As frequent consumers of media, we become numb to certain tropes, even if we don’t realize it. Sitcoms will put the protagonist in wacky hijinx in the first part of the episode only to see him or her get out of it and return to the status quo by the end. Dramas find conflict in interpersonal relationships, environmental factors or from within and protagonists learn to grow from these conflicts, but return to the status quo a little bit wiser. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s what writers have been doing for thousands of years and they’ll do it for a thousand more.
Now that we’ve got the grandiose introduction down, let’s talk about why last night’s Walking Dead midseason finale was so effective. If you haven’t seen “Pretty Much Dead Already,” you’re probably not reading this, but whatever, spoilers ahead.
The Walking Dead has its problems. First, characters are there at the behest of the plot. Let’s look at Dale’s confrontation the past two weeks with Shane. How in the hell does he know Shane had shot Otis? He may have an inkling based on the way Shane has been acting and he’s overemotional about Shane’s relationship with Andrea, but what Dale’s levying are some pretty serious charges, ones that you don’t make unless you’re fairly certain that they’re true. And, of course, Dale doesn’t know the accusations are true, there’s no way he can. Sloppy character beats, but without that premonition, we don’t get the ending that happened. That’s plot development at the detriment to logical character actions.
My other big problem with the Walking Dead is that the group keeps getting in trouble because people do stupid things: Sophia runs off when Rick tells her to stay, Andrea shoots Darryl, Glenn and Maggie get attacked in the pharmacy because they’re not paying attention, Glenn almost gets eaten by a zombie in a well because they thought it was a good idea to lower him down to try and get the zombie out (but, for real, would you have drank that water even AFTER they got the zombie out? Thought not). I get that this is a a dangerous world, but that highlights even more reasons why that kind of plotting isn’t necessary. Even if the group does things perfectly, bad stuff is going to happen. I realize that all good zombie stories (and this is one of them) are an allegory for how even the living degenerate into former shells of themselves and that people make mistakes, but how many are too many?
But, you know what? All this getting-pieces-to-where-they-need-to-be type plotting is forgivable when you start to toy with people’s expectations. I would say that the vast majority of us assumed that they’d find Sophia alive and well. This goes back to the tropes of media: Coldplay songs will swell to a catchy hook, Zelda games will end in a big boss battle, Tarantino movies will have a ton of dialogue about seemingly off-subject topics. The longer Sophia was gone, the more likely it was that they’d find her. Well, they found her. Just not how we all expected.
A good twist ending surprises the audience, but doesn’t shock them. Shocking them implies that they weren’t prepared for what they just saw. Surprising them means that they didn’t expect what they just saw. Of course, Sophia’s a zombie, she’s been in the wilderness for a week and a half. Of course, Herschel and his people found her, she was near their land. Of course they’d put her in the barn, they still saw her as a living person. But man, none of us expected that, even though it made perfect sense.
These are the notes that the Walking Dead needs to consistently hit in order to be more than a show about awesome ways that zombies are killed. Even if the show was just that, I’d still watch (same way I’ll always a watch a pretty terrible show like Terra Nova, since there’s always the chance that someone could get eaten by a dinosaur). But the dichotomy of Shane’s survival philosophy v. Rick’s law-and-order philosophy can cater to both the plot and to character development. This is what the best seasons of Lost did (Man of Faith v. Man of Science) and this is the direction that the Walking Dead needs to take.
The always incredible AV Club has a great write-up over last night’s episodes that hits many of the same beats that I’ve talked about. If you get a second, follow that link to check it out. As they mentioned, in the end, we all wanted Rick to do what had to be done. And I use the term “wanted” very loosely. Sophia may not be a character we know that well or care that much about, but:
…he shoots a little girl in the head, and in doing so, demonstrates that he might be the only one who understands what this means: everyone is presumed dead, until proven living. Please plan accordingly.
It just got a lot longer until February.