*SPOILERS AHEAD … WALKERS LYING DOWN ON THE JOB AND DEALS WITH THE DEVIL AKA NEGAN COMING BACK TO BITE YOU ON THE PROVERBIAL*
The zombie apocalypse is generally not the kind of situation that if you would think of as boring, predictable or rut-like.
Existentially excoriating yes. Terrifying beyond belief most certainly. And populated by the absolute worst of humanity? Welcome to the end of the world where psychopathic bullies await in number.
But bland and been-there-done-that-got-the-bloodied-Tshirt? Not so much.
But somehow The Walking Dead has achieved this extraordinary feat, casting nervewracking life-and-death situations into the most beige of lights, and rendering the extremes of the human experience under stress as some sort of remorselessly repetitive business as usual.
A lot of that can be slated home to the lack of any kind of powerful throughline narrative, a reason to be the core group of survivors, led by a now thoroughly-shaken, battered-and-bruised Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who is going through yet another long nighttime of the soul experience.
This lack of any sort of overriding, rut-begone storyline was on full display in “The Cell”, an episode so unremarkable that it was only saved by a powerfully understated performance by Norman Reedus as a brutalised prisoner of Negan, and by some unexpectedly nuanced fleshing out (no pun intended) of Dwight’s (Austin Amelio) character, a man not prone to sitting down with the better angels of our nature.
While these storylines, which came together and pulled apart at various points throughout the episode, were compelling enough in their own way, they highlighted how small the storytelling world of The Walking Dead has become over the last few seasons.
So “Honey, I Shrunk the Zombies!” small has the narrative become that it’s hard not to feel you’re watching the same episode over and over again which goes something like this:
“Rick and the gang find a new place to live. Paradise of a sort at first before the wheels fall off. Action is taken to remedy this, complications ensue, a new baddy arises, they suffer, fight back and win and … rinse & repeat.”
Now granted the apocalypse doesn’t lend itself to all that many happy happy joy joy storylines and it’s kind of hard to pretend that anything is even remotely normal or close to what it was pre-downfall of civilisation.
Any time that is woven into the narrative, it’s purely to demonstrate how naive that particular group of people are; the Alexandrians and most recently the inhabitants of The Kingdom, has come in for that kind of Rick-is-right-you-are-hopelessly-naive treatment, with the intent always to underscore how darkly brutal the universe of man has become.
Even so, that doesn’t preclude the idea that hope exists in some form, that there might be a way to end this whole mess or restore something of what we’ve lost.
But it’s never really followed up in any significant way.
Eugene (Josh McDermitt) knows about a cure in Washington DC? No, he doesn’t. Is there a CDC outpost somewhere still beavering away on a cure? Maybe there is but that’s never raised. Even Z Nation has a cut through narrative that pushes it on, a reason for our characters to get out of bed, storyline-speaking, one which doesn’t always assume primacy but which nonetheless gives it some cohesion and sense of forward momentum.
But The Walking Dead has none of that, becalmed and adrift on the same old record of a narrative, spinning itself into ever more violent shock tactic knots, no way to add to the rinse-and-repeat stories without dressing up them up in ever more offensive murder porn robes.
Even Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is simply an uglier, nastier riff on The Governor who frankly came with far more nuance and background; neither men are angels but at least The Governor felt like he was part of a larger, more expansive whole.
Negan though? He’s simply a small-minded psychopathic bully who lives to steal men’s wives – it’s revealed that Dwight’s wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista) is now married to Negan, the price for the couple’s re-admission to The Sanctuary, the Saviors’ zombie-filled “idyll”, a high price to pay for simply being alive – and who’s so deluded he actually think the people in his collective are loyal to him for reasons other than sheer survival.
The fact is they’re not and as the episode goes on and Dwight tries to break Daryl by locking him in a dark, isolated cell, fed only with dog food sandwiches and an endless musical diet of “Easy Street” by The Collapsible Hearts Club played on a loop – it’s a hideous torture technique and one Daryl endures mostly stoically unless the song choice changes to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” – it becomes apparent there is a dissension aplenty in Negan’s kingdom of terror.
In that sense at least The Walking Dead tried to tell a nuanced story.
“The Cell” beautifully juxtaposed Daryl’s strength of character and resolve – why would you bow to Negan when he’s simply the latest nightmare to terrorise you in your blighted life? – and unwillingness to play subservient ball to Negan (bizarrely everyone bows as Negan walks past) with Dwight’s cowardly willingness to do what it takes, even trade away his wife, to stay alive.
It also did an admirable job of granting a small modicum of humanity to Dwight who was revealed as a man conflicted, torn by the deals he had made to simply stay alive; granted he is still a grade-A douchebag but at least one with some sort of beating heart and his storyline, which formed the core of “The Cell” illustrated that Negan is not impregnable, something everyone labouring under any kind of dictatorship needs to keep in mind.
Unfortunately these nuggets of character-driven story weren’t enough to reinstate the sense The Walking Dead is capable of telling a rich, nuanced, ongoing tale that differs from anything else it has told before.
It is on the path to ever-diminishing returns – the mono-dimensional blandness of Negan’s villain who becomes boring rather more terrifying as he rabbits on and over with self-indulgent diatribes is proof enough of that – and while it’s been signed to an almost-foregone season 8, you have to wonder who will actually be watching or care if the show continues down this same creatively-bankrupt, over-and-over-and-over-again path.
- Will things changes much in next week’s episode “Service” when Negan comes-a-callin’ on the Alexandrians. Honestly, don’t hold your breath …