On my DVR are the last two episodes of “The Walking Dead.” I haven’t watched them yet. For the last five years I’ve watched the show almost religiously; tuning in every Sunday night to watch Rick and Co. fight their way through the zombie hordes in hopes of… What?
That’s the sticking point and I’ve only just realized it. I’m not sure what I’m hoping to get out of this show anymore. I think my wife, whom I sort of dragged into it around the beginning of season three, is in a similar place. Every night we sit down to watch a little television and we scroll through the selection on the DVR. Every night we pause briefly on “The Walking Dead” and then ultimately choose something else. There’s always some manner of excuse like, “Oh, I’m too distracted right now, I don’t know if I could pay attention to it.” or, “I’m kind of in the mood for something a little lighter.” or the most common, “Do we really want to watch this while we’re eating?”
But I think there’s another question which is underlying all of these which neither of us really wants to voice because we’ve invested so much time into the show already, “Do I really care anymore?”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good show, with good characters and good writing. That’s the problem. I know that if I watch it I’m going to get sucked back in; and I’m not certain I want to because, as it says in the title above, I believe in happy endings and The Walking Dead just can’t offer them.
It’s a disappointing trend, to me, that it feels like a lot of story-focused entertainment has taken on this attitude that death is the only way out. It’s especially prevalent in anything labelled “gritty” that stories only resolve in one fashion. The character dies. No one gets written out of shows anymore. No characters just go off to live with their family, or go off to college, or get married and move to another city? If a character is leaving a show, they die; it’s the only way out. Personally, from a writer’s standpoint, I just don’t like it. I feel like there are more, better, ways to resolve a character’s story arc without resorting to killing them off. In a lot of cases, it feels lazy.
The Walking Dead, though, is unique in the sense that they’ve painted themselves into a corner. They’ve created a universe which has shown time, and time again that going solo is the number one best way to get eaten by zombies (unless you’re Carol and a stone-cold badass). They’ve created a scenario where it doesn’t make sense for a character to willingly leave the group; no character would decide to do that of their own volition unless they have some other group to glom on to. Of course, the other thing they’ve taught us is that all other groups are terrible and not to be trusted; so it doesn’t make sense that a character would leave a group of trusted individuals to stay with a new group. In short, death is the only way out. It’s right there in the title. For those who haven’t sorted it out after five and half seasons, the titular “walking dead” are our protagonists; not the zombies. It’s inevitable and it’s inherently unsatisfying to know.
[WARNING: THREE MONTH OLD SPOILERS AHEAD]
I think it really sunk earlier in this season with the fake-out death of Glenn. I watched it and went to bed that night with the really hollow sort of discontent. I knew that it was a fake-out, I wasn’t taken in, simply due to the seemingly accidental death of a character that has been on-screen since the second episode; that’s just not how you write off one of your main characters. Been then I got to thinking; is there any good way that Glenn could die that wouldn’t bug me? The short answer is “No” because I like Glenn, I want him to live. I want to see his story resolve happily. I want he and Maggie and their unborn child to live happily ever after. But that simply isn’t an option. The entire premise of the show won’t allow it.
This brings me to the real reason I don’t want to get re-invested in this show. Daryl Dixon. Daryl Dixon is the gruff, hard-ass, outsider with a heart of gold. Daryl Dixon is the closest thing “The Walking Dead” has to an actual hero. Yes, other characters have had heroic moments and heroic qualities, but Daryl Dixon is the only knight in shining (leather) armor among them. He even rides (a motorcycle) and carries an iconic weapon; he literally has angels’ wings. This is why it’s generally hard for me to accept that Daryl Dixon is not long for this world.
There’s a few reasons I expect this but chief among them is that his story is over. Since we met Daryl he has overcome faults and prejudices, found closure with his estranged, abusive brother, loved, lost, and ultimately found his place among the group. He’s learned that he doesn’t have to be an outsider anymore; he can care about people and people care about him. Finally, so I’m told, he saves everyone, with a rocket launcher, twice, in the same episode. Daryl Dixon has peaked.
As a result, from a narrative standpoint, I doubt Daryl will make it out of this season. If he does, he sure as shit won’t get through the next one. And there is no way his death will be satisfying. There are no happy endings. Now, I feel like I could come to terms with it, but I doubt my wife will, and that will be the end of us watching the show together… So I’m not really looking forward to that.
But then there are other shows, which actually have options but simply don’t use them. I’m looking at you “Game of Thrones.” This is a show where the world hasn’t gone completely to hell (yet) and, though it would fly in the face of the narrative as it stands, there’s no reason a character shouldn’t be able to be resolved without meeting a horrible death. Where in “The Walking Dead” it’s pretty clear the whole world is ruined and everyone is screwed, in the “Game of Thrones” world, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that there are pockets of the world which are still existing blissfully unaware of the plight of the main characters and the war and oncoming winter. No reason a character couldn’t eventually say, “You know, I’m tired of the unspeakable ugliness of everything, I’m gonna fuck-off and be a farmer instead.”
The problem, of course, is that everyone is terrible in “Game of Thrones.” All the characters in the series are such giant shitheads that they’d never allow another character to mind their own business. They’d have to make it their mission to hunt them down and finish them off; and we’d end up with a scene where some whack-job justifies storming a farm and slowly mutilating not just the residents and their children, but also dismembering and raping their cattle (in that order); because Game of Thrones.
Even the few characters who don’t start off bad, slowly descend into becoming terrible. really, you’re only hope is that your favorite character gets knocked off before they have a chance to become a caricature of human vice and depravity. This is written off as “gritty” and “realistic.” Realistic? Yeah, sure, some people are disgusting human beings; but George R.R. Martin (or as I like to call him GRRiM) and the show-runners have created a world where everyone without exception are either deplorable or dead. It’s why I stopped reading the books, and why I’m pretty disinterested in the return of the show’s next season.
This is all a little funny, though, considering I expect the ultimate conclusion to the story will involve the tag line, “Winter is Coming,” actually happening. I expect everyone will die (or wish they were dead) and that none of the petty squabbling and politics about thrones will have mattered anyway. GRRiM is trolling us with a lengthy climate-change analogy. It’s no coincidence that the only principled character in the entire series, the one seemingly above the political maneuvering and sycophancy, also happens to be the only one who is even remotely concerned about winter coming and is also executed in the first book/season. “In the game of thrones, you either win or die… But you’re gonna be turned into a frozen zombie anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” There are no happy endings.
I could continue to rant about other “gritty” television but I think you can see where I’m going with this. I still believe in the happy endings, and I’m growing increasingly weary with stories which seem to simply refuse it on principle. I’m tired of waiting for my favorite characters to die, and I’m losing interest in stories with no payoff.
Tune in next time where I explain why “Hell of Wheels’” Cullen Bohannon is the best character on television and why I’m super-pumped about that show coming back. Spoiler: He actually has a chance.