One of TWD's infinity of problems is the absolute refusal by its writers to employ a coherent timeline. This is one of the most basic elements of competent narrative construction (when creating a standard linear narrative is the point), but time and time again this matter of time is chucked in the dustbin. Over the run of the series this has resulted in a string of massive plot-holes, wild contradictions, and long stretches of time that simply disappear without explanation, many of them catalogued on this blog.
It isn't really a surprise that a show as poorly written as TWD would have this problem--it's modeled on the soaps and has all of the soaps' other problems--but I have been surprised, in the weeks I've written on it of late, by how many of its viewers fail to take much notice of it. For example, I'm forever running into discussions of how much time has passed in the course of the series. Some people argue it has been many months and are amazed when the actual timeline is presented to them. Some even become hostile and try the Fox News technique of insisting the established timeline is some sort of "opinion" or "theory" of mine.[see Appendix]
As of the end of this week's episode, three weeks and two days have passed since Rick emerged from his coma in the pilot. We've been with the characters every day since, with only two exceptions; a day that passed between the first and second season--established in the timeline by Rick's broadcast to Morgan at the beginning of season 2--and a week that passed between "Triggerfinger" and "18 Miles Out"--established by Hershel's prediction in the former that it would be a week before Randall would be up and about and the conversation at the beginning of the latter between Rick and Shane wherein they say they've waited a week to take Randall out to dump him.
There's a timeline over at the Walking Dead Wiki that does a pretty good job of documenting the period since Rick awakened. For this period, it's spot on but other than this period, it's pretty worthless, as it descends into fan-wankery in an effort to harmonize the hopelessly contradictory elements of the series' timeline.
The timeline for the zombie apocalypse itself is all over the board. The series established that the entire event, however long it took, occurred entirely while Rick was comatose. He knew nothing of it when he awakened.
So how long was he comatose? It has never been definitively stated but there are some facts that point the way. Rick was shot at some point in the spring or summer. Warm, short-sleeved weather. Upon awakening, he didn't appear to have lost any weight, he was still able to walk and perform skills requiring a great degree of physical coordination (he rode a bicycle home), and he still had an open wound that had to be kept covered, all of which argues (and, in the case of the wound, insists) his total hospital stay would have been less than 2 weeks. TWD Executive Producer Robert Kirkman has suggested it was 3 or 4 weeks (in the comic, it was 4 weeks).[see update 1b below]
The still-open wound can't be made to square with that--flesh knits. Even allowing for 4 weeks though, the rest of the zombie timeline can't be reconciled.
The day after Rick awakens, Morgan tells him the zombie situation had gotten really bad a month earlier, when the utilities went out. Already, this pushes the beginning of the zombie apocalypse backward in time beyond Rick's stay in the hospital, as it meant the zombie problem had been going on for some time before that month.[see update 2 below] Three days later, Jenner at the CDC records a video log stating it had been 6 1/2 months since zombie-ism appeared, which pushes it back even further and is, for Rick, completely impossible--if he'd been in a coma that long his wound would have been merely a scar, he would be covered with sores, physically wasted away (big time weight-loss that would leave him not much more than a scar himself), and he wouldn't even be able to get out of bed.[see update 1a below]
When Rick was shot, Carl was still in school. This is established by a flashback (in season 2, ep. 2) of Shane bringing Lori the bad news while she waits for Carl to get out of class. If this was before school had recessed for summer break that year, it would have been late May or earlier. Call it the end of May to grant the series the widest latitude, add a month to that for Rick's stay in the hospital and you're up to late June at the latest. It's been three weeks and two days from there to the end of "Beside the Dying Fire," which means it should, at present, be the end of July on the show, a time when temperatures in Georgia are in excess of 90 degrees and winter is but a far-off dream.
For the last few episodes though, the weather has been depicted as getting colder, the characters have been discussing the coming of winter and they've taken to wearing jackets. No way to make that work.
There is an alternate possibility but it doesn't work, either. It begins with the notion that Rick was shot in late summer. School starts back at the beginning of September. If Rick was shot then and we do the same math, it would be late October as of the end of this week's episode. That would square with the jackets and cooler weather. Unfortunately, the rest of the series has obviously taken place in the Summer, not the Fall. Lush green foliage, bright sunshine, sweat, Hershel tending his garden (or talking about it). Back in the first season, when Jim went batty and started digging holes, Dale said it was over 100 degrees and was concerned Jim was going to keel over from heat-stroke. That ain't October.[see update 2 below]
What does it all mean? Well, the conclusion, which is both obvious and inescapable, isn't a novel one for this blog; it's yet another example of the lack of care that goes into grinding out TWD.
UPDATE 1 (21 March, 2012) -- Eagle-eyed Lebeau, from the most excellent Le Blog, brought to my attention an interview with TWD executive producer Robert Kirkman in which some pertinent timeline details are discussed. The relevant portion pretty much confirms what I've written:
Q: There was talk of winter coming down the pike. How much time has gone by now in the series?
