In my depressingly extensive writings about THE WALKING DEAD over the
years, I've been quite critical of, well, just about everything at one
time or another. It's not a special show. I've always trained most of my
fire on the writing, which is certainly the source from which most of
its problems have arisen. Horrendously uneven pacing, poor or
non-existent character motivations, plot-driven characterizations that
change with the wind, plot progression being made dependent upon the
characters being idiots, a timeline that would require time-travel to
make any sense, a persistent focus on ridiculous trivialities at the
expense of what should, in a given situation, be the primary concern and
the soap melodrama model
which dictates most of this.
element of the writing I've vigorously raked over the coals--the one to
which I've decided to give some extra attention here--is what's passed
off as dialogue. Simply put, it's terrible. Characters interact with one
another via a sort of brutally anti-naturalistic speechifying, the
sorts of things you'll never hear coming out of an actual person's
mouth, expressing sentiment that's meant to be profound but is, instead,
absolutely preposterous. The first rule of screenwriting is "Show, Don't Tell" and as I've often
noted, it's a rule to which TWD's writers were either never exposed or
to which they're overtly hostile. TWD doesn't, for example, convey its
theme of people trying to hold on to their
humanity in the face of adversity by showing them doing so; it conveys
this, instead, by having them tell you
they're trying to hold on
to their humanity
in the face of adversity. No event of any significance on TWD is ever
allowed to speak for itself. Instead, the series is jam-packed with
exposition, with characters constantly bringing everything to a halt in
order to rehash events we've already seen, even to other characters who
are fully aware of everything they're saying, and telling us what
this-and-that is really "about." Scripts are packed with adolescent
philosophizing, trying, on the one hand, to convey the darkness of the
TWD world by morbid pronouncements (instead of just showing it as a dark
place), while, on the other, offering a constant diet of talk about the
need to keep going, to keep hope alive and to survive (rather than just
showing the characters doing so). The series is ideologically committed to abject humorlessness in all things and its dialogue reflects this--if one gets a laugh (and sometimes, one does), it's entirely unintentional. No cliché is held in reserve--dumb
anecdotism, in particular, abounds ("Y'know, I remember back when I was a
kid and..."). Dumb language abounds. Dumb abounds.
The immediate spur for my taking up this matter is a phenomenon I've recently observed in various discussions of TWD wherein even some of the series' least critical fans are beginning to complain about the dialogue, offering their impression that the quality of it has, of late, declined. They differ on when this started but they all have the idea it's relatively recent. What makes this interesting is that, in reality, absolutely nothing about TWD's dialogue has changed--it's exactly as it has been for years. I've interpreted this recent outbreak of discontent as an indication that the series' longstanding shortcomings are finally starting to weigh on its viewers. Take that for what it's worth, alongside my own acknowledgement that this has been exactly what I've been predicting would happen. Confirmation bias can be a powerful thing. Still, I think I may have been on to something here.
Last season, I wrote
of an example of TWD's dialogue:
"To pull out a representative moment,
when Hershel, who had so far managed to avoid exposure to the mysterious
illness plaguing the prison, decides to break quarantine and go tend to
those stricken by it, his daughter and others object... [TWD] handled it by bringing everything to a halt and
having Hershel give a grand anti-naturalistic speech
justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh and unforgiving world. If a hummed
version of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' had been added to the
soundtrack behind it, it wouldn't have seemed at all out of place."
This is Hershel's speech from the episode in question (s04e03), offered to Rick and Maggie:
"There's so many times we haven't been able to do anything to change
what was happening-- what was happening to us. We wished we could but
we couldn't. This time, I can. I know I can. So I have to... Listen,
damn it! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of
water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe
, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for
Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit
longer. I can save lives. That's reason enough to risk mine. And you
And that last line is exactly the point--one of them, anyway. Hershel's little speech isn't telling Maggie or Rick anything
they don't already know (and know well), and they both know him
too, and know he's not going to be dissuaded from trying to help. The only point of it is the passion of it--the melodrama--and, maybe just as important, the screentime it consumes. Having Hershel say these things is ridiculous
Consider this exchange from "Them," this week's ep. When the
prison fell, siblings Maggie and Beth were separated and for an
extended period, Maggie seemed to be entirely indifferent to the fate of
her sister then was suddenly devastated when learning Beth had died, the
kind of arbitrary characterizations for which TWD is infamous. Here's
Maggie expressing her, well, something to Glenn:
Maggie: I never thought she was alive. I just didn't. After Daddy, I
don't know if I couldn't. And after what Daryl said, I hoped she was
out there alive. And then finding out that she was and then she wasn't
in the same day... Seeing her like that, it made it feel like none of it
was ever really there. Before... this was just the dark part and I
don't know if I want to fight it anymore.
do. You do. And maybe it's a curse nowadays but I don't think so. We
fought to be here and we have to keep fighting.
Uh... yeah. How about this astute observation from Bob (from s04e04):
"Everybody makes it, till they don't."
Or Carol, who, in the midst of a mission to rescue Beth from her captors (s05e06), helpfully declares
"I don't think we get to save people anymore."
Daryl, in the same ep, is equally reflective:
"The reason I said we get to start over is because we gotta'."
And here's the two of them together, working on a Deep Thought:
Carol: Who I was with him [Ed], she got burned away. And I
was happy about that. I mean, not happy, but... And at the prison I got
to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should've been, and
then she got burned away. Everything now just consumes you.
Daryl: Well, hey, we ain't ashes.
Indeed. Here's Tyreese (from s04e09) taking a great deal of time to rehash events
we've already seen:
"I wanted to die for what I lost. Who I had lost. I stepped out into a
crowd of those things just trying to... take it all out on them until
they took me. Put them all in front of me so I didn't see anything. But I
just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith when she needed
me. I saved her. I brought her back to her dad. And that wouldn't have
happened if I had just given up, if I hadn't chosen to live. Noah, this
isn't the end."
He got the same duty back in "Isolation" (s04e03), recounting something he'd just done and that we'd just seen him do:
"I came to see Karen and I saw the blood on the floor. Then I smelled
them. Somebody dragged them out here and set them on fire. They killed
them and set them on fire
In "Nebraska" (s02e08), Hershel goes all dark and emo, rehashing what we'd seen in the previous ep:
"I didn't want to believe you. You told me there was no cure, that
these people were dead, not sick. I chose not to believe that. But when
Shane shot Lou in the chest and she just kept coming, that's when I knew
what an ass I'd been, that Annette had been dead long ago and I was
feeding a rotten corpse! That's when I knew there was no hope. And when
that little girl came out of the barn, the look on your face-- I knew
you knew it too."
Bob in the 4th ep of season 4 rehashing what we'd seen in the first ep of season 4:
"The run to the Big Spot, I did it for me... I did it so I could get me a
bottle. Of anything. I picked it up, I held it in my hand but I put it
down. I put it down so hard it took the whole damn shelf with it.
That's what brought on the walkers and that's what got Zack killed."
When Carl was shot, Lori (in "Save the Last One," s02e03) advanced the notion that it may be better if Carl just dies and she and Rick proceed to discuss it. What great parents, eh? In a moment
that became legendary for its unintentional hilarity, Rick ineptly tries to be profound, mostly by rehashing, at length, the events surrounding the shooting:
"Before it happened, we were standing there in the woods and this
deer just crossed right in front of us. I swear, it just planted itself
there and looked Carl right in the eye. And I looked at Carl looking at
that deer, and that deer looking right back at Carl. And that moment
just... slipped away. It slipped away. That's what he was talking about
when he woke up, not about getting shot or what happened at the church.
He talked about something beautiful, something living. There's still a
life for us, a place maybe like this. It isn't all death out there. It
can't be. We just have to be strong enough, after everything we've seen,
to still believe that. Why is it better for Carl to live even in this world? He talked about the deer, Lori. He talked... about... the deer."
In "The Suicide King" (s03e09), Andrea, in Woodbury, offered another moment that became infamous. Faced with a
terrified mob on the verge of a riot, she jumped in among the people
and offered this terribly unstirring Cliff's Notes version of a speech of which even the longer version would have been pretty shitty:
"Every one of us has suffered. We don't even have funerals anymore
because the death never stops. We're never gonna be the same. Ever. So
what do we do? We dig deep and we find the strength to carry on. We work
together and we rebuild. Not just the fences, the gates, the community,
but ourselves. Our hearts, our minds. And years from now, when they
write about this plague in the history books, they will write about
Woodbury. Yeah, they will. Woodbury. We persevered."
At the end of it, everyone was smiling and slapping one another on the back, all thoughts of violent rebellion quelled.
Yes, that really happened.
My own choice for the most hilarious line ever uttered on TWD--unintentionally hilarious, as with anything funny that ever happens on
the show--was offered in deadly earnest by Hershel in reply to Rick
Rick: You're a man of God! Have some faith!
