Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
This is going to shock you, but I’m writing to you today with mixed feelings. I want to start with the positive, because there’s been a serious dearth of that in what has been one of the weaker half-seasons in Walking Dead history. So here’s my big takeaway:
Rachel is awesome. She’s the 10-year-old who loves killing zombies and really, really wants to kill Tara. I love her heart, I love her gumption, I love her anger. I actually don’t know how her name is spelled, but I’m writing “Rachel” instead of “Rachael” because she doesn’t seem like the kind of person with the time or the patience to abide superfluous letters. She wasn’t on screen for very long, but to me, when it comes to this season’s new characters, she’s already ahead of King Ezekiel and Simon, and she completely obliterates Negan. The entire show should be about her. If last night’s episode had ended with her taking a flamethrower to Alexandria, killing Rick and Carl and everyone else, I would have stood up in my living room and applauded.
(Quick related story: I re-watched the start of the episode so I could pick up the dialogue I’d missed between Rachel and Cindy. It was about a teddy bear that had washed up on shore, and ended when Rachel spotted the zombie. My brother-in-law, watching with me, summed it up nicely: “She doesn’t strike me as the type who’s into teddy bears.” Damn right, bro-in-law!)
Rachel owns. As for everything else? I wish I could be less blunt, Josh, but I can’t: It was total garbage. Here are a few of my least favorite moments, though this list is far from comprehensive.
1. The actor playing Tara is still godawful. It took me a while to even remember where we had seen her last, and I think it’s because a highly adaptive mechanism in my brain had blotted out the memory. (Thanks, brain.) But seriously, the sequence where I went from thinking this was an episode about a couple of badass tropical killers to realizing the mysterious body washed up on shore belonged to Tara…that was the worst kind of gut punch. It was like waking thinking it was Christmas morning, but actually you’re an adult and all your friends are hitting you with soap bars stuffed into socks like that scene in Full Metal Jacket.
2. In season seven—in season f***ing SEVEN—do we really need another long speech (from Heath, this time) about how life is all about survival, and it’s every man for himself? Did they really think that would carry any dramatic impact, even if they subvert it later via flashback when he came back for her on the bridge?
3. Every single “funny” bit of dialogue Tara uttered under stress was painfully unfunny. Hire a comedy writer, Walking Dead. Your shit needs a punch-up.
4. We meet an all-female community called Ocean Side who are ruthlessly competent and have a shoot-on-sight policy, except that they can’t hit a very slow target from close range, and then they also don’t shoot on sight when they have a chance.
5. I don’t care if the show recognized that Cindy saved Tara three times in the exact same way at the moment of her death—it was still laughably bad plotting. The third time it happened, I just started laughing, while my brother-in-law—who has never seen Tara before, since he hasn’t watched past season two—openly expressed his frustration that she hadn’t been shot.
6. The closing bridge scene might be the worst action sequence any TV show has ever filmed, right up to the part where the other two Ocean Side people caught up to Cindy and decided to let Tara go, despite the fact that they wanted to kill her ten minutes earlier.
7. The “Hey look it’s zombie Heath OOPS JUST KIDDING it’s another black zombie with his kind of hair and also inexplicably recently dead unlike all the other sand zombies” rug-pulling moment was excruciating. More than anything, it’s just goddam embarrassing, but I suspect it’s tacitly racist in some way too.
8. At the end, as if most of this episode wasn’t painful enough, the “scenes from next week” showed Negan performing ONE OF HIS CLASSIC monologues where he EMPHASIZES words at random FOR NO OBVIOUS reason. That’s going to suck, too.
I don’t know, Josh. I always enjoy reviewing these episodes, even when the reviews are critical, but a couple weeks ago one of the fanboys in the comments said the following:
PLEASE take Shane off this review!! Why would I want to read a review by someone who clearly hates the show now. Im done reading this shit if hes still here. PURE GARBAGE from him
The capitalization is all his, by the way, and I think it says a lot that he types in fluent Negan monologue-ese. That being said, does he have a point? I mean, I openly dislike the show this season (though I still hold out hope for its redemption), and while I’m getting the sense that most critics around the Internet are feeling exactly the same, I get the feeling that the hardcore fans are probably not enjoying my weekly bitch-fest.
So I’ll turn to you with all the usual questions about this week, but a larger one about the season—what is this show doing for you, at this point? I usually hate “larger purpose” questions, because if a show is good, it’s good, but I genuinely don’t even understand what they’re trying to do. It’s one thing to put a lot of hope in a character like Negan, and then to watch that character totally fail. It’s another to bounce around the known universe introducing new characters and hoping something sticks, without any sense of a steady hand at the till. Sure, maybe they all come together for some huge battle at the end—and by the end, I mean sometime next year, because this half-season doesn’t have enough time left to execute anything super meaningful—but will that really justify any of this?