Kirkman: I’d say we opened up in maybe June or so in the first season and the first season took place over a matter of days. Uh, you know, we are, uh, looming into maybe our third or fourth or fifth month…
Q: You can just say, "I don’t know." There’s no shame in that.
Kirkman: Winter is coming! Other than that, I don’t know.
To be fair, Kirkman seems to merely be cashing a paycheck with the series, and in his public statements often seems only minimally aware of what's happening with it, but he is officially listed as an executive producer, he's allegedly present during writers' discussions, and to the extent that he can be said to be an insider this speaks for itself.
UPDATE 1a (27 March, 2012) -- Last week, TWD showrunner Glen Mazzara and Kirkman appeared on AMC's Talking Dead, a promotional show for TWD, and, during the bonus segment of the show, were asked a question about the timeline with regard to the zombie apocalypse:
Q - How much time do we think has passed at this point?... Like just since the catastrophe, like, since the apocalypse turned? Like how much time do we think?
Mazzara - (mutters, looks over at Kirkman, is clearly unsure) We think it's, like, three to four months, right? Isn't that what we've said? (looks at Kirkman for confirmation) It's no more than 4 months.
Mazzara also took part in a Twitter Q&A last week in which he fielded fan questions, and had this to say:
"...let's keep in mind that from the time of the Pilot to the end of Season 2, we think it's only been about four months."
Again, the ambiguity ("three to four months", "we think", etc.), indicating the lack of a real timeline (and the lack of concern with one), and we get a new number--4 months--that can't be made to square with anything we've been shown. Three weeks and two days have passed since Rick awakened. Four months would mean he would have had to be in a coma for over 3 months, which is impossible, for the reasons already stated. Mazzara, as writer, had Jenner say, back in season 1, that zombie-ism first started 6 1/2 months earlier. Adding to that the time since means it's been, by the Jenner timeline, 7 months and a week since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. That puts the new "four months" claim short by more than 3 months.
UPDATE 1b (6 April, 2012) -- A few days ago (2 April), TWD showrunner Glen Mazzara took to his Twitter account and stuck his foot in the timeline matter yet again.
Q - How long was Rick in a coma?
Mazzara - 3-4 weeks.
That lines up with the timeframe previously offered by TWD executive producer Robert Kirkman, and while it's a bit longer coma period than is necessarily consistent with what we were shown, it is much closer to the mark than the much longer coma periods suggested by much of the rest of the series, by Mazzara himself, and by many online fans who have tried to harmonize the wildly contradictory information the series has doled out over time.
Unfortunately, this wasn't all Mazzara said on the subject that day:
Q - How much time is covered from Rick coming out of the coma, to them leaving the farm? Approximately?
Mazzara - 3 months?
Mazzara offering this with a question-mark again demonstrates the lack of any real timeline. Three months would, when combined with Mazzara's take on Rick's coma time, be consistent with Mazzara's suggestion that everything we've seen has happened in a period of about 4 months.
Unfortunately, it isn't consistent with anything else.
As I outlined above, the Rick timeline, from the day he awakened forward, is rock-solid. From that day to the end of season 2, we've been with Rick every day except one between the seasons and a week during which Randall healed. In that time, three weeks and 2 days have passed. There's no room for any ambiguity on that point.
It would perhaps be helpful if the creators of TWD stopped blowing smoke up everyone's ass on this matter.
UPDATE 2 (22 March, 2012) -- "Deanshore," a reader on the "Walking Dead" board at the Internet Movie Database has pointed out that I'd gotten Morgan's comments wrong. I remembered them as I relayed them, but what he actually said was "[The] gas line's been down for maybe a month." Earlier in the pilot, he'd been describing how the situation had become dangerous as the zombie problem had progressed, and I may have juxtaposed those two scenes in my head, but I'm really just guessing--I don't really know how I made a hash of it. Chalk it up to the danger inherent in working from memory.
It's a relatively minor point and doesn't really alter the underlying criticism I'd offered--everything else still implies Rick's coma time was less than 2 weeks and even if one unreasonably extends that to a month as I allow above, Morgan's comment still implies the zombie problem had been going on for longer than that--but I'm a stickler for getting things right and I definitely didn't, here.
Without, perhaps, realizing it, "Deanshore" also pointed out another potential flaw, one that impacts my calculations regarding the time of year it should be on TWD. In one of my timeline scenarios, I posited the notion that Rick was shot after Carl's summer break from school had ended, and I assumed the traditional post-Labor Day return to classes. Kentucky public schools, however, have, in recent years, followed other school districts around the U.S. in starting their school-year in early August.[See the update on this point right below this one] Assuming Rick was shot just as the school-year opened, adding the rest of his timeline to that puts us in very late September to very early October, as of the TWD season finale. 100+-degree temperatures in September are extremely rare in the Atlanta area, but they do sometimes happen. If we allow that it's an unusually extreme hot-year, this calculation could sort of account for the Summer weather we've seen throughout this season, but it still can't account for the colder weather the writers have been indicating in the most recent episodes. In the season finale, Carl steps outside during the daytime, has his hands jammed in the pockets of his jacket, is visibly shivering, and exclaims "I'm freezing!" (TWD's writers can never resist a cliché). Different people handle weather differently, of course, but that's a rather extreme reaction for a time of year when, in the area, daytime temps are normally in the mid-to-late 70s. And if it's been an extreme hot-year--necessary to account for what we'd seen earlier--temps would be even higher.
