The Walking Dead is a dramatic post-apocalyptic television series in which zombies have risen and taken over the world and a band of survivors have to seek refuge at every turn as they continually battle the dead and the living for safety.
Just for all of you folks who have recently emerged from your underground bunkers where you weathered a nuclear holocaust that didn’t happen. Thanks for joining us!
Everyone knows about this show. It’s kind of a big deal. It exploded at the height of the zombie genre’s popularity, and for years, its success has been used as a kind of barometer for the market of such stories. Oh, what’s this? The Walking Dead’s ratings ticked down a bit!? Zombies must be dead.
[Warning: Spoilers for the show follow. If you aren’t caught up through the first half of season 6, go away.]
Regardless of where you think the market is, The Walking Dead continues to tell amazingly powerful stories, and it continues to impress as an innovative series. I wouldn’t say it’s the best television production ever, as it strikes out from time to time even as it knocks certain elements out of the park, but it’s certainly one of my favorites, if not my favorite.
Last week, a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that the Smithsonian was hosting a panel discussion with Andrew Lincoln (the series’ star), Scott Gimple (executive producer and showrunner), Greg Nicotero (special effects and makeup master and neo-hippy-rocker), and John Sanders (prop master). Of course, it sold out in a day, and considering it wasn’t promoted at all, I stood no chance.
However, that same friend used magical powers and mystic alchemy to secure a ticket and gift it to me as a very early birthday present (I entered this world in May). So, singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I hopped into downtown Washington, D.C., to see Rick’s stubble in real life.
As I said, The Walking Dead is sorta popular, so when I showed up two hours before the event was supposed to start, I found a line that wrapped around the back of the building. Even in the February cold, I didn’t mind waiting, and I busied myself by estimating the number of people in line and Googling the capacity of the auditorium and then estimating my chances of being able to catch Scott Gimple’s speech spit in my eyeballs (in hopes that his brilliance might transfer to me).
If you’re curious, that number was 16 percent, fairly good odds.
The panel was mostly question and answer. However, they began by showing a clip from the most recent season and talking about a particular beloved character who was thought to have died. Watching The Walking Dead this season was a really interesting experience because it began by showing Glenn supposedly die, but it was done in such a way that we questioned it. And that question lingered until near the the first-half finale.
Scott Gimple was asked whether the fan reaction surprised him, and while his response was effectively, “no,” hearing him talk about it, it was clear that it did. Apparently, when he finished the script for that episode, it hadn’t occurred to him that he would have to call some people to explain what his intentions were.
In Gimple’s mind, the way he handled this character was the reverse of how the show handled the young girl Sophia in season two. Sophia goes missing, and at the midway point, we find that she was in a barn as a walker the whole time. Gimple’s intention was to do the inverse of that by making us think Glenn had died only to reveal that he had survived.
As a storyteller, I found that bit of insight very interesting. As authors, we’re often unable to anticipate how a reader may experience a story, because our experience is so clouded by vastly different circumstances. For example, we may see an entire story arc at once and may not be able to understand what it will be like having to wait a month to see the full storyline. We may not understand how agonizing that may be. We may not anticipate how people will react.
Which brings me to the issue of diversity in The Walking Dead. I was extremely happy when the moderator, NPR’s television critic Eric Deggans, said, “they would take my black card away if I didn’t ask about the issue of diversity on The Walking Dead.”
In short, over the five and a half seasons that the show has been on the air, minorities have been underrepresented, and there’s been a running critical theme of, whenever a minority character is introduced, he or she is soon killed.
Gimple didn’t shy away from this question, and I really liked his response. With the risk of poorly paraphrasing, Gimple said he was essentially faced with making a choice between casting these characters and knowing their fates or opting to hire a lesser actor (of another color) to head off the criticism.
For instance, the character of Bob is white in the comic book, but when actor Lawrence Gilliard auditioned, Gimple said he knocked it out of the park. Bob’s fate was already sealed, but Gimple chose Gilliard because he was the best actor for the job.
Gimple said it made it more difficult knowing Tyreese’s fate later that season.