I’m so frustrated, man. I want Rachel to blow everyone to pieces.
Post-apocalyptic stories are interesting because they explore humanity with only the vestiges of civilization. The people we’ve met in The Walking Dead were raised like us—Americans with public school educations who argued with family during Thanksgiving and watched the same movies we watch (minus the ones about zombies, which are somehow a new concept in this universe). Then had a giant rug pulled out from them when society as they knew it was ripped to shreds and eaten. What would they do to survive? How would their ideas of morality and selflessness and sacrifice translate to a world where the dead reanimate with an all-consuming hunger for their flesh?
The franchise has been successful in exploring those questions in the original comic books, in stand-alone webisodes, in a spin-off show and now in six-plus seasons of The Walking Dead. Characters have broken down and bounced back. They’ve had to do things their pre-apocalyptic selves would judge harshly, and yet they’ve grown stronger and still clung to the things that make them human. It’s been pulpy but fun and occasionally deeper than we had a right to hope for in a zombie horror series.
But seven years into the apocalypse, survivors need to start rebuilding from the ashes. It makes sense that The Walking Dead would begin to explore what that might look like in earnest. Everyone has done things they’re not proud of, as Heath and Tara and the matriarch of Ocean Side all took pains to remind us again tonight. But these are no longer people struggling to survive the apocalypse. These are people learning how to deal with the dystopian society which has sprung up in place of the civilization we once knew.
And the thing is, it makes complete sense for the show to transform this way. Stories about individuals banding together to fight hordes of zombies and other little bands of groups no longer seem all that interesting. Once you’ve given us false promises of utopia from both a charming psychopath and a group of hipster cannibals, I’m happy to explore what happens when one group begins to dominate a region and bring order back to the world of chaos. This is why fans of the comics were so anxious to finally meet Negan last season. This is an entirely new phase of the story.
This is also why this season has been so disappointing so far. I don’t hate the character of Negan as much as you; I like my villains eccentric and verbose. But when the world gets bigger, the stories still need to be personal, and instead they’ve been, well, just kind of boring. The Saviors, we learned tonight, executed every male over the age of 10 among the residents of Ocean Side. They are humanity at its very worst, rendering the charisma of Negan an unnecessary and kind of discordant trait.
Tonight’s episode was all about one woman, Tara, holding on to some sliver of goodness and hope in the face of overwhelming evil—evil that senselessly killed the woman she loved. With Cindy as her example, she proves true to her word, the “swear” she makes to keep Ocean Side a secret, despite their attempts to kill her. There’s nothing to fault in the show’s desire to take a break and remind us that people in this new dystopia can still be good.
But what should have been a new wonder to explore—this coastal community run by warrior women—was instead a dull hour of television with one of the least developed characters trying to carry the load. You’re right in that Rachel was the most interesting person on the screen. We see someone who probably doesn’t remember a life before the plague, and she’s been hardened by the daily horrors around her. But once we arrived at Ocean Side, there were no real surprises. We knew they’d try to kill Tara; we knew she’d escape. And when your heroine lacks cleverness, personality and humor, the inevitable escape is going to rely solely on blind luck and several just-in-the-nick-of-time saves from her guardian angel (I actually counted four, including the bridge).
We first met Tara in another singular journey episode, “Live Bait,” when the Governor ended up at her apartment complex and fell for her sister. That was The Walking Dead at its best. “Swear” was the show nearing its worst, with nothing new to say and no one to carry the moment. Imagine Michonne at Ocean Side. Or Maggie. Or even Carol. Imagine a matriarch of the community with the presence of Negan. Or the Governor. Or even last week’s stand-in, Simon. Imagine a real exploration of a community of women survivors and the tension between a distrusting leader and a newcomer torn between loyalty to her group and compassion for the enemy of her enemy. This episode could have been so much better, but instead we got to sit in on a dinner with the most generic collection of characters the show has delivered. Tara’s lies are as limp as the failed fistbump from her captor. And her decision to tell the truth and start with the horrible things her group has done is even worse.
But the one truly unforgivable moment in the episode was the moment you mentioned at the bridge. After we flashback in trickles to find out how Tara ended up falling off that bridge to begin with, she searches for Heath. And lo and behold, someone who looks a lot like Heath has become a zombie—a lone fresh one among the horde of bleached sandy walkers. But despite the dreadlocks and blue shirt, this one is wearing a skirt, so phew, Heath might still be alive. And yep, he discarded his glasses and another clue right near tire marks.
This kind of crap has to stop. They’re hoping for tension building followed by relief, but it’s so forced and unbelievable, it was more likely to elicit something between annoyance and rage.
Okay, so I didn’t really temper your negativity there. And I really have enjoyed The Walking Dead for years now. I hope they can turn it around. Find us some bright spots, Shane, some reason to hope this gets fun again. And let’s pledge to make these letters entertaining even when the show falls short. Get me out of this funk.
