Oli Davis looks back on the first half of The Walking Dead season 6…
The last two episodes of The Walking Dead Season 6A managed to recapture the magic of the openers. Dramatic, poignant and superbly directed in places. Glenn is nearly reunited with Maggie, Denise has been kidnapped by Morgan’s imprisoned Wolf, and Rick and Co. are setting off on a daring break for the armoury.
They shift forward carefully in slow motion, camouflaged by zombie guts. The music rushes towards a crescendo. Sam, Jessie’s eight-year-old, in-shock son, begins to mouth “Mum? Muuum?” The piano gets louder. He’s surrounded by zombies. He’ll get them all kil-
The episode ended so abruptly, I thought my completely legal stream had been taken down.“Uncle Rick says shut the f*** up.”
Was that really it? The Sopranos can get away with that sort of ending. It’s The Sopranos. This is more the end of Lost Season 1.
It’s just the most recent example of The Walking Dead’s frequently poor pacing, the result of which being a series of oddly inconsequential and anticlimactic cliffhangers.
We’ll call them ‘Blue Bollock Hangs’. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to be built up like that. Scott M. Gimple’s hand running up your thigh, Robert Kirkman’s bushy beard tickling behind your ear. Now is the time for a release of tension: a gruesome, main character death, or the arrival of a new, Governor-level antagonist. Instead, Gimple and Kirkman skip out of the room giggling. It’s not kinky. It’s not an effective tease. It’s annoying and strangely depressing.Every time a Walking Dead viewer is trolled, Kirkman’s beard grows a new hair.
Their attitude is symptomatic of a binge-watch mentality. People now consume entire seasons over a few days. That’s against the Natural Order of Telly. The Cathode Ray Mission would call it blasphemy. Seasons are called ‘seasons’ for a reason, because its instalments are drip-fed weekly over a period of months.
A brief history lesson: its no coincidence that the germs of ‘American Quality Television’ appeared at the same time as home video. Shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, for the first real-time in the medium (soap operas not included), developed plots from week-to-week instead of episodic, standalone instalments. Now, 30 years later, home entertainment is changing weekly broadcasting yet again.
Don’t misinterpret this article as a cry for how things were. These are exciting new times. Netflix and Amazon Prime-style streaming services make entire runs of shows ready to watch with ease. Programmes can now slow down and use more considered storytelling. Shows no longer live or die based on weekly Nielsen reports; ratings aren’t as important as they once were. If your show finds a passionate enough fanbase, it can find new life elsewhere; like Community on Hulu, or Arrested Development on Netflix.
But, with any change in standard procedure, there are degrees of shortsightedness. New inventions tend to go through a period of evangelical adoption by some. That’s where The Walking Dead has built its post-apocalyptic bunker, prepping for the end of weekly television by putting all its resources into what it thinks will be the future: binge watching.
Now back to the Blue Bollock Hang.
For the past season, The Walking Dead show runners – Gimple, Kirkman and Co. – have structured their stories around back-to-back viewings. Nowhere is this more obvious than the Glenn fiasco. That ‘cliffhanger’ was structured all wrong, weirdly happening in the show’s middle act rather than end, and not showing Glenn scrambling beneath the dumpster. The final shot should have us thinking: ‘Oh wow – how’s Glenn getting out of this one?!’; rather than, ‘Damn, Glenn’s definitely dead.’ Playing with your viewers’ emotions is the point of watching drama. Screwing over your viewers’ emotions, however, is bad storytelling.“Don’t worry, I’ve got a way out. A fake-out.”
Glenn’s fakeout death isn’t the only example of Blue Bollock Hang in The Walking Dead. The blood seeping through the hole in Alexandria’s walls at the end of episode 6 had Rick literally say the following week: “It doesn’t matter”; episode 5’s “HELP!” over Daryl’s radio was revealed as an inconsequential line from Eugene in Episode 8 (by which time, everyone had forgotten about the transmission in the first place); and, most recently, with Sam mouthing “Mum?” at the end of episode 8’s truly rousing closing montage.
By the way, I’m not counting the ‘Season 6B Prologue’ promo that aired during the following show on AMC. And even if I did, saying a name (“Negan”) that those unfamiliar with the comics won’t recognise (which is the vast majority of people) is again nowhere near impactful enough as a cliffhanger.“‘Negan’ who now?”
And this is where our two arguments interlink: the Blue Bollock Hang and binge watch mentality. This ‘hows it going to play on Netflix’ way of thinking has become a serious problem in The Walking Dead, and it isn’t just me playing armchair psychologist on the people running the show. Gimple said the following about the online anger towards Glenn’s fakeout death:
“[The Walking Dead] is this big movie, it’s this whole piece. We give people something to look forward to every week, and in the meantime I have to worry about people freaking out about the twists and turns of stories.”
The showrunners see Walking Dead in terms of a continued binge watch, a “big movie”. Gimple here both acknowledges that the show’s primary audience is one of weekly viewership, and criticises them for that very fact. That there will be seven days to wait between episodes for most people dictates how the “twists and turns of stories” should be told.
Neither is this article making a big deal of nothing. Almost a million viewers dropped off in the episodes following Glenn’s fake-out death.“They LIKE me! They really LIKE me!”
So why alienate your weekly product in favour of an in-the-future box set binge? Usually, the long-term legacy mindset is more creatively rewarding. In The Walking Dead, it’s permitting lazy storytelling and poor pacing. It means Gimple and Co. can slack off in a season’s middle because they believe viewers will breeze through blocks of 3 or 4 episodes in a go. Wanna watch another one? Yeah, sure, might as well. This future-forward thinking, oddly, is actually harming the present.
Paying more attention to the weaker episodes and pacing the show’s cliffhangers around week-to-week instalments is key. Season 6A might have had a terrific opening, but the show will soon crumble from its poorly structured middle. You need to hit a consistent quality every week, otherwise viewers drop out. You’re only as good as your last episode on television, and there are seven days between each for water cooler moaning and podcast critiquing.
I said in my review of S06E08 that I love The Walking Dead. I know, intellectually, that other shows are better – Breaking Bad, The Wire. But there’s something about this show that hits me on a base level. I love The Walking Dead with all my heart. I just wish it loved me back.
And with two and a half months between Season 6A’s closer and the next episode, that’s a mighty long time to wait with a Blue Bollock Hang.
Oli Davis is the Co-Editor of Flickering Myth, curator of its Super Newsletter, Lead Producer of Flickering Myth TV and host of the Flickering Myth News podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @OliDavis.