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The State of "The Walking Dead"

It's hard to believe that there's only been 28 episodes of "The Walking Dead", for how much of an impact it has had.  In just two-and-a-half seasons, it's spawned a rabid fan base, become the highest-rated cable show of all time, and fought through far more than its share of behind-the-scenes controversy.  With the second half of the third season having just premiered, and with the recent news of showrunner Glen Mazzara's departure, it's a good time to reflect on the series and how it's changed, for better or for worse, since that acclaimed pilot premiered on Halloween, 2010.

There's an easy narrative that's gained traction over the past few months or so:  that Frank Darabont truly was not cut out for TV, that his departure was good, and that the quality of the series has gone up dramatically since he was replaced by Glenn Mazzara.  There was, to be sure, an obvious shift in the show's approach to the material beginning with the second half of Season 2, when Mazzara began to have more influence over the story (though, since Darabont was involved in outlining the season as a whole, its hard to tell what was Mazzara and what was Darabont in that span) and carrying through even more drastically with Season 3.  However, I happen to be one of the few who believe that shift was a negative one, and at the half-season mark, Season 3 stands as a weaker season overall than Season 2.

Now hold on a minute, before you rush to the comments section to argue, allow me to elaborate.  The main complaints about Darabont's reign as show runner of The Walking Dead is that it was slow and tedious, built mostly on set up and long story arcs (to be fair, Sophia was a very difficult child to find).  Mazzara's tenure, on the other hand, has been characterized by fast-moving story lines, lots of zombie-killing, and increased amounts of comics-following fan service (introducing Michonne, Tyreese, The Governor, the Prison, etc).  This change has meant more action and a more exciting show, but it's come at the cost of the characters.

Almost everybody can agree on the Pilot being one of the best -- if not the best outright -- episodes of the series.  Ironically, though, the show's celebrated third season bares almost no resemblance to the acclaimed pilot.  The pilot was slow and methodical, shot in the style of an independent film.  Outside of the cliffhanger in Atlanta, only a handful of zombies were encountered, let alone killed in video-game-esque "cool" ways.  The priority in the pilot was character and emotion -- trying to humanize the idea of a zombie apocalypse.  It was an adaptation of the comic in the true sense of the word, rather than a translation from one medium to the other.

The scene that proved how different from normal Zombie fare "The Walking Dead" was going to be -- and got me hooked -- was the montage intercutting Morgan's attempt to shoot his zombified wife with Rick putting the "bicycle zombie" out of its misery in a field.  This entire scene features exactly one zombie death, used as punctuation for the human emotion and not as the focus of the scene itself.  This exemplified Frank Darabont's approach to the material: characters before action.  Long build-up rather than instant-gratification payoff.

Last summer, Glen Mazzara commented that Darabont "had a feature approach of: Just wait for it, just wait for it, then you'll be satisfied."  Many viewers can attest that, in Season 2, waiting became the show's central problem, during the drawn-out search for Sophia.  The common argument was that nothing was happening; the plot stopped dead at Hershel's farm.  It is true, to an extent, that the plot slowed to crawl for a few episodes ("Cherokee Rose" to "Secrets" -- three episodes), but that slowed pace allowed for some more character development that the previous six-episode season didn't truly allow: Shane's increasingly erratic and violent behavior, Glenn and Maggie's relationship, Hershel's stubborn belief that the walkers are still people.  It's true that it was slow, but when walker Sophia stepped out of the barn in the final scene of the mid-season finale, "Pretty Much Dead Already", the build-up was justified and, to me at least, the entire Sophia storyline was made worth it.  As in the Pilot, the emphasis of the story wasn't on action or plot, it was on showing how the characters would realistically react to the zombiepocalypse, and both the buildup of and the soul-crushing payoff to Sophia's disappearance were crucial character moments to all involved.

Mazzara, in contrast, noted that "people, again, are watching the show in sort of an id fashion: 'We have an expectation, we need it, we need it now".  Indeed, the back half of Season 2 is when things started changing -- ultimately, for the worse.  The shift moved from the characters to the action.  Individually, each episode had bursts of intense action that ultimately meant nothing.  The first four episodes focused on a mysterious other group of violent survivors, and there was plenty of conflict wrung from Rick's group taking one of them captive and deciding what to do with him.  While on the surface, this added plenty of  excitement, the story itself went nowhere.  In the penultimate episode, Randall is casually discarded and his group -- considered a major threat -- is never brought up again.  The show essentially traded one problem for another: it went from a show where little happened, but everything was important, to a show where so much happened that nothing much mattered.

"18 Miles Out" is the episode most guilty of this:  discarding the Beth-suicide subplot for now (just as the writers have), the episode begins and ends at the exact same point, character wise and story wise.  Rick and Shane leave the farm in order to desert Randall, but end up arguing, fighting, and then being attacked by zombies.  After fighting their way out, they get Randall, tie him up again, and bring him back to the farm.  There's still huge amounts of tension between Rick and Shane (that would climax two episodes later), Randall still needs to be dealt with, and Randall's group is still a threat.  There was literally zero development from any perspective -- but there was a zombie battle.

The finale, "Beside the Dying Fire", was also disappointing, because instead of paying off the Randall's-group storyline that had been the focus of the half-season, the storyline was forgotten and instead a herd of zombies sort of randomly appeared for a final battle.  While the mid-season ending's 'Barnageddon' was as a result of many episodes of buildup and thus meant something for the characters, the zombie invasion in the finale had no meaning. Suddenly, there were just zombies to kill.  The back half of Season 2, though, still had a decent grasp on its characters, even if it was becoming increasingly disconnected from its story.

Season 3 has lost it entirely.  It's completed its transition, and is no longer, in any sense, a character-driven show.  It's an entirely plot-driven one, and though the plot has been very well paced, the characters are no more than pawns on a board to be tossed around and killed whenever some "surprise" death is necessary (see: Dog, T-).  In the first and second seasons, character death, even amongst the more background characters like Otis, Jacqui, or Jim, was given importance and the characters grieved in a relatively realistic fashion.  In Season 3, character death is used as cheap instant drama, or as a way to clear the clutter (hey, entirety of Tomas's group!).  Daryl, the undisputed king of fan favorites, has had all rough edges and nuance stripped from his character, in order to simply become the badass Mr. Fanservice.  The heavily-hyped Michonne simply doesn't have any character beyond killing zombies with katanas.

To be fair, it's very possible that these changes aren't entirely because of the shift in priorities started by Glen Mazzara.  It's possible that, though the pilot was well-received, AMC (or, perhaps, audiences) realized they didn't really want the quieter, more meditative show that the pilot promised, but rather wanted what the advertisements promised: an action-packed, gory zombie romp.

And who knows -- perhaps Scott Gimple, the new show runner of The Walking Dead (promoted after Glen Mazzara was canned for "creative differences") will take the show in yet another unexpected direction.