The Trickle-Down Effect of Rick’s Arc

I stopped watching The Walking Dead after Season 7, but the news of Rick’s impending departure lured me back (score one for the ratings stunt). Binge-watching Season 8 gave me a greater appreciation for the overarching framework of the season as a whole than I might have had if I had just been casually tuning in from week to week.

Others have argued that Carl’s death served no narrative purpose, but if you binge-watch all sixteen episodes with no mid-season break, it’s clear that his death was the lynchpin of the entire season. The tree with stained glass panels hanging from it was teased from the very beginning, even being seen as a far-off glint on a hill before we knew the significance of it.

Carl’s visions of an idyllic future and the idea of mercy prevailing over wrath were instrumental in getting Rick to re-embrace some of his former idealism. Letting Negan live was Rick’s attempt to respect Carl’s dying wish and thereby give meaning to his son’s death.

The thing is, Rick’s arc from cornpone softie to dead-eyed killer and back again has trickled down to other characters, like Carol and Morgan, to the point where it’s hardly unique anymore on the world of The Walking Dead. A typical scenario on the show might involve one character trying to dissuade another character from killing indiscriminately. Usually, the person who’s playing the moral conscience will say something like, “This isn’t you,” or, “We don’t do this.”

An example from last season would be when Jesus tried to convince Tara not to kill the Savior they found hiding in a closet. When Carl was dying from his zombie bite, making his extended, weepy goodbye, Rick told him, “I can’t be who I was. It’s different now.” By the end of the season, he’d be writing Carl a letter, saying, “I forgot who I was. You made me remember.”

This ongoing identity crisis — the question of how Rick and the other survivors will define themselves going forward — might have remained more meaningful if The Walking Dead hadn’t kept retreading it to the point where it became blase. What we’re looking at here, however, is a media franchise with continuance hard-wired into its DNA.

The Limits of Not Having an End

After a while, the very idea that inspired The Walking Dead comic book series is what started to reduce the show to a never-ending cycle of grief and boredom. It’s a lesson on the values of finite storytelling. In spite of what they say, maybe it undermines the effectiveness of drama to think that the show must always go on.

In an introduction to the first trade paperback volume collecting issues #1-6 of the series, creator Robert Kirkman wrote:

“For me the worst part of every zombie movie is the end. I always want to know what happens next. Even when all the characters die at the end … I just want it to keep going. More often than not zombie movies feel like a slice of a person’s life shown until whoever is in charge of the movie gets bored. So we get to know the character, they have an adventure and then, BOOM, as soon as things start getting good … those pesky credits start rolling. The idea with The Walking Dead is to stay with the character, in this case, Rick Grimes for as long as humanly possible. I want The Walking Dead to be a chronicle of years of Rick’s life. We will NEVER wonder about what happens to Rick next, we will see it. The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.”

It’s important to remember that The Walking Dead started off with a six-episode first season. In its second season, the show expanded to thirteen episodes, and almost immediately, people started complaining that it wasn’t as good as it had been. Still, the show’s viewership continued to increase and with its third season, it fell into a pattern of sixteen episodes, divided into two eight-episode half-seasons.

Since then, The Walking Dead has been a show that would best be described as “uneven.” It’s easy when you’ve become disillusioned with the show to start dumping on it by default, but over the years, it’s had its moments, enough of them that it deserves a more measured, constructive response.

Having said that, when I returned to the show with some distance between myself and it, what I realized was that The Walking Dead is essentially a soap opera that trades in death instead of romance. Because it has so much, well, walking room, the show inevitably gets tripped up in inconsequential subplots. It likes to wallow in hollow sentiments, unearned emotions between supporting characters who are ciphers.

It’s a show that frequently suffers from what the Lost fan in me likes to call “the Nikki and Paulo effect,” whereby conspicuous new faces are treated as if they’ve been there all along and are of equal importance to characters with real history on the show. It’s one thing to introduce legitimate new characters; it’s another thing keep around a bunch of extras and then suddenly pretend that one of these background characters is important enough for the audience to care about.

It’s as though you can feel the show’s behind-the-scenes mechanics bleeding through on-screen sometimes. Budget cuts were part of what led to all the nastiness between original showrunner Frank Darabont and the AMC network. Watching the show, seeing its core characters sacrifice screen time, it’s easy to find oneself wondering whether it is deliberately limiting their screen time simply because it’s budgeting its money with those actors.

There have been some long-running primetime shows on television but the most immediate ones that come to mind, like Law & Order or The Simpsons, have been episodic in nature. It’s really the model of daytime TV, the serialized melodrama, the soap opera, that The Walking Dead wants to follow. The show General Hospital, for example, has been on TV for over fifty years.

It’s not unlike how comic book titles used to be continuously published on a monthly basis until their issue numbers were well into the hundreds. A couple of years ago, Action Comics — the title where Superman made his first appearance back in 1938 — returned to its original numbering so that it was able to hit issue #1000 this summer.

The Walking Dead started out as a comic book. It still is a comic book, but now it’s also a television show, one that’s drawing from both comic book and soap opera tradition as it lurches along like a zombified version of its former self. Looping in elements like King Ezekiel with his fake dreadlocks, Shakespearean posturing, and CG tiger has strained the show’s pseudo-realism and made it feel like even more of a comic book in recent seasons.

There’s no telling how long the show will be able to sustain itself without its main character. This was supposed to be Rick’s story, but the show has grown out its ensemble and it’s always nurtured a clear aspiration toward longevity. The reality is, Andrew Lincoln is an actor, not a comic book drawing. He can’t go on forever.

From the minute he woke up in a hospital bed, Rick Grimes was our point of entry into the zombie-infested universe of The Walking Dead. Shuffling around in his hospital gown, he guided us into Robert Kirkman’s extended riff on 28 Days Later.

In his absence, the show has lost its longtime anchor and can only hope to regroup around the fan-favorite character of Daryl. It’s almost as if the show will become a spin-off of itself without altering its name. With Rick gone, the only real guiding principle it has left is to be “the zombie movie that never ends.”

If only that sounded as cool now as it did at the show’s outset.

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