With finale season and season finales beginning to slowly emerge from the dry earth and shuffle towards us – plot twists squirming in their bloodied maws – I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how disparate shows are handling what can at times make or break a show. Hence, Anatomy Of A Finale.
And of course, as ever, SPOILERS AHEAD.
I don’t know The Walking Dead that well. Or well enough, probably. As someone whose pie-charted brain activity dedicates a hefty slice to surviving the zombie apocalypse, I probably should. But after picking up the pilot and sophomore episodes from season one, something about the show didn’t quite grab me enough to get me on board. I was travelling at the time, and wedging any show into my sand and ant-riddled laptop would have been nigh on impossible at the time, so perhaps it was just chance.
After catching the mid-season finale a few months ago as part of a discussion with executive producer Gale Anne Hurd my interest was once again piqued – but in the following weeks as the show returned I found my thoughts turning to The Good Wife and Spartacus (and not just because of the latter’s infamous NSFW cock count). Once again, a show apparently built for me in every way had evaded my thoughts.
But I love a good finale, and knew that any rumours I’d heard of how The Walking Dead had fittingly dragged its heels in the second season were likely to be moot in a finale, where action and change are the name of the game. I was not disappointed – but first let me set the scene.
The second season saw the ragtag bunch of survivors holed up at a farm where internal conflict and turmoil were more of a danger than outward threats. Hershel the farm owner was keeping zombies in his barn; Shane, the increasingly unhinged action man of the group, was out for blood; good guy Glenn was trying to romance the farmer’s daughter out from under Daddy’s thumb.
And then there was Rick, the group leader, played by Andrew Lincoln (the man who, right through This Life and Teachers, was very much a part of my sexual awakening). Ostensibly the good guy, Rick was being pushed more and more to the edge, most specifically by Shane’s increasing attempts on both his wife and his life (and his fiddler in Fife). The penultimate episode of the season saw Shane and Rick come to final blows. Rick stabbed Shane, killing him, and Shane shuffled back to undead-ness – even though he wasn’t bitten. Hurrah! A development! And as Rick and his son Carl walked away from Shane’s handgun-ed corpse, and hundreds of zombies suddenly appeared on the horizon, fans were probably wetting their lips for an explosive finale at the farm.
As I said above, they – and I – weren’t disappointed.
As zombie hordes mysteriously drawn from hundreds of miles around descended on the farm, the writers threw the whole kitten caboodle at our cast of characters. The barn burned, some expendable but likable characters bit the bite, and more importantly everyone got the fuck off a farm that had become a quagmire of roundabout conversations for the past season or so.
There were some genuinely great moments throughout. Rick and Carl sprinting through the zombies and eventually setting the barn alight, Herschel trying to hold the corpses at bay as his mind ticks over the possibility of leaving his farm forever, and the disparate cast being forced into disparate pairings and vehicles as they plowed their way to relative safety.
It was all fantastic zombie movie fare, no doubt. And proof that the direction and overall team working on The Walking Dead are not just some of the best action folk in the television business, but also thoroughly enjoy and are obsessed with a zombie siege.
But as the dust settled on the farm and the survivors reconnected on a nearby highway, it became clear why my mind had been resisting a show that my gut said must be good for me.
It’s the characters.
I know that Rick is a flawed hero possibly pushed past the point of moral reprehensibility. I know that the power plays within the group are a vital part of what makes human drama work. I know that we need to grieve when people die. And I know we need to talk about what the fuck to do next when the world ends.
But it all felt so… perfunctory. When the survivors split off from the battle, I was hoping that the different groups would be forced into tense situations before they could reconnect. Instead, there were necessary (but did we really need to see them?) conversations about whether to go here, or there, or anywhere, before they all met up again. And when they did, they talked about whether to go here, or there, or anywhere.
My zombie survival brain knows how important it is to discuss these things in the wake of an apocalypse, but the writer in me knows that this isn’t where true drama lies. And when it comes to character, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to have as much of a handle on what it should be doing.
Part of me reluctantly (and with some genuine fear of the comic book community) thinks this might lay at the feet of this being an adapted source. I have read and enjoyed many a comic book – or graphic novel, though I never get too worked up about the distinction – in my time, and been interested and inspired by the thinking therein. But to really connect with the characters across panels is a difficult, some might say impossible, task. There isn’t the breadth of words to know them that a novel provides, but they are not played by real moving people so we don’t get that immediate emotional connection.
And that makes me think that character traits that fans may not have questioned on paper are becoming much harder to deal with on screen. Rick is conflicted, yes, but with every conversation about how conflicted he is it’s hard to sympathise, because he’s not pulling from a human core. Similarly, his wife Lori seems cast as “mother” in a role that doesn’t quite fit with her flitting and needy personality. And the rest of the characters? Well, I know I don’t know The Walking Dead well, but after just one episode I should still have a clearer idea of who these people are. Doubly so for a finale, where there should be a real sense of change and heartstrings across the board.
There’s a sense that if you scratch the surface of these people they might just wear away, much like the ink and paper that once gave them life.
The one section of this episode to buck the trend was the fate of Andrea, the only female to embody a tough-as-nails approach that all the male characters seem to have in spades – and therefore someone I took an instant shine to. On foot and separated from the rest of the group, Andrea’s trudge through a zombie-riddled forest was not only tensely directed and acted but also offered true action when the rest of the episode had fallen into disrepair. What’s more, it ended on an intriguing peek into next season, when a slicing and dicing hooded figure (with two literally unarmed zombie slaves in tow) saved Andrea from certain death.
This development was matched by another; a parting shot of a distant prison, a place that holds promise of a new stronghold to base our ragtag crew. But while the visual is enticing, The Walking Dead hasn’t necessarily proven to date that it can deliver. In an increasingly convoluted season that saw characters turn inwards and repeat themselves ad nauseum, a prison doesn’t seem the most likely setting to develop themselves by experiencing something new.
Perhaps there is something to be saved, and some life to be breathed into a show that is a technical and ratings smash hit – but for now the hollowness of these characters leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Prison walls won’t necessarily do much to alleviate the introspection.
Success As A Finale: 7/10
Success As An Episode: 6/10