Does this sound familiar? Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group of post-apocalyptic wayfarers find a safe refuge to call their own. They settle in, fight off hordes of the undead (or, more often than not, other survivors) to make it habitable, and reside there for an entire season (or so). Then there is a climatic twist of events, most of that season’s recurring characters – along with one or two of the main cast, as well – are killed off, and then the whole process starts anew the following year.
Welcome to The Walking Dead, whose six seasons present the same exact scenario again and again, with a few deviations here and there to shake things up (for instance: the Alexandria Safe Zone, where our characters currently reside, has been their base of operations for the past year-and-a-half now). Such an obvious storytelling modus operandi wouldn’t be quite so bad if there were a larger narrative going on, but, unfortunately, there is literally no story beyond the immediate purview of our particular group of survivors hightailing it from one location to the next. There is no hint at what the remnants of the government are up to (if, indeed, there are any bureaucratic leftovers at all), and no exploration of what caused the zombie apocalypse in the first place – in short, there is no total that is greater than the sum of the show’s narrative parts.
By effectively removing plot from their storytelling toolbox, The Walking Dead’s various showrunners (there have been three so far) are forced to rely almost exclusively on character and thematic development, but their track record here is rather mixed. In terms of the former, there has been some considerable growth for such characters as Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who only found acceptance and his place in the world once society had gone belly-up, and Carol (Melissa McBride), who is virtually unrecognizable as the timid, abused housewife audiences met in season 1. However, with such a big cast and new characters arriving all the time as others die off, it's difficult for the writers to give everyone a meaningful arc and their own time in the spotlight.
This leaves the character spotlight to fall the most solidly on Rick. As the show’s central character, Rick has had quite the interesting arc thus far, going from an idealistic cop to an all-out dictator who refuses to hear any dissenting opinion, to reluctant, world-weary farmer, to a mercenary willing to kill strangers as part of a trade. And although the sixth season spent most of its time trying to make Rick work at finding a balance between his newly-discovered primal side and his more traditional civilized side, Rick has hit rock bottom so many times that the show may be running out of ways for his character to develop – especially considering that both AMC and the writing staff seem to be eyeing at least 10 seasons.
And let’s consider the series’s other remaining narrative tool: thematic development. Its central motif is best exemplified in the season 5 episode “Forget,” in which Daryl and Aaron (Ross Marquand) attempt to corral Buttons the horse in order to bring him back to Alexandria and domesticate him. After being out in the wild for so long, Daryl says, the horse has gone back to being what he really is – a wild animal. The parallel to humans – at least, how the show formulates human beings – is obvious and repeated season after season: the longer that Rick and his crew are out beyond the walls of a settlement, always being hunted and on the hunt themselves, the more savage they become.
All of which is to say: for better or worse, The Walking Dead doesn’t have much of an actual narrative, which renders its rinse-and-repeat formula pointless. But given the current grand scheme of television storytelling, and given the series’s place in it, is this really such a bad thing?
Some of the best television in recent memory has emerged from efforts to deconstruct the formulae and storytelling sensibilities that have come before. The trend can arguably be traced back to The Sopranos, which broke down the tropes of the Mafia sub-genre while examining, sometimes in brutally honest ways, the mundanity of modern life. More recently, Game of Thrones turned the fantasy genre upside down by skillfully subverting audience expectations to make the demise of characters both shocking and dramatically effective.
Could it be that Walking Dead is no different in its intent? Is the extremely limited scope of its narrative meant to say something about the demands that we as a mass-entertainment-consuming culture have now accrued? Is its real underlying theme the pointlessness of life, transforming the two-hour runtime of the play Waiting for Godot into a seven-year-long existential experiment? Is it actually a farce, secretly commenting on the stupidity of its characters or narrative situations in the same exact way that David Chase did with The Sopranos? Is it positing that meaning can only come from meaninglessness, or that our psyches are just as randomly constructed as the disease that has transformed all people on the planet (so we think) into the walking dead?
Any real answer would ultimately depend on the ending that the series eventually reaches. The undead being eventually defeated and civilization ultimately flourishing again, forcing our characters to take stock of the many unethical behaviors they’ve committed, would provide a fundamentally different context for the story than Rick and the remnants of his group all being felled on the road by either a horde of zombies or Saviors.
However, with AMC eager to keep The Walking Dead going for as long as people are still watching, rather than planning a fixed number of seasons like Game of Thrones will have, the hope of a satisfactory final episode isn't reason enough by itself for people to keep watching. In fact, with such a model in mind, The Walking Dead may only reach a conclusion after the show's quality has dipped severely enough to drive away most of its viewers. With that in mind, it may be best for both the writers and fans to embrace the pointlessness.
The Walking Dead season 7 will continue this Sunday @9PM on AMC.