For years, AMC's "The Walking Dead" has roamed the backwoods of rural Georgia performing miracles. The adaptation of a beloved graphic novel took exactly one episode to prove that art is a feat of execution, not genre. Amid the spilled intestines and exploding heads walked a character drama as finely drawn as any that kicked off the great television renaissance of the 21st century. "Mad Men," with zombies.
As the Season 6 finale approaches, it still has the zombies.
The finely drawn character drama thing, on the other hand, appears to be giving way to the more broad-stroke dimensions of its origins, exposing, perhaps, the difference between a story told in panels and pages and one told on the screen.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Walking Dead": An article in the April 2 Calendar about Season 6 of the television series "The Walking Dead" said actor Austin Amelio plays Dixon. The character's name is Dwight. —
Working within an uber plot that is, by necessity, endlessly repetitive — Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his fellow survivors find a space where they think they can safely end their wanderings only to find that this is not so — the episodic action has become expositionally manipulative and, occasionally, ridiculous.
A fictional world can be many things, but it must never appear ridiculous.
It began with the cliff-hanging trickery of the mid-season's finale's fake death — Glenn (Steven Yeun) did not just fall into a roiling pit of zombies from which there could be no non-deus ex machina chance of escaping unbitten. But showrunner Scott Gimple shamelessly removed Yeun's name from the credits to imply that Glenn was dead and then, ta-da! — he wasn't.
Since then, Gimple and his writers have seemed less concerned with preserving the integrity of the show's characters and their journeys and more interested in producing the sort of random OMG moments more normally associated with high-wire soaps like "Scandal," in which characters are defined by their anything-could-happen outrageousness.
But the beauty and success of "The Walking Dead" stem from an opposite tension — the world may be outrageous but the people are very real. Fans came for the zombies and Robert Kirkman's zig-zagging plot, but they stayed for the characters, who, for all the "If Daryl Dies We Riot" T-shirts, are as multidimensional as fictional characters get. More so considering their horrific circumstances.
This season, however, they became increasingly puppet-like, doing things that made little sense except as a preamble to the Don't Blink season finale introduction of the novels' most ghastly and fascinating villain, Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. (Morgan, it must be pointed out even at the risk of belaboring the Shonda Rhimes analogy, caught his big break as "Grey's Anatomy" sweetly dying Denny, whose ghostly resurrection sparked exactly the sort of pre-Twitter frenzy that foreshadowed the current state of Def Con One television.)
For months, "Walking Dead" fans could talk of little else, which dimmed even the finer moments of this season and knocked a few chinks in the fourth wall, but that's the risk of any adaptation. Success breeds increased attention.
Much more perilous is the self-inflicted gouging. The show has always prided itself on confounding expectations and rewriting the rules, including and especially the until-recently time-honored "Never Kill a Popular Lead," but still it abided by its own internal code, as every alternative universe story must.
Sure, there were some "developments" over the years — turns out that even those who die of non-zombie related causes will rise again, and Carl's hat apparently has magical powers that allow it to grow with him — but the essential nature of the characters, and their place in the story, remained astonishingly consistent. Those who survived this far have changed, but we've seen them change, understand why they've changed. Their big moments were earned and given the appropriate space to breathe.
Until this season.
This is the season when Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) apparently fell in love, not that you'd know it. For many, the alpha coupling seemed a tantalizing inevitability, but the writers could not have made the hoped-for moment, which occurred a short time after Rick's latest flame was eaten alive in front of him, more non-romantic and narratively functional if they had simply cut to a middle-school sex ed film. "When a post-apocalyptic Daddy and Mommy-figure like each other very much and everyone else is dead…"
After all they've been through, separately and together, Rick and Michonne's newly sprung love, which should have been a high point of the series, never mind the season, was simply tossed to fans like so much blog fodder. "So this happened," the writers seemed to say. "Have a field day. Negan's coming and we've got other things to do."
Likewise, the discovery of the (truly nifty) Hilltop community and their power struggle with the Saviors came at us as fast and furious as a three-second credit-scroll attempting to describe the Wars of the Roses (wait, which one are you? And he did what? To your brother?). Equally flippant was Maggie's (Lauren Cohan) snap decision that she would now be leasing her friends out as assassins. (Of course, she is pregnant, and that can make a gal pretty testy.)
Then things got really crazy. Carol (Melissa McBride), a character so breathtakingly sensible that she killed a child who had become a danger to herself and others, suddenly became super emotional and very distracted. First she got all protective over Maggie, keeping her back from the assassin party only to let them get captured by three very sketchy individuals who, in any other episode, Carol and Maggie could have taken down with a few river rocks and an old sweater.
Which they did, eventually, but apparently Carol's fugue state was infectious because then the whole gang went back to Alexandria and collectively lost their minds. In the penultimate episode, Carol fled Alexandria, leaving a note telling everyone not to follow her (hahahaha). Two seconds later, she ran into a bunch of Saviors, who she dispatched with the machine gun with which she has apparently replaced her arm.
Daryl (Norman Reedus) also went rogue, determined to find and kill Dwight (Austin Amelio), who had just killed Denise (Merritt Wever, sob). The next thing we know, all the warriors except Maggie are piling into vehicles in search of one or the other. Leaving Alexandria unprotected (never a good idea), they tromp through forests filled with Walkers and Saviors and God knows what else, talking at the top of their lungs and not paying attention to anything, just as if they hadn't spent the last two years surviving the zombie apocalypse.
"Who are these people?" my son asked as Michonne allowed herself to be snuck up on just as if she didn't have eyes in the back of her head, which of course we know she does. "What have they done with Michonne?"
Creator Kirkman recently told Access Hollywood that even those who have been following the show for all six seasons are about to discover that while they may think they know the rules of the show, they really do not. This is the sort of things television writers and producers now say all the time to whip up fan frenzy and get everyone to live-tweet the finale, but as a critic, I feel professionally obligated to respond.
If the audience does not know the rules of an alternative universe narrative after six seasons, then the writers have failed. If the writers decide to change the rules, or reinvent characters, without bothering to create believable story lines to accommodate those shifts, that's not shocking or inventive, it's just lazy and coldly calculated
And for a show like "The Walking Dead," that year after year showcased the complex reactions of human beings under constant duress by creating an apocalypse that is both external and internal, both real and metaphorical, it would also be an absolute shame.