A few weeks ago, I criticized The Walking Dead, both the TV show and comic. Namely, I took issue with its recycled arc of good guys finding a place to live, meeting a badie, losing their place to live after a war, and rehashing the same story all over again. How many times will we encounter the same general theme: the humans are really the monsters? The comic has been stuck in this recycled plotline since the prison/governor storyline years ago.
One of my biggest gripes about TWD is the character of Negan, a villain who, while popular, is typically a walking one-liner who swings a barbed-wire baseball bat. He is also sexist (even when he claims not to be and espouses some warped moral code) and utterly violent. Even in issue 100 of the comic, when he is bashing in the head of fan favorite Glenn, which is spread over several panels, he cracks one-liners. I was equally harsh on the last two seasons of “The Walking Dead” because of the All Out War storyline between Rick’s group and Negan’s The Saviors. I had hoped Negan would be more interesting and complex on the screen, but after his prolonged and teased introduction, I had little reason to believe that. I also had little reason to keep wanting to watch the show, especially since the first few episodes of this season have featured long, drawn-out action sequences with some zombies and flying bullets, which never seem to hit any main character, even when they are center frame. Go figure.
The last two episodes, however, were two of my favorites in the show’s eight-year run. The episode “Some Guy,” TWD focused on the story of Ezekiel (Khary Payton), a cartoonish character who has a pet tiger, Shiva, and lords over a community of survivors named The Kingdom. In the comic, it is revealed that Ezekiel is just a regular dude who saved Shiva from a zoo. He took on the king persona to rewrite his story post-apocalypse and to make himself seem above-average. Much of his real story is shared with Michonne, who becomes his lover, though briefly. On the TV show, he shares his story with Carol (Melissa McBride), who has long been dead in the comic. On the show, Ezekiel is confident that the Saviors will be defeated, but his overconfidence leads to most members of the Kingdom getting gunned down by a group of Saviors at an outpost. One by one, Ezekiel watches the bullets hit the men and women, and then he watches them reanimate into zombies. After the slaughter, he drops the cheesy king gimmick and is knocked back to reality. To make matters worse, he witnesses Shiva devoured by zombies, after she saves him from the horde. This scene occurs in the comic too, but watching the small screen adaptation was a little more jarring because it comes minutes after Ezekiel loses everything and is forced to drop the king shtick, becoming just “some guy.” The episode contained some of the best character development TWD has had in a long time, even with all of the action sequences.
This week’s episode, “The Big Scary U,” was Negan-centric, and also well-crafted and well-written. Most of the episode’s story is lifted from a graphic novel Robert Kirkman wrote about the baddie entitled Here’s Negan, just released a few weeks ago. Like everyone else, including Ezekiel, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was a pretty regular dude pre-apocalypse, just a gym teacher. Following the collapse of civilization and the death of his wife, he rewrites his story, just like many of the other characters. What the Negan-centric episode contained that the comic has lacked so far is a depth given to the villain. Negan muses that he only kills people when it is necessary to maintain order. In a few episodes this season, he blames Rick and company for the war, thus making the reader question if even the good guy is imperfect, another ongoing theme of TWD. None of the dialogue-rich scenes from this week’s episodes excuse Negan’s behavior, be it towards women or the brutal death he inflicted upon major characters, but it does give him a depth and philosophy that he doesn’t fully have in the comic. It filled in a backstory that made him more than a one-liner in a black leather coat, wielding baseball bat named Lucille.
I don’t know where the rest of the season is going. I do hope, however, that it differs from the comic, at least somewhat, like the last two episodes have done. I hope more depth is given to the All Out War arc and we really feel the causalities of war (poor Shiva) and feel the weight of the decisions that Rick, Ezekiel, and even Negan make.
With that said, TWD still has a problem. It is totally unclear how this entire thing is going to end. I doubt the TV show has THAT many seasons left, and at some point, Kirkman needs an endgame for the comic, too, even if he is planning 300 issues, as he’s said in the past, and has over 100 left to write. TWD needs to break the cycle of good guys encounter bad guys, suffer casualties, lose their community, and then repeat it all over again. In the comic, shortly after the war with the Saviors, the good guys launch into a war with a group called the Whisperers. Maybe, the show should avoid that arc and focus on life post-war, including rebuilding, surviving, and trying to maintain humanity. Maybe, the zombies should be the threat for a while.
The last two episodes of TWD were the best of the season, a nice balance of character development and action. More importantly, the episodes broke somewhat from the comic. The comic still has a long way to go before its conclusion, but the show probably does not. It would be wise if the show runners differentiated from the comic to show us that there is a clear end in mind here. Maybe, just maybe, they can give us a glimmer of hope that a society can be rebuilt, even after brutal circumstances.