You put it perfectly. I like to think my whining softened up the show, and you came in with the precise analysis to finish the slaughter. But if there is a bright side, you already hinted at it—we’ve always been willing to put up with a few bad episodes while we wait for the good ones to return. This isn’t Game of Thrones, where the quality has been so consistently high that any misstep fills us with anxiety. This is the Walking Dead, where occasionally we watch them run in place, bore us, and even frustrate us, and keep some semblance of patience for the return to glory. I’ll keep doing that if you will.
Unfortunately—and maybe this is me having a short memory—I can’t remember a colder stretch. Looking back at the six episodes so far this season, I have moderately liked two (the King Ezekiel one and “The Cell,” which featured the very temporarily intriguing Dwight), strongly disliked two (this week and last week), and completely detested both the season opener and Negan’s visit to Hilltop, which I consider two of the worst Walking Dead episodes ever. Even the episodes I sorta liked were tempered by an annoying character without an identity (Carol) and an annoying character without a soul (Negan). Long story short, they have a ton of ground to make up, and the component parts are severely lacking. It would be like watching one of those cooking shows, where they took a novice chef and told him to make a delicious five-course meal using only pepper flakes, some stolen copper wire, and eight bags of dirt. (In this comparison, Negan is the dirt.)
So, at least for this season, it’s going to take a miracle. And I wonder if they know it’s not working…I wonder if the writers are watching this play out, and feeling a dull sense of panic as they consider hail mary options for the second half. My guess is no—it’s easy to tell yourself everything is groovy when you have one of the highest rated shows on TV, and that the critics are just being harsh. Which is completely fair—why should they care what we think?—but also a little sad, from my angle, because at this point the show seems like it’s coasting on past success, and whatever ambition it once contained is gone.
Personally, I’m chalking up the rest of this half season as a loss, but that’s because Negan leaves me so cold. So as I flip it back to you, let me put you in the shoes of the “Wolf” from Pulp Fiction, played by Harvey Keitel, whose job it is to make the best out of a gruesome situation. He’s the “cleaner” who gets sent to tidy up a murder near the end of the film, and I’m naming the “Wolf of the Walking Dead.” (Which, now that I see it written down, looks a lot like The Wolf of Wall Street, so feel free to imagine yourself as a charismatic, manic Leo DiCaprio if Keitel doesn’t fit the bill.) As the Wolf, Josh, you are walking into a truly screwed up scene. Bodies everywhere, plot a mess, unlikeable characters glaring at you from the shadows, refusing to leave. You have just one email response, and two episodes, to clean up this mess and put us in a tenable situation heading into the second half of the season. You can elevate, abandon, and kill any character you want—the only rule is that the disaster before you has to look hopeful after the mid-season finale.
How are you pulling off your miracle?
I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a difficult job. But I’ve seen worse. Hell, you could just be leaving me the characters of Fear the Walking Dead to work with. Believe me, that show could have used a cleaner from the time they decided to turn every single character into an unlikable psychopath. And even that wasn’t Season 9 of Scrubs bad. Those are jobs I would’ve turned down. This? This can just be a bump in the road if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty.
First, quit it with the filler episodes. We need the beginnings of a revolution and we need cards on the table. Carl, Rosita, Eugene, Sasha, Michonne, Jesus, Daryl, King Ezekial and his soldiers—they’re all ready to revolt. To get Rick on board, he’s going to have to lose somebody he cares about. Carl would seem to be in most immediate danger, and you can’t kill off Michonne or Daryl. The show would be so much worse off without either.
Carl needs to be caught trying to assassinate Negan. Negan can imprison him or turn him into one of his walker guards or even just chop off a hand. Anything to spur Rick into action, and if we go into the midseason break with Rick still sniveling, all is lost.
It’s too early for open revolt, but the tension between The Sanctuary and Alexandria needs to be bursting at the seems. By the time we return, open war should clearly be on the horizon. Negan should have to face some “hearts and minds” infighting in his own camp with Dwight providing some kind of advantage for the rebels. But Negan will come back stronger once he puts it down.
The odds can be totally against the revolution, but there needs to be some sign of hope. And it’s going to take a revitalized Rick to pull together The Hilltop, The Kingdom and maybe even Ocean Side. He’ll have his own Judas in Spencer that will expose the revolution before it’s begun, but our heroes will be heroic in the face of both overwhelming odds and betrayal from one of their own.
But mainly, with just two episodes left this season, we need Rick back. And we need some reason to hope. Not just for the survival of the characters we’ve been following for so long. But for the show to suck us back in, with abandon and delight. Excluding the end of Season 6, the creators are still batting near perfectly on both mid-season and season finales. Hopefully they’ve got something big planned for December.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.