As with all of my posts about The Walking Dead, this contains spoilers! If you haven’t seen the finale on 4/3/16, please come back later.
Again, this is not a recap of the show, but a discussion on how to become better writers by observing the successes and failures of what is deemed marketable mass media. Warning: This is a jumbo sized post. Feel free to read it in pieces!
Last night’s episode is what I’m going to deem an epic fail. This is not because of the episode in itself so much as how it ties in with the entire season. Today I’m going to focus on character motivation, cliffhangers, and stories being told in three acts.
What’s My Motivation?
I’m going to come right out and say that The Ricktator was not acting like himself in the finale. Throughout the past two seasons we’ve watched Rick escalate from a downtrodden survivor to an egotistical maniac. Rick has been riding high with his inflated head across the zombpocolypse sky, and last night’s episode made absolutely no sense.
In particular, the very first confrontation was completely out of character for season six Rick. A handful of guys in the middle of the road, beating a man (who the hell was that anyway?) to death doesn’t seem to be enough to chase Rick and Company away. Maybe they were worried for Maggie’s safety in a fire fight? Maybe he was worried about Carl, Aaron and Eugene? Maybe, but I don’t buy it. As soon as this scene was over I looked at my husband and said, “That was pointless.”
This is a quick way to ruin a story. Your characters should act on what drives them to make decisions. Flipping the switch randomly only confuses your audience. It invents scenarios that wouldn’t happen, merely because you’re forcing them to happen.
I’m also going to point this out right here: the plot of the whole episode is given away by Mr. 70s Porn Dude. This is Rick’s biggest mistake. As they are getting back on the RV the dude says “There are a lot of ways to get where you’re going.” What does that line say to you? Does it happen to say: “They know where we’re going” because if it doesn’t, it should. Even if Rick didn’t hear that hint, one of the others should have. Aaron, Eugene, and Sasha are all very intelligent; hell even Abraham could have realized it with his highly trained soldier brain.
Necessity is the Mother of Inventive Storytelling
Denise is dead. We all remember when she died and how it was the stupidest death in the season, perhaps even the series, and was another episode that failed at storytelling. Her motivation to leave Alexandria wasn’t the issue; it was Daryl and Rosita that failed.
Even if they hadn’t just started a war with the Saviors, which they knew there were more of them out there, they already knew from Hill Top that taking your doctor out of town was a risky proposition. Skilled professionals need to stay in the relative safety of the town. End of story, there is no discussion.
There was absolutely no reason to allow Denise to risk her life other than to make sure Alexandria wouldn’t have a doctor. That was done on purpose by the writer’s to force the remaining crew out of town when Maggie needs medical help. I can just imagine the writer’s room where everyone is sitting around thinking “How do we get everyone outside the walls? Hmmmm……” and then the Jeopardy music starts to play.
This is one of the biggest sins of storytelling, forcing things to happen merely because you want them to happen that way regardless of whether it’s good or bad for the story as a whole.
Let’s look at a different scenario that causes just as much drama. Carol runs away. Everyone goes looking for her. Maggie starts having problems, but Denise is alive so Enid runs Maggie to the clinic. Rick comes back to discover Daryl, Rosita, Michonne (his new love interest and huge motivation), and Glenn are all missing and Maggie is in danger but shouldn’t be moved. Maggie is begging for Glenn, and not doing well, they are trying to stall on telling her he’s not back yet.
Things are looking grim. The Saviors send clues to Alexandria that they have the missing survivors, also making it obvious they know where Alexandria is, and that’s really bad. Rick, thinking he’s all that, decides to take a crew to rescue his people but also clear out the Saviors to keep Alexandria safe from attack. The team on the road may run into one of those roadblocks, which weren’t terrible in themselves, get ambushed and end up where they were at the end, on their knees in the dark, minus Maggie.
Back at Alexandria, Denise is panicking because things are not going well. Maggie is close to death, and at the same time, there are hints that the Saviors might be outside the walls.
Now you’ve got everyone who is in danger of dying still in danger, but in a more logical sense. Instead of 80 minutes of driving around in circles, an actual story could be told. Rescuing your best crew and showing that you’re the man is true to character for Rick this season. Imagine if instead we find out who gets killed by Negan, you still have a cliffhanger. Is Maggie going to live or die, and if Glenn was the one who died, how will she recover from that? Are the Saviors going to attack or are they just trying to scare everyone? Is the captured crew going to need a rescue? Is Carol going to become a walker? There are so many good questions to bring people back for season 7.
Also, what if the last image of the episode was Morgan shooting that guy? That was the best part of the whole episode. He had a true motivation despite his mantra of peace: save Carol. That was way more shocking than Negan stepping up to bat. We already knew that was coming. Resolving Negan’s arc by showing his villainy by killing one of our anti-heroes would have been the proper resolution to his introductory arc.
Hanging by a Thread
As you all know, a story is a series of events that leads from conflict to resolution. Stories are often told in three acts in which first our protagonist is confronted with the antagonist. This first confrontation fails. The second act focuses on the changes our protagonist needs to make to face the antagonist again in the third act for a final showdown. This type of storytelling leaves your readers with a sense of fulfillment. It’s your job as the writer to make sure that journey happens in what feels like an organic and realistic manner. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about telepathic vampire robots or how a kid from the streets became a high powered executive. The story needs to have logical situations and outcomes to be a good story.
The Walking Dead has been failing to do this on a regular basis. Even a single episode can be told in three acts. Much like any series; each episode can have its own break down where the entire season should be a larger arc that ends with some sort of resolution for the audience.
Instead, they have their own formula, and it’s becoming a weekly thing; 90% rambling fluff and 10% what the viewer has been waiting to see, usually ending on a cliffhanger. It’s rather infuriating. My husband commented that we should just watch the last 10 minutes of any episode. Half the time it doesn’t even matter what was going on because the episodes are all filler for the next cliffhanger.
I’m not against cliffhangers. I like a good suspenseful twist. The problem isn’t the cliffhanger. The problem is it’s the same cliffhanger from mid-season, only instead of worrying about Glenn we’re now worrying about everyone. It’s repetitive. Sure, there’s the whole question of “how will they escape” but I don’t think that’s even an issue. Negan is going to let the survivors go once he’s made his example. He needs them alive. His motivation is for them to fear him so that they toil for food, bullets, blankets, etc. Negan is the feudal lord demanding his taxes. You can’t collect taxes from the dead.
Negan… I’m sorry he’s not that scary. He’s only terrifying because he has a huge squad of loyal whistling weirdos with guns. If he were all alone he would just be a guy with a bat.
What’s up with Eugene always getting captured off camera? Does Josh McDermitt have a “no roughing me up” clause in his contract or something? I mean, come on! After that big speech about taking one for the team, we don’t even get to see him try to fight back?
Carl trying to be a big man to Enid was rather hilarious. She’s eaten raw turtle guts, Carl, she can take care of herself.
Speaking of Enid, did anyone let her out of the closet or is she trapped in there for seven months?
The nod to the internet hate over Carl’s hat when he meets Negan was my favorite moment with the new villain.
Next week Fear The Walking Dead returns. I’ll be continuing to blog because as of the first season, I have a lot to say about that show as well. Thank you for reading this jumbo sized rant. Hopefully it’s given you some ideas on how to improve your storytelling by learning from the mistakes of others.