I saw this tweet from Ben Howe last night before I started watching. And then I knew it was going to be one of those episodes.
When Game of Thrones comes on, I can’t wait to start, and i dread the end. When Walking Dead comes on, I feel like I’m clocking in.
— Ben (@BenHowe) November 21, 2016
We all did our shifts at the plant last night. The show has actually had some success over the years spinning off characters into their own little hour-long story arcs. They did a solid multi-episode riff on the Governor a few seasons ago and then outdid that with Morgan’s transformation from nihilist killer to serene Aikido master. But here’s the lesson of all that: You need a strong character to carry the plot if you’re going to meander away from the Grimes gang for awhile. Characters like Morgan and Carol are strong because they’re well-acted and because much screen time has been devoted to their personal metamorphoses. When you have a character who isn’t as strong, as was the case with Beth last season, that ol’ familiar clocking-in feeling starts to take hold. You do your shift, grind through the hour, and hope that next week brings us back to the core characters.
The problem with last night’s episode — one of the problems, that is — is that neither Maggie nor Sasha are strong characters. That’s understandable with Sasha since she was a relatively late addition to the show’s nucleus and has remained on the periphery, apart from a death wish she had for awhile and then some flirting with Abraham. It’s less understandable with Maggie, who’s been with the show since season two and has the high distinction of being Mrs. Glenn Rhee. But it’s a fact. When was the last time the show gave Maggie something interesting to do or a way for her character to evolve? Every season she hangs around, occasionally having a Meaningful Conversation with Glenn about the future, and then in the season finale someone close to her is murdered and she gets to do the big slo-mo no-sound screaming and crying close-up shot. She did it when they offed her father Hershel, she did it when they offed her sister Beth, and she did it when they offed her husband Glenn — although that was the season premiere, not the finale, so bonus points to the writers for throwing us a change-up, I guess. I think there’s a decent chance her baby’s going to die just because emoting over dead relatives is what Maggie does and the baby’s the only one left.
The point is, you can’t stick Maggie and Sasha in a closet while the Saviors prowl around and expect us to care much about what happens, especially after we’ve just sustained a much harder loss by saying goodbye to her better half. And you certainly can’t expect us to care for a full hour. Why wasn’t this episode, which could have been 40 minutes shorter, diced up and intercut with another episode to give us multiple storylines in a single hour, with the Alexandrians and Hilltoppians each dealing with a different band of Saviors? (Howe wonders why there can’t be multiple unrelated storylines, with the Grimes gang struggling to survive in Georgia while scientists elsewhere in the country race to find a cure. All I can say is, welcome to my nightmare, bro. I’ve been pining for an anthology format for years.) The fundamental problem of TWD is that it’s a closed circuit, in that you know broadly from the beginning of each new macro narrative — Rick versus Negan, the Grimes gang versus the Saviors — how it’s going to end. The bad guy will be vanquished, Rick and Daryl and Michonne will survive, and on we’ll go to the new bad guy next season. It’s the opposite of a show like “Westworld,” which could (and does) go in a lot of directions. When you’re stuck in a closed circuit, these little hour-long “A Day In the Life of Maggie” detours feel extra burdensome because you’re always highly aware that they are a detour. Sometime the detour is scenic and pleasant, as with Morgan and Aikido, but we’re headed for a Rick-led rebellion against Negan and we all know it, so let’s get on with it. This is the price you pay for heavily telegraphing the direction of your show.
Here’s Jay Cost, as part of a longer grumble on Twitter about hate-watching the show, venting his own annoyance at last night’s hour:
But I've come to hate the little details. Like how the women's eyebrows are always perfectly plucked and the men's beards perfectly groomed.
— Jay Cost (@JayCostTWS) November 21, 2016
But this show reduces to 2 perpetual themes: the butthurtedness that "Zomg WE are the walking dead!!!!!" & a cavalcade of absurd warlords.
— Jay Cost (@JayCostTWS) November 21, 2016
I hadn’t thought much about what Cost says of the little details, like Maggie still looking like a beauty queen after years of wandering an apocalyptic hellscape, but on some level it probably contributes to the frustration viewers have with the program. For a show with such an unconventional premise, so many things about it are so conventional. Even the actors’ personal upkeep. Exactly how much time does “Jesus” spend each week amid struggling for survival on making sure that his beard is meticulously manscaped? Because it is.
No sense complaining, though. We all signed up for this job. Just clock in and do your shift and hope things are better tomorrow. Exit question: Is there a reason why Glenn and Abraham are buried at the Hilltop instead of at Alexandria? I assume there is and I missed it because I don’t care enough to pay close attention anymore.