Why It's Too Soon to Give Up on 'The Walking Dead'

The second half of this season shows promise, even though it's not perfect yet.



I have not been shy about voicing my problems with The Walking Dead. As The Atlantic's weekly reviewer for the zombie drama's first and second seasons, my articles have included titles like, "The Walking Dead Still Has an Identity Crisis," "The Walking Dead Lurches On, Unevenly," and "Five Ways to Fix The Walking Dead." Numerous readers have written in to ask why we bother covering the show at all. Some of those readers love the show, and disagree with my complaints. But the majority of emails come from people who have given up on the show altogether, and who want to know why I'm still bothering to write about it.

Despite my frustrations, I'm not ready to give up on The Walking Dead, because its problems are in execution, not in concept. Now as always, the series has terrific production values, a strong central concept, and a long-running comic series to mine for story ideas. The show may suffer from clunky dialogue and rote, repetitive characterization, but every episode is theoretically a chance to turn that around (if an overachieving zombie took out Dale, Carol, and T-Dog, we'd be halfway there already). In light of the second season's failings, there's a question I've taken to asking myself while channel-surfing: If zombies were added to this show, would it make a better zombie series than The Walking Dead? From Mad Men to Parks & Recreation to Downton Abbey, the answer is virtually always yes. Why? Because virtually every show on television features better writing and characterization than The Walking Dead.

The creative team behind The Walking Dead is aware of these complaints. In a candid interview with Vulture last week, showrunner Glen Mazzara addressed The Walking Dead's failings head-on - conceding that the show had been "a little insular" with its cast of characters and has "without a doubt" been moving too slowly. Mazzara's comments are particularly relevant in light of last night's midseason premiere, "Nebraska," which was the first episode fully produced under Mazzara's creative control after the much-publicized departure of former showrunner Frank Darabont. Does a new showrunner make a new The Walking Dead?

Alas, not entirely, though there are hopeful signs that the series is heading in the right direction. "Nebraska" opens immediately after the previous episode, "Pretty Much Dead Already," ended, after Rick and company had dispatched a hoard of penned-in zombies that turned out to include "little girl lost," Sophia. It's clear from "Nebraska" that The Walking Dead was banking on us caring about Sophia's death - a tall order, since she'd had nothing but quiet, unmemorable screen time before her disappearance, and kept our heroes from leaving the farm to do something more interesting after. But if the show's viewers aren't mourning Sophia's death, its characters are, with reactions ranging from striking (Daryl's impotent, barely contained rage) to melodramatic (Carol sobbing and ripping up Cherokee roses, in a none-too-subtle callback to an earlier episode).

"Nebraska" largely spends its first two acts reiterating things that happened earlier in the season, which in this case can somewhat be forgiven (it has been three months, after all). But just when it looks as though the series will devote another episode to wheel-spinning, "Nebraska" surprises with a final act that serves as a reminder of why it's too soon to give up on The Walking Dead.

Glenn, Rick, and Hershel sit in a nearby bar, with the latter two having yet another pseudo-philosophical conversation, when two apparent drifters happen onto their hideaway. It's been so long since The Walking Dead introduced a new character that it almost works in the series' favor, as the presence of any new face - particularly that of Michael Raymond-James, of FX's late lamented Terriers - is welcome. What ensues is a suspenseful standoff, which is rendered all the more impressive when you realize this scene, which is easily one of The Walking Dead's tensest to date, didn't include the slightest hint of zombie.

A copy of the standoff scene should be printed, framed, and hung in The Walking Dead's writer's room. There are characters with new information (further north, the country is in equally dire straits, with the open plains of the heavily-armed Nebraska being the newcomers' best guess). There is dialogue with subtext (Rick and Raymond-James' Dave, talking back and forth in circles as they try to feel each other out). There is intriguing parallel plotting (Dave's request to hunker down at the farm is, after all, not so different than Rick's repeated appeal to Hershel).

And there's the surprisingly swift, violent dénouement, when Rick guns down Dave and Tony before they can do the same to him. It's a necessary action, given the circumstances, but it also rings in an honest-to-god character change for our hero, who, having dispatched zombie Sophia, seems to have developed a new recognition of the ruthlessness and self-centeredness it may take to survive in this new world order. The series still has a ways to go before it reaches the dramatic potential promised by its pilot episode, but it's taken a significant step toward righting the ship. And that's why it's not time to give up on The Walking Dead yet.