All of this belabors this matter much more than TWD's creators ever did. As detailed in Update 1 above, TWD Executive Producer Robert Kirkman put the starting-point for all of this at "maybe June or so," which would put the series, at present, at some time around August or so. He was caught flat-footed in that interview, and it was clear he'd given no thought to it, or been involved in any discussion of it. To the extent that Kirkman is an insider (and see my earlier caveat on this), it's pretty clear that no more thought went into this than went into the rest of the series' timeline.
UPDATE (17 Oct., 2012) - Based on the pilot's remarkable fidelity to the comics, I had assumed Rick worked in Kentucky (just as in the
comics), but FloridaSunshine, a poster on the IMDb's "Walking Dead"
board, was able to freeze-frame and magnify a creased patch on the uniform of one of the police extras seen in the pilot, and it says "King County, Georgia."
This was the (fictional) county in which Rick and Shane worked, so they
were, on the series, from Georgia, rather than Kentucky. Georgia, at the time, also started its school-year in early August.
UPDATE (5 April, 2013) - Something I should have added, if only to be absurdly completist, is the info on Lori's pregnancy--yet another hole in the timeline. This is something I detailed, back when the matter was current, over on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, and I was reminded of it today. In "Cherokee Rose," Lori has Glenn acquire a pregnancy test for her from a drugstore, she uses it, and it comes back positive. Godawful baby-daddy melodrama ensues. At the time Lori used this test, it had only been 8 days since her first post-coma sex with Rick and 9-10 days, at the absolute most, since her first sex with Shane, which, of course, makes her positive from an over-the-counter urine pregnancy test impossible (despite inflated manufacturer's claims to the contrary, such a test will only yield reliable results after more than 2 weeks).
Those who think the timeline is longer than it actually is often come to that conclusion because they try to apply to the question the logic the writers failed to apply. In arguing for a longer timeline, it's often mentioned that it's impossible for Carl to have recovered from his horrendous gunshot wound in only a little over two days. That's true, of course, but on TWD, that's exactly how much time it took for him to recover. Since I run into this so often, I thought I'd put together a little appendix documenting the timeline with regard to Carl's recovery.
In the season opener, Carl is shot, on the second day of the search for Sophia; in episode 2, Rick takes him to Hershel, they need med supplies, they dispatch Shane and Otis to the school; Shane returns with supplies, Hershel operates--all of this happens in a matter of a few hours, and takes us to the end of episode 3.
Episode 4 begins the next morning, as the rest of the group comes to Hershel's farm. They immediately inquire about what exactly happened with Carl (who first wakes up from surgery, his fever having finally broken); Rick fills them in on the details of what happened, and they hold a little memorial to Otis in the yard; Maggie pulls out a county survey map, and they start the search for Sophia again--when Hershel asks how long she's been missing, Rick tells him this is the third day. Hershel vetoes Rick's participation in a search, because he's still too weak from giving blood to Carl. On the search, Daryl finds the old house, where it looks as if someone small has slept; Maggie and Glenn go to drug store, get pregnancy test, Lori uses it that night. That takes us to the end of episode 4.
Episode 5 begins the next morning. Lori is still brooding over pregnancy test. Carol offers to cook dinner for everyone that night. When they roll out the map for the day's search, the first item on the agenda is to follow up on Daryl's discovery of the old house. Shane announces he's going to begin firearms instruction the next day. In the course of the Sophia search, Daryl finds Sophia's doll; Andrea shoots him. At Carol's dinner, Glenn and Maggie pass notes, scheduling the hayloft rendezvous, when Glenn discovers zombies in the barn. That takes us to the end of episode 5.
Episode 6 begins the next morning, and Carl is up and around as if nothing had ever happened--feeding chickens. Glenn and Maggie have their first extended conversation about keeping the barn-zombies secret. Andrea apologizes to Daryl for shooting him the day before. When they roll out the map, the first item of the Sophia search is to follow up on Daryl's finding the doll. This is the day Shane begins target practice for the group--in ep. 5, he'd said it was starting the next day.
Carl was hit by a round from a big-caliber game rifle hard enough that it broke into six pieces, and was so near death Hershel was prepared to operate on him without the necessary equipment (a surgery he wouldn't have survived), yet he fully recovered in a little over 2 days, and suffered no further ill-effects.
[Cross-posted to my comic blog]