Monday, October 24, 2016
Re-Negan on the Deal
I wasn't going to write a post about The Walking Dead season premiere. You may have noticed that I haven't been doing weekly posts about the show's new episodes for quite some time. That's because I'd basically decided to stop watching it.
The last truly great episode that stuck with me for any length of time was Carol's soul-crushing late season 4 "look at the flowers" moment. The show has been losing steam for me since then, quite slowly at first, and then with out-of-control freight train force throughout both halves of last season.
First, the show had drifted away from what it did best -- believably putting its characters into horrible situations, forced to make impossible choices. People were skating through the apocalypse with few consequences that felt significant to me, and when there were big character changes, they felt swift and unearned, as though the writers had a narrative destination in mind without any sense of the journey. (Carol's conversion to pacifism last season would be my Exhibit A.)
Second, being unable to effectively provoke emotion in its audience through actual storytelling, the show had decided to go meta, manipulating audience emotion through how it chose to tell stories. 90 minute installments that could have easily been the standard 60. Ploys to generate buzz with what they didn't put on screen -- the month long "Glenn is totally dead" gag, or the moment that got us here: not showing us the victim of Negan's violence at the close of last season.
I'd long since come to feel that the only reason I was still watching The Walking Dead is that people come over to my house on Sunday night to watch TV shows, and that was one of them in the rotation. I was going to watch this season premiere, figuring I'd rather see how they resolved this Negan thing and not just read about it online, and then I'd likely jump ship.
And then a funny thing happened. The show actually served up a solid episode, to me undeniably the best since that "look at the flowers" hour. They did it by getting back to basics. Characters were put in horrible situations with impossible choices and important consequences. Any sudden changes in character behavior from this point forward will be earned, brought about by sudden and extreme events.
As an added bonus, Negan is totally working for me. I guess since one of the problems I'd been having going into the premiere was a lack of belief in all the characters, bringing in a new character is an obvious way to address that. I was poised to dislike Negan, because I feared how nerfed he would be for television. I haven't read any of The Walking Dead comics, but I'm aware of his foul-mouthed, not-for-television nature. For the 10-minute scene that closed season 6, the production had filmed two versions of the sequence, putting an expletive-laden alternative on the DVD/Blu-ray release that couldn't be aired on AMC. If I'm not even getting uncut Negan, I figured, that's one more reason to give up on the show; if I was ever going to watch it at all, I should wait and watch the unfiltered version when it arrives a year later.
But Negan proved the adage that actions speak louder than words. Again and again throughout the season premiere, he grew more vicious, more villainous. And more delicious, thanks to a scenery chewing performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I have no idea whether all of this can be sustained for any length of time, but I find myself wanting to find out.
This could just be another peak, with a valley to follow. At the time "look at the flowers" happened (or really, the back half of season 4 in general), I was also tired of the show and ready to quit. And then things picked up and generated enough interest and goodwill in me to keep me going another two-and-a-half years. I'm not sure if the half life will be as high this time around; if the show continues to pull more fourth-wall breaking cliffhangers that exist solely for the audience and not the characters, I'm going to be looking for the exit. But for the moment, I find myself actually engaged again.