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The Walking Dead has a problem- a pretty big problem. It has fallen into one of the worst traps a series can fall into: The Pacing Trap. Now, what exactly is the pacing trap, you might ask? Let me explain.
Think about your favorite television show. Think about your favorite season of that show. What about it made it so perfect? I’m willing to bet the characters were presented with a series of challenges and worked to overcome them. That they grew and changed (a lot or a little, it doesn’t matter) as the result of facing these impediments. And I’m guessing that something happened to move the story along.
Imagine if none of that happened, or if it only happened in fits and starts. How would you feel as a viewer? With this season of The Walking Dead, those elements of structured storytelling have been missing a great deal of the time. And for a series that is so heavily built upon the balance between character and high octane adventure (let’s face it, a large chunk of the audience turns in solely for zombie confrontations), missing the mark from a pacing perspective can be deadly.
This isn’t a new issue for the series. The epically boring “Search for Sophia” in season two may have culminated in an awesome zombie barn showdown, but the road to get there was fraught with a whole lot of nothing. Similarly, the first half of season four dealt with two storylines: the mysterious outbreak (which killed no one of note and just wasted our time) and the Governor’s journey back into insanity/the attack on the prison (which rehashed last season’s finale, this time with a tank and one meaningful death- RIP Hershel). Nothing of real substance happened to move our heroes forward until the midseason finale. So we sat in the prison for weeks, gaining minimal character development (Tyreese mourns a character we never got to know, Bob is an alcoholic, Glenn and Maggie are the worst, etc.). Once we escaped the prison confines, I was among the throngs of people excited to see how the gang fared outside the prison walls, split-up and forced to fend for themselves.
Guess what? They are just as dull and boring outside the prison as they are inside it. Now, that’s not completely fair. There have been some truly excellent moments in this back half (“The Grove” chief among them, as one of the best episodes in the show’s entire run), but once again, there is little to no forward movement or character development- which was one of the driving reasons behind the group split. We learn that Maggie and Glenn are completely unable to function without each other (even though both did just fine before they got married). Sasha and Bob are still cyphers, but now they’re cyphers with crushes on each other. Rick is still Rick, Michonne smiles more, Carl’s voice has dropped, and Beth and Daryl are in trouble. The only characters I feel I know more about now than before are Carol and Tyreese.
The act of splitting the group resulted in the agonizingly slow movement of the entire season arc as well. It has taken us weeks to reach the fabled Terminus- and, as far as we know, only one group has made it (Carol and Tyreese could very well be there, as could Beth, but we don’t know where they are at the moment). I’ve heard from several people who have opted to stop watching the series and simply wait to binge it when the season ends. I’ve also heard from some people who are debating no longer watching the series at all, as they have become so frustrated with the inability of The Walking Dead to keep a strong pace running throughout the season.
My main issues with how this season has been paced stem from what I feel to be a huge misstep on the part of the writers. Splitting the cast on an ensemble series only works if each character can be interesting enough on their own to hold the audience’s rapt attention for 45 minutes. And, in order for that to happen, we have to care about them as an audience- which means there has to be continual character development leading up to the split- and The Walking Dead appears to be allergic to character development.
One of the best ways to tell if someone is about to bite it (pun intended) on the series is if they suddenly go from the background into the forefront of a story (see Hershel this season). The writers have commented on this phenomenon, and their hope was that this back half of the season would flesh out enough characters to make future deaths more of a shock. But this foray into slow burn storytelling and character development hasn’t worked because more effort was made toward developing characters we already cared about (Michonne, Daryl, Carol) than those we didn’t (Bob and Sasha).
I’ve heard from some corners of the television world that with the changing way viewers are absorbing episodes (the rise of binge watching), audiences are getting shorter attention spans, which colors the pace of a show. Perhaps this is true. A friend who binged on the aforementioned second season of Dead reported that the Search for Sophia wasn’t all that dull. However, that same friend has been vocal about the pacing issues of this season, as she watches it in real time. I would be more inclined to lend credence to the binge watching is making people want instant gratification argument if there weren’t other shows succeeding with well paced seasons and well written characters. After all, HBO’s Game of Thrones has the largest cast on television and still manages to deliver on pacing and character development- and that’s with several fewer episodes than The Walking Dead receives.
I’d love for Walking Dead to find the magical balance between pacing and character. I’d love for a show about zombies to be more exciting and thrill inducing than catching up on episodes of The West Wing on Netflix. I would really love to feel despair when a character is killed off, rather than shrugging my shoulders and trying to remember his or her name a few weeks later. Walking Dead is never going to be Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but it has the ability to transcend the mess it routinely finds itself in and rise above.