The first season of The Walking Dead was a masterpiece in television drama, full of ideas both in front of the camera and behind it that created six episodes of high-quality entertainment. With fantastic in-camera prosthetics and visual effects, the original team behind the show even thought to shoot on the more expensive film, rather than with digital cameras, as film footage would be much more likely to survive an apocalypse. The team clearly cared about the details.
Then season two came around and everything ground to a halt. Suddenly we were in a post-apocalyptic soap opera, everyone was miserable and there didn't seem to be much point in carrying on. I did, however, as did a LOT of others — the number of which keeps growing. But back in season two, no matter how many people claim the show has "improved" since then, the elements were set in place for how the rest of the show would be:
- The gang finds a safe place.
- (Optional) The gang settle and adjust to life at the safe place.
- Turns out the safe place is no longer safe and so everyone flees!
- The gang travel to the next safe place.
These four elements then repeat themselves each season, with minor skirmishes with other characters occurring within stages two and four, with a big climax and a big "bad" being thwarted or doing something particularly evil usually just before they have to leave each safe place. And that is the show. The rest of it — walking in forests, losing and finding each other repeatedly, finding supplies and other less-apocalyptic soap opera tropes — is just filler. Because, besides character studies, the show has no story.
Let me break this down.
Season one was a perfect example of how a traditional story model works, with a beginning (Rick wakes up and discovers this world), middle (Rick convinces the gang, with the help of camp zombie incursion, to go to the research facility) and end (the facility never got anywhere, there is very little chance of any sort of cure). There, in that fantastically bleak finale, was that arc's end, and it is as near to a sense of closure that The Walking Dead ever came.
What came next was endless repetition variations on the same arc: find a place, live in place, leave place. Each of these can be seen as beginnings, middles, and ends of stories but therein is the problem. The Walking Dead is destined to continue repeating itself, its plot points and ideas, until it loses too many viewers or costs too much to make, at which point the show will wrap up in an unsatisfying finish. There is no journey to complete, no long-planned character arcs (just look at all the different shades of grey to Rick's character and how randomly they fluctuate), no possibility (perhaps barring Carl's death) that the show could conclude neatly. By neatly I do not mean in a way that people particularly enjoy or without bloodshed, but that it would act as an emotional breaking point for lead character Rick and his desires to look after his family.
And so we're left with a soap opera, one set in a post-apocalyptic time, but a soap opera none-the-less. There is nothing wrong with soap opera as a genre, but when mixed in with the thriller-horror elements we're taught to expect from The Walking Dead, it fails to succeed as a piece of quality television. Soap operas tend to use all sorts of variables and differing magnitudes of variables to create their drama, but the heightened world of The Walking Dead cannot. As second and third tier characters are killed semi-predictably across the weeks, the show is designed as nothing more than a vehicle to keep people watching. Every episode ends with threads open, "every" character is in danger and with little hope, tense hooks before a commercial break are resolved by lucky breaks. Even the much-talked-about season six cliffhanger with Negan striking an unknown victim with Lucille wasn't a climax or clever piece of writing. It was a cheap technique resulting in a death of a secondary character that could have been chosen by the writers by pulling a name out of a hat.
The lack of intricacies and constant leading of audiences to continued viewership is almost made up by some of the show's effects and action scenes, and the show has the budget and prestige that means that it could be an extremely high-quality drama. But it doesn't. It just strings characters and audiences along to no resolution. In the grand arc of the series, there is no end. Everyone is just trapped in an endless middle; the writers script "middle stories" which bear no change to the show bar variation on cast lists. The most interesting part of the show, the premise of the virus, continues unchanged and undeveloped.
The Walking Dead has a problem similar to many post-apocalypse adventures, and that is that things can only get worse as more people die until eventually the entire world is finished. Trapped without ability or desire for resolution of any kind, repeating the same arc points again and again, this is why I find The Walking Dead such an unsatisfying show.