The Walking Dead is in a rut.
That doesn't mean the show has totally fallen apart, or that it's incapable of being entertaining or even fun. It just means that it appears to be spinning its wheels, repeating itself. It's unsure of where to go.
In an attempt to figure out why, I revisited the comics the show is based on, with a specific focus on the issues that correspond (approximately) to where the show is now. And that's when I realized something: The Walking Dead is currently embracing its source material more than it ever has before, at precisely the moment when that source material suffers one of the biggest slumps in its history.
Expanding the world, one new settlement at a time
In "Knots Untie," the 11th episode of The Walking Dead's sixth season, the characters meet up with folks who live in a different walled community and have managed to build something at least semi-safe in the wake of the apocalypse. This community, called Hilltop, is built up around a historic home. Both the height of the building and the hill it sits on give the place a clear vantage point; its inhabitants can see for miles in all directions.
All of this ties into The Walking Dead's vague Western overtones — which have only grown more pronounced this season. The idea of tracing several communities on what is functionally "the frontier" isn't a bad one, especially if the show can dramatize, say, the process of re-establishing civilization's supply chains.
But creating a story about the maintenance of trade networks, or learning how to grow a functional sorghum crop, is not exactly the stuff of high drama. It requires characters you care about deeply, and a tolerance for talking about the grind of such work. Theoretically, The Walking Dead has a leg up here, because its universe is full of zombie herds that can attack at any moment. But they're not terribly intrinsic to the drama of either the trade networks storyline or the agriculture storyline. If the zombies attack, it only indirectly impacts the sorghum.
Still, The Walking Dead has taken a few steps to raise its stakes. The question of just how Maggie is going to deliver a baby — the show's first since Lori had Maggie cut her open to deliver Judith way back in season three — in the midst of unreliable technology is a big one, and it hinges on characters we theoretically view as important.
Meanwhile, the series is haltingly figuring out how to make at least some of the Alexandrians more interesting. (Enid, for instance, is becoming something of a character in her own right.)
Yet one problem remains. If you're going to tell a story about post-apocalyptic communities, you need to introduce a whole bunch of new characters at once, who will necessarily be of less interest to us.
In the case of Hilltop, Jesus — whom we met last week — is interesting enough, and leader Gregory has the benefit of being played by the great character actor Xander Berkeley. But everything else must be done in shorthand, and shorthand is the enemy of compelling drama.
Nothing is happening, but some of it is compelling all the same
It feels weird to be piling all of this on "Knots Untie," which I largely enjoyed, while also finding it reminiscent of those episodes of Gilmore Girls where literally nothing happened but you kept watching because the dialogue was so witty and quickly paced.
"Knots Untie" is a world expansion episode, and any show set in some sort of alternate universe that runs parallel to our own will eventually have to engage in a couple of these world expansion episodes to keep the character well replenished.
Recall, for instance, how clumsy Lost got when it spent the first few episodes of season three introducing the complicated society of the Others; the resulting stretch of episodes was so dull that it prompted ABC to allow the showrunners to set an end date for the series.
What's interesting in this case, though, is that a lot of The Walking Dead's inherent problems with world expansion were also present in the comics — and the show is adapting them relatively faithfully. Hilltop and Alexandria both struggled as settings in the comics, too, with writer Robert Kirkman bringing in threats that goosed the drama for an issue or two, only to return to a status quo that sometimes felt stuck in a rut.
Doesn't that sound familiar? And yet The Walking Dead can't very well change anything, because several storylines that comics fans adore (and which put me off the comic forever) are coming up, and the show seems intent on adapting them more or less wholesale, right down to the eerie foreshadowing of a future threat that it's offering up right now.
All of this leaves season six of The Walking Dead in a place where individual episodes are occasionally just fine — particularly as they allow the show to try its hand at things like romance or even spiritual fulfillment — but the overall scope of the show feels a little listless and unfocused.
That's perhaps why the last scene of "Knots Untie" struck me as just the right tone to aim for. The characters head off into the unknown, to face off with a group led by the mysterious Negan, in hopes of striking a deal with Hilltop that will procure needed supplies for Alexandria. As they travel in the RV, they pass among them the sonogram of Glenn and Maggie's child (apparently Hilltop has amazing medical equipment), looking down at it and feeling emotions we're not quite privy to, at least beyond the slightly awestruck expressions on the actors' faces.
Ultimately, we need to be reminded of just why these characters want to build a stable, thriving new world if the show is going to pull off this storyline. It's the difference between the continued chaos of the zombie-infested wasteland and a world where babies are born, commerce takes hold, and civilization regains its footing in the wake of a potentially apocalyptic event.
It's a story that's less inherently interesting than fighting zombies, but it's one with a greater human element. Now the only challenge — and it's a big one — is to ensure the humans involved in it are worth caring about.