[Warning: This post contains spoilers up to season 5 episode 8 of The Walking Dead.]
As a huge fan of Telltale’s The Walking Dead games and the zombie apocalypse trope in general, I hold The Walking Dead TV show in high regard. Over four seasons, I have observed huge development and evolution, not just in the plot and narrative but in the quality of the show’s writing. Here are some of my thoughts.
Classically, we begin with an anchor to a main protagonist, Rick Grimes. Rick is your classic straight-up hero, a sheriff before the outbreak, a loving father and husband, and the de facto leader of other survivors. What is more interesting than Rick’s basic character (arguably bland compared to other survivors) is his evolution in this bleak post-apocalyptic world where we fear the living as well as the dead. Rick is a kind of litmus test, a mirror of the effect that The Walking Dead universe has on human nature. Rick starts with a strong moral compass (help everyone, don’t kill anyone, protect and serve), goes through a period of cold amorality (distrust everyone, eliminate threats brutally, survive at all costs), and ends up struggling to strike a balance between ruthless survival and compassionate humanity. The Rick Grimes of season 1 is virtually unrecognisable by season 5. Rick now lives in a complex, uncomfortable tension, carrying the burdens of leadership and countless personal demons. His hands are dirty and his conscience is a complicated beast.
Though Rick is by no means my favourite character, the evolution of Rick serves as the heartbeat of The Walking Dead.
I have to admit that I was disappointed by some of the writing before season four of The Walking Dead. Interesting, complex, three-dimensional male characters seemed to be a dime a dozen. Daryl. Glen. The Governor. Hershel. Bob. The list goes on, every man with a different personality, function, and back story.
By comparison, characterisation of female characters was weak. Most of the women seemed mere functional foils, serving little more as love interests (like Lori and Maggie), waiting in damsels-in-distress-esque fashion while the men went out to fight and hunt. I was extremely frustrated by Andrea, who didn’t seem to have any consistency in her personality, priorities and motivations (wanting nothing but death in season 2, wanting nothing but no more bloodshed in season 4), and whose narrative function seemed to be little more than romantic involvement with all The Walking Dead’s psychopathic alpha males. Not very subtly, Andrea fulfils the ‘piece of ass’ function, a role later reprised by scantily and ludicrously clad Rosita Espinosa in season five.
Sadly, little time is given to the few exceptions to this rule. Michonne and Carol, two female characters who buck this pattern as unique individuals in their own right, don’t get much air time for deeper character development.
Season four and five were a real step up in this regard. In season five especially, there is a drastic improvement in the show’s writing of female characters. We learn more about Michonne and her history, and consequently we understand better why she acts and reacts in certain ways. We witness Carol’s disturbing journey from victim to extremist to outcast, searching for a sense of self in the aftermath of murder. We get a long glimpse of Beth’s thoughts, struggles, desires and motivations, seeing her unique qualities in a new light. No longer are these women treated as mere dramatic foils or place holders, dependent on others for their fate.
Naturally, this more nuanced and sophisticated handling of character is also true of the show’s male characters. A change of plot and pace in seasons four and five enables more time, focus and detail to be given to characters internal landscapes and journeys. Daryl, for example, reveals information about his childhood and upbringing. For the first time in the show, he cries and expresses his emotions openly. He reveals attachments to other characters. What we learn about Daryl in these exchanges is invaluable.
Seasons four and five also see a greater use of flashbacks, which are almost entirely absent earlier in the series. As we see from character-driven shows like Lost which rely heavily on this device, it is difficult to understand characters in a deeper way without recourse to memories and backstory. Thankfully, the writers of The Walking Dead have decided to incorporate the use of flashback in a fuller way.
Skilled, delicate and nuanced character development can make or break a TV show like The Walking Dead, where the focus is often on relationships with other survivors and the threat of the living rather than the dead. This is why I welcome the developments in season five, and absolutely can’t wait to see more.