The Walking Dead is revolutionizing TV story structure, and nobody seems to be paying much attention. But that quality has made it one of my favorite pop culture stories of 2014.
The show's renewed vigor — starting out in the back half of its fourth season this spring but particularly in the first half of its fifth season this fall — has been one of the unexpected highlights of the year, and so much of that is due to showrunner Scott Gimple's embrace of a radically different structure from what the show had done before, to say nothing of much of the rest of TV. Instead of telling the sorts of slow, ponderous, never-ending stories the series used to be known for, it's switched up to many smaller stories that set the larger arcs aside and focus, instead, on the show's formerly malnourished characters.
I don't want to overstate what this means for Walking Dead's quality. As with anything that's rewriting the rule book as it goes, the show takes big swings that completely and utterly miss (see also: last night's bland midseason finale). But it's definitely taken this show from one I feel obligated to catch up with to one I find incredibly nervy and unusually entertaining. (And if you, too, feel like catching up, AMC has all of the links you need right here.)
It just took Gimple a little while to burn away all of that bad blood.
The problems of before
In response to my piece (and others) saying The Walking Dead had unexpectedly gotten so much better in recent months, Variety's Andrew Wallenstein wrote an article claiming that those of us who found ourselves suddenly onboard the Walking Dead bandwagon had only been pretending to hate it all along.
To that I will say that I wish Wallenstein could hang out with me before this year. He could hear me curse the show's lazy characterization and formulaic, go-nowhere storytelling. I would frequently find myself hoping the show had found a new gear, only to see it get bogged down in stories that went in endless circles, the characters trapped in single locations and never escaping.
The series' first showrunner, Frank Darabont (who guided season one and the first half of season two), was particularly guilty of this, while its second showrunner, Glen Mazzara (the back half of season two and all of season three), made a valiant effort at escaping Darabont's poorly developed characters, only to get sucked right back in, thanks to some dumb decisions. (In particular, Mazzara largely botched the story of the Governor, an iconic villain from the comics who became a generic madman in the series.)
What I missed about what Gimple was doing was how quickly he was correcting everything the show had done incorrectly before him. When I tepidly reviewed the first half of season four last fall, I didn't quite realize that Gimple had to find a way to extricate himself from the Governor fallout as quickly as possible, the better to finally escape the show's tendency to close all of its characters up in one location, then slowly whittle away at their numbers.
With that over with, Gimple and his writers took off from the word go in 2014, splintering the show's group into many tiny factions and setting up stories that would let us get to know the characters better, so we might give a damn when terrible things befell them. He returned to this structure in the first half of season five, breaking the group apart to tell smaller stories with these characters, before bringing them back together. There was no real reason for him to do so, but it made the series feel more potent, and it kept it from getting bogged down.
So if you ask someone how Gimple fixed the show, they'll inevitably say his focus on character first was his most important choice. And it was! But it's easy to miss how his structural choices made that character focus possible.
Fixing the structure and breaking the mold
Broadly speaking, most TV series return, again and again, to an underlying formula that works, week after week. Every episode looks more or less the same, and even if it's a serialized show where every episode advances some master plot, the familiarity of the overall episode template provides a sense of forward momentum that can't be overlooked. Even some of the best shows of all time can be boiled down to a single storytelling structure, or assemblage of beats, they returned to again and again. (Breaking Bad is a great example of how talented writers can hide this from viewers and how doing such a thing doesn't mean you have a bad show.)
The Walking Dead was no different. But like a lot of these types of shows — Breaking Bad among them — it would occasionally do an episode that broke with format and blew up the formula. Season three's "Clear," in which several of the characters take a detour to get supplies and catch up with someone they haven't seen in a while, is a great example of this. It feels, in comics terms, like a one-shot, a single-issue story that illuminates a particular character or storytelling choice and helps give the series greater texture, while not necessarily moving the plot forward.
Gimple's brilliant shift has been to turn Walking Dead into a show almost entirely made up of these kinds of episodes. This has had the effect of making this a show made up of weird little short stories that take on the feel of whatever character they happen to follow that week. The show is not unprecedented in this choice. Series as diverse as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Lost have pioneered this basic idea, with Mad Men in particular taking it to wild, uncharted territories.
What sets Walking Dead apart — and what makes it revolutionary — is that it just reinvented itself into a short story show after three-and-a-half seasons on the air, and did so as one of TV's most popular shows (a scenario that often makes networks and producers reluctant to rock the boat).
What had been one of TV's most formulaic, schematic shows suddenly became one where you had absolutely no idea what each week's episode would be about (beyond a vague idea that zombies and grim death would be involved). The show might go from an explosive action sequence in one week, then spend another week as basically a post-apocalyptic workplace drama set in a weird, fascist hospital that felt like one of the bad news warrens from Watership Down.
To put this in other terms, imagine if, out of nowhere, NCIS started cranking out episodes where solving mysteries might be entirely incidental to what was onscreen, and each hour was simply an excuse to see if, say, Mark Harmon would be into some musical comedy. The Walking Dead's shift hasn't been that radical, but it's been damn close.
The promise of the future
Of course, even if the show has been tearing apart TV templates and setting about scattering its series bible to the wind, it's still not perfect TV. How could it be when it's trying so many big, impressive things? The aforementioned post-apocalyptic hospital turned out to be kind of a dud as a setting, which meant that the finale (set largely in and around said hospital) struggled to escape the inherent problems with the setting.
The show still can't quite figure out what to do when it has all of the characters in the same place, which will be a problem sooner rather than later. Splitting the group up for the bulk of a half-season is going to start to feel gimmicky awfully quickly if Gimple can't find a way around it.
But I choose, instead, to look at this midseason finale and see how even in the show's more lackluster hours, its improvement continues to shine through. The episode killed off a fairly major character whose death would have gotten barely a shoulder shrug from many viewers last year (when, indeed, many questioned why said character was even still alive). But in the midseason finale, that death resonated. It had actual, horrifying pain attached to it, largely because Gimple had taken the time to make the character something more than zombie fodder.
And even better, the episode ends with the series' newfound ability to do just about anything intact. It's not going to get stuck in one place again. The group is invited to move into the hospital after dispatching with its leader, but they decline, opting, instead, for the open road all over again. It's as if Gimple is intent on letting us know he will never let this show get bogged down in a single setting or location again, that it's now a series where any anything-can-happen spirit pervades everything onscreen, even the visuals.
Or, put another way, at one point in the episode, zombies stumble into a church, walking through the sanctuary, underneath an opening adorned with the words "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." In the past, this kind of sight gag might have seemed ponderous, heavy-handed. Right now, though, under Gimple's tutelage, it feels like the show offering a generous wink to its fans. "We're finally having fun making this show," the writers seem to say. "Are you having fun watching it?"
Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.