He also brought up Noah, played by Tyler James Williams. Noah was a character they created for the show, and according to Gimple, Williams was the best actor for the job. But at the time of casting, they already knew Noah’s fate. Once again, he was faced with a decision of hiring the best actor or compromising.
He said he “regretted the optics of it,” in other words how it appeared to audiences.
All things considered, Gimple’s candor was refreshing to me, and as of now, the Walking Dead cast is more diverse than ever. I believe he’s aware of the issue, and I believe they are working to please fans.
I also learned in the panel that Andy (Andrew Lincoln is super friendly and insisted that people call him “Andy,” as anyone who’s ever watched cast interviews on Talking Dead will already know) doesn’t watch the show. He doesn’t want his perception of it to affect his performances. So it was odd to me that, while they showed clips, Lincoln would bow his head, close his eyes, and plug his ears.
Greg Nicotero talked about the scene in season 4 where Herschel’s severed, zombified head is on screen, looking at a fly and then opening and closing its mouth. He said he stresses mixed-media in special effects, so they actually made a cast of the actor’s head, spending two weeks just on plugging each strand of hair. The eyes were actually from a crew member, who was filmed with contact lenses, and then the digital effects team placed those eyes onto the head. And then they used animatronics for the mouth to open and close. It all came together for an unbelievably disturbing image.
In total, the work that the special effects team does on this show is incredible. Not only does it look great, but considering the amount of work that goes into it, Nicotero is one of the show’s unsung heroes. Granted, he has had a storied career, working with filmmakers like George Romero and Quentin Tarantino, so he isn’t exactly an unknown. But at one point, they showed a still of a horde of zombies on the projector and told us that two full weeks of special effects work went into making that one image.
There were a lot of questions, and there was a lot of discussion. I don’t remember everything, but the last one I remember is an audience member’s question. A man asked why these characters, who are seasoned survivalists in this world, never seem to fortify their locations. He said they continue to make this same “mistake.” He criticized the farm in season two for not making use of the bogs surrounding it. He scrutinized season three’s prison fences. And finally, he criticized Alexandria’s walls for being built next to an unstable church steeple. Finally, he confessed he thinks about his zombie plan about “10,000 hours per week.”
Gimple simply gazed at this man for a solid ten seconds. The auditorium of 1,500 people was dead silent. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “Well, you know, in all of those instances, I think there were a few things going on.” The room exploded with laughter because Gimple was right. There’s a lot going on in this show. I think the audience member’s point resonated. Perhaps the characters of The Walking Dead should have had their priorities in order.
But that’s The Walking Dead. Surviving this apocalypse is not easy. There’s a lot going on, and in truth, the dead are as much of an environmental hazard as anything.
After the panel concluded, I checked out some props, which included Herschel’s head. The picture I took doesn’t do it justice. That thing looks so good that it should be in a museum, and that’s when I had an interesting thought.
Originally, it was weird to me that The Smithsonian would have anything to do with a show about zombies, but The Walking Dead is a show that transcends TV. In so much of it, it’s influenced our culture in a way that art rarely does. It is such an outstanding example of entertainment that it’s worth attention from an entity like Smithsonian.
And we’re talking about zombies here. Whether you like it or not, The Walking Dead is a kind of phenomenon in entertainment. It is fun and artistic. It is a production that is rarely seen. And it’s a show about zombies that, like its characters, is defying all expectations with its longevity and appeal.
Panel host Eric Deggans asked Scott Gimple if The Walking Dead has an end game. Gimple said, yes, it does. He said that a lot of it depends on the end game of the comic books, namely on Robert Kirkman’s intentions. But he said that the people who make the show and the fans are having a good time with it, and that’s where their focus was. He implied that the show would go on as long as people watched it.
So here’s hoping zombies in pop culture stay strong, because I’m absolutely loving The Walking Dead.
In case you hadn’t heard, the second half of season two begins on Sunday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day. During the panel, they showed four minutes of the first episode, which I can’t share because it isn’t available online, but you can watch the first two minutes here: