Thursday, February 19, 2015

He Talked About the Deer: The Talking Dead of THE WALKING DEAD

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.

Another 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.[1] 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 know that."

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.

Glenn: You 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 (s02e13):

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 live."

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 to."

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):

Tyreese: 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 that's good.

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.



[1] 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 by choice.


  1. Here's an idea.

    Don't watch it. See how simple that is?

    I just solved your problem; well, one of them anyway.

    1. Hey, fan-boy, it goes both ways. Don't like a thoughtful, well written blog? Don't read it. Go watch your mindless tv show!

    2. I do like a thoughtful, well-written blog.

      I think I'll see if I can find one.

  2. Whoever wrote this blog/opinion piece obviously don't understand the context of this show.

    First let me say, yes I agree that for the most part the overall writing on this show is probably average at best in most cases. Which is pretty sad considering most of this TV show is copied and remixed from the TWD comic book series. With better writers/writing this show probably could be much better but regardless I still think it's one of the best series out there with still plenty of upside.

    But getting to the comment about poor dialogue, I think you have to understand that most of the characters in this show were people from rural 'white trash' type of areas in the Southeast US. Even before this zombie apocalypse scenario started these people were not highly educated suburbanites with white collar jobs, at least most of them.

    Daryl and Myrel were as white trash as it gets. Rick and his family were from a very small town in the middle of nowhere. Maggie, Beth and Hershel lived on a farm. Abraham and Rosita were military folks. Carol was a stereotypical abused housewife and mother married to an abusive alcoholic husband. Get the picture?

    I guess my point is the dialogue serves the characters this show represents. I'm not saying that it's genius in it's intention, but these people were never deep thinkers or philosophers even in their previous lives and certainly not meant to be now in a dark world in which surviving another day is considered a landmark accomplishment.

    Regardless please carry on bashing this show unrelentlessly like the rest of the trolls that flood IMDB and other forums to trash this show at every chance they get.

    1. The show is poorly written and directed. Your excuses don't change that fact. No, most of the characters are not "white trash".... where did you get that idea? What the heck is "Myrel"??? Do you mean Merle? Why don't you stick to the fan sites and fan pages, if you don't like a thoughtful, well written blog? You should also look up "hasty generalization," while you're at it.... don't see anyone here being doing anything "unrelentlessly" (lol)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This is neither thoughtful nor well written. Oh and if the only retort you have is a very obvious grammar mistake, then it shows how little you understand the art of a debate. I for one thing the above poster made a very good and insightful point. And for you to just write it off because it contrasts you opinion shows both your maturity level and arrogance in your opinions. You very clearly are set in your opinions and don't wanna listen to anyone else's, so please, don't think for even a second, that we would want to listen to yours.