Hershel: I can't profess to understand God's plan, but Christ promised a
resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something... a little
different in mind.
Maggie telling Hershel what it's really all about (s02e07):
"Things aren't what you think they are. They aren't. Don't do this.
Ok, it's not about me and Glenn. It's not about me and you. It's about
you. It's about who you are, who you're gonna' be."
Rick telling Hershel what's it's really all about (s02e08):
"You know what the truth is? Nothing has changed. Death is death. It's
always been there, whether it's from a heart attack, cancer or a
walker. What's the difference? You didn't think it was hopeless before,
did you? Now there are people back at home trying to hang on. They need
us, even if it's just to give them a reason to go on, even if we don't
believe it ourselves. You know what? This-- this isn't about what we
believe anymore. It's about them."
Maggie telling Beth what it ain't
about and explaining to her something the younger sibling obviously doesn't know (s02e10):
"This isn't just about you. We all lost mom."
Bob on people (s03e04):
"People nowadays are dominoes. What they did [referring to a pair of suicides], maybe it's about not having to watch them fall."
Carol from the same ep:
"It's not about what you say. It's about facing reality. It
always comes for us and over and over again. We face it so that we can
Good to know, eh? Shane's tender poetry to Lori on their relationship (s02e09):
"What we had, it was
real... It was you and it was me and Carl and it was real."
Dale spinning an end-of-the-world Melodrama Queen's epic over the proposed killing of Randall (s02e11):
"...don't you see? If we do this, the people that we were-- the world
that we knew is dead. And this new world is ugly. It's... harsh. It's--
it's survival of the fittest."
Tell me if you've ever heard this
one before. Lori to Beth (s02e10):
"You have Maggie and your father, Patricia and Jimmy. And you've
gotta stay strong for them. I wish I could promise you it would be all
right in the end. I can't, but we can make now all right. And we have
Another jawdropping moment of unintentional hilarity: Bob
and Sasha had fallen in love and when Bob died Sasha simply couldn't
bring herself to pike him before he reanimated (she let big brother
Tyreese take care of it). In "Coda" (s05e08), Tyreese recounts to her
how, earlier, he could have killed one of the cannibalistic
Terminusians who had tried to kill he and baby Judith but just couldn't
bring himself to finish off the fellow (who later returned with the
other cannibals to try to kill our heroes). And after rehashing all of that, this is what Tyreese
says to Sasha about these two events (and her reply):
I remember when we were kids and you used to follow me around, copying
every little thing I did. What happened to both of us, maybe it's
because we're still the same. Just like we were back then. And maybe
Sasha: You're still the same. And that is good. I don't think I can be. Not anymore. Not anymore.
No, I didn't make that up. And bad anecdotism is a persistent cliche indulged by TWD. From "Indifference" (s04e04):
Rick: Every Sunday [Lori would] make us these pancakes that were just...
godawful. Clumps of flour that weren't mixed in right. Thing was, she
knew it was bad.
Carol: Why'd she keep at it?
Rick: Well, she wanted us to be the kind of family that ate pancakes on Sunday.
Hmmm... Here's Rick wasting one of the most iconic lines of the comic in this week's "Them" (s05e10):
Rick: When I was a kid, I asked my grandpa once if he ever
killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn't answer. He said that was
grown-up stuff, so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he
got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy
territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, 'Rest in peace. Now
get up and go to war.' And then after a few years of pretending he was
dead, he made it out alive. That's the the trick of it, I think. We do
what we need to do and then we get to live. But no matter what we find
in DC, I know we'll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell
ourselves that we are the walking dead.
Daryl: We ain't them.
One could go on all day--TWD's dialogue is as bad as every other element of its dreadful writing.
All but the most incidental exchanges are handled in the same way. Contrary to the recent impressions of some of TWD's fans, there's abosolutely nothing new about this and
many of the examples I've culled aren't even close to the worst.
Hopefully, though, they have afforded you, gentle reader, some
amusement, and collectively, they've made my overall critique of the
series--such as it is--more complete.
 Anti-naturalistic dialogue is unfortunately a chronic problem with
genre productions, for often understandable if not necessarily
forgivable reasons. When it's necessary to explain how one must rejigger
a polymorphic induction array to emit 10-power alpha-waves in order to
prevent the implosion of time-space, it's difficult to make this seem
like normal conversation. TWD doesn't have this excuse; it's about
ordinary people just trying to survive. It goes the soap melodrama route