Sunday saw the mid-season finale of season two of AMC’s The Walking Dead. I am going to state outright that this little analysis is going to have HUGE SPOILERS peppered throughout so if you have no watched the whole of season two up to the mid-season finale I would advise against reading this entry until you have gotten yourself caught up. Or perhaps you realized half-way through that you couldn’t stand the show and just want to read this to see if the rest of the season is worth watching and you don’t care about spoilers. I don’t know you, but I want to warn everyone before I get into everything.
So we’re clear on the spoilers then?
Can I just say that, from a structural standpoint, Walking Dead season two was an unmitigated mess? Here’s what I want to get out of the way. I don’t have a problem with soap-opera level drama. If the acting is up to snuff and the events unfolding are handled in a way that follows the basic tenets of narrative structure, I don’t really have a problem with heightened or manufactured drama. The central conflicts of this season; Shane’s feelings of rejection and his decent into pure id driven savagery, the theme of secrets and their destructive effect on society as presented by Lori’s pregnancy as well as the “walkers in the barn” scenario, the anguish over a missing child and the decision on how much time to spend searching, all of these things are fine concepts to mine in a television show.
So why did these episodes leave such a foul taste in my mouth?
I feel that I should point out that I read the hardcover collections of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead before the season started. That series, for the most part, moves at a breakneck pace that essentially forces the reader to turn the page because things are happening so fast that you don’t have an opportunity to be bored by what is unfolding. The story beats are handled well and the pacing never feels off, with a few exceptions. If there is one thing that they did not translate from page to screen, it is the idea of acceptable pacing.
Walking Dead season two is essentially hobbled by the fact that the drama, as engrossing as it may have been, is stretched so thin in an attempt to pad out the series to fit its episode run that it borders on the edge of making the series a tedious bore. In just about every episode there are perhaps five to ten minutes of simply amazing television. But the rest of the episode is filled with instances of drama being repeated in different scenarios in an effort to fill time. I don’t know how many times Shane and Lori had the same conversation. This goes for Herschel and Rick as well. They keep repeating the same beats on the same element of the story so many times that, I’ll be honest, the episodes tend to run together in terms of identity. There is nothing in any of the episodes that makes them stand out. Usually you can isolate a turning point, or a moment where the story takes a dramatic shift. This season has had those moments, but they become overshadowed by the poor handling of the fallout. Carl’s shooting at the end of the first episode loses its impact when for the next two or three episodes we’re treated to multiple scenes of Herschel explaining how dire the situation is and Rick and Lori obsessing about it. Later in the season we’re subjected to multiple repeats of the same conversation between Rick and Herschel about whether the group will be allowed to stay at the farm. The same reasons presented by both parties seem to be repeated incessantly. It dilutes the effect of the drama as a result.
This technique of repetition smacks of the high school student writing an essay and constantly repeating his points with slightly altered wording in order to pad his paper out to the teacher’s required length. It doesn’t make the paper better, it just makes it longer. That’s the nutshell problem of Walking Dead season two. The key elements of the show that actually worked could have cut the episode count from seven down to four. There are literally HOURS of runtime that amount to nothing more than unnecessary padding. I understand the need to build drama. That is not the issue here. The issue is the technique in which they attempted to foster tension that actually had the opposite effect.
Walking Dead is a good show that is smothered by bad elements. It is easy to understand the desire to stretch the material for television. The producers would have you believe it is because they want to exploit the ability of television to slowly build things over an extended period of time. I have no opposition to that idea. Other shows do it quite well. But you don’t get the sense of wasted dialog and padded narrative structure from shows like Breaking Bad. The mid-season finale ended on an excellent note, which is very smart because if they hadn’t hit a home run in the last few minutes of the episode it is doubtful that most of the audience would return next spring for the second half of the season.