The Walking Dead’s mid-season premiere just aired, and I’m seeing a lot of criticism of the show’s first half of season seven. I endured this criticism through November, but now I feel like it’s getting a bit tired. While I acknowledge the purpose of television is to entertain, I think these critics miss the point of what The Walking Dead is doing and, therefore, can’t appreciate it.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course. I think the show is still great, and if you’re interested in why I think that, please read on.
(This is fairly spoiler free, but if you’ve been under a rock and don’t have any idea what happens at the end of season six/beginning of season seven, you might want to turn away.)
Admittedly, season seven hasn’t been the show’s most powerful or most consistent. It’s had its share of unimpressive episodes, and even some of the better episodes suffered from poor decisions, but I don’t think the production quality is to blame for what appears to be a popular waning of interest. Rather, the show deliberately hit a strikingly different tone with the intent of mixing the formula up, and while I’d argue what they’ve done is some of the most artistic and creative work in years, the show’s audience at large hasn’t been too keen on what ultimately is literary sadomasochism.
Let me explain. Also, don’t Google “sadomasochism” with the parental filter off.
Good storytelling has three pillars:
1). The story has to be clear, coherent, and logical. It has to make sense to the audience. The audience has to be able to follow what’s going on, understand the stakes, and perceive who the good guys and bad guys are. It has to move and change. It has to raise the stakes. It has to climax and resolve. And through it all, the audience has to be able to follow along.
2). The story has to be meaningful and deep. It has to be moving. It has to be deep enough for audiences to invest themselves so that following the narrative touches their emotions. It has to be intellectually stimulating so that analysis of the metaphors and allegories results in ideas regarding humanity. It has to contain some kind of truth that exists in the subtext, some reason for it being, a use in the thoughts it conveys. Audiences should take away from the story ideas that they can use for their own intellectual growth and inspiration.
3). The story has to be satisfying and fulfilling. It has to be fun and entertaining, but ultimately, it has to make the audience feel like they didn’t waste their time, that they were part of something that mattered. It has to make promises and keep them. It has to ask audiences to make sacrifices and pay those sacrifices off. In short, it has to create expectations and then deliver.
(If you ever saw a movie that turned out to be completely different than the trailers made it out to be and you wanted to see that movie and were sad that you didn’t, movie marketing destroyed this pillar and doomed the movie before it even started. But the studio still got your money. There’s probably a term for this, but I suck with terminology.)
Great stories can ignore one or more of those pillars and still succeed. In fact, many of the best ones do. For instance, a story that is meaningful and satisfying but ultimately somewhat confusing might provoke additional readings or viewings. I’d argue that this also can be a pitfall of mistaken quality in storytelling, the idea that a story that is confusing must contain some form of masterful wisdom, but that’s crap, and I digress.
Bringing it back to The Walking Dead and one of the key factors in its current decline among popular audiences, the thing about pillar number three is The Walking Dead is a horror story. That’s important. Horror doesn’t care whether you’re satisfied or not. It is one of its greatest assets. By removing the chains of obligation to please audiences, horror stories are able to be more innovative and creative. They are able to take risks, and sure, those risks don’t always pay off or lead to flawed narratives, but those stories almost always have a redeeming quality to them that makes it possible to overlook those weaknesses.
The whole point of the end of season six and beginning of season seven was to remind us The Walking Dead was a horror story. In obvious ways, it refuted an earlier criticism that the show was becoming stale and developing “Invincible Hero Syndrome.” The ultimate problem with that is the story loses tension because we never believe our heroes are in any real danger.
The controversial season seven opener fixed the problem with invincible heroes and proved no one was safe. It was followed by a period of relative murkiness and uncertainty. It was coherent and extremely meaningful, but it wasn’t satisfying for audiences who live vicariously through the heroes of the show to see those heroes subjugated.
It was hard to watch.
In a deeper sense, the first half of season seven was a courtesy to the most passionate viewers. It was a time of mourning. The showrunners honored the heroes who fell, and they honored us, their most fanatic fans. They gave us space and time to grieve. They did not ignore the pain we felt because they deliberately inflicted that pain, and they allowed it to fester purposefully (hence the literary sadomasochism). It is all meant to amplify the inevitable destination of this journey, and I think fans who aren’t paying attention now are doing themselves a disservice.
Furthermore, I think it’s particularly important to consider we can only appropriately apply the three pillars of a good story to full story arcs. Season seven isn’t over yet, and moreover, neither is the series. The effects of the first half of season seven will resonate throughout this season and beyond, and the showrunners have explicitly told us that.
So, I want to close with this: If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead. Don’t turn away. Pay attention. Allow yourself to feel what the show is trying to get you to feel. It all is a promise that, in the end, the show will deliver on. It’s a pledge to us that the journey will be worth it.
Or maybe not. We won’t know until we get there. But it is a fundamental principle of all literature that the works that are difficult to navigate, at least in parts, are often worth the trek. It just so happens that we don’t see it often in television because, frankly, it’s a huge risk.
And, my fellow Walking Dead fans, if there’s nothing else you can take away from this, consider that the show knows it’s taking a big risk with season seven, and it’s doing so with hopes that we’ll emerge together on the other side with a renewed love for this apocalypse.
I hope you give it that chance.