words -- one a basic role or physical description, the other a broad personality trait. Randy Savage = muscular/crazy. Andre the Giant = tall/bad. Rick Flair = stylish/arrogant. You can do the same thing with most Walking Dead characters. Rick = cop/leader. Carl = kid/precocious. Michonne = samurai/reserved.
These characters don't have an arc. They don't grow or learn. Ric Flair will always be Ric Flair. The Rock will always be The Rock. The point is to smash these preset entities against each other like action figures, and see who comes out on top. If Guy A can beat Guy B and C, can he also beat Guy D? It pokes a primal part in our brains – it's why we feverishly follow sports teams full of players we really know nothing about, or find ourselves glued to singing competitions even though we'd never buy any of the contestants' music in a million years. We're a warlike species, and nothing makes us happier than arbitrary bloodsport.
That's all The Walking Dead is. If Robert Kirkman was ever telling a heartfelt story, it ended somewhere around issue 7. Since then it's been pure pro wrestling. Periodically, he introduces a new batch of two-note characters, sets up a variety of contrived feuds, lets those settle out in order to establish a pecking order, then we have a big event (the equivalent of the WWE pay-per-view) where we find out who wins, and who loses. The only real difference is The Walking Dead's losers get eaten alive, while WWE's losers get sent back to the indies. I'm honestly not sure which fate I'd choose.
Now, it may sound like I'm criticizing The Walking Dead, and, well, I am. As a story, as drama, The Walking Dead isn't actually good, but it is satisfying. Again, I own over 20 volumes of the comics, and something being like pro wrestling isn't a knock in my book. As cynical as it is, The Walking Dead's structure is really quite brilliant – most real dramas last maybe two or three seasons before the premise starts to wear thin. All-time classics like Mad Men or The Sopranos might manage six or seven seasons. The Walking Dead can go on forever. As long the NFL and WWE continue on Monday Nights, the walkers can continue to roam on Sundays.
So, what does this mean for you, the loyal Walking Dead viewer? Nothing, unless you want it to. If you've been mistakenly watching the show thinking you were consuming art, or at the very least, a narrative that's heading somewhere meaningful or satisfying, I suggest you watch something else. If, on the other hand, you just enjoy the surface-level theater, spectacle and violence, then you needn't feel guilty about it. We all have our sports, whether they be an actual sport, pro wrestling, The X-Factor or The Walking Dead's entrail-chomping thrills.
Oh, and hey, if you do like The Walking Dead, maybe give wrestling a try. The current WWE Champ may seem more than a little familiar...